The Plague of Athens
was a devastating epidemic
In epidemiology, an epidemic , occurs when new cases of a certain disease, in a given human population, and during a given period, substantially exceed what is expected based on recent experience...
which hit the city-state
A city-state is an independent or autonomous entity whose territory consists of a city which is not administered as a part of another local government.-Historical city-states:...
Athens is one of the oldest named cities in the world, having been continuously inhabited for at least 7000 years. Situated in southern Europe, Athens became the leading city of Ancient Greece in the first millennium BCE and its cultural achievements during the 5th century BCE laid the foundations...
in ancient Greece
Greece , officially the Hellenic Republic , and historically Hellas or the Republic of Greece in English, is a country in southeastern Europe....
during the second year of the Peloponnesian War
The Peloponnesian War, 431 to 404 BC, was an ancient Greek war fought by Athens and its empire against the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. Historians have traditionally divided the war into three phases...
Year 430 BC was a year of the pre-Julian Roman calendar. At the time, it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Crassus and Iullus...
), when an Athenian victory still seemed within reach. It is believed to have entered Athens through Piraeus
Piraeus is a city in the region of Attica, Greece. Piraeus is located within the Athens Urban Area, 12 km southwest from its city center , and lies along the east coast of the Saronic Gulf....
, the city's port and sole source of food and supplies. The city-state of Sparta
Sparta or Lacedaemon, was a prominent city-state in ancient Greece, situated on the banks of the River Eurotas in Laconia, in south-eastern Peloponnese. It emerged as a political entity around the 10th century BC, when the invading Dorians subjugated the local, non-Dorian population. From c...
, and much of the eastern Mediterranean, was also struck by the disease. The plague returned twice more, in 429 BC and in the winter of 427/6 BC.
Sparta and her allies, with the exception of Corinth
Corinth is a city and former municipality in Corinthia, Peloponnese, Greece. Since the 2011 local government reform it is part of the municipality Corinth, of which it is the seat and a municipal unit...
, were almost exclusively land based powers, able to summon large land armies which were very nearly unbeatable. Under the direction of Pericles
Pericles was a prominent and influential statesman, orator, and general of Athens during the city's Golden Age—specifically, the time between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars...
, the Athenians retreated behind the city walls of Athens. They hoped to keep the Spartans at bay while the superior Athenian navy harassed Spartan troop transports and cut off supply lines. Unfortunately the strategy also resulted in adding many people from the countryside to an already well populated city. In addition, people from parts of Athens lying outside the city wall moved into the more protected central area. As a result, Athens became a breeding ground for disease.
In his History of the Peloponnesian War
The History of the Peloponnesian War is an account of the Peloponnesian War in Ancient Greece, fought between the Peloponnesian League and the Delian League . It was written by Thucydides, an Athenian general who served in the war. It is widely considered a classic and regarded as one of the...
, the contemporary historian Thucydides
Thucydides was a Greek historian and author from Alimos. His History of the Peloponnesian War recounts the 5th century BC war between Sparta and Athens to the year 411 BC...
described the coming of an epidemic disease which began in Ethiopia
Ethiopia , officially known as the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, is a country located in the Horn of Africa. It is the second-most populous nation in Africa, with over 82 million inhabitants, and the tenth-largest by area, occupying 1,100,000 km2...
, passed through Egypt
Egypt , officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, Arabic: , is a country mainly in North Africa, with the Sinai Peninsula forming a land bridge in Southwest Asia. Egypt is thus a transcontinental country, and a major power in Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East and the Muslim world...
Libya is an African country in the Maghreb region of North Africa bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, Egypt to the east, Sudan to the southeast, Chad and Niger to the south, and Algeria and Tunisia to the west....
, and then to the Greek world. The epidemic broke out in the overcrowded city. Athens lost perhaps one third of the people sheltered within its walls. The sight of the burning funeral pyres of Athens caused the Spartan army to withdraw for fear of the disease. It killed many of Athens's infantry, some expert seamen and their leader Pericles, who died during one of the secondary outbreaks in 429 BC. After the death of Pericles, Athens was led by a succession of incompetent or weak leaders. According to Thucydides, it was not until 415 BC that the Athenian population had recovered sufficiently to mount the disastrous Sicilian Expedition
The Sicilian Expedition was an Athenian expedition to Sicily from 415 BC to 413 BC, during the Peloponnesian War. The expedition was hampered from the outset by uncertainty in its purpose and command structure—political maneuvering in Athens swelled a lightweight force of twenty ships into a...
