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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Plague of Athens

The Plague of Athens

Throughout history, civilization has overcome natural and manmade challenges and adversities.

Our histories are riddled with accounts of famines, wars, pestilences, and of course, plagues.

One such instance was the Plague of Athens, and now as the Coronavirus sweeps through our cities and countries, it is perhaps timely to remember the lessons of the past and learn from their experiences.


According to Thucydides, the Plague of Athens, the illness began by showing symptoms in the head as it worked its way through the rest of the body. He also describes in detail the symptoms victims of the plague experienced.

Redness and inflammation in the eyes
Sore Throats leading to bleeding and bad breath
Loss of voice
Pustules and ulcers on the body
Extreme thirst


The Plague of Athens (Ancient Greek: Λοιμὸς τῶν Ἀθηνῶν Loimos tôn Athênôn) was an epidemic that devastated the city-state of Athens in ancient Greece during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC) when an Athenian victory still seemed within reach. The plague killed an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 people and is believed to have entered Athens through Piraeus, the city's port and sole source of food and supplies. Much of the eastern Mediterranean also saw an outbreak of the disease, albeit with less impact.

The epidemic, known as the Plague of Athens, swept through the main city of Athens in the second year of the Peloponnesian War, in about 430 BC. It entered the city after decimating an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 inhabitants who lived in the city and near its port of Piraeus; Athens’ only port for food and supplies. Before the plague, it was believed that the Athenians would win the war. The outbreak shattered that belief.

The plague had serious effects on Athens' society, resulting in a lack of adherence to laws and religious belief; in response laws became stricter, resulting in the punishment of non-citizens claiming to be Athenian. In addition, Pericles, the leader of Athens, died from the plague. The plague returned twice more, in 429 BC and in the winter of 427/426 BC. Some 30 pathogens have been suggested as having caused the plague.

So, what happened? Where did this epidemic come from, and what were the effects? In today’s climate of panic and hysteria surrounding the Coronavirus, it’s interesting to reflect on our predecessors’ experiences when facing an invisible enemy.

The Acropolis of Athens, as seen from Philopappou Hill. A. Savin

Sparta and its allies, with the exception of Corinth, were almost exclusively land based powers, able to summon large land armies that were very nearly unbeatable. In the face of a combined campaign on land from Sparta and its allies beginning in 431 BCE, the Athenians, under the direction of Pericles, pursued a policy of retreat within the city walls of Athens, relying on Athenian maritime supremacy for supply while the superior Athenian navy harassed Spartan troop movements. Unfortunately, the strategy also resulted in massive migration from the Attic countryside into an already highly-populated city, generating overpopulation and resource shortage.

Due to the close quarters and poor hygiene exhibited at that time, Athens became a breeding ground for disease and many citizens died. In the history of epidemics, the 'Plague' of Athens is remarkable for the one-sidedness of the affliction as well as for its influence on the ultimate outcome of the war.

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, the historian Thucydides, who was present and contracted the disease himself and survived, describes the epidemic. He writes of a disease coming from Ethiopia and passing through Egypt and Libya into the Greek world and spreading throughout the wider Mediterranean; a plague so severe and deadly that no one could recall anywhere its like, and physicians ignorant of its nature not only were helpless but themselves died the fastest, having had the most contact with the sick. In overcrowded Athens, the disease killed an estimated 25% of the population.

The sight of the burning funeral pyres of Athens caused the Spartans to withdraw their troops, being unwilling to risk contact with the diseased enemy. Many of Athens' infantry and expert seamen died. According to Thucydides, not until 415 BCE had Athens recovered sufficiently to mount a major offensive, the disastrous Sicilian Expedition.

Α reconstructed appearance of Myrtis, an 11-year-old girl who died during the plague of Athens and whose skeleton was found in the Kerameikos mass grave, National Archaeological Museum of Athens

The first corroboration of the plague was not revealed until 1994-95 where excavation revealed the first mass grave. Upon this discovery, Thucydides' accounts of the event as well as analysis of the remains had been used to try and identify the cause of the epidemic.

How was the disease able to cause such extreme damage? It’s a case of supply and demand gone wrong. As the war between the Delian League (Athens and supporting city-states) and the Peloponnesian League (Sparta and supporting city-states) raged on, the Delian League’s favorite tactic was to advance and then retreat behind the city walls, using the Athenian navy to harry their opponents.

Conversely, the Peloponnesian League was better suited to land attacks. After repeated skirmishes, more and more inhabitants of the Attica countryside began moving towards Athens and the city walls for protection. It didn’t take long for this shifting populace to start overcrowding the already busy streets of the city.

