Plague in the Ancient World

Part of my research for this episode.

A Study from Thucydides to Justinian

by Christine A. Smith

Throughout history, humans have been faced with disastrous catastrophes which must be endured in order to survive. One of the most incomprehensible disasters for humanity has been the plague. This term in Greek can refer to any kind of sickness; in Latin, the terms are plaga and pestis. In antiquity, two of the most devastating plagues were the Athenian plague of 430 B.C. and the Justinianic plague of 542 A.D. This paper will discuss these plagues, the manner in which they spread, and their consequences for the survivors. Also, the ways in which ancient writers wrote about these disasters will be discussed, with special reference to the role of the gods. Much of what is conventionally believed about these plagues comes from comparisons with the Black Death, a visitation of bubonic plague during the fourteenth century A.D. Although the sources for the Athenian and Justinianic plagues are insufficient, there is some question as to the validity of this analogy as an historical source.

The Athenian plague occurred in 430-26 B.C. during the Peloponnesian War, which was fought between Athens and Sparta from 431 to 404. Because of overcrowded wartime conditions in the city, the plague spread quickly, killing tens of thousands. <1>  Included among its victims was Pericles, the former leader of Athens. <2>  The only surviving source for the Athenian plague is the first-hand account of Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides, who lived from c. 460 to c. 400, was an Athenian general and political critic.

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides employed a carefully developed structure to investigate the meaning and causes of historical events. His writing, which evolved from Sophistic thought, reflected a constant conscious analysis of grammar and rhetoric. <3>  History, according to Thucydides, was a process of human nature; and as such, it was highly influenced by mass movements. He, therefore, stressed physical reality, and did not allow for the active intervention by the gods. This is most evident in his account of the Athenian plague, since plagues were traditionally attributed to the wrath of the gods, as evidenced in Herodotus, as well as in the Book of Exodus and the Iliad of Homer. <4>  Through this work, Thucydides began an historiographical tradition which would become the model for many future historians.

Having suffered from the plague himself, Thucydides presented a very systematic account of the symptoms. His aim was merely to “describe what it was like, and set down the symptoms, knowledge of which will enable it to be recognized, if it should ever break out again.” <5>  The Athenian plague originated in Ethiopia, and from there spread throughout Egypt and Greece. <6>  Thucydides, however, remarked that the city of Athens suffered the greatest toll from the disease. <7>  Initial symptoms of the plague included headaches, conjunctivitis, a rash which covered the body, and fever. The victims then coughed up blood, and suffered from extremely painful stomach cramping, followed by vomiting and attacks of “ineffectual retching.” <8>  Many people also experienced insomnia and restlessness. Thucydides also related that victims had such an unquenchable thirst that it drove them to throw themselves into the wells. Infected individuals generally died by the seventh or eighth day. If anyone managed to survive this long however, s/he was then stricken by uncontrollable diarrhea, which frequently caused death. Those who survived this stage might suffer from partial paralysis, amnesia, or blindness for the rest of their lives. <9>  Fortunately, infection of the plague provided immunity; that is, few caught the disease twice, and if this occurred, the second attack was never fatal. <10>



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