The Empire strikes back?

BBC NEWS | Health | Roman Empire ‘raised HIV threat’

Admittedly, this story is a little out of the blue, but I couldn’t resist because, well, I’m a history major at heart.*

According to this BBC article, French researchers are suggesting “that people once ruled by Rome are less likely to have a gene variant which protects against HIV.  This includes England, France, Greece and Spain, New Scientist reports.”  Here’s their reasoning:

In countries inside the borders of the empire for longer periods, such as Spain, Italy and Greece, the frequency of the CCR5-delta32 gene, which offers some protection against HIV, is between 0% and 6%.

Countries at the fringe of the empire, such as Germany, and modern England, the rate is between 8% and 11.8%, while in countries never conquered by Rome, the rate is greater than this.

The researchers suggest that the occupying Romans may have imported some (as yet unknown) disease that was more deadly to people who had the CCR5-delta32 gene than to those without it.  Hence, fewer of the people who did have the gene survived to pass it on to their 21st-century descendents.

Those Roman trouble-makers.  But wait . . . other researchers “argue the difference is linked to a far larger event, such as the spread of bubonic plague or smallpox.” **  Hmmm.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool suggested that the variant may have offered protection against pandemics such as the Black Death which swept Europe on a regular basis during and after the Roman era.

These, said the Liverpool researchers, were illnesses which may have been lethal to people without the gene variant, raising its frequency from one in 20,000 people to approximately 10% in Northern Europe.

The article concludes by saying that, basically, no one knows for sure what the deal is.  It’s definitely interesting though.  And really, I’ll never be sad to come across a good ancient/medieval mystery in the news.  If I can find an excuse to write about it, so much the better.

We now return to our regularly scheduled writing-about-things-happening-in-the-present-day. 

* Also admittedly, the title of this post is more than a little cheesy. Again, I couldn’t resist.

** As a total sidenote, how do you decide whether the bubonic plague or the Roman Empire was a “larger event”?


~ by h.e.g. on September 4, 2008.

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