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Thucydides on the Plague

Book 2:47-55 - The Plague 430 BC

In this way the public funeral was conducted in the winter that came at the end of the first year of the war. At the beginning of the following summer the Peloponnesians and their allies, with two-thirds of their total force as before, invaded Attica, again under the command of the Spartan King Archidamus, the son of Zeuxidamus. Taking up their positions, they set about the devastation of the country.

They had not been many days in Attica before the plague first broke out among the Athenians. Previously attacks of the plague had been reported from many other places in the neighbourhood of Lemnos and elsewhere, but there was no record of the disease being so virulent anywhere else or causing so many deaths as it did in Athens. At the beginning the 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. Nor was any other human art or science of any help at all. Equally useless were prayers made in the temples, consultation of oracles, and so forth; indeed, in the end people were so overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things.

The plague originated, so they say, in Ethiopia in upper Egypt, and spread from there into Egypt itself and Libya and much of the territory of the King of Persia. In the city of Athens it appeared suddenly, and the first cases were among the population of Piraeus, where there were no wells at that time, so that it was supposed by them that the Peloponnesians had poisoned the reservoirs. Later, however, it appeared also in the upper city, and by this time the deaths were greatly increasing in number. As to the question of how it could first have come about or what causes can be found adequate to explain its powerful effect on nature, I must leave that to be considered by other writers, with or without medical experience. I myself shall merely describe what it was like, and set down the symptoms, knowledge of which will enable it to be recognized, if it should ever break out again. I had the disease myself and saw others suffering from it .

That year, as is generally admitted, was particularly free from all other kinds of illness, though those who did have any illness previously all caught the plague in the end. In other cases, however, there seemed to be no reason for the attacks. People in perfect health suddenly began to have burning feelings in the head; their eyes became red and inflamed; inside their mouths 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 before long the pain settled on the chest and was accompanied by coughing. Next the stomach was affected with stomach-aches and with vomitings of every kind of bile that has been given a name by the medical profession, all this being accompanied by great pain and difficulty. In most cases there were attacks of ineffectual retching, producing violent spasms; this sometimes ended with this stage of the disease, but sometimes continued long afterwards. Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor was there any pallor: the skin was rather reddish and livid, breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But inside there was a feeling of burning, so that people could not bear the touch even of the lightest linen clothing, but wanted to be completely naked, and indeed most of all would have liked to plunge into cold water. Many of the sick who were uncared for did so, plunging into the water tanks in an effort to relieve a thirst which was unquenchable; for it was just the same with them whether they drank much or little. Then all the time they were afflicted with insomnia and the desperate feeling of not being able to keep still.

In the period when the disease was at its height, the body, so far from wasting away, showed surprising powers of resistance to all the agony, so that there was still some strength left on the seventh or eighth day, which was the time when, in most cases, death came from the internal fever. But if people survived this critical period, then the disease descended to the bowels, producing violent ulceration and uncontrollable diarrhoea, so that most of them died later as a result of the weakness caused by this. For the disease, first settling in the head, went on to affect every part of the body in turn, and even when people escaped its worst effects, it still left its traces on them by fastening upon the extremities of the body. It affected the genitals, the fingers and the toes, and many of those who recovered lost the use of these members; some, too, went blind. There were also some who, when they first began to get better, suffered from a total loss of memory, not knowing who they were themselves and being unable to recognize their friends.

Words indeed fail one when one tries to give a general picture of this disease; and as for the sufferings of individuals, they seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure. Here in particular is a point where this plague showed itself to eb something quite different from ordinary diseases: though there were many dead bodies lying about unburied, the birds and animals that eat human flesh either did not come near them, or, if they did taste the flesh, died of it afterwards. Evidence for this may be found in the fact that there was a complete disappearance of all birds of prey: they were not to be seen either round the bodies or anywhere else . But dogs, being domestic animals, provided the best opportunity of observing this effect of the plague.

These, then, were the general features of the disease, though I have omitted all kinds of peculiarities when occurred in various individual cases. Meanwhile, during all this time there was no serious outbreak of any of the usual kinds of illness; if any such cases did occur, they ended in the plague. Some died in neglect, some in spite of every possible care being taken of them. As for a recognized method of treatment, it would be true to say that no such thing existed: what did good in some cases did harm in others. Those with naturally strong constitutions were no better able than the weak to resist the disease, which carried away all alike, even those who were treated and dieted with the greatest care. The most terrible thing of all was the despair into which people fell when they realized that they had caught the plague; for they would immediately adopt an attitude of utter hopelessness, and, by giving in in this way, would lose their powers of resistance. Terrible, too, was the sight of people dying like sheep through having caught the disease as a result of nursing others. This indeed caused more deaths than anything else. For when people were afraid to visit the sick, then they died with no one to look after them; indeed, there were many houses in which all the inhabitants perished through lack of any attention. When, on the other hand, they did visit the sick, they lost their own lives, and this was particularly true of those who made it a point of honour to act properly. Such people felt ashamed to think of their own safety and went into their friends’ houses at times when even the members of the household were so overwhelmed by the weight of their calamities that they had actually given up the usual practice of making laments for the dead. Yet still the ones who felt most pity for the sick and dying were those who had had the plague themselves and had recovered from it. They knew what it was like and at the same time felt themselves to be safe, for no one caught the disease twice, or, if he did, the second attack was never fatal. Such people were congratulated on all sides, and they themselves were so elated at the time of their recovery that they fondly imagined that they could never die of any other disease in the future.

A factor which made matters much worse than they were already was the removal of people from the country into the city, and this particularly affected the incomers. There were no houses for them, and, living as they did during the hot season in badly ventilated huts, they died like flies. The bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the others, and half-dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water. The temples in which they took up their quarters were full of the dead bodies of people who had died inside them. For the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or of law. All the funeral ceremonies which used to be observed were now disorganized, and they buried the dead as best they could. 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.

