The Athenian Plague: 430 B.C. – 426 B.C. (Part 1)

As the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) loomed with the worsening of the cold war between Athens and Lacedæmonia (Sparta), an ancient oracle was said to have provided a warning to Athens and inspiration to Lacedæmonia: “A Dorian war shall come and with it death… “When the god was asked whether they (Lacedæmonia) should go to war, he answered that” if they put their might into it, victory would be theirs…”[1] At the time Athens was in its golden age (479-431 B.C.) under the enlightened leadership of Pericles (495-429 B.C.) who had introduced the world’s first form of democracy under which individual rights, literature and the arts thrived.

According to Thucydides (460-400 B.C.), an Athenian general, political critic and historian, enthusiasm and sustain for the Peloponnesian War among Athenians “was high” when the conflict erupted. Many, especially the young, “saw it as an adventure and a possible source of profit.”[2] However, sustain and enthusiasm for the war quickly waned when Athens was hit by misfortune (the Peloponnesians led by Lacedæmonia invaded Attica committing some of the “worst ravages”[3]) and the plague that decimated much of the City’s population.

As the Attica countryside was overrun in April 430 B.C., Athenians following Pericles’ instructions – “bring all the people… into the city”[4] took shelter in “parts… that were not built over and in the temples and chapels of the idols… and other such places as were always kept closed” including the Pelasgian citadel (just south of the Acropolis) where residence “had been banned by a… Pythian oracle which [read]: ‘Leave the Pelasgian parcel desolate, Woe worth the day that men live it!’”[5] The Attica countryside was abandoned to Lacedæmonian destruction, which targeted “not merely [Athenian] corn and fruits, but already the garden vegetables near the city, [which] were rooted up and destroyed”[6] as Athenians placed only reliance upon the supremacy of their navy to provide “food and other necessities.”[7] As crowds packed within Athens’ confines, the city’s existing “sanitation and drainage” infrastructure could not adjust to the bloated population, creating “appalling” conditions[8] on top of those left in the wake of 431-430 B.C. winter as described by Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (90-30 B.C.):[9]

As a consequence of heavy rains… the ground had become soaked with water, and many low-lying regions, having received a great amount of water, turned into shallow pools and held stagnant water, very much as marshy regions do; and when these waters became warm in the summer and grew putrid, thick foul [vapors] were formed, which, rising up in fumes, corrupted the surrounding air, the very thing which may be seen taking place in marshy grounds which are by character pestilential.

In addition, the immune systems of Athenians were also compromised due to the without of quality food within the City. “Contributing to the disease was the bad character of the food obtainable; for the crops which were raised that year were altogether watery and their natural quality was corrupted,” Diodorus Siculus stated. In short, the situation was optimal for the sudden increase of a deadly epidemic.

“Not many days after [the arrival of the Peloponnesians] in Attica the plague… began to show itself among the Athenians. It was said that it had broken out in many places before in the neighborhood of Lemnos and in other places; …first… 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 [as well as in parts of the Persian empire]… but a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered. Suddenly falling upon Athens, it first attacked the population in Piræus – which was the event of their saying that the Peloponnesians had poisoned the reservoirs, there being as in addition no wells there – and afterwards appeared in the upper city, when the deaths became much more frequent.”[10] The plague attacked all in spite of of “class, sex, or age,”[11] Thucydides wrote.

As the sudden increase began, physicians, including Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.), often referred to as the “Father of Medicine,” and priests rushed to the aid of the stricken. in addition their efforts were futile. Thucydides recounted their heroic efforts – “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 character of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether [when it was shown that ‘the oracles had no useful advice to offer’[12] and prayers went unanswered].”[13]

Per Diodorus Siculus, “Athenians… ascribed the causes of their misfortune to [Apollo, a] deity. consequently, acting upon the command of a certain oracle, they purified the island of Delos, which was holy to [him] and had been defiled, as men thought, by the burial there of the dead. Digging up, consequently, all the graves on Delos, they transferred the remains to the island of Rheneia, as it is called, which lies near Delos. They also passed a law that neither birth nor burial should be allowed on Delos. And they also famous the festival assembly, the Delia, which had been held in former days but had not been observed for a long time.” in addition the plague continued unchecked, leading to panic and great despair.

With the medical efforts, “the usual remedies”[14] being administered in Athens to no avail and the plague spreading north, the Thessalians grew fearful. “No cure was found that could be used as a specific; for what did good in one case did harm in another.”[15] Out of desperation they urged Hippocrates to return to Thessaly with promises of unlimited riches as recounted by Hippocrates’ son in the “Speech of the Envoy:”[16]

In the time in which the plague was running by the barbarian land north of the Illyrians and Pæonians, when the evil reached that area, the kings of those peoples sent to Thessaly after my father [Hippocrates] because of his reputation as a physician, which, being a true one, had managed to go everywhere. He had lived in Thessaly before and had a dwelling there then. They summoned him to help, saying that they were not going to send gold and silver and other possessions for him to have, but that he could carry away all that he wanted when he had come to help. And he made inquiry what kind of disturbances there were, area by area, in heat and winds and mist and other things that produce uncommon conditions. When he had gotten everyone’s information he told them to go back, pretending that he was unable to go to their country. But as quickly as he could he arranged to announce to the Thessalians by what method they could contrive protection against the evil that was coming.