Thucydides Description of the Plague

Thucydides, in the History of the Peloponnesian War, paused in his narrative of the war to provide an extremely detailed description of the symptoms of those he observed to be afflicted; symptoms he shared as he too was struck by the illness. Despite his lack of medical training, Thucydides provided a vivid account of a variety of ailments which afflicted the diseases:

Violent heats in the head; redness and inflammation of the eyes; throat and tongue quickly suffused with blood; breath became unnatural and fetid; sneezing and hoarseness; violent cough’ vomiting; retching; violent convulsions; the body externally not so hot to the touch, nor yet pale; a livid color inkling to red; breaking out in pustules and ulcers. (2.49-2.50)

Thucydides further described patients whose fever was so intense that they preferred to be naked than wear any clothing which touched their skin; some even preferred to be submerged in cold water. Thucydides observed that the ill were “tormented by an unceasing thirst” which was not satiated regardless of the amount of liquids consumed. Many of the sick found it difficult to sleep, instead, displaying a constant restlessness. Many of the sufferers died within 7-9 days from the onset of symptoms.

If the ill were fortunate enough to live beyond the initial period of the infection, Thucydides observed that the patient suffered from “violent ulceration” and severe diarrhea usually resulting in their death. Those who survived the full run of the illness often suffered from disfigurement of their genitals, fingers and toes (which were sometimes lost), blindness, and memory loss (of others as well as themselves). Thucydides noticed that in some instances birds and other animals which usually fed on human flesh were repulsed by the diseased bodies or died themselves from consuming the diseased and rotting flesh.

Portrait of Thucydides

Social implications

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 catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.”

— Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

This perceived impact of the Athenian plague on collective social and religious behavior echoes accounts of the medieval pandemic best known as the Black Death, although scholars have disputed its objective veracity in both instances, citing a historical link between epidemic disease and unsubstantiated moral panic.

Fear of the law

Thucydides states 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 honorably because most did not expect to live long enough to enjoy a good reputation for it.

Whilst under the leadership of Pericles, the Athenians used this method of attack-and-defend. Though it worked for a while, their reliance on the Athenian navy to then bring in food through Piraeus was the weak point in their armor. With the increased numbers within the city, the navy could not supply enough food to meet the demand.

Alongside this, with a burgeoning population, who were now living too close to one another, hygiene was questionable, and this allowed for diseases to develop and spread at an unstoppable speed. The plague was indiscriminate, and the death-toll grew rapidly, claiming even the lives of Pericles, his wife, and their two sons.

Pericles’ Funeral Oration by Philipp Foltz (1852). Pericles’ Funeral Oration was a famous part in Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides, who also contracted but survived the epidemic, wrote that it was so severe and deadly, that no one could remember anything like it. Physicians at the time didn’t understand what caused it, or how it was spreading so quickly, and were unable to treat the symptoms. In fact, they often died quicker than their patients due to multiple exposures to the infected.

The plague is believed to have originated in Ethiopia, where it spread to Egypt, Libya, and into the Greek territories through the Mediterranean Sea. Once the navy was exposed to this epidemic, it was only a matter of time before Athens would become infected; it is thought that an estimated 25% of the population died as a result.

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. The dead were heaped on top of each other, left to rot, or shoved into mass graves.

Sometimes those carrying the dead would come across an already burning funeral pyre, 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 between 430 and 426 BCE, 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 "the 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 5th century BC. 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."

During this time refugees from the Peloponnesian war had immigrated within the Long Walls of Athens, inflating the populations of both the polis of Athens and the port of Piraeus. The population had tripled in this time increasing chance of infection along with poor hygiene.

Plague on Society

With the Spartan army watching the funeral pyres burn from a safe distance, and with the plague ravaging the city, it’s no wonder that the city’s inhabitants became quite fatalistic. As a result, society’s morals disappeared, and lawlessness became the new norm.

Thucydides also documented his observations on society’s response to the outbreak. He states that people ceased to fear the law because they already felt that they had a death sentence hanging over them. They believed there was no point in acting with honor, as they wouldn’t live long enough for this to matter.

Plague in an Ancient City, ca. 1652-54

As such, people who would normally be money conscious became excessive spenders to the point of bankruptcy, whilst poorer relations suddenly inherited great wealth due to extended family dying.

Religious strife

The plague also caused religious uncertainty and doubt. 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 favored Sparta, and this was supported by an oracle that Apollo himself (the god of disease and medicine) would fight for Sparta if they fought with all their might. An earlier oracle had warned that "A Dorian [Spartan] war will come, and bring a pestilence with it".

Thucydides is skeptical of these conclusions and believes that people were simply being superstitious. He relies upon the prevailing medical theory of the day, Hippocratic theory, and strives to gather evidence through direct observation. He notes that carrion-eating birds and animals disappeared as a result, though he leaves it an open question whether they died after eating the corpses or refused to eat them and were driven away:

All the birds and beasts that prey upon human bodies, either abstained from touching them (though there were many lying unburied), or died after tasting them. In proof of this, it was noticed that birds of this kind actually disappeared; they were not about the bodies, or indeed to be seen at all.