In other respects also Athens owed to the plague the beginnings of a state of unprecedented lawlessness. Seeing how quick and abrupt were the changes of fortune which came to the rich who suddenly died and to those who had previously been penniless who now inherited their wealth, people now began openly to venture on acts of self-indulgence which before then they used to keep dark . Thus they resolved to spend their money quickly and to spend it on pleasure, since money and life alike seemed equally ephemeral. As for what is called honour, no one showed himself willing to abide by its laws, so doubtful was it whether one would survive to enjoy the name for it. It was generally agreed that what was both honourable and valuable was the pleasure of the moment and everything that might conceivably contribute to that pleasure. No fear of god or law of man had a restraining influence. As for the gods, it seemed to be the same thing whether one worshipped them or not, when one saw the good and the bad dying indiscriminately. As for offences against human law, no one expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and punished: instead everyone felt that already a far heavier sentence had been passed on him and was hanging over him, and that before the time for its execution arrived it was only natural to get some pleasure out of life.

This, then, was the calamity which fell upon Athens, and the times were hard indeed, with men dying inside the city and the land outside being laid waste. At this time of distress people naturally recalled old oracles, and among them was a verse which the old men claimed had been delivered in the past and which said:

War with the Dorians comes, and a death will come at the same time.

There had been a controversy as to whether the word in this ancient verse was “dearth” rather than “death” ; but in the present state of affairs the view that the word was “death” naturally prevailed; it was a case of people adapting their memories to suit their sufferings . Certainly I think that if there is ever another war with the Dorians after this one, and if a dearth results from it, then in all probability people will quote the other version .

Then also the oracle that was given to the Spartans was remembered by those who knew of it: that when they inquired from the god whether they should go to war, they received the reply that, if they fought with all their might, victory would be theirs and that the god himself would be on their side. What was actually happening seemed to fit in well with the words of this oracle ; certainly the plague broke out directly after the Peloponnesian invasion, and never affected the Peloponnese at all, or not seriously; its full force was felt at Athens, and, after Athens, in the most densely populated of the other towns.

Such were the events connected with the plague. Meanwhile the Peloponnesians, after laying waste the Attic plain, moved on into the Paralian district as far as Laurium, where the Athenian silver-mines are. First they laid waste the side that looks towards the Peloponnese, and then the other side facing Euboea and Andros.

Thucydides (1972), History of the Peloponnesian War, tr R Warner, intro M I Finlay, St Ives, Penguin Books


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 12th, 2005 02:08 am (UTC)
Thank you for going to the trouble of posting all of this historical background!
Sep. 12th, 2005 06:48 am (UTC)
I'm going to read this over my breakfast, thank you... I've just picked up a book called 'The Poloponnesian War' by Donald Kagan, which I hope is going to be useful for background, as I'm just starting writing Phaedo fic. Have you heard of/read it?
Sep. 12th, 2005 09:05 am (UTC)
Donald Kagan
I don't know the book, but by coincidence I was reading an article in the Washington Post, over my branflakes, by Robert Kagan, who quoted his father quoting Thucydides channelling Pericles. So I checked and Donald Kagan is his father: see


Reading this, I'm not sure if I would choose him as a primer on history. But that's up to you. And Thucydides does say that the same problems arise in history again and again, and it's good to recognize them.
Sep. 12th, 2005 09:09 am (UTC)
Re: Donald Kagan
Ooh, yes, I would tend to agree with you! Thank you for that. I'll make sure I do other reading as well before I embark...

PS I had toast and marmalade!
Sep. 12th, 2005 09:13 am (UTC)
Re: Donald Kagan
I'd never heard/retained the name of either of them until your post. Then 5 minutes after I read that, I come across a Kagan quoting Thucydides. How's that for coincidence!
Sep. 12th, 2005 09:33 am (UTC)
Re: Donald Kagan
Ooh, I do love synchronicity!
Sep. 12th, 2005 09:41 am (UTC)
Re: Donald Kagan
So do I! And not just synchronicity, but serendipity as well.
Sep. 12th, 2005 11:03 am (UTC)
Thanks a lot for typing this up, and for redirecting me here! ^_^
It hasn't made me want to throw myself into the abyss, although the bit about unquenchable thirsts and internal burning has me a little...jittery. ^_^;
It's all very interesting and Masque-of-the-Red-Death-ish, and the thing about whether the prophecy says "death" or "dearth" is amusing (in a morbid way, I suppose)...although I do wonder what it sounds like in Greek.
Sep. 12th, 2005 03:40 pm (UTC)
According to the foreword of my Penguin edition 'dearth' is 'limos', compared to 'death' or 'loimos'. The on-line translation gives 'limos' as 'failure of harvest, famine' - which is pretty good for dearth, I think. And loimos comes out as plague or pestilence, and is used in the original Greek (translation) of the Bible. So dearth and death were just a lucky combination for the translation, rather than sticking to the non-confusable famine and plague!

Some translators have all the luck!
Sep. 13th, 2005 01:37 pm (UTC)
Wow! That was certainly one heck of a lucky chance for the translator! I can almost imagine the dance of triumph he must have done when he realized that he'd found such perfect words. ^_^
Sep. 12th, 2005 12:11 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this! The Gutenberg Project has a History of the Peloponnesian War, but the translation is ratrher old and considerably more unwieldy than this!
Sep. 12th, 2005 06:49 pm (UTC)
Yes, this is an almost enjoyable translation, even if it does date back to 1954 - but then we're used to reading books dating back that far.

If I recommend it, perhaps they won't mind me quoting huge chunks of it!
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )



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