Saturday, August 9, 2014

Great Athenian Plague: The Plague that Killed Athens

Acropolis of Athens by Leo von Klenze
With war in its doorstep, Ancient Athenian fought another more internal and equally dangerous foe – disease. Disagreement between the two superpowers of the ancient Greek world collided during the Peloponnesian War starting 431 BCE. As the Athenian and Spartan forces fought each other, Athenians suffered a huge blow in form of a Great Plague. A plague that would end it supremacy in the ancient world.

The Great Plague descended upon Athens in its most critical time. During the Greco-Persian War, the two powerful states of Greece joined together to fight a common foe – the Persians. The Greco-Persian War from 499 to 449 BCE was one of the biggest conflicts in the ancient world. At the war’s peak, Athens expanded its influence by establishing the Delian League. Composed of many Greek city-states, its objective was to defeat the Persians. Sparta, however, did not join in fear of Athens’ increase of influence. In 449, the objective was complete when both Persians and Greeks agreed to end the conflict. After the end of the Greco-Persian War, Athens had attained the status of superpower in the Ancient Greece. Athens continued the Delian League and from it, it gained influence and also wealth. Arts and letters flourished. Learning in mathematics and sciences thrived. And with the great Greek statesman, Pericles, the icon of Athenian supremacy and power, the Acropolis, was build. With the Parthenon at its center and a statue of Athena made of gold and ivory, it indeed became the monument for Athens glory.

With the rise of Athens, some Greek city-state began to resent it when the Delian League became a virtual form of empire for Athens. Athens continued its exorbitant demand for gold from city-states. Anyone who resisted faced though military retaliations. And so, a number of city-states then decided to align themselves with the number one rival of the Athenians – the Spartans.

Conflicts between Athenian allies and Spartan allies sparking tensions between the two powers, it finally erupted in a full scale war in 431 BCE. Spartans began to march into the countryside of Athens. Pericles, the leader of the Athenians, decided to evacuate Athenian citizens from the countryside to the city of Athens. The city then became crowded. This situation would lead to a disaster.

Suddenly, in 430 BCE, some Athenian citizens in the Athenian port of Piraeus had headaches. This was then followed by inflaming eyes and then bleeding in the mouth and the throat. Coughing and sneezing also showed up. Then chest pains and stomach cramps began to inflict the victims. With stomach aching in pain, vomiting followed. The agony from multiple pains and bleeding was then made worst by diarrhea and later dehydration. With thirst, pains, and bleeding, the patient became delirious. His skin then became reddish and pustules began to appear. With 7 to 8 days, the victim succumb to the illness and passed away terribly. Some victims survived but suffered blindness and memory. And some surviving victims became infected again only after some days. A Great Plague then begun to spread.

The plague that struck Piraeus then spread to the crowded city of Athens. It crowdedness and the scorching summer became the perfect time and place for a disastrous plague. Many citizens fell dead because of the disease. The exercise and diet of the army did not spared its troops. The disease that inflicted the army caused its operation to be delayed or ineffective. In 430, an expedition of Athenian troops were to launch a siege of Spartan held city-state of Epidaurus. The siege troops, however, became infected by the disease. Even before they arrived, many of them were dead. The lack of manpower caused the failure of the attack.

If the disease infecting the army was bad, the disease infecting its great men was worst. Pericles was also infected by the disease in 429. After few days of suffering, he passed away, leaving Athens in its most dangerous time. Another great man infected by the disease was Thucydides. Thucydides was historian that recorded the whole Peloponnesian War and the Great Athenian Plague as well. It was from his records that the knowledge from the plague came from.

From his work, the History of the Peloponnesian War, he mentioned where the disease came from. According to Thucydides, the plague came from Africa. To be exact, the disease came from Ethiopia. It then later arrived to Egypt where trade between the Egyptians and the Greek were flourishing. Because of this maritime and commercial relations that the disease arrived to the Athenian port of Piraeus.

The Athenians made measures in order to stop the spread. The measures, however, were brutal and cold. Infected Athenians would were to be cared of because of fears that the person caring for the sick would be infected. Family members suffered to see their relatives to die without even seeing proper medical care. Equally terrible, corpses of the infected were not even allowed to be given proper burials with the same fear that those who would bury the victim would be infected. And so corpses of the sick littered the city of Athens causing the continuous spread of the disease.

The disease continued throughout the decade following the outbreak in 430 BCE. After 429 BCE, the disease subsided. Only in 427 BCE, it returned and continued to devastate the city. As time went by, the disease subsided through the following years.

Modern medicine tried to determine what was the plague that hit Athens during ancient times. There are numerous theories. Some said it was anthrax, but some said it was a case of small pox. Even with modern technologies and because of limited records, the true cause of the plague is still unknown.

The disease brought huge effects to Athenians. Casualties from the disease were high. One-third of the population, about 50,000 were dead. The army lost 25% of its force. The cavalry lost 300 out of a thousand of its troops. The effects of the disease to the army caused it to ineffectively fight the Spartans. This loss of strength caused the war to drag on for decades until 404 BCE. The huge loss and trauma to the city of Athens also caused its loss of morale. It ended the golden age of Athens. It lost its leaders and its faith to its Gods. As Athens suffered the bulk of the plague, other city-states were virtually untouched. It caused the Athenians to think that their years of debauchery and immorality caused the Gods to punish them in form of the plague. A moral crusade then began, a return to a moral life. Nevertheless, the plague continued to devastate the whole city. As a result, the people began to worship a new god, the god of medicine, Asklepios. Sophocles and Socrates were said to be devotees of this deity.

The Great Athenian Plague brought the Athens to its knees. The plague caused Athens its people, its leaders, its army, and its culture. It timing caused the loss of Athens might to fight on against the Spartans. The lasting result was the fall of the city in 404 BCE with Spartan capturing the city and burning it. The Great Athenian Plague, the plague that killed Athens.

Kohn, G. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence: From Ancient Time to the Present. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2008.

Sacks, D. Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.