In fact, this was one reason why the plague swept through the city so easily; people initially acting with compassion for those afflicted then became infected themselves. The greater their exposure, the more likely it became that they would die. As a result, caring for the sick was stopped, and the ill were left to die alone.

Once deceased, the bodies were placed on pyres for burning. At this time, it was not uncommon for a funeral pyre to be appropriated by other users, who wished to burn their dead as soon as possible.

Others were dumped in mass graves, one atop the other. One such mass grave was discovered at Kerameikos, outside of Athens, with 240 bodies interred, 10 of which were children—all victims of the plague.

As the disease wore on, those who survived developed an immunity, which allowed for them to care for those who would become ill. There may have been some semblance of gratitude from patient to carer, as many of the city’s inhabitants felt abandoned by their gods.

John William Waterhouse – A Sick Child Brought Into the Temple of Aesculapius

The temples had become sites of mass grieving, filled with refugees from the war, or from the plague. These temples would soon become filled with the dead or dying, and the Athenians took this as a sign that the gods favored the Spartans. Thucydides, however, cites this behavior as the city’s residents simply being superstitious.


Whatever the cause, the effect on Athens’ society was irrevocable. With many of the poorer inhabitants inheriting wealth from their deceased family, the power balance between the rich and poor shifted dramatically.

As mentioned above, survivors who had developed an immunity were better able to care for the infected. Thucydides backs this up, stating that the most sympathetic to the plights of others were those who had contracted and survived the disease themselves.

However, a large number of these survivors were eventually discovered to have been “metics” (a foreign resident of Athens who did not have citizen rights in their Greek city-state of residence)—that is, illegal citizens—who did not have rights and protections as a legal Athenian citizen.

Once discovered, many of these metics were reduced to being slaves and stricter laws were passed regarding becoming an Athenian citizen.

These laws not only significantly reduced the rights and well-being of the remaining metics, but also resulted in a decreased number of available soldiers for the Athenian military, as well as a decrease in the political power of Athens herself.


The plague was an unforeseen event that resulted in one of the largest recorded loss of life in ancient Greece as well as a breakdown of Athenian society. The balance of power between citizens had changed due to many of the rich dying and their fortunes being inherited by remaining relatives of the lower class. According to Thucydides, those who had become ill and survived were the most sympathetic to others suffering: believing that they could no longer succumb to any illness, a number of survivors offered to assist with the remaining sick. The plague had also contributed to Athens' overall loss of power and ability to expand. Many of the remaining Athenians were found to be metics who had forged their documentation or had bribed officials to hide their original status. A number of these people were reduced to slaves once they were caught. This resulted in stricter laws dictating who can become an Athenian citizen, reducing both their number of potential soldiers and amount of political power, but also a decline in treatment and rights for metics in Athens.

The plague dealt massive damage to Athens two years into the Peloponnesian War, from which it never recovered. Their political strength had weakened and morale among their armies as well as the citizens had fallen significantly. Athens would then go on to be defeated by Sparta and fall from being a major superpower in Ancient Greece.

Kerameikos Archeological park. Taken at Athens, greece, April 2011

The damage caused by loss of political strength and citizen morale could not be reversed. In time, Athens would be defeated by Sparta, and their place in history, as a major power in Ancient Greece, would become forfeit.


It’s easy to become swept up in the hype and hysteria that surrounds Coronavirus. But, just like the Athenians, if we only focus on that, instead of following good hygiene and keeping a respectful distance of others, we will likely face a similar fate.

Possible causes

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 in its many forms, but reconsideration of the reported symptoms and epidemiology have led scholars to advance alternative explanations. These include typhus, smallpox, measles, and toxic shock syndrome. 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 or a related viral hemorrhagic fever has been considered.

Given the possibility that profiles of a known disease may have changed over time, or that the plague was caused by a disease that 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 a probable proportionate 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 devoted their fifth annual medical conference, dedicated to notorious case histories, to the Plague of Athens. They concluded that the disease that killed the Greeks was typhus. "Epidemic typhus fever is the best explanation," said Dr. David Durack, consulting professor of medicine at Duke University. "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." 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, who wrote a comprehensive annotated edition of Thucydides and 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 Thucydides (in Greek: Παρατηρήσεις στο Θουκυδίδη, [1992] I: 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"). The theory has also found support recent in a study of the plague by Greek epidemiologists.



