The Athenian Plague of 430 BC

While reading Thucydides’ On Justice, Power and Human Nature (Selections from The History of the Peloponessian War), I came across his description of a terrible plague that struck Athens in 430 B.C. What made a great impression on me was the similarities between that plague and the present pandemic, and the possibility that that plague was much worse, all other things being equal, than covid-19. According to a footnote in the book, “Thucydides’ description does not match any disease that is known to us now.” Either that disease is extinct or Thucydides was exaggerating. At any rate, the realization dawned on me that what we’re going through at present is merely a repetition of history, albeit at a larger scale, probably because of the ease people nowadays can travel to different parts of the world via modern transportation.

At any rate, here’s his description of how the plague began:

“[The] Peloponessians had not been in Attica for many days when the plague first began among the Athenians. Although it was said to have broken out in many other places, particularly in Lemnos, no one could remember a disease that was so great or so destructive of human life breaking out anywhere before. Doctors, not knowing what to do, were unable to cope with it at first, and no other human knowledge was any use either. The doctors themselves died fastest, as they came to the sick most often.”

Just like at present, the doctors (the frontliners) were among the first to die. Here’s his description of the symptoms that those who caught the disease exhibited:

“If anyone was sick before, his disease turned into this one. If not, they were taken suddenly, without any apparent cause, and while they were in perfect health. First they had a high fever in the head, along with redness and inflammation of the eyes; inside, the throat and tongue were bleeding from the start, and the breath was weird and unsavory. After this came sneezing and hoarseness, and soon after came a pain in the chest, along with violent coughing. And once it was settled in the stomach, it caused vomiting, and brought up, with great torment, all the kinds of bile that the doctors have named.”

There were worse symptoms than these, but I’m not going to mention them here. As far as I can tell, covid-19 would be considered tame compared to what hit the Athenians. I’d like to mention however what happened to some of those who got the disease and eventually survived:

“But those who had recovered had still more compassion, both on those who were dying and on those who were sick, because they knew the disease first-hand and were now out of danger, or this disease never attacked anyone a second time with fatal effect. And these people were thought to be blessedly happy, and through an excess of present joy they conceived a kind of light hope never to die of any other disease afterwards.”

Thucydides also makes mention of the effect the plague had on people’s mental health, and it’s not much different from what people at the present time are also experiencing.

“But the greatest misery of all was the dejection of mind in those who found themselves beginning to be sick, for as soon as they made up their minds it was hopeless, they gave up and made much less resistance to the disease.”

Also alarming is the fact that “[The] plague struck Athens again the winter of 427 B.C [.i.e., around 3 years after] and lasted over a year.” It is believed over a quarter of the Athenian population was killed by the plague. Is a second wave of the present pandemic forthcoming?

Except for the fact that the present plague is world-wide in scope, it isn’t really novel. It’s a repetition of history. Theologically speaking, it is part of what it means to live in a fallen world where sickness and death still prevail. We are still waiting for the liberation of creation from its bondage to corruption, which will coincide with the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:18-25). In the meantime, we hope, we trust, we do the best we can and we pray.

Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

Author: attycortes

Filipino lawyer, preacher, composer.

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