It is a fairly common trope in apocalyptic fiction to imagine a plague to cause modern civilization to completely collapse. (c.f. Stephen King's "The Stand" ). But has this ever actually happened in the past?

Looking at the Black Death in Europe, it seems that while the waves of plague obviously had a massive societal impact, it doesn't seem that it directly caused any states to fail. Emperors continued to rule in Byzantium, popes continued to reign in Rome, kings continued to rule in France and England.

So has a plague ever, by itself, caused complete collapse? (i.e. collapse into true anarchy without some external force coming along and giving it a push.)

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    Civilizations don't collapse into anarchy. They collapse into tumbleweeds. Think of a party after the beer runs out or the cops raid it. Those not already passed out leave. If you want anarchy all you need is for the government to collapse. Civilization is more than government. Apr 24, 2016 at 5:05
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    An important question to ask yourself here is "How do I know that the civilization that was hear a decade ago is now 'collapsed'?" That's not as easy a question as it might seem on the surface, but if I were tackling it I would look for widespread infrastructure technique or technology now abandoned and not replaced; employment specializations no longer practiced through lack of sufficient resources or demand base; and significant reductions in both largest and median settlement populations. Apr 24, 2016 at 15:17
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    @Grep's point may be that defining "collapse of civilization" by a discontinuity of political power is not optimal. The features of civilization that differentiate it from lack of civilization or from a different civilization are technological and economic structures, not political lineage. If US civilization collapsed next year the thing you would miss in 2020 isn't having an elected Senator, but a clean water supply, electricity, access to tropical foods, or access to technological medicine. Nor would a coup in Brussels necessarily imply a collapse of European civilization. Apr 24, 2016 at 21:17
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    @CandiedOrange In actuality, civilization routinely survives in spite of government. The bulk of the history of the civilized world is self-organizing within the context of self-appointed aristocratic classes terrorizing those outside their cabal and attempting to dictate and dominate the purpose and direction of other peoples' lives. Apr 26, 2016 at 2:45
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    @CandiedOrange Agreed...to add (and expound on something you said): anarchy is not a marker of any state of decline; it is not a state of chaos. Anarchy does not mean no rules. It means no rulers. Anarchy is a marker of an advanced state of civilization which occurs in extremely high volumes on the small scale every day that two people agree to trade with one another without first making an appeal to the State; but will be exceptionally unlikely to ever be allowed by the members of that State to be implemented on a broad scale. Apr 26, 2016 at 12:48

4 Answers 4


I'll attempt to answer your question directly -- no. You have specified a plague collapse with no other factors, and I do not think that any civilization has experienced such an absence of other factors.

I suppose you could call the Easter Island people a civilization, and argue that the lack of resources may have brought about a plague, depending upon definitions, but at any rate, I don't think that's what you're talking about. I understand you to mean a thriving civilization otherwise not limited by (say) small island existence or a snowbound dependence upon restricted food sources; Carthage, Rome, Babylon, Mayans, and so forth.

And I don't believe that any of them, plagued or not, have ever been sufficiently isolated that the event of a devastating plague would not invite other factors (civilized or barbarian) to come take what's left and kick the civilization over the edge.

  • Sure it happened. It happened to that one civilization that no one has ever heard of because a plague killed them all. ;) Apr 26, 2016 at 12:50

When Europeans discovered Americas they also imported plagues. These plagues were one factor of the collapse of the pre-columbian cultures.

http://www.examiner.com/article/apocalypic-mysterious-plague-killed-millions-of-native-americans-the-1500s :

The deaths of somewhere between 40 and 100 million people during a relatively short span of time was not caused by just one disease, but several. Many references assume that the near extinction of the population was caused by European diseases for which the people of the Americas had no immunity. [...] In several regions, these diseases completely annihilated entire ethnic groups[...]

In late 1520, as the Hernan Cortes expedition waited to strike the capital of the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan, a fatal blow, small pox swept through the Aztec Empire. It is estimated that 40% of its population died of the disease. [...]Without the devastation of the smallpox epidemic, it is far less likely that the Spanish and their native allies would have been able to conquer the Aztec Empire.

