Thursday, 18 March 2010



Thucydides' great "History of the Peloponnesian War" stood as the model for all subsequent historians in antiquity, whether writing in Greek or Latin, and as a foremost exemplar of Attic Greek. Book II of this history contains Thucydides' famous account of the plague which broke out in Athens in 430 B.C., that is in the second year of the Peloponnesian War of 431-404 B.C. Thucydides was an eye witness of the plague and its effects, and indeed even caught it himself, although he was fortunate enough to recover from it. Although this terrible outbreak of sickness has traditionally been called the "Plague of Athens" it was almost certainly not a case of the bubonic plague such as struck Europe and the Near East in 1347 A.D., known as the Black Death, since, as is clear from Thucydides' account, the disease was infectious between people, whereas bubonic plague was contracted via the bite of fleas from black rats from boats. Furthermore this Athenian plague did not spread significantly to other places, as would have been almost inevitable in the case of bubonic plague. In 2006 A.D. a team of scientists claimed to have found in fossilised dental pulp from the period evidence of Salmonella enterica, the bacterium that causes typhoid fever. Whatever the cause of the outbreak, however, the consequences for the population of Athens, temporarily over-crowded by the presence of so many refugees from the outlying areas of Attica, were devastating. Thucydides provides an objective and detailed account of the plague and brings out the horror that it involved for the people of Athens. The translation below is taken from the Greek text provided by W.T.Sutthery, M.A. and A.S. Graves, M.A. in the Macmillan Elementary Classics series (1912). The account of the plague in Chapters 47-54 is prefaced by the account in Chapter 34 of the arrangements traditionally made by the Athenians for citizens falling in warfare.

Chapter 34. Funerals at Athens of those who had fallen in the first summer of the war.

In the same winter the Athenians, using the custom of their fathers, undertook in the following way a burial at the public expense of those who had died first in this war. Having made a tent three days beforehand, they lay out the bones of those who have died, and each man brings to his own relative whatever he wishes. Whenever the funeral procession occurs, wagons conduct coffins of cypress-wood, one for each tribe; the bones are contained in the coffin of the tribe in which each man was. One empty bier is carried, decorated (in honour) of the missing, who could not be found for the purpose of burial. Anyone wishing (to do so) among the citizens and among the foreigners joins in the procession, and female relatives are present to lament at the tomb. And so they place them in the public sepulchre, which is in the most beautiful suburb of the city, and they always bury in it those (who have fallen) in the wars except those (who fought) at Marathon; judging the courage of those men (to be so) conspicuous they made (them) their tomb on the spot. When they have laid (them) in the earth, a man chosen by the state who is not insignificant in opinion and reputation and who may be prominent in renown pronounces an appropriate eulogy over them; after this they retire. They bury (them) thus. And throughout the whole of the war, whenever this happened to them, they employed this custom. And so over those (who had fallen) first (in the war) Pericles, the (son) of Xanthippus, was chosen to speak.

Chapter 47. In the second year of the war the Peloponnesians invade Attica, and there is an outbreak of the plague.

In such a way did the funeral take place in this winter. It having been gone through, the first year of this war was completed. With the summer beginning, the Peloponnesians and their allies, two parts (of their army) as before, invaded Attica; Archidamus, the (son) of Zeuxidamus, the king of the Lacedaemonians, was in command. And having taken up position they ravaged the country. And when they had as yet been not many days in Attica, the plague first began to show itself among the Athenians, (the complaint) being said to have broken out in many places previously, both around Lemnos and in other places, (but) not however was so great a pestilence or mortality of such a kind remembered to have occurred anywhere (else). For neither could the doctors avail (anything) at first, treating (it) in ignorance, but they themselves died particularly in proportion as they especially came into contact (with it), nor (did) any other human skill (avail anything.) As much as there were supplications at the temples or at the oracles and they employed (other) such things, all (these) were useless, and, bringing them to an end, they desisted from them, being overcome by the disaster.

Chapter 48. The supposed origin of the plague.

