Thucydides Book II: The Plague

One of the defining tropes of Greek Tragedy is man’s ultimate inability to fight his fate. All purely human ambitions and conflicts are dwarfed by the central conflict between the humans and the gods, and the gods always win. The Peloponnesian War, as interpreted by Thucydides, was a real-life Greek Tragedy. The various people and factions described all had their own motivations but, ultimately, Athens and Sparta were fated to go to war and destroy each other and there was nothing that humans could do to stop it. In this respect, Thucydides’ worldview had evolved remarkably little from that of Homer, several centuries earlier, who had cast the Trojan war as an event decreed by the gods. The heroes of the Iliad could choose how to meet their fates, but they could not avoid them.

In Book II we meet another deus ex machina which no human can control: the plague. Prior to the plague, the war has been largely indecisive. The Spartans march into Athenian territory for a few weeks at a time and destroy things, but are unable to lure the Athenians from their heavily fortified city for a major battle. Meanwhile the Athenians, with sea-superiority, pursue similar tactics along the coast. It seems likely that this state of affairs will continue for years. Then the plague hits Athens, and a significant shift in power occurs.

The Plague at Ashdod, Nicolas Poussin [public domain via Wikimedia]

The Plague at Ashdod, Nicolas Poussin [public domain via Wikimedia]

We don’t know know what disease actually hit Athens, any more than the Athenian doctors did. Various historians have interpreted the Thucydides’ gruesomely vivid description of symptoms as malaria, bubonic plague, cholera, or even Ebola,

…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 diarrhoea, 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.

Given the amount of time which has passed, it might have been a virus which is now extinct, or has since evolved into a very different form. Whatever it was, it was deadly. It swept rapidly through Athens and the surrounding towns, badly overpopulated by refuges from the countryside. As the death toll mounted, Athens descended into nearly complete lawlessness. People who were sure they were going to die anyway rejected all custom and decency. The only bright spot was that the Spartans, afraid of catching the plague themselves, decided to avoid Athens and go home early that summer.

Descriptions of plagues, and people’s behavior during plagues abound in fiction. Ken Follet, in his Pillars of the Earth books, and Connie Willis, in Doomsday Book, wrote particularly effective treatments of the medieval Black Death, and other examples abound. However, the matter-or-fact prose in Thucydides’ vivid first-hand account captures the phenomenon better than any fictional narrative I’ve read. I would recommend that any author who his about to write about a plague start their research by downloading and reading book II of Thucydides.

Thucydides implies that, even thought he war went on for decades longer, it was the Plague that truly lead to Athens losing. It devastating to their moral, economy, and population. One casualty hurt them more than any other, however. Pericles, the leader who had been the architect of the Athenian empire, succumbed that year. No other leader could unify the various Athenian factions or had the discipline to fight a long war of attrition, in which the richer Athenians were sure to eventually grind down the Spartan war machine. After the plague lesser leaders vied for power and, when they got it, lead the Athenians on one risky adventure after another in search of a quick and decisive victory that never quite materialized.

Death of Pericles, Alonzo Chappel [public domain via Wikimedia]

Death of Pericles, Alonzo Chappel [public domain via Wikimedia]

Just as if they were caught in a play in which one of the gods announces divine retribution in the first scene, Athens after the plague spends the rest of the story being dragged inexorably to their fate. The audience knows how the story will end and the remaining books of the history describe how the actors choose to deal with the tragedy.

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