The Plague of Athens (430 BCE)
This epidemic is probably the first for which we have contemporaneous written records, at least from a Western perspective. The great Athenian historian, Thucydides, describes in detail the plague which struck Athens in the second year of the Peloponnesian War in his History of the war. It reappeared twice more, in 429 and in the winter of 427/6, before disappearing.
It accounted for around 75 to 100,000 lives, relatively few in the context of major epidemics, but as a percentage of the population of Athens it probably accounted for as many as a half to two-thirds of the population.
Athens was waging war with Sparta and its allies at the time and Pericles, the Athenian leader, had moved the majority of the local population of the surrounding countryside behind the city’s walls, setting his stall, rightly, on the strength and supremacy of the Attic navy. Unfortunately, cramped living conditions were a breeding ground for disease.
Thucydides gave an explicit description of the symptoms of the plague. It started with a high fever, sore eyes, unnatural and fetid breath and then sneezing, a violent cough signifying that it had reached the lungs. As it travelled through the body the victim vomited bile and rashes of flat rose-coloured spots or pustules broke out on the skin. The victim felt such intense heat inside their body that they could not bear wearing any clothing and sought solace by jumping into cold water. The end did not come until around the eighth day when they suffered extreme ulceration and severe diarrhoea. Those who survived were often left with disfigurement, even the loss of limbs or eyes, and many suffered from delusions, confusion and amnesia.
Although it is the best we have, Thucydides’ account is not without inconsistencies and has provoked a lengthy scholarly debate as to the precise nature of the plague. His description bears many of the hallmarks of a classic epidemic typhus fever – progressive dehydration, debilitation and cardiovascular failure – and the cramped living conditions would have enabled the plague, which Thucydides records came from Ethiopia and passed through Egypt and Libya before entering the Greek world, to spread.
Another school of thought picks up on Thucydides’ remark that those who helped the ill bore a higher risk of catching the disease than others, suggesting that the disease spread through person to person contact which is more symptomatic of a viral haemorrhage fever analogous to Ebola rather than typhoid. Those supporting a typhus-based cause have to explain why the besieging Spartan troops appear not to have been affected.
Inevitably, the plague had a significant long-term effect. Thucydides, who had an axe to grind, claimed that Athens didn’t really recover until 415 BCE when they launched the ill-fated expedition against Syracuse. Social order broke down, capital punishment had little effect as people became blasé about their chances of survival, the link between caring for the sick and contracting the disease meant that often the sick were left to their own devices and the level of religious observance dropped as people lost their faith in the city’s deities.
Pericles was one of the plague’s victims but, fortunately, Thucydides survived to provide us with a vivid first-hand account of the disease, a passage which has plagued many a school child over the years tasked with translating it from the original Greek into a passable version of English.