It began at first, as it is said, from Ethiopia beyond Egypt, and then descended into Egypt and Libya and into much of the territory of the King. It fell suddenly upon the city of the Athenians, and it fastened first on the people of Piraeus, such that it was said by them that the Peloponnesians had thrown poison into the cisterns. For there were not yet any wells there. And afterwards it reached the upper city, and now they were dying much more. Let him say about it as each man knows, whether (he be) a physician or a layman, from which (time) it was likely to have happened, and what causes he thinks were sufficient to have the power to bring about such a great change. I shall describe such as is known, and from what (symptoms) anyone observing, if it should ever break out again, should know very well, having had enough foreknowledge not to be ignorant, I shall point these things out, having had the disease myself and myself having seen others suffering (from it).

Chapter 49. Symptoms and course of the disease at each of its three stages and the permanent after effects.

For that year, as was admitted, out of all (years) happened to be especially free of sickness in respect of other kinds of infirmity; and if anyone was also at all ill previously everything resulted in this (i.e. the plague). But suddenly, from no ostensible cause, violent heats in the head and redness and inflammation of the eyes first seized those who were healthy, and, within, both the throat and the tongue were at once blood-red and the breath emitted something peculiarly fetid; then, after these (symptoms) sneezing and hoarseness came next, and in not much time the trouble descended on to the chest with a harsh cough; and, whenever it settled in the stomach, it upset it, and all discharges of bile such as have been named by doctors ensued, and all this ( lit. the same) with great distress. In most cases ineffectual retching took hold, producing a violent spasm, in some cases ceasing (soon) after this, in other cases much later even. Externally, the body was not very hot to the touch nor pallid, but reddish, livid and breaking out in small pustules and ulcers; but, internally, it burned such that they could neither endure contact with very fine clothing, and linen even, nor anything other than (being) naked, and most gladly would they have cast themselves into cold water. And many of the neglected people even did this, (plunging) into the cisterns, being in the grasp of an unending thirst. More and less drink resulted in the same thing. Besides this, the misery of not resting and sleeplessness tormented (them) throughout. And the body at whatsoever time the disease was reaching the crisis did not fade away but withstood the agony beyond expectation, so that the majority either succumbed on the ninth or the seventh day through the internal inflammation, still having some strength (left), or, if they escaped (that), (with) the disorder going down into the bowels and a violent ulceration arising there and uncontrollable diarrhoea attacking (them) at the same time, many died afterwards through weakness because of this. The disease, having settled first in the head, starting from above took its course through the whole of the body, and, if anyone survived from its worst effects, a seizure of the extremities remained as a mark of this (disease); for it swooped down upon their genitals, and upon their fingers and toes, and many, having been deprived of these, escaped, but there were (those) who (were deprived) of their eyes also. Equally, loss of memory of everything seized some and they did not know both themselves and their relatives.

Chaper 50. The bodies of plague victims are avoided by both birds of prey and dogs.

For the nature of this disease having been too dire for description, it especially attacked each person with more hardship than is within the scope of human nature, and it showed that it was particularly something other than anything familiar in the following (circumstances); for the birds and the beasts that prey upon humans, (although) many were lying unburied, either did (not) come near (them) or died, having tasted (them). The proof was an evident lack of such birds, and they were not seen either otherwise (engaged) or near any such object (as the bodies); but the dogs offered an (even) better indication of observing the effect (on animals) because of their association (with men).

Chapter 51. No remedy is of any avail.

