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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