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What Can We Learn from a Plague 24 Centuries Ago?

The epidemic that swept ancient Athens tested its citizens’ courage and changed the city-state forever.

Crawford Kilian 25 Jan

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

“Unprecedented” has become the politicians’ cliché of choice in describing each new wave of COVID-19. But if you look back at earlier outbreaks of new diseases, you can find plenty of precedents — especially for our bad behaviour.

I was reminded of this recently while preparing to teach a short course on pandemics in history. One of the first in the record is the Plague of Athens, which we know about chiefly because it struck during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BC. Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote a history of the war, and included a section on the plague. He was also one of the few Athenians who survived infection.

His account is one of a proud society unmoored by disease, its poorest members hardest hit while its leaders lost authority in the face of a mysterious, morale-sapping illness.

Ancient Athens has had a lot of good publicity as the home of democracy, philosophy, sculpture and drama. In reality, it was a rich city-state determined to become an empire, and its democracy was limited to native-born male property owners, who generally owned slaves. It also shared the Greek world’s class tension between rich oligarchs and ordinary male citizens. Athenians might enjoy arguing with Socrates in the marketplace, but they eventually decided his questions were weakening young people’s faith in the gods. They ordered him to commit suicide, and he did.

Other Greek city-states, especially the oligarchies, viewed Athenian expansion with alarm, and war broke out between Athens and Sparta. The oligarchic Spartans and their allies had the best land armies, and Athens knew its own citizen-soldiers were no match for it. Pericles, the elected Athenian strategos, or general, ordered a buildup of the Athenian fleet. He intended to cripple Spartan trade and raid Sparta’s coastal allies.

In the meantime, Pericles abandoned Attica, the countryside around Athens, when the Spartans invaded. Peasants and landowners alike crowded inside the city’s walls, which included the harbour of Piraeus. Most of the poor refugees had no work and lived in shacks. They were an easy target for disease.

It didn’t come from a laboratory

Thucydides says the plague came out of “Ethiopia,” meaning somewhere in Africa south of Egypt. It seems to have come down the Nile to the delta, and then spread to Libya and the Persian Empire. Eventually, in 430 BC, the second summer of the war, it reached Piraeus. Before it burned itself out a couple of years later, it had killed an estimated 30,000 people, somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of the city’s citizens and other residents.

We don’t know what the disease was; one recent finding used ancient DNA from a mass grave to determine that it was a form of typhoid fever, but the grave itself is not clearly linked to the wartime era. Whatever it was, it produced horrendous symptoms that included hemorrhaging — something like modern Ebola.

Thucydides tells us that the doctors were baffled by the first cases (which appeared among the poor in Piraeus but soon moved to wealthy districts in Athens itself). They had no idea how to treat it, and their attempts to heal the sick cost most of them their lives. Prayers and visits to oracles were as useless as medicine.

Those who survived experienced damage to their fingers, toes and genitals, and some went blind. The plague had neurological effects: some survivors had total amnesia. But survivors were rarely reinfected, and always survived if they were.

The plague of Athens was far more lethal than COVID-19, but its social and political effects were similar to what we’ve seen in the last two years. Those who cared for the sick did so as a point of honour, knowing they themselves would soon fall sick and die. But many suffered and died with no one daring even to enter their homes. Thucydides tells us that “the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or of law.”

‘A state of unprecedented lawlessness’

Funeral rites, as important to the Athenians as to the West Africans during the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak, were abandoned; bodies were left in the streets and temples. Those who inherited money from the dead spent it quickly, on pleasures, while they still had the time to do so. It was the beginning, Thucydides says, “of a state of unprecedented lawlessness.”

Meanwhile the war went on. The landowners trapped in Athens called for peace while the Spartans ravaged their farms. Ordinary citizens, all of them now impoverished, blamed Pericles, who called an assembly and actually chewed out his own supporters.

After all, he reminded them, they had voted for him and supported the war. If they were personally suffering now, they would have a better chance of regaining their wealth if they saw the war through to victory. His arguments kept him in power for a while, but some charged him with embezzlement, for which he had to pay a large fine and leave office. Then the Athenians voted him back into power because they realized he was right — but soon Pericles and his sons contracted the plague and died.

Thucydides, a strong supporter of Pericles, considered his successors a crowd of demagogues who lost Athenian allies and made new enemies. Pericles’ naval strategy was abandoned. After decades of on-again, off-again war, Athens surrendered to the Spartans and would never again play a leading role in the Greek world.

Demoralization on the home front

The plague of Athens was a brief time in a long war, but it does seem to have demoralized the Athenians as well as depriving them of their best leader. We see a similar kind of demoralization in many of today’s self-defined “advanced” countries: they may not have lost their belief in religion, and they say they uphold democracy, but their faith in government and science seems shaken.

Public attention, meanwhile, seems to have drifted away from the pandemic to sports and entertainment. Just as the Spartans enjoyed the Athenians’ demoralization, oligarchies like Russia and China have enjoyed the unrest in western nations, whether over vaccination, incompetent leadership, or the slow secession of pro-Trump states. They must think that if we can’t even unify around a proven vaccine, we’re unlikely to support a war to defend Ukraine — or defend the Uyghurs with a boycott of Chinese goods.

If anything, Athenian citizens had a big advantage over us: they were tough men who’d fought in combat (and they paid for their own weapons and armour). They knew Pericles personally, and he knew them well enough to give them bad news with zero spin. No modern politician would dare to tell voters what Pericles told his in a funeral oration to the relatives of the city’s war dead: “Congratulate yourselves that you have been happy during the greater part of your days; remember that your life of sorrow will not last long, and be comforted by the glory of those who are gone. For the love of honour alone is ever young, and not riches, as some say, but honour is the delight of men when they are old and useless.”

Yet the plague of Athens killed Pericles, his supporters, and his enemies alike, making “honour” and “glory” empty words. If Thucydides had not survived, we would scarcely know the plague had happened. Athens staggered on through a futile forever war under demagogues and traitors, reviving 2,500 years later as a tourist destination.

Perhaps we can draw a useful lesson from the Athenians, but as the German philosopher Hegel observed, long after Socrates and Plato, “The only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Politics

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