The Athenian Plague, Part II

Thucydides adds the curious detail that the disease spread to animals, and  scavengers refused to eat those who had died of the disease.  It was the social and moral dimension of the pestilence that most attracted his analytical mind.  Some perished through want of attention, while others, falling into despair, gave up the fight. 

Some died in neglect, others in the midst of every attention. No remedy was found that could be used as a specific; for what did good in one case, did harm in another.  Strong and weak constitutions proved equally incapable of resistance, all alike being swept away, although dieted with the utmost precaution.

By far the most terrible feature in the malady was the dejection which ensued when any one felt himself sickening, for the despair into which they instantly fell took away their power of resistance, and left them a much easier prey to the disorder; besides which, there was the awful spectacle of men dying like sheep, through having caught the infection in nursing each other. This caused the greatest mortality.

Some caught the disease as a result of taking care of others, while fear prevented many from helping afflicted friends. 

On the one hand, if they were afraid to visit each other, they perished from neglect; indeed many houses were emptied of their inmates for want of a nurse: on the other, if they ventured to do so, death was the consequence. 

Christians are much to prone to point the finger at the cruel selfishness of pagans, but Thucydides took it for granted that honorable men and women would take risks to help the sick:

This was especially the case with such as made any pretensions to goodness: honor made them unsparing of themselves in their attendance in their friends' houses, where even the members of the family were at last worn out by the moans of the dying, and succumbed to the force of the disaster.

Those who survived were the best nurses, not only because they knew they were immune to the disease but also because they had learned compassion from their own sufferings:

Yet it was with those who had recovered from the disease that the sick and the dying found most compassion. These knew what it was from experience, and had now no fear for themselves; for the same man was never attacked twice- never at least fatally. And such persons not only received the congratulations of others, but themselves also, in the elation of the moment, half entertained the vain hope that they were for the future safe from any disease whatsoever.

The historian understood that the crowding of the city caused by Mr. Pericles’ war, had contributed to the outbreak and aggravated the severity:

 An aggravation of the existing calamity was the influx from the country into the city, and this was especially felt by the new arrivals.  As there were no houses to receive them, they had to be lodged at the hot season of the year in stifling cabins, where the mortality raged without restraint. The bodies of dying men lay one upon another, and half-dead creatures reeled about the streets and gathered round all the fountains in their longing for water.

Respect for all things sacred and profane was eroded, and vice broke out and rampaged:

The sacred places also in which they had quartered themselves were full of corpses of persons that had died there, just as they were; for as the disaster passed all bounds, men, not knowing what was to become of them, became utterly careless of everything, whether sacred or profane.

All the burial rites before in use were entirely upset, and they buried the bodies as best they could. Many from want of the proper appliances, through so many of their friends having died already, had recourse to the most shameless sepultures: sometimes getting the start of those who had raised a pile, they threw their own dead body upon the stranger's pyre and ignited it; sometimes they tossed the corpse which they were carrying on the top of another that was burning, and so went off.

Nor was this the only form of lawless extravagance which owed its origin to the plague.  Men now coolly ventured on what they had formerly done in a corner, and not just as they pleased, seeing the rapid transitions produced by persons in prosperity suddenly dying and those who before had nothing succeeding to their property.

Athens, which had been a fairly austere city, now became a sewer of hedonism.  And grew indifferent to religion and to the gods themselves—a development reflected in Sophocles.:

So they resolved to spend quickly and enjoy themselves, regarding their lives and riches as alike things of a day. Perseverance in what men called honor was popular with none, it was so uncertain whether they would be spared to attain the object; but it was settled that present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was both honorable and useful. Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them.

As for the first, they judged it to be just the same whether they worshipped them or not, as they saw all alike perishing; and for the last, no one expected to live to be brought to trial for his offenses, but each felt that a far severer sentence had been already passed upon them all and hung ever over their heads, and before this fell it was only reasonable to enjoy life a little.

Thomas Fleming

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

1 Response

  1. Avatar Robert Reavis says:

    This is a very interesting essay and made me wonder after reading Dr. Patrick’s origins of the Justinian plague : “ from about 540 to 585, was caused by Yersinia pestis bacterium, the same that fueled the Black Death.”
    Some researchers now suspect the Athenian plague which actually originated in Ethiopia but did the most devastation in Athens was of the Ebola type. In any event reading these various accounts has been a most interesting endeavor during these times. My thanks to Dr Fleming for the suggestions and comments.