First Historical Account of an Epidemic: The Plague at Athens

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The present COVID-19 crisis has not only challenged the society and economy across the globe but it has also forced us to revisit the history of epidemics.

In this context, the first historical account of an epidemic is found in Thucydides’ History of Peloponnesian War where he discussed about the plague of Athens which had struck the city during the period between 430 and 426 BCE.

At the time of outbreak of plague, Athens was engaged in Peloponnesian War against the rival city state of Sparta. Thucydides, who had himself suffered and survived the plague and was also fighting war on Athenian side, wrote a detailed account of the sociological and psychological impact of the plague.

As per the description of Thucydides, the disease affected every part of the human body. People in perfect health suddenly began to have burning feelings in the head and their eyes became red and inflamed. Inside the mouth there was bleeding from the throat and tongue, and the breath became unnatural and unpleasant.

The next symptoms were sneezing and hoarseness of voice, and pain in chest accompanied by coughing. Subsequently, the stomach was affected with ache and the vomiting of every kind of bile. Inside body people felt the burning sensation and could not bear the touch of the lightest linen clothing. They wanted to be completely naked and liked to plunge into cold water.

The residents of the city believed that the epidemic was the result of divine curse. They also supposed that the rival Peloponnesians had poisoned the reservoirs. However, Thucydides refuted these illogical observations and highlighted that the nature of disease was ‘contagious’ which firstly appeared in Ethiopia and transmitted to Athens via Egypt, Libya and Persian Empire.

The city of Athens was badly affected as its leader, Pericles, responded to the Spartan siege by moving people into city from the countryside that allowed the disease to spread easily in an overcrowded place.

Thucydides observed that there was no recognised method of treatment, what did work in some cases did harm in others. At the beginning doctors were quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods. In fact, mortality among the doctors was the highest of all, since they came more frequently in contact with the sick.

Overall, one third of total population died in this epidemic. Dead bodies were lying about unburied and the birds and animals that used to eat human flesh did not come near them. There was a complete disappearance of all birds of prey which meant that they too had died after tasting the flesh.

Amidst this description of the epidemic, Thucydides also highlighted about the despair into which people fell after realising that they had caught the plague.

The patients immediately adopted an attitude of utter hopelessness and lost their power of resistance. ‘Collapse of Athenian morality’ was also observed by the Greek historian. The catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion and of law. Athenians gave up the usual practice of making laments for the dead. In the words of Thucydides ‘many people, lacking the necessary means of burial because so many deaths had already occurred in their households, adopted the most shameless methods. They would arrive first at a funeral pyre that had been made by others, put their own dead upon it and set it alight; or, finding another pyre burning, they would throw the corpse that they were carrying on top of the other one and go away.’ People were afraid to visit others house.

However, those who recovered from plague developed the immunity and took care of the sick patients. They were congratulated on all sides and felt so elated. The recovered patients fondly imagined that they could never die of any other disease in the future.

In the long run, Athenians started to lose their political power due to the disastrous impact of the epidemic. The General of the city, Pericles, died because of the plague and finally Athens lost the Peloponnesian War in 404 BCE. The victory of Sparta led to a new chapter in the development of Greek civilisation.

The historical account of plague by Thucydides, written about 2500 years from now, worked as a learning experience for the human civilization thereafter. Thucydides, who objectively wrote the sociological and psychological aspect of plague and Peloponnesian War, was later considered as the father of scientific history in the Western historiography.


Gautam Chandra, Department of History, B. R. A. Bihar University, Muzaffarpur.

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