The Athenian Plague witnessed by Thucydides, Part One

Thucydides' account of the plague that struck Athens during the war with Sparta and the Peloponnesian League is among the most cogent and relevant descriptions of a pestilence.  Athens and Sparta had been rivals and, increasingly, enemies, since the Persians had been driven out of Greece, and their empire over the Greek islands taken over by Athens in the name of the Delian League.  The more aristocratic elements in Athens, under the leadership of Cimon (son of Miltiades, the victor at Marathon) desired peace with Sparta and war with Persia, but the democratic party, spurred on by Pericles, were bent on creating an empire that would be second to none in the Greek world.  With the ostracism of Cimon, the advocates of democratic imperialism, while not unchallenged—the opposition was led by Thucydides, cousin of the historian—were in the saddle. 

By the early 450’s Athens had antagonized both Thebes and Corinth, who appealed to the Spartans for help.  A Spartan army, without a declaration of war, marched into Boeotia (a region dominated by Thebes), while the Athenians were attempting to install democratic, i.e., pro-Athenian governments in hostile cities.  Cimon was called back to negotiate peace in 450, and, while conflicts continued to break out, a thirty years truce was signed a few years later, but it only lasted until 431, when Athenian aid to the democrats on Corcyra (Corfu) brought Athens into conflict with Corcyra’s mother city, Corinth.

King Archidamus of Sparta led his army into Attica and devastated the countryside.  For grain farmers, such destruction meant the loss of a year’s crop, but for Athenian farmers who grew mostly olives and grapes that required many decades of cultivation, it meant the loss of generations of work.  Athens was filled with refugees.

Thucydides says the rural Athenians, who were very attached to their villages and demes, felt as if, in moving into the city, they were going into exile.  Under the crowded and unsanitary conditions a terrible plague struck Athens, perhaps a virulent form of measles.  Thousands died, both in the city and in the army, and in 428 Pericles, who had lost much of his popularity because of the war, died of the Plague. 

Let us look at the beginning of Thucydides’ description:


In the first days of summer the Spartans and their allies, with two-thirds of their forces as before, invaded Attica, under the command of Archidamus, son of Zeuxidamus, king of Sparta, and sat down and laid waste the country.  Not many days after their arrival in Attica the plague first began to show itself among the Athenians. It was said that it had broken out in many places previously in the neighborhood of Lemnos and elsewhere; but a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered.

Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often; nor did any human art succeed any better. Supplications in the temples, divinations, and so forth were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether.

  It first began, it is said, in the parts of Ethiopia above Egypt, and thence descended into Egypt and Libya and into most of the King's country.  Suddenly falling upon Athens, it first attacked the population in Piraeus - which was the occasion of their saying that the Peloponnesians had poisoned the reservoirs, there being as yet no wells there - and afterwards appeared in the upper city, when the deaths became much more frequent.

  All speculation as to its origin and its causes, if causes can be found adequate to produce so great a disturbance, I leave to other writers, whether lay or professional; for myself, I shall simply set down its nature, and explain the symptoms by which perhaps it may be recognized by the student, if it should ever break out again. This I can the better do, as I had the disease myself, and watched its operation in the case of others.

Several things are worth noting in this passage.  Most obvious, perhaps, is the cautious and rational approach of the historian who does not claim to have the answers.  People were claiming it came from Egypt from which it spread to the territory of the Persian enemy, making it possible to blame anyone but the Athenians and an imperial policy that resulted in war and an overcrowded city.  

The art of medicine did little good, Thucydides says.  Now it is easy to make fun of ancient medicine, but the Greeks were generally a clean people, physically fit, and not given to the luxury and vices that enervate a people.  Medicine, apart from fairly serious treatment of wounds and broken limbs, was largely a matter of diet and careful observation of symptoms.  Thucydides, who was a first-hand observer, writes with the careful precision of one of Hippocrates’ disciples:

 As a rule… there was no ostensible cause; but people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath.

 These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. When it fixed in the stomach, it upset it; and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress.  In most cases also an ineffectual retching followed, producing violent spasms, which in some cases ceased soon after, in others much later.

Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor pale in its appearance, but reddish, livid, and breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But internally it burned so that the patient could not bear to have on him clothing or linen even of the very lightest description; or indeed to be otherwise than stark naked. What they would have liked best would have been to throw themselves into cold water; as indeed was done by some of the neglected sick, who plunged into the rain tanks in their agonies of unquenchable thirst; though it made no difference whether they drank little or much.

Besides this, the miserable feeling of not being able to rest or sleep never ceased to torment them. The body meanwhile did not waste away so long as the distemper was at its height, but held out to a marvel against its ravages; so that when they succumbed, as in most cases, on the seventh or eighth day to the internal inflammation, they had still some strength in them. But if they passed this stage, and the disease descended further into the bowels, inducing a violent ulceration there accompanied by severe diarrhea, this brought on a weakness which was generally fatal.

  For the disorder first settled in the head, ran its course from thence through the whole of the body, and, even where it did not prove mortal, it still left its mark on the extremities; for it settled in the privy parts, the fingers and the toes, and many escaped with the loss of these, some too with that of their eyes. Others again were seized with an entire loss of memory on their first recovery, and did not know either themselves or their friends.

In the concluding discussion, we shall look primarily at the demoralization of the Athenians and then take a brief look at how Sophocles treats the plague in his  Oedipus.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

3 Responses

  1. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    This response was sent in by Nick Pilgrim, an Orthodox Christian:

    Thank you for your sound advice and wisdom regarding the physical epidemic and the metaphysical pandemic. I look forward to reading those of the plague books that we have on hand (Exodus, Thycydides, Sophocles, Virgil, and Lucretius.) Libraries being a casualty of the panic, I am grateful to have a few shelves of books to read during this great opportunity for reading and reflection.

    Thucydides gives us a graphic description of the plague of Athens, but people tell me that Lucretius manages to give more disgusting details, which I shall read only reluctantly. Moreover, what a contrast there is between the disrespect for others and for societal order that occurred during the plague of Athens and the reverence for “our ancestors” and for the soldiers who died at the Battle of Marathon that was shown by Pericles in his funeral oration. Pericles praises the Athenians’s democratic and meritocratic distribution of power, their obedience to their laws, and their freedom from envy, fear, and malice toward one another (“In nobility of spirit, we stand in sharp contrast to most men”); shortly thereafter, however, many of the same men will neglect one another’s care, yield to despondency, and fail to observe burial customs (“No fear of gods or law of men restrained them”).

    In placing the plague narrative directly after the funeral oration, Thucydides shows the best and worst of man’s nature and how swiftly the same society can change from virtuous to vice filled. The current exile from one another — and from paying employment — that several of America’s state and city governments are imposing upon the masses (DC begins its “lockdown” at midnight tonight) might have consequences worse than the virus itself. I have read a short article by a Stanford epidemiologist, Dr. John Ioannides, who suggests that the plague of coronavirus is not novel (much as you are trying to teach us in reading about the severe plagues of history), nor does sufficient evidence exist for the severity of the contagion to warrant the ever-increasing Draconian policy decisions.

    Thucydides’s Pericles closes eloquently with, “I have now spoken, in obedience to the law, such words as I had that were fitting, and those whom we are burying have already in part also received their tribute in our deeds… For where the prizes offered for virtue are greatest, there are found the best citizens. And now, when you have made due lament, each for his own dead, depart.”

    We pray that the Lenten season and the solitude of exile will help us all to pray, fast, repent, and care for one another as the Letter to Diognetus recounts.

  2. Harry Colin says:

    My apologies if my comment is out of sequence, but having read today Lucretius’ account of the plague, Thucydides seems almost like a redacted summary. Gruesome is not too powerful a description of Lucretius’ explicit account. As most of the folks commenting here are males, if one has not yet read it be prepared to shiver at one detail involving the knife.

    These plague accounts certainly buttress Mr. Pilgrim’s admonitions to remember that our true home is not of this world and that we should re-direct our behavior to reflect that fact.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Thanks for the comment, but…..Let us be clear. Lucretius was an Epircurean poet with an ax to grind, writing about 500 years after the event on the basis of things he had read, most of which were probably not first hand accounts. Thucydides was perhaps the most brilliant historical writer of all time, an eye-witness to the events and not only that, a member of the political elite, albeit in opposition to Pericles. Lucretius is writing to make a point, Thucydides is chronicling the Athenian tragedy. Gruesome details trotted out by an alien cannot be compared to this first hand account.