Symptoms generally associated with typhoid resemble Thucydides' description. They include:

a high fever from 39 °C to 40 °C (103 °F to 104 °F) that rises slowly;
bradycardia (slow heart rate)
myalgia (muscle pain)
lack of appetite
stomach pains

in some cases, a rash of flat, rose-colored spots called "rose spots"
extreme symptoms such as intestinal perforation or hemorrhage, delusions and confusion are also possible.

Some characteristics of typhoid are at clear variance from Thucydides' description. Scavenger animals do not die from infection with typhoid,[23] the onset of fever in typhoid is typically slow and subtle, and typhoid generally kills later in the disease course. As typhoid is most commonly transmitted through poor hygiene habits and public sanitation conditions in crowded urban areas, it is an unlikely cause of a plague emerging in the less urbanized Africa, as reported by Thucydides.

DNA analysis

A 2005 DNA study of dental pulp from teeth recovered from an ancient Greek burial pit, led by the orthodontist Dr. Manolis Papagrigorakis of the University of Athens, found DNA sequences similar to those of Salmonella enterica (S. enterica), the organism that causes typhoid fever.

A second group of researchers, including American evolutionary molecular biologist Dr. Beth Shapiro of the University of California, Santa Cruz, disputed the Papagrigorakis team's findings, citing what they claim are serious methodologic flaws. In a letter to the International Journal of Infectious Diseases, Shapiro et al. stated that "while this DNA analysis confirms that the Athens sequence is possibly Salmonella, it demonstrates clearly that it is not typhoid."

The technique used by the Papagrigorakis team (PCR) has shown itself to be prone to contamination-induced false-positive results, and the source burial site is known to have been heavily trafficked in antiquity by hogs, carriers of another Salmonella serovar that may have been confused with the one that causes typhoid fever. Nonetheless, the Papagrigorakis team assert that the basis of this refutation is flimsy, and that the methodology used by the Shapiro team has historically produced conflicting results.

Viral hemorrhagic fever

Thucydides' narrative pointedly refers to increased risk among caregivers, more typical of the person-to-person contact spread of viral hemorrhagic fever (e.g., Ebola virus disease or Marburg virus) than typhus or typhoid. Unusual in the history of plagues during military operations, besieging Spartan troops are described as not having been afflicted by the illness raging near them within the city. Thucydides' description further invites comparison with VHF in the character and sequence of symptoms developed, and of the usual fatal outcome on about the eighth day. Some scientists have interpreted Thucydides' expression "lunx kenē" (λύγξ κενή) as the unusual symptom of hiccups, which is now recognized as a common finding in Ebola virus disease. Outbreaks of VHF in Africa in 2012 and 2014 reinforced observations of the increased hazard to caregivers and the necessity of barrier precautions for preventing disease spread related to grief rituals and funerary rites. The 2015 west African Ebola outbreak noted persistence of effects on genitalia and eyes in some survivors, both described by Thucydides. With an up to 21-day clinical incubation period, and up to 565-day infectious potential recently demonstrated in a semen-transmitted infection, movement of Ebola via Nile commerce into the busy port of Piraeus is plausible. Ancient Greek intimacy with African sources is reflected in accurate renditions of monkeys in art of frescoes and pottery, most notably guenons (Cercopithecus), the type of primates responsible for transmitting Marburg virus into Germany and Yugoslavia when that disease was first characterized in 1967.

Circumstantially tantalizing is the requirement for the large quantity of ivory used in the Athenian sculptor Phidias’ two monumental ivory and gold statues of Athena and of Zeus (one of the Seven Wonders), which were fabricated in the same decade. Never again in antiquity was ivory used on such a large scale.

A second ancient narrative suggesting hemorrhagic fever etiology is that of Titus Lucretius Carus. Writing in the 1st century BC, Lucretius characterized the Athenian plague as having "bloody" or black discharges from bodily orifices. Lucretius cited and was an admirer of scientific predecessors in Greek Sicily Empedocles and Acron. While none of the original works of Acron, a physician, are extant, it is reported that he died c. 430 BC after travel to Athens to combat the plague.

Unfortunately DNA sequence-based identification is limited by the inability of some important pathogens to leave a "footprint" retrievable from archaeological remains after several millennia. The lack of a durable signature by RNA viruses means some etiologies, notably the hemorrhagic fever viruses, are not testable hypotheses using currently available scientific techniques.

What can we observe from this ancient experience?

To be reasoned and compassionate towards others. Not to put ourselves at risk, but also not to deny others assistance if it is safe to offer it. Care for those around us, and when we find ourselves to be survivors, not to turn on each other out of greed or fear.

We can learn much from our ancient forebears, and the best lesson is to be moderate and mild, to temper our intake—both of food and information; to act with reason and to refrain from ill tempers and dishonorable acts. That way, we leave a fine example for history to share with future generations.

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