• Tue. Mar 21st, 2023

The Plague of Athens Killed Over a Quarter of the City’s Population


Jan 3, 2023

Pandemics and plagues appear to be the flavour of this decade, occurring at common intervals all through historical past. Some pandemics have been nipped within the bud on account of efficient collective motion or by strokes of luck, occurring in sparsely populated areas. Others, lethal in each origin and impact, have devastated populations, and none just like the Nice Plague of Athens which swept via the traditional metropolis in 430 BC, on the peak of the Peloponnesian Conflict, wiping out a whopping fourth of your entire populace, with some estimates saying a 3rd of the inhabitants died!

A Plague inside a Conflict: Utter Annihilation

Claiming near 100,000 (or extra) lives, the plague and the war (which might final 27 years) collectively crippled Athenian society. The pestilence would return in 429 BC and once more within the winter of 427. Fashionable researchers have posited almost thirty pathogens as chargeable for the plague of Athens, though its origins stay a medical thriller to this very day. It was probably the most deadly episode of sickness of wherever within the historical past of classical Greece.

Originating within the port space of Piraeus, locals started being by a thriller illness by no means seen earlier than. On the similar time, comparable outbreaks had been reported on different Greek islands, together with Lemnos within the north Aegean. Rumors started circulating in Athens, alleging poisoning of the water sources and wells by the Spartans, the enemy on the time. Inside weeks, the illness had unfold to the innermost areas of the town, affecting all strata of society, and all age teams.

What compounded the distress of the Athenians was Pericles’ short-sighted technique, which sought to convey rural Atticans into the walled metropolis to struggle the Spartans. This solely elevated the speed of transmission and contagion, significantly among the many Athenians, who had been put into much more unsanitary situations.

The Spartans weren’t affected on the similar charge in any respect. In truth, Pericles himself would fall sufferer to his insurance policies, dropping his life within the course of, though he was first faraway from his perch as official strategist.

Pericles mismanaged the plague of Athens, which brought about the loss of life of Pericles, his son, and as much as a 3rd of Athens. Pericles on the deathbed of his son, portray by François Chifflart, 1851 (VladoubidoOo / CC BY SA 3.0 )

Origins and Signs of the Plague of Athens: A Story of Human Endurance?

Historian Thucydides (460-400 BC), a survivor of the lethal illness himself, authored the Historical past of the Peloponnesian Conflict , and wrote in regards to the mysterious ailment. This textual content is the first supply about this illness; Thucydides believed that it had originated in jap Africa within the present-day Sudanese space (then historical Ethiopia), with the illness travelling north and throughout the Mediterranean.

“[P]eople in good well being had been impulsively attacked by violent heats within the head; redness and irritation of the eyes; throat and tongue rapidly suffused with blood; breath turned unnatural and fetid; sneezing and hoarseness; violent cough; vomiting; retching; violent convulsions; the physique externally not so sizzling to the contact, nor but pale; a furious shade inkling to purple; breaking out in pustules and ulcers,” he wrote in nice element. “A plague as nice as this and with such devastating penalties that it had no similarity in nothing else in human historical past”.

Thucydides additionally poignantly wrote in regards to the despair and utter hopelessness that might beset an individual who had contracted the illness. Because of the lack of medical analysis on the time, individuals believed that one thing had arisen that might be not possible for the human capability to endure. Finally, this led to a breakdown in conventional values, as self-indulgence changed honor, and the worry of each God and man was eradicated.

Bust of the ancient Greek general and historian Thucydides, modernity’s primary source on the 4th century BC plague of Athens (Public Domain)

Bust of the traditional Greek normal and historian Thucydides, modernity’s main supply on the 4th century BC plague of Athens ( Public Domain )

Identical to the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed your entire medical trade, and all those that had been linked with it in a direct or oblique capability, the Nice Plague of Athens took a toll on all those that cared for the sick. As soon as physicians had been overwhelmed and out of the image by way of caregiving, all residents, together with relations and family members, had been severely in danger – in truth, loss of life was typically the consequence.

Corpses started piling up on Athenian streets, stopping even the efficiency of elementary rites for burying the useless. It could be widespread for a number of our bodies to be cremated on the identical pyre on the similar time.

Solely those that recovered from the lethal illness, and lived to inform the story, had been able to offering love and care to their relations. An infection luckily introduced with it immunity; nobody appears to have been re-infected, not less than not fatally (a transparent divergence from the present COVID-19 pandemic). But most survivors reported some long-lasting results – lack of reminiscence, injury to fingers, eyes, toes, and even genitals.

