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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler


The Plague of Athens occurred in the middle of The Peloponnesian War (Athens v Sparta) in 430 BC. We have an excellently detailed account from the historian of the war, the Athenian historian and General Thucydides.

Although Thucydides is meticulous in his description of the Plague, the doctors of the day had no idea what it was they were dealing with, and even modern paleopathologists cannot agree as to what this plague really was. Suggestions have ranged from The Black Death (Bubonic Plague) to measles and all points in between.

According to Thucydides' account the Plague arrived in Athens from the area around the island of Lemnos. But he acknowledges that it originally came from further East, maybe originating in Persia (modern day Iran). However, its effects were worse, he says, in Athens than anywhere else it struck. Possibly this is because of the urban density of the city, and its transient population. We know, for example, that it began in the port of Piraeus.

The highest mortality rates in Athens were amongst the doctors and carers of the sick. Nothing changes, and for self-evident reasons. The doctors had no remedies to offer and science failed Athens. Thucydides adds that many turned to prayer, oracles, and other alternative solutions. All, he says, were 'equally useless'.

Interestingly, given the rumours circulating on the internet today as to the cause of our pandemic, again nothing is ever new; for Thucydides tells us some people believed it was a rotten plot of The Spartans who poisoned the city's water supplies. How Trump would have loved that, thank goodness he hasn't heard of Thucydides!

Thucydides was well placed to write about the Plague as he himself succumbed to it, but was one of the minority who survived. He is careful to explain at length the symptoms of the Plague and its trajectory in the individual patient. He lists the first symptoms as- a burning sensation in the head, swollen eyes, bleeding in the mouth, and unnatural and fetid breathing. At the next stage he lists - sneezing, hoarseness, chest pains, and coughing. Finally he notes stomach ache and vomiting.

He says the overriding experience of the patient was of burning up inside, even though the body itself was not hot to the touch.

Death came, he tells us, after the seventh or eighth day, making no distinction between the strong and the weak. Yet he does note that any who survived were safe from catching it a second time. If you survived into the second week you then faced an almost constant diarrhoea.

Birds and animals, feasting on the unburied bodies, themselves died, and Thucydides particularly mentions dogs.

Chillingly, given our own experience of our pandemic, Thucydides writes, 'All the funeral ceremonies which had to be observed were now disorganised, and they buried the dead as best they could'.

The worst non-medical consequence of the plague was an unprecedented crime wave as moral standards collapsed. But the most serious consequence of all is that the Plague played a major role in Athens' defeat in The Peloponnesian War, and subsequently the end of Athens as the great golden city of Ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy. Sean Martin writing in his book 'A short history of Disease', concludes '... by the time Thucydides was writing, maybe ten to twenty years later, Athens had not only lost the war against the Spartans, but had been forever crippled as a major power. The golden age of Athenian democracy and culture was over, hastened to its grave by then plague ....'.

I feel I must allow you to draw modern parallels from this story, for otherwise I might be responsible for a sudden decline in your mental well-being!

The one positive - our classicist Prime Minister will be fully aware of this Greek account.

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