The Athenian Plague, a Cautionary Tale of Democracy’s Fragility

In 430–429 B.C.E., a mysterious epidemic ravaged Athens, plunging the city into chaos.Art work by Michiel Sweerts

“Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now,” Pericles, the great Athenian statesman, declared in his funeral oration, a celebrated speech in the winter of 431–430 B.C.E. He wasn’t wrong. We continue to admire Athens’s architectural splendor, stage its tragedies and comedies, and marvel, especially, at much that its democracy (the world’s first) wrought: participatory government, equal treatment before the law in private disputes, a distaste for class consciousness, juries made up of citizens, and tolerance about others’ personal lives.

But soon after Pericles gave that prideful speech, the original democracy got sick. In 430–429 B.C.E., Athens was devastated by a mysterious epidemic, which reared its head again a few years later. Tens of thousands of people died, perhaps as many as one-third of Athenians. Society was ravaged, and the military, which was in the early stages of a brutal twenty-seven-year war against Sparta, was debilitated for many years. The catastrophe contributed to Athens’s shattering defeat, in 404 B.C.E., by the loutish Spartans, who tore down the city’s walls and imposed a short-lived but murderous oligarchy. Among those who died from this plague were Pericles and two of his sons.

Millennia later, the plague reminds us that the legacy of the eternal “wonder” of Athens contains within it a cautionary tale: the failure of democratic society to cope with a lethal epidemic. The model of how democracy began is also a study in how it can founder and fall.

Most of what we know about the plague comes from the brilliant Athenian historian Thucydides, widely viewed by classicists as the single best source on Athens in the age of Pericles. He would not be surprised to find his book being read today, during the coronavirus lockdown. “My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public,” he wrote, with zero modesty, “but was done to last forever.”

Thucydides was a worldly Athenian general, whose “History of the Peloponnesian War” is a cold-eyed account of the ruinous conflict between democratic Athens and militaristic Sparta. The book, although unfinished, established him as the founder of the systematic study of international relations. It was translated into English in 1628 by Thomas Hobbes, and has since been cited by heads of state from Woodrow Wilson to Xi Jinping.

In a book packed with battle, conquest, and massacre, Thucydides’ account of the plague is especially horrifying. A seasoned, hard-bitten warrior, he was, for once, at a loss: “Words indeed fail one when one tries to give a general picture of this disease; and as for the suffering of individuals, they seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure.” Thucydides himself got the plague but survived, as he coolly notes in passing.

Nobody knows what the plague was, although classically minded epidemiologists still debate its cause. It might have been smallpox, a fungal poisoning called ergotism, or something worse. In 1985, a New England Journal of Medicine article argued that it was a combination of influenza and staphylococcus, dubbed “the Thucydides syndrome.” A 1994 article in the American Journal of Epidemiology rejected that diagnosis, proposing, instead, typhus, anthrax, or perhaps “a potentially explosive respiratory agent.”

Whatever it was, it was a horror. As Thucydides recorded with clinical detail, people suddenly felt their heads begin to burn, their eyes redden, their tongues and mouths bleed. Next came coughing, stomach pain, diarrhea, and “vomiting of every kind of bile that has been given a name by the medical profession.” The skin turned reddish with pustules and ulcers, while the stricken plunged into the city’s water tanks trying to slake an unquenchable thirst—possibly contaminating the water supply. Most died after about a week. The city was blanketed with corpses.

Athenians were already packed into the city as a wartime measure, and frightened people fleeing the countryside crowded it even further, creating conditions we now know are ripe for contagion. Athenian doctors bore the brunt: “Terrible . . . was the sight of people dying like sheep through having caught the disease as a result of nursing others.” Neither medicine nor quackery helped. Nor did consulting the oracles or praying in the temples, futile pieties which Thucydides dismissively noted were soon discarded.

Pericles’ stirring funeral oration is among the most famous passages of Thucydides. The statesman praised Athens for its freedom and democratic deliberations, while defending its increasingly oppressive empire. (Athens was only a democracy for adult, male citizens of Athenian descent, not for women or slaves, or for foreigners living under imperial rule.) This message has been remembered: during the First World War, London buses carried posters with passages from the speech; in 2012, a memorial in central London to the R.A.F. Bomber Command was engraved with a quote from it.

But Thucydides’ chronicle of what happened just after Pericles’ funeral oration is unsparing—and should be as enduring as the speech itself. “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,” Thucydides wrote. Orderly Athenians, no longer expecting to live long enough to face punishment for crimes, plunged into “a state of unprecedented lawlessness.” They could not even bother to lay their dead to rest respectably. Instead, survivors looked for already burning funeral pyres, adding friends and relatives to the blaze. And with the spectre of mortality looming at all times, they lived only for “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.”

Many Athenians blamed the calamity on their Spartan enemies, spreading dark rumors of poisoned reservoirs. Yet Thucydides swiftly dismissed such speculation. After all, Athens was a naval power, an imperial capital, and a trading city whose fleets ranged across the ancient world; the contagion, he wrote, probably spread from Ethiopia to Libya to Persia before finally reaching Greece, where Athens—a global port for commercial ships—was its first stop.

And, once it arrived, its damage knew no bounds, doing terrible harm to democracy itself. In Plato’s “Republic,” written several decades after the plague, Socrates warned that democracy would decay into tyranny; Thucydides recorded it sliding into discord, folly, and demagoguery. Only someone of Pericles’ intelligence and integrity, Thucydides wrote, “could respect the liberty of the people and at the same time hold them in check.” His death left Athenian democracy in the hands of self-serving scoundrels such as Alcibiades, who later promoted an oligarchic coup, and bellicose demagogues such as Cleon, whom Thucydides scorned as “remarkable among the Athenians for the violence of his character.”

For anyone hopeful that democracy is the best system for coping with the current coronavirus pandemic, the Athenian disaster stands as a chilling admonition. As Plato knew, political regimes are as fragile as any other human structure, and all fall in time. The plague devastated Athens for many years—Thucydides reckoned it took fifteen years to recover—but his account suggests that the damage to democracy lasted far longer. The stakes of our own vulnerability are no different.

This is a sobering history, but, reading Thucydides’ account of the plague while under lockdown, I sometimes found the frosty old historian oddly heartening. He was too scrupulous to blame the epidemic on the Spartans—an ancient reproach to those today who try to pin blame on foreign rivals. Politicians in search of scapegoats would be wise to recall Pericles, who said, before the plague, “What I fear is not the enemy’s strength, but our own mistakes.”

Thucydides maintained a rationalist’s sensibility even in wartime and plague. Unlike some Athenian dramatists, he saw neither metaphorical significance nor divine retribution in the epidemic. The plague was just a plague. Surviving the disease, he carefully “set down the symptoms, knowledge of which will enable it to be recognized, if it should ever break out again.” His ancient empirical analysis of catastrophe offers a jot of hope, if not wonder: for as long as there have been plagues, there have been people, scared but tenacious, using reason to try to learn from them.

Gary Bass is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton and the author, most recently, of “The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide.”