Modern historians disagree on whether the plague was a critical factor in the loss of the war. It is generally agreed that the loss of this war may have paved the way for the success of the Macedonians
The Macedonians originated from inhabitants of the northeastern part of the Greek peninsula, in the alluvial plain around the rivers Haliacmon and lower Axios...
and, ultimately, the Romans
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....
Accounts of the Athenian plague graphically describe the social consequences of an epidemic. Thucydides' account clearly details the complete disappearance of social morals during the time of the plague. The impact of disease on social and religious behavior was also documented during the worldwide pandemic
A pandemic is an epidemic of infectious disease that is spreading through human populations across a large region; for instance multiple continents, or even worldwide. A widespread endemic disease that is stable in terms of how many people are getting sick from it is not a pandemic...
best known as the Black Death
The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1348 and 1350. Of several competing theories, the dominant explanation for the Black Death is the plague theory, which attributes the outbreak to the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Thought to have...
Fear of the law
Thucydides stated that people ceased fearing the law since they felt they were already living under a death sentence. Likewise people started spending money indiscriminately. Many felt they would not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of wise investment, while some of the poor unexpectedly became wealthy by inheriting the property of their relatives. It is also recorded that people refused to behave honourably because most did not expect to live long enough to enjoy a good reputation for it.
Role of women
The plague changed the role of women in Athenian society. The women were temporarily liberated from the strict bounds of Athenian custom. The plague forced Athens to appoint a magistrate called gynaikonomos
to control the behaviour of women.
Care for the sick and dead
Another reason for the lack of honorable behavior was the sheer contagiousness of the illness. Those who tended to the ill were most vulnerable to catching the disease. This meant that many people died alone because no one was willing to risk caring for them. Especially poignant are descriptions of how people were not cared for due to the overwhelming numbers of sick and dying. People were simply left to die in buildings or on the streets, and the dead were heaped on top of each other, left to rot or shoved into mass graves. There were cases where those carrying the dead would come across an already burning funeral pyre. They would dump a new body on it and walk away. Others appropriated prepared pyres so as to have enough fuel to cremate their own dead. Those lucky enough to survive the plague developed an immunity, and so became the main caretakers of those who later fell ill.
A mass grave and nearly 1,000 tombs, dated to between 430 and 426 BC, have been found just outside Athens' ancient Kerameikos cemetery. The mass grave was bordered by a low wall that seems to have protected the cemetery from a wetland. Excavated during 1994-95, the shaft shaped grave may have contained a total of 240 individuals, at least ten of them children. Skeletons in the graves were randomly placed with no layers of soil between them.
Excavator Efi Baziotopoulou-Valavani, of the Third Ephoreia (Directorate) of Antiquities, reported that "[t]he mass grave did not have a monumental character. The offerings we found consisted of common, even cheap, burial vessels; black-finished ones, some small red-figured, as well as white lekythoi (oil flasks) of the second half of the fifth century B.C. The bodies were placed in the pit within a day or two. These [factors] point to a mass burial in a state of panic, quite possibly due to a plague."http://www.archaeology.org/online/news/kerameikos.html
The plague also caused religious strife. Since the disease struck without regard to a person's piety toward the gods, people felt abandoned by the gods and there seemed to be no benefit to worshiping them. The temples themselves were sites of great misery, as refugees from the Athenian countryside had been forced to find accommodation in the temples. Soon the sacred buildings were filled with the dead and dying. The Athenians pointed to the plague as evidence that the gods favoured Sparta and this was supported by an oracle that said that Apollo
Apollo is one of the most important and complex of the Olympian deities in Greek and Roman mythology...
himself (the god of disease and medicine) would fight for Sparta if they fought with all their might. An earlier oracle had stated that "War with the Dorians [Spartans] comes and at the same time death".
