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What The Great Historian Thucydides Saw In Athens’ Plague—And Our Own


As those who follow the gyrations of the stock market are well aware, human beings have a propensity for short-term thinking. They react on impulse to that which is recent; they magnify its significance; and they forget what previous generations learned through bitter experience.

To this propensity, the study of history can be an antidote. But all too often historians ransack the past in support of current prejudice.

For one who wishes to escape the prison of presentmindedness and gain perspective, there is no substitute for works written regarding circumstances similar to our own at a time our prejudices and predilections were not prevalent—and there is no book more pertinent to the present discontents than Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War.

What Thucydides Saw, Felt, and Did

In the summer of 430 B. C., early in that conflict, a disease that had been wreaking havoc within the Persian empire struck Athens’ port at Peiraeus, spread inland to the city, and killed Athenians in massive numbers.

Thucydides, who contracted and survived the disease, described in fine detail “what sort of thing it was,” specifying its symptoms and analyzing the process by which it spread and sometimes failed to spread. This he did with greater precision than the medical profession would achieve for nearly two millennia thereafter, by identifying for the very first time two processes of profound importance: person-to-person transmission and specific acquired immunity.

In this sphere, as in the sphere of war, the historian’s purpose was to inform future generations of what to expect should a particular malady reappear. His report has given rise over the last two centuries to an extensive literature, mainly in medical journals, canvassing the possibility that the disease in question might have been smallpox; bubonic plague; scarlet fever; measles; typhus; typhoid; glanders; ergotism; leptospirosis; tularaemia; a coincidence of influenza, staphylococcal infection, impetigo; and, most recently, Ebola.

It is now known, however, that natural selection is pertinent, bacterial and viral diseases evolve quickly, and their hosts also evolve, which suggests it is unlikely that the plague which struck Athens just short of two and a half millennia ago can properly be identified with any malady known today.

What we can infer, however, from Thucydides’s report is that the disease was a horror to contract, a horror to monitor in others, and demographically devastating. Prayers and sacrifices were useless, the Athenian historian reports. Physicians did no good, and tended to contract the disease as they tried to help others. Those who visited or nursed the sick were repaid for their kindness in a similar fashion.

This Was a Terrible Disease

The contagion did not spare those who were in good health. It began with violent feverishness and an inflammation in the eyes and the throat or tongue, which produced bleeding. Victims’ breath was unnatural and rank. Sneezing and hoarseness followed, and thereafter came coughing and chest pains, then queasiness, and discharges of every species of bile known to the physicians of the day.

Often, there was ineffectual retching accompanied by violent spasms. Victims suffered from fever, their skin became flushed, and on its surface they developed blisters or pustules and ulcers. The lightest clothing gave rise to unbearable pain, they suffered from an unquenchable thirst, and none could sleep. Most died on the seventh or eighth day.

With those who lived longer, there was ulceration in the bowels and acute diarrhea, which produced weakness and eventually death. Of those who recovered, some lost their genitals, their fingers, or toes; some, their eyesight. Others suffered amnesia.

The crowding within the city that the Peloponnesian invasion of Attica produced that summer and the squalid living conditions and lack of proper sanitation attendant thereon no doubt had something to do with the rapid transmission of the disease, as the first-century chronicler Diodorus Siculus later suggested. But the malady was extremely infectious and might have spread quickly in any case.

When, for example, later that summer, two Athenian generals led an armada against Athens’ erstwhile ally Potidaea and devoted 40 days to a bootless attempt with siege engines to conquer that city, 1,050 of the 4,000 infantrymen accompanying the fleet they commanded died of the plague.

Thucydides was unable to gauge the number of Athenians the pestilence killed, but he reports that, between 430 and 429, when it was at its height, and 427/6, when it returned with a vengeance, then disappeared, the malady eliminated 300 of the city’s 1,200 cavalrymen and 4,400 of her 13,000 infantrymen. This could be taken as evidence that the proportion of those felled by the disease was between a quarter and a third of the overall population, but the percentage is apt to have been considerably higher.

The cavalrymen and infantrymen who died were among the Athenians least likely to succumb. They were all fully grown men in their prime and, to be eligible for the particular services that they performed, they had to be prosperous, which suggests that they were also well-fed. Children and poor Athenians who were malnourished will surely have been more vulnerable.

How the Plague Affected Human Nature

Above all else, Thucydides’s purpose was to examine the impact of the plague on “human nature.” To this end he explored how the disease instilled in human beings at Athens a “spiritlessness,” which subverted the influence of honor and eliminated the capacity of convention—whether sanctioned solely by custom or by force of law—to restrain human conduct. As Thucydides put it:

Overpowered by the violence done by the evil and not knowing what would become of them, human beings became neglectful of things alike sacred and profane. All the laws and practices that they had formerly observed with regard to burials were confounded and each conducted the rites as best he could. And many, lacking what was required because of the number of those who had died before, resorted to the most shameless methods in disposing of the deceased. To funeral pyres piled up by others, some would add the corpses of their own relatives and, getting in ahead, they would set them afire; others would hurl the bodies they were carrying on top of other corpses already burning and then go away.

In this regard and in others, the plague first gave rise to a marked increase in lawlessness. Seeing the abrupt changes – the unforeseen demise of those who were flourishing and the manner in which the propertyless suddenly came to possess the substance of those who had died – the individual more readily dared to do what he had previously kept hidden and had done in a manner contrary to the dictates of pleasure. And so they thought it worthwhile to reap the fruits quickly with an eye to their own gratification since they regarded their bodies and their money alike as ephemera. And no one was enthusiastic about persisting in what was deemed beautiful and noble since they thought it unclear whether they would die or not before achieving it. So whatever gave immediate pleasure or seemed conducive to it in any way was regarded as both noble and useful. No fear of the gods and no human law held them back. With regard to the former they judged that it was the same whether they were reverent or not – seeing that all were equally likely to die; with regard to the latter no one expected lives to last long enough for anyone to come to trial and pay the penalty for his offenses since a much greater penalty had been passed on him and was impending – so that it was only fair and reasonable that he enjoy life a bit before that penalty befell him.

The mass graves that archaeologists have recently found survive as mute testimony to the breakdown that took place at this time in public decorum.

Thank God for Modern Medicine

Thucydides’s grim description is a sobering and salutary reminder of what we owe modern science and medicine. In light of what we now know concerning Covid-19’s likely trajectory and our capacity to cope, it is inconceivable that, on its own, this disease it will wreak havoc on such a scale in the United States or anywhere else, even though it appears to have produced chaos in parts of China and may be doing the like in Iran. The mismanagement of the epidemic, the attempt to hide the truth, and the transparent lies still being told by the authorities in those two countries may well occasion ongoing bitterness on the part of considerable parts of their populations, and could occasion revolution.

In countries such as India and Nigeria, where much of the urban population lives in poverty or on its verge, the greatest danger to human life will come from the economic consequences of governmental attempts to enforce social distancing in a vain attempt to fend off the malady. Elsewhere, however, this will quickly pass, although it will certainly occasion caution in all parts of the world about a reliance on China, and is apt to reinforce the existent skepticism regarding the globalist vision that has long inspired the good and the great in the post-Cold War West.

Although it is genuinely awful, when measured against the plague that beset Athens in the early years of the Peloponnesian War, Covid-19 simply does not rate.

Parts of this essay are excerpted from Rahe’s forthcoming book, “Sparta’s Second Attic War” (Yale University Press).