The Plague of Athens

This month is a time for us all to jump out of our comfort zones and write about a time in history we know little or nothing about. As someone who is very happy to stay in modern-day times and stick to political and social matters, going back as far as Fifth Century BC Athens is very out of my comfort zone. Although I enjoy medieval and classical history, the last time I learnt about the Greeks, I was ten and part of the class included watching Disney’s Hercules (not, I think, the pinnacle of historical material when looking at Ancient Greece). It seemed to me that discussing the plague of fifth century Athens would be the perfect opportunity to jump as far back as I can, especially since during a quiz, I guessed that the year it occurred was 100BC  (I didn’t hear the ‘Fifth Century’ bit, I swear). Hopefully, by the end of this post both you and I will know far more about the plague of Athens more than we do now.

What was the Plague?

Concerning what the plague actually was – and what illness it manifested as – is still disputed to this day. Some claim it could perhaps have been a flu strain epidemic, the bubonic plague, Ebola or measles. The dispute comes from the fact that the symptoms described during the plague don’t match the symptoms of the previously mentioned diseases. Disease, of course, changes over time, and a case of the measles, flu or Ebola could be very different 2,500 years ago than today. It could be possible in fact, that the disease that caused this plague no longer exists in a recognisable form.

Thucydides, an Athenian historian and also a surviving victim of the plague, wrote the disease had an “abrupt onset, persons in good health were seized first with strong fevers, redness and burning of the eyes, and the inside of the mouth, both the throat and tongue, immediately was bloody-looking and expelled an unusually foul breath. Following these came sneezing, hoarseness . . . a powerful cough . . . and every kind of bilious vomiting . . . and in most cases an empty heaving ensued that produced a strong spasm that ended quickly or lasted quite a while.”

Bust of Thucydides
Bust of Thucydides

He described skin as being “reddish, livid, and budding out in small blisters and ulcers.” Victims often were subjected to incredible thirst and fever, becoming so hot they didn’t even want to be covered by a thin blanket. Sleep was near impossible. He noted that after just over a week the victims would either begin to get better or, in the case of most, die. Survivors became immune, but it seemed to be contagious as it was noted that those who visited the sick and cared for them often became ill themselves.

Dr. David Durack and Dr. Robert Littman of the University of Maryland claim that the best possible explanation for the plague is typhus fever. Evidence also suggests that typhus fever was spread by lice and through air during the plague.

Dr. Durack claimed: “Epidemic typhus fever is the best explanation. It hits hardest in times of war and privation, it has about 20 percent mortality, it kills the victim after about seven days, and it sometimes causes a striking complication: gangrene of the tips of the fingers and toes. The Plague of Athens had all these features.”

How and When did it Occur?

The Plague of Athens did indeed occur during war – The Peloponnesian War. Athens were fighting against the Peloponnesian League of Sparta in order to achieve their vision of an Athenian Empire. Instead of acting in the more traditional ways Athens had acted in war in the past, Athens elected to rely on a strategy whereby Athenians would withdraw behind the walls of the city and rely on fleets for supplies, rather than going out into battle.

pericles
Pericles gives the funeral oration at the end of the first year of war – Artwork by Von Fulz

This was a decision was made by Pericles, a man who dominated Athens politically for over thirty years. His idea was to avoid superior Peloponnesian forces on the battlefield, to frustrate them and to tire them out, and to make Athens an impregnable island fortress. The result, however, would lead to a destructive plague, caused by containing Athens’s entire population alongside refugees within its walls, allowing disease to spread faster and more devastatingly.

In 430 BC, in the second year of the Peloponnesian War, Athens succumbed to its first bout of the plague, probably entering through Piraeus, the only port open in Athens to provide food, supplies and water, due to the city being almost completely closed off. The plague hit twice more, in 429 BC and in the winter of 427/6 BC.

What were its Effects?

Over the years the plague hit Athens, almost 100,000 people died – one-third of the total population. In 427, the Athenians had lost 4400 hoplites (heavily armed soldiers) and 300 cavalry men, nearly 25% of their frontline troops. Despite this Athens carried on its war effort for another twenty years. Athens was at a disadvantaged place in the war, due to how hard the plague had hit it, and with the Peloponnesians having largely escaped its effects.

plague of athens
Depiction of Plague of Athens – taken from Tiki-Toki.com

Its effect on the political stance of Athens was greatly changed by the plague – Pericles died of it only two and a half years after its initial onset, and he had played a great role within Athens for a long time beforehand. The War and its outcome may have been very different for Athens if Pericles had never died, and therefore the plague had a lasting effect on Athens’s war efforts and Athens itself.

How is it Remembered?

The Plague of Athens was not the most devastating plague in the Ancient World, but has been chronicled in-depth by Thucydides. This has allowed the plague to have been researched in-depth concerning the symptoms it caused, its effects on Athenian society, and how Athenians dealt with the spread. Contrary to other writings of the time, Thucydides did not mention the Gods when writing about disease and was able to give an in-depth discussion of its symptoms and its spread without this influence, perhaps as he had been a survivor and suffered through it himself.

Mass graves have since been found in excavations, reportedly having no character and hastily put together, with no, or only cheap, offerings. These hastily thrown together graves are a result of the panic the plague caused, with Thucydides himself writing that bodies were often abandoned in the streets and in temples, and they were collected and buried hastily due to the panic surrounding the city.

Site of mass graves from 4th and 5th century BC, taken by Nikos Axarlis
Site of mass graves from 4th and 5th century BC, taken by Nikos Axarlis

The importance of remembering the Plague of Athens has been described by Dr. Durack who explains, ‘Even if we can never be absolutely sure what caused the plague, the story is still relevant today because we continue to experience the outbreak of new emerging infectious diseases.’ Dr. Littman also agrees with this statement, saying that because plagues are a recurring event in human history, they remain a constant fear and therefore relevant.

The plague was hugely important, not only for scholars today to research infectious diseases and epidemics of today, but in its impact on Athens. Arguably, it helped cause the downfall of the Golden Age of Athens, killed a large number of its population, and heavily weakened the city at the beginning of its war against Sparta.

Further Reading

The Plague in Athens During the Peloponnesian War

Plague Victims Found: Mass Burial in Athens

The Plague of Athens – 430-427/425 BC

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One thought on “The Plague of Athens

  1. Plagues fascinate me, as they so often change the social landscape and fabric of society. Yet, I’ve never heard of this one. Thanks for the history lesson.

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