Plague in the ancient world was nothing unusual. Bouts of illness were common occurrences, but we do have accounts of some exceptional outbreaks: epidemics that brought powerful empires and city-states to their knees. One of the most infamous occurred in 430 BC: the Plague of Athens.
For such a terrible event, we are extremely fortunate to have a detailed, surviving first-hand account. The Athenian general and historian Thucydides was present in the city when the disease erupted. He even fell victim to the plague, but recovered. It is from his eyewitness account that we can create such a vivid picture of this ancient disease, particularly its symptoms and how they developed.
What makes his record even more valuable is that Thucydides didn’t blame the gods for this tragic event. He provides a reasoned account that continues to be studied alongside modern archaeological discoveries as scholars attempt to define what disease this was.
What plague killed the Athenians?
The origins of the plague are unclear, but according to Thucydides it originated from Africa and arrived in Athens through its port of Piraeus. Athens at that time was an international centre, and Piraeus invited custom and activity from across the Mediterranean world. It should be no surprise that it was among the Athenian community at Piraeus that the plague first appeared.
We must also remember the great overcrowding that also gripped Athens in 430 BC. As part of the statesman Pericles’ grand strategy to avoid a land battle with Sparta, he had ordered that all Athenian citizens from across the city’s hinterlands of Attica withdraw behind the city’s’ long walls. His intent was to bring to take the fight to Sparta by the sea. It was a sound strategy, but with it came unforeseen calamity.
Squalor was rife; refugees filled all available space within the city. What was more, they filled the narrow corridor of space between Athens’ famous Long Walls that linked Athens with the Piraeus. Imagine this long line of refugees linking Athens with Piraeus: a human chain for infection. It was through this chain that the disease quickly spread from Piraeus to Athens.
Plagues were nothing new for Classical Greece, but the scale of the Plague of Athens was unprecedented. It is estimated that some 50% of the city-state’s population died from the epidemic. It was indiscriminate. Old and young. Weak and strong. Everyone was equally-susceptible to becoming a fatality.
What was the impact of the Plague of Athens?
The impact this had on Athenian morale was devastating. Many gave up on life as soon as they started showing initial symptoms of the disease. For those few fortunate figures like Thucydides, who survived, contemporaries honoured them as figures blessed by the gods. Immune from a second dose of the infection, they would treat those who were ill.
Eventually the plague did pass. Smaller bouts of it did re-emerge in later years, but the events of 430 BC proved the most severe.
The epidemic’s most prolific casualty was Pericles. The revered leader, beloved by the Athenian population for his past achievements that had spurred ancient Athens’ golden age, had fallen victim to the disease. His decision to place the entire Athenian population behind the city’s long walls no doubt catalysed the spread of the illness throughout the city. Militarily it was a sound strategy. Unfortunately it also laid the groundwork for the disease’s unprecedented spread.
The Archidamian War
As this disease ran rampant through Athens, the city-state remained at war. The first part of the Peloponnesian War – known as the Archidamian War – still raged. Sparta wisely placed its troops far away from the disease-ridden city. But what is surprising is how effectively Athens managed to bounce back from this natural disaster.
The sheer size of the city and its large population ensured it remained a fighting force after 430 BC. In fact, it was Athens that arguably emerged the ‘victor’ of the Archidamean War. Athens did eventually lose the Peloponnesian War some 25 years later, but the plague had limited influence on this outcome. Athens successfully recovered from the impact of the plague long before their disastrous defeat at Aegospotami.