By 1528, the Central American smallpox epidemic had reached the Inca Empire in South America. [...] Smallpox soon killed many of the Inca leaders and soldiers. When they saw the power of the imperial government weakened, vassal peoples rebelled. They gave the assistance to Pizzaro’s puny army that was needed to topple the Incas

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_conquest_of_the_Aztec_Empire :

The Aztecs were struck by a smallpox plague starting in September 1520, which lasted seventy days. Many were killed, including their new leader, the Emperor Cuitlahuac

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_conquest_of_the_Maya#Impact_of_Old_World_diseases :

The Old World diseases brought with the Spanish and against which the indigenous New World peoples had no resistance were a deciding factor in the conquest; they decimated populations before battles were even fought.[78] It is estimated that 90% of the indigenous population had been eliminated by disease within the first century of European contact.[79]

It were not the plagues alone, but the casualties made the empires weaker and made it possible, that European conquistadors won the day.

  • While certainly disease was a critical factor that let the Spanish knock these new world empires over pretty easily, they weren't exactly what I was looking for ala "The Stand". As a thought experiment, I don't think either the Aztecs or the Incas would have collapsed had the Spanish not showed up right then. Despite the Aztecs being severely weakened, Montezuma was still a descendent of past leaders, and they had not fallen into complete anarchy ala "The Stand".
    – user15620
    Apr 23, 2016 at 20:43
  • Here's a nit pick for you: isn't sending something from your continent to another continent exporting not importing? Apr 24, 2016 at 5:01
  • I hadn't though about it until now, but how the Spanish weren't similarly affected by New World plagues that the Aztecs would have been resistant to? Did the Old World just have particularly nasty diseases for some reason?
    – Dolda2000
    Apr 24, 2016 at 23:02
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    @Dolda2000 One of the theses of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel is that close association with many domesticated animal species equipped Europeans with more and nastier diseases. I think that some aspects of the work have been called partly in to question in the intervening years, but the idea is out there. Apr 24, 2016 at 23:21
  • @dmckee I believe part of the theory involves the close proximity of city dwellers in Europe, compared to the Americas.
    – user1973
    Jun 15, 2017 at 1:17

There is never just one factor that causes a civilization to collapse. Usually many civilizations steadily fall in to collapse. It would be helpful if you were to narrow your parameters of the question. The term "civilization" is very broad. Historians trace Western civilization back to the Greek city-states in that began in about 800 B.C.E. However there have been many empires and kingdoms that have collapsed in the framework of Western Civilization. The Roman Empire, and The Holy Roman Empire. Also there have been no genuine records of Anarchy in the western world. Germany, After the Thirty Years War was essentially anarchy, however they were still ruled by the Hapsburg Empire. Also Arkansas was essentially in anarchy during the American Civil War. There were two state Capitols, one capitol run by the Federal Government, and another by the Confederate Government. However the local Arkansans did not comply with the rules set forth by either government. We historically remember this period of Arkansas History of being apart of the Confederate Government, and therefore was not in true anarchy.


The pre-Columbian civilisation in North America was reduced to hunter gathering by the plague to that may qualify.

The Norse settlement of Greenland may also be of interest, but it (probably) wasn't disease that caused them to vanish.

  • Funny, I just read an article on Greenland that claims that the Norse settlement there didn't die out but rather was abandoned when the price of ivory collapsed, cutting off its primary source of trade.
    – user15620
    Jun 15, 2017 at 16:16
  • The North American natives were practically hunter gatherers before, too. They didn't have more extensive agriculture, except some isolated southern region, than later.
    – Greg
    Jun 15, 2017 at 18:13
  • @StevenBurnap I wonder how they had ivory in Greenland, considering there are no elephants there.
    – Greg
    Jun 15, 2017 at 18:14
  • Walruses. See this article
    – user15620
    Jun 15, 2017 at 18:27
  • Specifically "Second, the market for walrus ivory collapsed, partly because Portugal and other countries started to open trade routes into sub-Saharan Africa, which brought elephant ivory to the European market."
    – user15620
    Jun 15, 2017 at 18:32

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