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.