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The Plague of Athens

Okay folks, here we are in the midst of another pandemic. Another you say? Why yes, we’ve had pandemics throughout history. So rest assured. Even though it may seem like the end of the world, it’s been the end of the world many times before and we’re still trucking!

Today we’re talking about the Plague of Athens! This is super fitting for today because the words epidemic and pandemic are both of Greek origin! Epidemic comes from epidemios: epi meaning upon and demos meaning people. Pandemic comes from pandemos: pan meaning all and again demos meaning people. So let’s dive in to the Plague that ran rampant throughout the Greek city, which ultimately weakened their political strength and signalled the beginning of the ended of the Golden Age of Athens.

The Plague of Athens, Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

Let’s time travel all the way back to 430 BCE. It’s the second year of the Peloponnesian War, which is the war between the Delian League, lead by Athens and the Peloponnesian League lead by Sparta. It still seems that victory is in reach for the Athenians at this time. Pericles is large and in charge, things are looking up. Athens, being a stronger naval state, was relying heavily on their navy to win the war, whereas the Peloponnesians were able to garner massive amounts of land troops. As a defensive measure, Pericles adopted a policy of retreat into the city walls of Athens in order to protect the city while the navy went after the land troops along to coast. Unfortunately, this also meant that people in the Attic countryside surrounding Athens made their way into the city as well in order to protect themselves. That means the population inside the city almost tripled!

So now, not only is the city over-crowded, it’s under-resourced. This means Athens became a breeding ground for disease. This is where the plague comes in. We have a first hand account of the plague written by Thucydides. He actually got the plague and survived so we also know what the symptoms were from someone who actually suffered from it. He wrote:

‘but so great a plague and mortality of men was never remembered to have happened in any place before.’

According to Thucydides, the plague first came from Ethiopia, which passed into Libya and Egypt, making its way to Greece. Symptoms were an: ‘extreme ache in the head’, redness and inflammation of the eyes, sore throats that would lead to bleeding and nasty-ass breath. This was then followed up by sneezing, a hoarse voice, pain, and coughing. Then you would vomit, have diarrhoea, get some majorly painful pustules, become extremely thirsty and then on top of that, have trouble sleeping. This does NOT sound like a fun time. Thucydides then goes on to say that the plague spread throughout the Mediterranean and it was so severe that no one could recall anything like it before. Of course Physicians were the most vulnerable to it, as they spent the most time with the sick. They were also not very knowledgeable on how disease and such spreads yet so they were pretty much just putting themselves into harm's way.

Pericles, his wife and two sons both lost their lives to the Plague

The plague is estimated to have killed between 75,000-100,000 people over 4 and a half to five years. That’s about 25% of the population of Athens, including the great leader Pericles, his wife and his two sons. Funeral pyres were everywhere, and there were so many dead that normal funeral rights were completely abandoned. People would just walk up with their dead and throw them on top of the pile with the other bodies, which was normally a big no no. All of the burning funeral pyres were enough to send the Spartans packing though. They caught sight of them and retreated in fear of also catching the plague. The Spartans were experts in socially distancing themselves from other Greeks anyways so this was nothing new to them.

Apart from the total population destruction, the plague brought about a lot of social change. Thucydides write about the lawlessness that ruled during the plight, saying: ‘not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.” They stopped respecting or fearing the law, thinking they were going to die anyways, they started foolishly spending all of their money, and they quote ‘stopped living honourably’ because they thought they weren’t going to live long enough to reap the benefits of a good reputation.

There was also a massive drop in caring for the ill. As the caregivers were the ones most likely to catch the plague, there was a huge decline in healthcare because no one else wanted to catch it. People were left alone to suffer and die in pain. It was crazy. Luckily those who rebounded from the plague were then immune to it and they became the primary caregivers to the ill.

Archaeologically speaking, we have found a mass grave and nearly 1,000 tombs dating from 430-426 BCE outside the cemetery of Athens.

The plague also caused a bit of a religious crisis as well. People were dying regardless of their piety, so people began to believe that the gods had abandoned them, or that they favoured Sparta over Athens. There was actually a couple of oracles that predicted this all. The first for the Athenians was:

A Doric (Spartan) war shall fall, And a great plague withal.

Now the Spartans on the other hand had their own oracle that said if Apollo, who is the god of plague and medicine would side with Sparta and fight with them if the Spartan army gave it their all. Seems like oracles do come true? Also, a lot of the refugees from the Attic countryside had nowhere else to stay so they were crowded in the temples. They then became places of death and sadness, so that wasn’t very fun either.

The aftermath of this plague was intense. This was the largest loss of life in Athenian history, and there was a major breakdown of normal Athenian society. Athens lost a lot of its power and the empire could no longer expand. There was also a big power shift. A lot of rich Athenians who died left a lot of money to be inherited by lower class relatives, and a lot of the refugees went and forged documents to pass off as real Athenian citizens. Those who were caught were forced into slavery. This meant there were a lot of new strict laws and requirements put in place in order to become an Athenian citizen, meaning their political and military power was reduced like crazy. Also people started treating the foreign residents, or metics, as they called them really horribly and they lost so many of their already few rights. Athens was then defeated by Sparta and the Age of Pericles would eventually come to an end.

The Plague of Athens ultimately weakened Athens as a poilital and military power

So… with all this madness and sickness, what was the disease that got the Athenians? Historians have been trying to pin down exactly what it was for some time now. Despite Thucydides’ careful description, scholars and virologists, doctors and the like have all disagreed on what the plague may have actually been. The two main possible culprits have been either smallpox of Typhus.

Luckily, today we have science on our side! Science always comes to the rescue. Never doubt science. It will never leave you. We’ve used some mathematical modeling to track the rate of spread throughout both the city and other parts of the Mediterranean. Also in 2001 a mass Grave outside of Athens was discovered. The study of the skeletal material was undertaken by Professor Manolis Papagrigoraki from the University of Athens, and we were able to extract some DNA from three of the skeletons. Papagrigoraki was able to identify ancient microbial typhoid! That’s pretty cool eh? Of course it isn’t a 100% confirmation that Plague of Athens was precisely Typhoid Fever… it’s only a very small test group and typhoid wasn’t that rare of a thing back then so it could have been an individual case.The research has also been challenged, but either way, this is a BIG DEAL. Definitely a step in the right direction! We do know, thanks to Thucydides that the plague also hit Egypt pretty hard so maybe one day we’ll find a mummy from that time period with better preserved remains so we can do further testing.

So we all have to give big ups to Thucydides for taking such detailed notes during the plague! Without him, none of this would be possible. Actually, a fun fact is that his narrative of the Plague of Athens is believed to have influenced the style of all subsequent ancient historians in their writings about plagues such as with Procopius’ description of the Plague of Justinian… but that’s for another next episode ;).

Have a question? Email me!

Looking to Find out more?

The Plague at Athens, 430-427 BCE by John Horgan, 24 August 2016

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War Thomas Hobbes, Ed.- Book 2 47-60

Littman, R. J. (2009). The Plague of Athens: Epidemiology and Paleopathology. Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine: A Journal of Translational and Personalized Medicine, 76(5), 456–467. doi:10.1002/msj.20137

Papagrigorakis, M. J., Yapijakis, C., Synodinos, P. N., & Baziotopoulou-Valavani, E. (2006). DNA examination of ancient dental pulp incriminates typhoid fever as a probable cause of the Plague of Athens. International Journal of Infectious Diseases, 10(3), 206–214. doi:10.1016/j.ijid.2005.09.001



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