THE PLAGUE IN ATHENS DURING THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
 

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND TO THUCYDIDES' DESCRIPTION OF THE PLAGUE

In the early fifth century, the Greeks, apparently against all odds, managed to defeat the numerically far superior forces of the expansive Persian empire in two invasions, in 490 (the battle of Marathon), and again in 480.  This sobering experience led a number of Greek cities to join together with Athens in a sea league for the dual purpose of punishing the hubris of the Persians and gaining some recompense for the destruction's of the war.  Over time, however, Athens turned this league into an instrument of its own imperial power, enforcing its will upon its allies, now become subjects, and openly appropriating the funds of the league for the creation of monuments of imperial splendor (notably, the Parthenon).  This naturally provided a focal point for the jealousies and rivalries of the various Greek poleis, and especially for the Spartans, the acknowledged masters of infantry (hoplite) warfare.  The result was an extended war, lasting from 431 to 404 BCE, that pitted the hoplite forces of the Peloponnesus, Sparta and its allies, against the maritime superiority of Athens and its allies.  

Thucydides is our primary source for this war.  He was an upper-class Athenian and lived through the war (or nearly though it -- it is unclear when he died, but he left his work unfinished).  While serving as general he was exiled for coming late to an engagement, and as a result he spent much of the war in exile in the northern Aegean where his family had land -- the same territory in which the doctors who composed the Epidemics were traveling.  He was highly aware of the intellectual currents of the time, and both medicine and rhetoric have influenced his presentation of the war.

According to Thucydides, at first enthusiasm for the war was high.  Large numbers of young men on both sides who had no experience of war saw it as an adventure and a potential source of profit.  But even the first year of the war brought losses and hardship to the Athenians, much of it caused by the radical strategy advocated by the Athenians' current political leader, Pericles, to rely mainly on Athenian naval supremacy: bring all the people in Attica into the city and abandon the outlying countryside to destruction by the Spartans, relying upon the navy to supply the city with food and other necessities that would be carried through the fortified corridor from the port of the Pireus into the city itself (the Long Walls).

 In the winter following the first year of the war, morale had fallen considerably in Athens.  It was at the year's public funeral (held annually for men who had fallen in battle in the course of the year) that Pericles pronounced the famous funeral oration that is so often quoted as summing up the greatness of Periclean Athens (Thuc.2.34-46).  Pericles' speech was an encomium on Athenian democracy and it provided the high point of Thucydides' account of the war.  It is immediately and dramatically followed in his account by the description of the plague which struck the city in the following summer, as the Spartans again invaded Attica.  Crowded together in the city as the result of Pericles' strategy, the Athenians fell victim to the virulent sickness that was spreading throughout the eastern Mediterranean.  People died in large numbers, and no preventive measures or remedies were of any avail.  It has been estimated that a quarter, and perhaps even a third, of the population was lost.  The plague returned twice more, in 429 and 427/6, and Pericles himself died during this time, probably as a result of the disease.

  By 415 the military rolls were full again (Thuc. 6.26), but the thirty-plus generation that filled offices and provided leadership had not yet been replenished.

Thucydides' himself suffered from the plague and recovered; thus he was an eyewitness to the catastrophe (might this have affected his reportage of it?).  His expressed intention was not to suggest causes or to identify the illness, but to provide as complete and accurate a description as possible so that the illness could be recognized should it ever recur in the future (in this he showed the influence of the Hippocratic emphasis on prognosis).  But the reader cannot be unaware of the dramatic contrast to the idealism that had just been expressed in the Funeral Oration. Thucydides lived in an era in which rhetoric was a highly praised and widely practiced skill, and its effect on his work can often be noticed.  Unfortunately, none of our other sources mentions the outbreak, and we cannot confirm his account directly.  While it is true that the lack of other notices in literature or archaeological evidence such as mass graves is somewhat puzzling, nevertheless, Thucydides was writing for an audience that included many who had lived through the events themselves, so that we cannot suspect outright invention on his part.


HOW DOES THUCYDIDES PRESENT THE PLAGUE?

READ Thucydides' account of the plague (Thuc. 2.47-55). The simplest analysis is one in terms of symptoms:  What specific symptoms does Thucydides' describe?  In what terms does he describe them (lay terms, or Hippocratic terms?)?  How useful do you think his descriptions would be to a modern doctor, and why? A second type of analysis should take into account epidemiological factors (who was most heavily stricken? were there any differences according to age, gender? were animals affected? how long did the attack last and did it recur?)

 IS RETRODIAGNOSIS POSSIBLE?  WHAT WAS THE PLAGUE?

Ironically, despite Thucydides' detailed description, modern scholars are still not able to agree on the identity of the disease.  It was clearly not the bubonic plague of the Black Death in the 14th century, for the characteristic symptom of the bubo is not found in Thucydides' description.  Other candidates that have been suggested are measles, typhus, ergotism, and even toxic shock syndrome as a complication of influenza. The case for typhus seems strongest both epidemiologically -- the age group is similar -- and from the standpoint of the symptoms.  Typhus is characterized by fever and a rash, gangrene of the extremities occurs, it is known as a "doctors' disease" from its frequent incidence among care-givers, it confers immunity, and patients during a typhus epidemic in the First World War were reported to have jumped into water tanks to alleviate extreme thirst.  But the fit is not exact.  The rash is difficult to identify on the basis of Thucydides' description (modern medical texts often employ pictures to differentiate rashes), and the state of mental confusion may not fit Thucydides' description.  In the long run, all such attempts at identification may be futile, however.  Diseases develop and change over time, and it may be, as A.J.Holladay and J.C.F.Poole argue (Classical Quarterly 29 (1979) 299ff.), that the plague of the 5th century no longer exists today in a recognizable form. In the course of their argument they provide a full bibliography for the various candidates up to that time.  New suggestions continue to be made: toxic shock complicated by influenze: A.D.Langmuir, et al, "The Thucydides Syndrome," New England Journal of Medicine (1985) 1027-30; Marburg-Ebolu fevers: G.D.Scarrow, "The Athenian Plague. A possible diagnosis," Ancient History Bulletin 11 (1988) 4-8.  Holladay and Poole credit Thucydides for first recognizing the factor of contagion; for another view on this issue, see J.Solomon, "Thucydides and the recognition of contagion," Maia 37 (1985) 121ff.; on the intellectual effects of the plague, see J.Mikalson, "Religion and the plague in Athens 431-427 BC," Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 10 (1982) 217ff.

Thucydides' emphasis on the social and moral effects of the Athenian plague may be augmented by studies of the effects of the Black Death in Europe (for example, Millard Meiss, Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death, 1978).  Perhaps a third of the population died, and a large number of these were sudden and untimely deaths, occurring indifferently to those of both good and bad character. Appeals to the gods were fruitless.  Normal expectations were upset as distant relatives of the wealthy suddenly found themselves the possessors of unexpected fortunes, and the normal pool of aristocratic candidates for political office was swept away.  (For example, both of Pericles' legitimate sons died, and he made a special plea to set aside the citizenship law, which he himself had sponsored in 451, so that his son by the Milesian Aspasia could be declared a citizen.)



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