And so the disease, to (one) omitting the many other peculiarities, as it happened to each somewhat differently to one as compared with another, was such in respect of its general nature. And nothing else among the usual diseases had added to their sufferings during (all) of that time; and, if any case occurred, it ended in this (i.e. the plague). Some died in neglect, others (in spite of) being tended completely. And there was not one single established specific remedy as to what it was said to be expedient to offer as help. For what (was) beneficial to one person harmed another. The body that was self-sufficient was in no way conspicuous in respect of this disease as regards strength or weakness, but it laid hold of everyone together, even those being tended with every diet. The most terrible thing of the whole malady was the despondency (that occurred) whenever anyone perceived that he was ill, for, turning at once to despair, they abandoned themselves much more by this attitude, and they did not (try to) withstand (it), and that they died like sheep, becoming infected through nursing, the one from the other; and this wrought (among them) the greatest mortality. For if, having been afraid, they were not willing to come near one another, they died in desolation, and many houses were emptied through the lack of anyone prepared to nurse; if they did visit, they died, and especially so in the case of those making some pretensions to goodness; for shame made them unsparing of themselves, entering the homes of their friends when even the inmates, giving up their lamentations for the dead, were worn out, overcome by this great disaster. Nevertheless, those who had escaped (from the disease) showed pity for the dying and the sick to a greater extent on account of their experience and as they themselves were now in a position of boldness; for it did not attack the same man twice so that he was killed also. They were congratulated by the others and they themselves in the joy of the moment had to some extent the vain hope that in the future they might not ever yet be killed by (any) other disease.

Chapter 52. The crowded state of the city aggravated the evil.

Besides the existing difficulty, the gathering together from the fields into the city oppressed them more, and not least the newcomers. For, with no houses being available, and (them) dwelling in stifling huts in the (hot) season of the year, death occurred with no order, but dead bodies lay upon one another and half-dead (creatures) were staggering about in the streets and around all the fountains in their longing for water. The sacred enclosures in which they were dwelling were full of the corpses of people who had died inside there; for, the disaster being so overwhelming, the people not knowing what was to become (of them) developed an indifference to things both sacred and profane alike. All the ceremonies which they formerly used with regard to burials were disrupted, and they buried (the dead) as each man could. And many, through lack of the necessary things, because of the considerable number who had already died in their households, turned to shameful modes of burial: for some, anticipating those raising a pile, (and) laying their own corpse on another's pyre, ignited (it), (and) others, throwing (the corpse) which they were carrying on top of another which was burning, (then) went away.

Chapter 53. The utter lack of order and decency.

In other respects also the plague first initiated lawlessness in the city to a greater extent. For a man more easily ventured what he had formerly hidden so that he could not do it (publicly) as a pleasure, seeing the rapid change of the prosperous dying and those who had acquired nothing previously at once possessing their property. So they deemed it worthy to make their enjoyments swift and in the direction of pleasure, regarding their bodies and their property as equally short-lived. No one was eager to persevere in what seemed honourable, thinking (it) doubtful he would attain it before he was destroyed; what (was) already pleasant and what (was) profitable to him in any way, this was settled (as) both honourable and useful. No fear of gods or law of men held (him) back, as to the former matter, judging that to worship and not (to do so) (ended) in a similar result as he saw everyone perishing from it alike, while as to their offences (against men), no one expected to live until the occurrence of justice and the handing down of punishment, (thinking that) the (sentence) already having been pronounced against themselves was hanging over (them) more heavily, (and) that before it fell on (them) it was reasonable to enjoy life a little.

Chapter 54. Current superstitions.

Collapsing, the Athenians were oppressed by such suffering, men dying within (the city) and the land outside being ravaged. During their distress, such as was natural, they remembered this verse, the old men saying that it was recited of old:

" a Dorian war will come and with it death".

And so a dispute arose among the people as to whether it had not been named death but dearth in this verse by the ancients, but the version death naturally prevailed at the present time; for the men adapted their memory to what they had suffered. Certainly, I think that if another Dorian war should come upon (us) later then this and it should happen that a dearth arises, they will recite it thus according to what is natural. A memory of the oracle (given) to the Lacedaemonians occurred to those who knew (of it), when they asked the god themselves whether it was right to go to war, (and) he answered that, if they fought with all their might victory would be theirs, and he said that he himself would assist (them). They calculated that what was happening was in line with the oracle; the Peloponnesians having invaded, the plague began at once. And it did not enter into the Peloponnese, at least (to an extent) that it is worthy to mention, but took possession of Athens particularly, and then also of the most populous towns. These (were) the happenings in connection with the plague.

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