Thucydides was skeptical of these conclusions and believed that people were simply being superstitious. He relied upon the prevailing medical theory of the day, Hippocratic theory
Hippocrates of Cos or Hippokrates of Kos was an ancient Greek physician of the Age of Pericles , and is considered one of the most outstanding figures in the history of medicine...
, and strove to gather evidence through direct observation. He noted that birds and animals who ate plague-infested carcasses died as a result, leading him to conclude that the disease had a natural rather than supernatural cause.
Thucydides himself suffered the illness, and survived. He was therefore able to accurately describe the symptoms of the disease within his history of the war.
- "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."
- "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 diarrhea, 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."
- Translation by M.I. Finley in The Viking Portable Greek Historians, pp. 274-275.
Cause of the plague
Historians have long tried to identify the disease behind the Plague of Athens. The disease has traditionally been considered an outbreak of the bubonic plague
Plague is a deadly infectious disease that is caused by the enterobacteria Yersinia pestis, named after the French-Swiss bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin. Primarily carried by rodents and spread to humans via fleas, the disease is notorious throughout history, due to the unrivaled scale of death...
in its many forms, but re-considerations of the reported symptoms and epidemiology have led scholars to advance alternative explanations. These include typhus, smallpox
Smallpox was an infectious disease unique to humans, caused by either of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola minor. The disease is also known by the Latin names Variola or Variola vera, which is a derivative of the Latin varius, meaning "spotted", or varus, meaning "pimple"...
Measles, also known as rubeola or morbilli, is an infection of the respiratory system caused by a virus, specifically a paramyxovirus of the genus Morbillivirus. Morbilliviruses, like other paramyxoviruses, are enveloped, single-stranded, negative-sense RNA viruses...
, and toxic shock syndrome
Toxic shock syndrome is a potentially fatal illness caused by a bacterial toxin. Different bacterial toxins may cause toxic shock syndrome, depending on the situation. The causative bacteria include Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes...
. Others have suggested anthrax
Anthrax is an acute disease caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis. Most forms of the disease are lethal, and it affects both humans and other animals...
, tramped up from the soil by the thousands of stressed refugees or concentrated livestock held within the walls. Based upon striking descriptive similarities with recent outbreaks in Africa, as well as the fact that the Athenian plague itself apparently came from Africa (as Thucydides recorded), Ebola
Ebola virus disease is the name for the human disease which may be caused by any of the four known ebolaviruses. These four viruses are: Bundibugyo virus , Ebola virus , Sudan virus , and Taï Forest virus...
or a related viral hemorrhagic fever
The viral hemorrhagic fevers are a diverse group of animal and human illnesses that are caused by four distinct families of RNA viruses: the families Arenaviridae, Filoviridae, Bunyaviridae, and Flaviviridae. All types of VHF are characterized by fever and bleeding disorders and all can progress...
has been considered.
Given the possibility that symptoms of a known disease may have mutated over time, or that the plague was caused by a disease which no longer exists, the exact nature of the Athenian plague may never be known. In addition, crowding caused by the influx of refugees into the city led to inadequate food and water supplies and an increase in insects, lice, rats and waste. These conditions would have encouraged more than one epidemic disease during the outbreak. However, advancing scientific technologies may reveal new clues.
In January 1999, the University of Maryland
The University of Maryland, College Park is a top-ranked public research university located in the city of College Park in Prince George's County, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C...
devoted their fifth annual medical conference, dedicated to notorious case histories, to the Plague of Athens. They concluded that disease that killed the Greeks and their military and political leader, Pericles, was typhus. "Epidemic typhus fever is the best explanation,"
said Dr. David Durack, consulting professor of medicine at Duke University
Duke University is a private research university located in Durham, North Carolina, United States. Founded by Methodists and Quakers in the present day town of Trinity in 1838, the school moved to Durham in 1892. In 1924, tobacco industrialist James B...
. "It hits hardest in times of war and privation, it has about 20 percent mortality, it kills the victim after about seven days, and it sometimes causes a striking complication: gangrene of the tips of the fingers and toes. The Plague of Athens had all these features."http://www.umm.edu/news/releases/athens.html
In typhus cases, progressive dehydration, debilitation and cardiovascular collapse ultimately cause the patient's death.
