The Great Plague of Athens

Mankind has had a long and arduous bout with pandemics over the past three millennia. Some of the most notable and severe pandemics include the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) (1347 – 1351), the Plague of Justinian (541 CE – 542 CE) and the Spanish Flu (1918 – 1920) [You can learn more about the history of pandemics in the NSS blog here].

One such deadly epidemic dates back to the year 430 BCE in the city of Athens. The Athenians, led by their general Pericles, had just begun fighting the Peloponnesian War (431 BCE – 404 BCE) the year before against the Spartans. Then, a disastrous disease (possibly typhus, typhoid or smallpox)  ravaged the city of Athens, and its consequences were so severe that even the Spartans, possibly out of fear of bringing the plague back to their own home, retreated. Approximately a third of the population of Athens, which was then some 300,000, was claimed by the plague.

“Not many days after their arrival in Attica the plague first began to show itself among the Athenians. It was said that it had broken out in many places previously in the neighbourhood of Lemnos and elsewhere; but a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered.” — Thucydides.

Most of the information we have today about the plague of Athens comes from Thucydides’ account in his work History of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides was an Athenian general who had been exiled by the Athenian people for a period of 20 years because he had failed to defend the city of Amphipolis. This allowed the general to spend his time chronicling the war that was raging between Sparta and Athens. He went on to describe the plague and its crippling effect on the Athenian society in his work. The account of Thucydides is praised for its realistic description of the plague. He utilizes the prevailing medical theory of the day, the Hippocratic theory, which was based on gathering evidence through direct observation, and refusing superstition. 

Among the more interesting observations detailed in his work is his description of the lack of urban planning that added to severity of the disease. When Athens declared war on Sparta, many families from rural Attica (the area encompassing Athens) migrated into the city to seek protection behind its walls. 

“An aggravation of the existing calamity was the influx from the country into the city, and this was especially felt by the new arrivals. As there were no houses to receive them, they had to be lodged at the hot season of the year in stifling cabins, where the mortality raged without restraint. The bodies of dying men lay one upon another, and half-dead creatures reeled about the streets and gathered round all the fountains in their longing for water.”  — Thucydides.

The infrastructure of the city was not able to accommodate these migrants, which led to overpopulation and poor sanitary conditions. Many refugees found themselves seeking accommodation in the temples of Athens, which soon became morbidly filled with the sick and the dying.

The sacred places also in which they had quartered themselves were full of corpses of persons that had died there, just as they were; for as the disaster passed all bounds, men, not knowing what was to become of them, became utterly careless of everything, whether sacred or profane.   — Thucydides.

Another noteworthy consequence that Thucydides points out is the breakdown of religion and law and order among the Athenian people. Morality and honour were quickly tossed out the window once the people realized that death was imminent and no amount of prayer would save them. They felt the gods had abandoned them. People started recklessly squandering their wealth, hoping to enjoy their lives while it lasted. The poor all of a sudden found themselves rich, having inherited the properties of deceased relatives.

“So they resolved to spend quickly and enjoy themselves, regarding their lives and riches as alike things of a day. Perseverance in what men called honor was popular with none, it was so uncertain whether they would be spared to attain the object; but it was settled that present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was both honorable and useful. Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them.” — Thucydides.

A blatant disregard for law caused a surge in the rates of crime.Thucydides goes on to explain that no one expected to survive the plague and be brought to trial for his offences, so it made sense to them to enjoy themselves a little. Death was looming above their heads, and men sought the comfort of material pleasures one last time.

It was not only a physical pestilence that ravaged Athens, but a moral one as well.

Much like how the Plague of Athens was made more severe by the lack of preparation and urban planning, the coronavirus too has been made more fatal for the same reasons. Over 26 lakh migrant labourers are stranded across thirty three states with only a mere tenth lodged in government relief and shelter camps. Even the migrant workers who were able to get back home with the help of government-run trains complained of the squalid conditions in the train and excessive delays. In the searing heat of the summer, the labourers were not given adequate amounts of food and water and some even went on to claim they had been served rotten food. The hospitals in the country are ill-equipped to deal with the incredibly large number of cases. The quarantine centres are known to have small, cramped rooms and unhygienic toilets, which makes many people reluctant to check themselves in even if they are sick. 

There has also been a moral decline among the citizens of India ever since the pandemic set in. Families under home quarantine face discrimination from the community and are ostracized owing to the paranoia of the people. Rumours circulated on social media only further confirm the misperceptions of the people, making them act out in dishonourable ways with fellow citizens.

The people of Athens abandoned their moral values and mutual respect for each other when the plague set in, and failed to fulfill their duties to one another. Superstition and rumour spread and gnawed away at already troubled souls, and the sick were not looked after and dehumanized. Two millennia later, we as citizens of India can avoid making the same mistake as the ancient Athenians and choose to inform ourselves of the science of the virus and of our duties as citizens in these difficult times. We must uphold justice and fair treatment more so than ever before.

Written by Chathur Gudesa.



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