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The Plague in Ancient Athens: A Cautionary Tale for America

The Plague of Athens depicted in Plague in an Ancient City, Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

Twenty-four hundred fifty years ago the ancient Greek city-state of Athens—Western civilization’s first democracy and one of the political systems our founding fathers studied—came under great stress. In 430 BCE, in the second year of a war, it was hit by a plague. As Athens was challenged, so the U.S.—under stress from the COVID-19 pandemic, from a fraught, polarized political class and citizenry, and from a sitting president who will probably never concede the election—faces great challenges. While our health experts and political leaders draw lessons from the current pandemic and plan for future ones, Athens’ experience should serve as a cautionary tale for our democracy. 

In his book, The History of the Peloponnesian War, the ancient Greek historian Thucydides provides the setting. Athens and Sparta had been the two principal leaders of the united Greeks who vanquished the mighty Persian Empire fifty years earlier. Athens, a democracy, headed a large maritime empire which came to threaten Sparta. Sparta, headed by two kings and with a mixed political system, had a very militarized society and an invincible land force. Thucydides sums up the fundamental cause of the war: “I believe that the truest reason for the quarrel, …, was the growth of Athenian power, which put fear into the [Spartans] and so compelled them into war ….” [Book I, 23]
The advent of the plague was certainly related to the overall strategy which Pericles, the preeminent Athenian leader, had proposed and the Athenians had adopted: a defensive strategy on land with limited naval offensives. This meant that once the war started in the spring 431 BCE and the Spartan land force invaded, most Athenians in the surrounding countryside came within the walls of the city. Thucydides states: “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.” [Book II, 52]
Thucydides indicates that this plague was extraordinary in that “a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered.” [Book II, 47]
With brutal candor, Thucydides—who contracted the disease and recovered—describes the sickness. “People in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inner parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and the breath unnatural and fetid.” Then followed sneezing, hoarseness, hard cough, discharges of “bile,” and violent spasms. Internally the body burned and could not withstand the touch of clothing. The sick “plunged into the rain tanks in their agonies of unquenchable thirst ….” [Book II, 49] 
After seven or eight days, if the person remained alive, the disease “settled in the private parts, fingers, and toes, and many escaped with the loss of these, some too with that of their eyes.” [Book II, 49]
All remedies proved ineffective. “No remedy was found that could be used as a specific; what did good in one case, did harm in another. Strong and weak constitutions proved equally incapable of resistance, all alike being carried off, in spite of the most careful diet.” [Book II, 51]
“…[N[or did any human art succeed any better. Prayers in the temples, divinations, and so forth were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether.” [Book II 47]
Thucydides highlights the psychological impact. “By far the most terrible feature in the malady was the dejection which came on when anyone felt himself sickening, for the despair into which they instantly fell took away their power of resistance … there was the awful spectacle of men dying like sheep, through having caught the infection in nursing each other.” [Book II, 51]
Thucydides also attempts to portray the impact that the sickness had on social norms and practices. “…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. All burial rites before in use were entirely disregarded….” [Book II, 52]
Athenians looked at what was happening—the rich suddenly dying and the poorer classes seizing their property—and became unhinged. “They reflected that life and wealth alike were transitory, and resolved to live for pleasure and enjoy themselves quickly. No one was eager to persevere in the ideals of honor … present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was accepted as both honorable and useful. Fear of the gods or law of man were no restraint.” [Book II, 53]
In his book, The Peloponnesian War, Donald Kagan indicates that the plague took about four years to run its course and that it killed 4,400 Athenian soldiers (hoplites), 300 cavalrymen, and about one-third of the city’s population. In his book, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece,Josiah Ober, estimates that it took one-quarter of the city’s population, about 75,000 people and identifies the disease as typhoid on the basis of DNA tests reported in 2006.
Among the dead was Pericles, Athens’ political and military leader, its “first citizen,” who died in 429 BCE. Nonetheless, Athens persevered in its war effort for many more years until 404 BCE when it succumbed to Sparta and its allies. 
As of this writing, Coronavirus cases and deaths have spiked for the past seven weeks. Based on data from the Johns Hopkins University, the Wall Street Journal reports that the two-week trend shows a 34% increase in cases, with close over 16.5 million total cases and over 300, 000 total deaths. 
A comparison of the two diseases shows that the plague in ancient Athens was clearly as least as contagious as COVID-19, but much more virulent. 
Ancient Greek medicine and therapies were totally ineffective against the plague in the 5th century BCE, and vaccines did not exist. We have discovered the benefits to be gained by wearing masks, social distancing, smaller gatherings, and proper hand-washing.
Regarding vaccines, the World Health Organization reports that globally there are approximately 200 vaccines in development today. The West’s robust extended medical community has produced three front-runners: vaccines from Pfizer & BioNTech, Moderna, and finally the University of Oxford & AstraZeneca. On December 14, the first of Pfizer’s vaccines were given, with Moderna’s vaccine likely soon to follow. Western science appears to have begun the end of the virus’ stranglehold on us. 
Athens lost its nominal political and military leader to the plague, while President Donald Trump caught and recovered from COVID-19, returning to the campaign trail and the election with gusto.
Though under stress from the plague and the loss of its leader, Athens was able to maintain its prosecution of the war against Sparta and its allies. The U.S., enduring the pandemic for eight months, has to date been able not only to hold together, but also to have a national election with a record turnout of the electorate. Our political system remains under stress as our sitting president refuses to concede the election results, confirmed by the formal voting of the Electoral College on December 14, with the support of far too many Republican loyalists. 
If our political system holds, we will have shown greater resilience than in the tumultuous period 1972-74, when the Vietnam War continued and Watergate wrenched us. However, even if it does, the American body politic has much work to be done to return to health politically and civically after returning to health medically.
(Note: An abridged version of this essay was published in the Newport Daily News on December 7, 2020.)