This medical opinion is supported by the opinion of A. W. Gomme, an important researcher and interpretator of Thucydides' history, who also believed typhus was the cause of the epidemic. This opinion is expressed in his monumental work "Historic Comments on Thucydides
", completed after Gomme's death by A. Andrewes and K. J. Dover. Angelos Vlachos (Άγγελος Βλάχος), a member of the Academy of Athens and a diplomat, in his "Remarks on Thoucydides
" (in Greek: Παρατηρήσεις στο Θουκυδίδη, 1992, Volume I, pages 177-178) acknowledges and supports Gomme's opinion: "Today, according to Gomme, it is generally acceptable that it was typhus
" ("Σήμερα, όπως γράφει ο Gomme, έχει γίνει από όλους παραδεκτό ότι ήταν τύφος"). Other researchers disagree, noting, amongst other discrepancies, the absence in typhus of dramatic gastrointestinal symptoms as described by Thucydides.
A different answer was found in a recent DNA
Deoxyribonucleic acid is a nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms . The DNA segments that carry this genetic information are called genes, but other DNA sequences have structural purposes, or are involved in...
study on teeth from an ancient Greek burial pit, led by Manolis Papagrigorakis of the University of Athens, which found DNA sequences similar to those of the organism that causes typhoid fever. Symptoms generally associated with typhoid resemble Thucydides' description. They include:
- a high fever
Fever is a common medical sign characterized by an elevation of temperature above the normal range of due to an increase in the body temperature regulatory set-point. This increase in set-point triggers increased muscle tone and shivering.As a person's temperature increases, there is, in...
from 39 °C to 40 °C (103 °F to 104 °F) that rises slowly;
Bradycardia , in the context of adult medicine, is the resting heart rate of under 60 beats per minute, though it is seldom symptomatic until the rate drops below 50 beat/min. It may cause cardiac arrest in some patients, because those with bradycardia may not be pumping enough oxygen to their heart...
(slow heart rate)
Diarrhea , also spelled diarrhoea, is the condition of having three or more loose or liquid bowel movements per day. It is a common cause of death in developing countries and the second most common cause of infant deaths worldwide. The loss of fluids through diarrhea can cause dehydration and...
Myalgia means "muscle pain" and is a symptom of many diseases and disorders. The most common causes are the overuse or over-stretching of a muscle or group of muscles. Myalgia without a traumatic history is often due to viral infections...
- lack of appetite
Constipation refers to bowel movements that are infrequent or hard to pass. Constipation is a common cause of painful defecation...
- stomach pains
- in some cases, a rash
A rash is a change of the skin which affects its color, appearance or texture. A rash may be localized in one part of the body, or affect all the skin. Rashes may cause the skin to change color, itch, become warm, bumpy, chapped, dry, cracked or blistered, swell and may be painful. The causes, and...
of flat, rose-colored spots called "rose spots
Rose spots are red macular lesions 2-4 millimeters in diameter occurring in patients suffering from enteric fever . These fevers occur following infection by Salmonella typhi and Salmonella paratyphi respectively...
- extreme symptoms such as intestinal perforation or hemorrhage, delusion
A delusion is a false belief held with absolute conviction despite superior evidence. Unlike hallucinations, delusions are always pathological...
s and confusion
ConFusion is an annual science fiction convention organized by the Stilyagi Air Corps and its parent organization, the Ann Arbor Science Fiction Association. Commonly, it is held the third weekend of January. It is the oldest science fiction convention in Michigan, a regional, general SF con...
are also possible.
Other scientists have disputed the findings, citing serious methodologic flaws in the dental pulp-derived DNA study. In addition, as the disease is most commonly transmitted through poor hygiene habits and public sanitation conditions, it is an unlikely cause of a widespread plague, emerging in Africa and moving into the Greek city states, as reported by Thucydides.
DNA sequence-based identification is also limited by the inability of some important pathogens to leave a 'footprint' retrievable from archaeologic remains after several millennia. The lack of a durable signature by RNA viruses means some etiologies, notably the viral hemorrhagic fever viruses, are not testable hypotheses using currently available scientific techniques.