Plague of Athens Led to a Breakdown in Social Hierarchy  

The social results too had been disastrous; nearly in a single day, wealthy and elite residents turned paupers, whereas some poor residents acquired fortunate and had been in a position to applicable a rich man’s property. The authorized system was in disarray, because the worry of the plague trumped the necessity for justice or equality.

Most started believing in prophecies of doom, significantly the traditional Oracle of Delphi , considering that the gods had unleashed their wrath on widespread folks, and the Spartans had been the harbingers of this. The Athenians consulted the Oracle at Delphi and despatched emissaries to different sanctuaries of notice to hunt divine intervention.

Citizens of Greece felt abandoned by the gods during the Great Plague of Athens, leading to societal breakdown. Painting by Thomas Cole, Destruction from The Course of Empire series, 1836 (Public Domain)

Residents of Greece felt deserted by the gods through the Nice Plague of Athens, resulting in societal breakdown. Portray by Thomas Cole, Destruction from The Course of Empire sequence, 1836 ( Public Domain )

Fashionable Issue Diagnosing the Plague of Athens

What makes it troublesome to tie this illness right down to a specific pathogen, like ebola, malaria, influenza, measles, or cholera, is that Thucydides was not a medical scholar. He had no medical experience or information and authored his treatise a decade after the occasion itself.

His description of signs doesn’t match into any understood trendy type of illness. It’s completely potential that his narrative was exaggerated and ahistorical, making reconstruction of this era significantly troublesome.

In 1994-95, a mass grave of 150 individuals from this time interval was unearthed from Kerameikos in Athens, and several other theories had been posited as to who they had been. Since they had been buried hurriedly, and with scant respect for the useless that’s in any other case typically in place, a workforce of Greek scientists concluded that these had been victims of the plague of Athens.

Α reconstructed appearance of Myrtis, an 11-year-old girl who died during the plague of Athens and whose skeleton was found in the Kerameikos mass grave (Tilemahos Efthimiadis / CC BY SA 2.0)

Α reconstructed look of Myrtis, an 11-year-old woman who died through the plague of Athens and whose skeleton was discovered within the Kerameikos mass grave (Tilemahos Efthimiadis / CC BY SA 2.0 )

A examine printed a decade later from the dental data of three victims discovered a 93% similarity to typhoid, however this concept was rejected within the mainstream for being too simplistic and stuffed with loopholes. Furthermore, symptomology was inconsistent, and the speedy onset of the Athenian plague doesn’t slot in with the final drift of typhoid.

The plague of Athens stays a thriller, however the current uncovering of mass graves from the traditional interval gives new hope {that a} definitive analysis is across the nook. With trendy strategies of DNA analysis progressing quickly during the last 20 years, it’s only a matter of time earlier than the illness that struck historical Athens may be scientifically decoded precisely.

Prime picture: The plague of Athens killed between 25-33% of the traditional metropolis’s inhabitants, but what occurred remains to be a thriller. This oil portray by Michael Sweerts, circa 1652, known as “Plague in an Historical Metropolis,” and a few students interpret it as an outline of the Athenian plague that broke out in 430 B.C. Supply: Public Domain

By Sahir Pandey


Bass, G. June 10, 2020. The Athenian Plague, a Cautionary Story of Democracy’s Fragility . The New Yorker. Accessible at: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-athenian-plague-a-cautionary-tale-of-democracys-fragility.  

Horgan, J. August 24, 2016. The Plague at Athens, 430-427 BCE. Accessible at: https://www.worldhistory.org/article/939/the-plague-at-athens-430-427-bce/.

Kelaidis, Ok. March 23, 2020. What the Nice Plague of Athens Can Educate Us Now . Accessible at: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/great-plague-athens-has-eerie-parallels-today/608545/.

Littman, R.J. 2009. The plague of Athens: epidemiology and paleopathology . Mount Sinai Journal of Medication, 76 (5). Accessible at: 10.1002/msj.20137.

Martin, C.S. Could 20, 2021. The Plague of Athens killed tens of 1000’s, however its trigger stays a thriller . Accessible at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/history-magazine/article/plague-athens-killed-tens-thousands-but-cause-remains-mystery.

The Nice Plague of Athens: Classes from the Previous . March 24, 2020. Greek Traveltellers. Accessible at: https://greektraveltellers.com/blog/the-plague-of-athens

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