Thucydides on the plague in Athens

March 13, 2020 0 Comments
Thucydides mosaic from Jerash, Jordan, Roman, 3rd century CE (Pergamon Museum, Berlin)

In the bath the other morning I happened to catch an interview with the novelist Kamila Shamsie.  She was asked what books she’d want to have with her if the coronavirus forced her to self-isolate for a lengthy period.  She had some interesting choices.  And she recommended that, instead of raiding supermarkets for toilet rolls and pasta, we’d be better off clearing the shelves of our independent bookshops.

At the end of the piece, Martha Kearney – I think that’s who it was, since she’s a classicist – offered her own idea for isolation reading, Thucydides’ account of the plague in Athens in 430 BC.  That prompted me – after getting out of the bath – to pull Thucydides down from the shelf and turn to Book 2 of his History of the Peloponnesian War.

Michiel Sweerts, The plague of Athens, 1652-54 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

In the first year of the War the Athenians made a strategic decision not to confront the dominant land armies of Sparta and their allies when they invaded Attica.  Instead they locked themselves securely behind their walls.  Crucially, these enclosed not just the city but also the fortified route, the ‘Long Walls’, down to the port of Piraeus, the gateway to the Athenians’ maritime empire.  Living conditions for the self-isolating Athenians, wedged between the walls, were far from ideal, and as the siege went on infections broke out.

Thucydides was among the Athenians locked between the walls, and experienced at first hand the events that followed.  He gives us a detailed eye-witness report – all the more chilling because of the cool objectivity and unusually plain style of his ‘trauma narrative’ – of the origin, symptoms and spread of the plague, and its terrible consequences for the city.

John Martin, The seventh plague of Egypt, 1823 (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne)

The plague originated in Ethiopia, we’re told, and spread from there to Egypt and Libya, and other parts of the Persian empire.  It reached Lemnos in the Aegean, then appeared suddenly in Piraeus, and soon moved to the city of Athens.  Thucydides, always careful, doesn’t offer an opinion about what caused the outbreak.  ‘I myself shall merely describe what it was like, and set down the symptoms’.  He adds, without further comment, ‘I had the disease myself and saw others suffering from it.’

Next, we get a detailed description of the plague’s symptoms, stage by stage.  At first, headaches, inflamed eyes, bleeding from the mouth, unpleasant breath.  Then, sneezing, hoarseness of voice, chest pain and coughing.  And so on till death (or in some cases recovery). 

Thucydides tells us that he’s detailed the symptoms of the plague ‘to enable it to be recognised, if it should ever break out again.’  Today opinions about its exact identity still differ, though many medical experts consider that the disease was either typhus or smallpox.  At the time no medical treatment was available that would do anything to control or alleviate the illness:

Pieter van Halen, The plague of the Philistines, 1661 (Wellcome Collection)

At the beginning the doctors were quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods.  In fact, mortality among the doctors was the highest of all, since they came more frequently in contact with the sick.  Nor was any other human art or science of any help at all.  Equally useless were prayers made in temples, consultation of oracles, and so forth: indeed, in the end people were so overcome with their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things.

Thucydides moves on to analyse the effects of the disease, starting with individuals and groups.  Those catching it, he notes, would typically sink into a feeling of utter hopelessness, ‘and by giving in in this way, would lose their powers of resistance’.  Those caring for others were especially vulnerable, paying the price for ‘making it a point of honour to act properly’.  So were those who’d moved to the city from the surrounding countryside, and who had nowhere to live: their cramped and unhygienic living conditions made them especially vulnerable to the disease.  They sheltered in temples, along with bodies of people who had died inside them.  Another group was people who had recovered from the plague: ‘such people were congratulated on all sides, and they themselves were so elated at the time of their recovery that they fondly imagined that they could never die of any other disease in future’.

Kerameikos, Athens

Finally, Thucydides offers some wider thoughts about the social effects of the plague.  The scale of the disaster and the suffering caused people to become ‘indifferent to every law of religion or of law’.  Funerals became chaotic, with newly dead bodies flung on top of already burning pyres.  (In 1994-5 archaeologists discovered about 150 bodies thrown haphazardly into a mass grave near the Kerameikos in Athens; these might have been associated with the 430 BC plague.)  The wealthy ‘resolved to spend their money quickly and to spend it on pleasure, since money and life alike seemed equally expendable’.  Worship of the gods ceased, since it brought no benefit, and no lawbreaker expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and punished.  Superstition was rife.  Thucydides, with grim, sceptical humour, reports

At this time of distress people naturally recalled old oracles, and among them was a verse which the old men claimed had been delivered in the past and which said, ‘War with the Dorians comes, and a death will come at the same time’.  There had been a controversy as to whether the word in this ancient verse was ‘dearth’ [λιμός – famine]  rather than ‘death’ [λoιμὸς – plague]; but in the present state of affairs the view that the word was ‘death’ naturally prevailed; it was a case of people adapting their memories to suit their sufferings.

Thucydides gives no mortality statistics, but scholars have estimated that up to a quarter of the Athenian population perished in the plague (which recurred in subsequent years).  The disease, Thucydides makes clear, affected Athens’ ability to fight the war, and caused strong popular dissatisfaction with Pericles and others in charge of the campaign.  In the section immediately before his account of the plague, Thucydides had given the ‘text’ of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, an idealised hymn to the greatness of Athens.  Now greatness turns to degradation.  Pericles initially himself survived the plague but died soon after, leaving Athens in the hands of political leaders considered, by Thucydides at least, to be more populist and less competent.  The war against Sparta dragged on, with one break, for another 26 years.  It ended in comprehensive defeat for Athens and the abolition of its democracy.

Nicolas Poussin, The plague of Ashdod, 1628-30 (Louvre, Paris)

Today, although Covid-19 (coronavirus) may be as mysterious (and incurable) as Thucydides’ plague, we have so many medical and public health advantages over the ancient Athenians that the outcomes should be much less horrendous.  Nevertheless, our virus will kill many people.  It will also, like the Athenian plague, have long-lasting consequences.  Most will be negative.  But not maybe all.  It would be good to think, for example, that we might be able to look back on the emergency and conclude that the state, mobilised in the interest of all, is a force to be valued.  It’s old idea, but one that’s been ignored or scorned for half a century by those in power who idolise the market and little else.

Maybe, too, Covid-19 will generate its own plague historian, our own contemporary Thucydides – one of the first and still one of the greatest of historians.

Translations from Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner, Penguin, 1954.

Thucydides: plaster copy of a Roman copy of an original of early 4th century (Pushkin Museum, Moscow)

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