Hippocrates had good reason to avoid Thessaly. “Physicians were among the first to die, since they contracted the disease from its earliest victims.”[17] “…the mortality among [physicians] was unusually high, because they most frequently came into contact with the disease.”[18]

When the plague began, despite information of similar outbreaks in North Africa, Persia and Rome, the latter in about 446 B.C., it was nevertheless unexpected by Athenians. “That year then is admitted to have been otherwise unprecedentedly free from sickness; and such few situations as occurred all eventuated in this. As a rule, however, 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,” Thucydides began. “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… ensued, accompanied by very great distress. In most situations… an ineffectual retching followed, producing violent spasms, which in some situations ceased soon after, in others much later. Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor pale in its turn up, 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 already of the very lightest description… 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, 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 surprise against its ravages; so that when they succumbed, as in most situations, on the seventh or eighth day to the internal inflammation, they had nevertheless 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 harsh diarrhea, this brought on a weakness, which was generally fatal. For the disorder first settled in the head, ran its course from thence by the whole of the body, and already where it did not prove mortal, it nevertheless left its mark on the extremities; for it settled in the privy parts, the fingers and the toes, and [even the] eyes,”[19] he additional. Generally, already though there were survivors, including Thucydides, in addition as some who “were seized with an complete loss of memory on their first recovery, and did not know either themselves or their friends,”[20] the disease was fatal. “Seven to nine days the disease lasted, and when it passed it left behind it a terrible weakness, so that many perished of exhaustion.”[21]

To compound matters, Athenian soldiers were also hindered by the sudden increase as Diodorus Siculus wrote – “As for the Athenians, they could not venture to meet [the Lacedæmonians] in a pitched battle, and being confined as they were within the walls, found themselves involved in an emergency caused by the plague; for since a great multitude of people of every description had streamed together into the city, there was good reason for their falling victim to diseases as they did, because of the cramped quarters, breathing air which had become polluted.”[22] As an indicator of the plague’s severity and the negative impact it had on the Athenian military, Pericles had “started with 150 triremes (ancient ships employing three edges of oars and sails for mobility) and a large number of hoplites and horsemen” to attack the Peloponnesus states when it initially broke out. After being joined by plague-infected reinforcements, this Athenian force returned a few years later “in a pitiable condition” having suffered a great loss of life.[23]

~Continued In Part 2~

[1] Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War. c. 400 B.C.

[2] Sayaret. The Plague in Athens During The Peloponnesian War. Jelsoft Enterprises, Ltd. 2006. 22 July 2006. http://www.militaryphotos.net/forums/archive/index.php/t-28767.html

[3] Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War. c. 400 B.C.

[4] Sayaret. The Plague in Athens During The Peloponnesian War. Jelsoft Enterprises, Ltd. 2006. 22 July 2006. http://www.militaryphotos.net/forums/archive/index.php/t-28767.html

[5] Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War. c. 400 B.C.

[6] Telemachus T. Timayenis. A History of Greece from the Earliest Times to the Present. (D. Appleton & Co. 1883) 312.

[7] > Sayaret. The Plague in Athens During The Peloponnesian War. Jelsoft Enterprises, Ltd. 2006. 22 July 2006. http://www.militaryphotos.net/forums/archive/index.php/t-28767.html

[8] Arthur James Grant. Greece In The Age of Pericles. (John Murray. London, UK, 1893) 261.

[9] David Noy. 9. Plagues. University of Wales, Lampeter, UK. 2002. 27 July 2006. [http://www.lampeter.ac.uk/~noy/Medicine9.htm]

[10] Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War. c. 400 B.C.

[11] Telemachus T. Timayenis. A History of Greece from the Earliest Times to the Present. (D. Appleton & Co. 1883) 313.

[12] Arthur James Grant. Greece In The Age of Pericles. (John Murray. London, UK, 1893) 262.

[13] Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War. c. 400 B.C.

[14] Arthur James Grant. Greece In The Age of Pericles. (John Murray. London, UK, 1893) 261.

[15] Carl J. Richard. Twelve Greeks And Romans Who Changed The World. (Barnes & Noble Publishing. New York. 2006) 90.

[16] David Noy. 9. Plagues. University of Wales, Lampeter, UK. 2002. 27 July 2006. [http://www.lampeter.ac.uk/~noy/Medicine9.htm]

[17] Carl J. Richard. Twelve Greeks And Romans Who Changed The World. (Barnes & Noble Publishing. New York. 2006) 90.

[18] Arthur James Grant. Greece In The Age of Pericles. (John Murray. London, UK, 1893) 262.

[19] Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War. c. 400 B.C.

[20] Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War. c. 400 B.C.

[21] Arthur James Grant. Greece In The Age of Pericles. (John Murray. London, UK, 1893) 262.

[22] David Noy. 9. Plagues. University of Wales, Lampeter, UK. 2002. 27 July 2006. [http://www.lampeter.ac.uk/~noy/Medicine9.htm]

[23] Telemachus T. Timayenis. A History of Greece from the Earliest Times to the Present. (D. Appleton & Co. 1883) 316.

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