One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic. — Joseph Stalin

Pictures from Greek Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

The Great Plague of Athens

At the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian war the Athenians were fairly entitled to boast that the balance of advantage was not against them. Nothing conclusive, indeed, had been accomplished on either side; but Athens had gained more successes than her adversaries, and had inflicted at least as much loss as she had suffered. The confident expectation of Sparta and her allies, on the other hand, had been utterly disappointed. The general belief, though some better informed or more sagacious observers had dissented, had been that a single campaign would be enough to bring the Athenians to their knees. They would not endure, it was thought, to see their country ravaged. The horror of the spectacle would either drive them into risking a battle, in which defeat was inevitable, or make them sue for peace. Attica was invaded and ravaged for forty days, but the Athenians, though their patience was tried to the uttermost, remained resolutely within their walls. The next year the same tactics were repeated, except that the Peloponnesian army entered Attica earlier in the year. But if they had failed at the first trial they were not likely to succeed on the second. But now the enemies of Athens were assisted by an ally as terrible as it was unexpected. A great plague broke out. Commencing, it was said, in Nubia, it had ravaged Egypt, and from thence had been carried to the ports which had business relations with that country. It found the inhabitants of Athens predisposed to suffer grievously from its ravages. The whole population of Attica was crowded within the city walls. It is difficult to form even an approximate estimate of the numbers, but these must have been very large. Three constituent parts have to be reckoned, the Athenians proper, the resident aliens, and the slaves. Supposing this last to be double the first and second taken together, we may, perhaps, venture on an estimate of six hundred thousand. The available space may, perhaps, be reckoned at four or five square miles. That the crowding was excessive we know from some direct statements and many allusions. The poorer classes were obliged to content themselves with such miserable shelters as hastily constructed cabins and even tubs which were placed under the shelter of the walls. Even consecrated spaces which an immemorial tradition had forbidden to be occupied were made use of under the stress of necessity. The sanitary appliances for this dense multitude were, of course, miserably inefficient; and the water supply deficient, and, it can hardly be doubted, contaminated. It was a common belief at the time that the Peloponnesians poisoned the wells. Such fancies always spring up in times of pestilence. It is not necessary to have recourse to them. It would be only too easy for the wells to be poisoned without the malicious intervention of an enemy. Thucydides gives a full account of this terrible calamity.

"The year had previously been remarkably free from illness; now every disorder terminated in this. Others, who were in perfect health, were suddenly attacked by this ailment. First, came violent heat in the head, and redness and inflammation of the eyes. The throat and tongue assumed a bloody tinge, and the breath became unnaturally fetid. The next symptoms were sneezing and hoarseness, and after this the pain descended to the chest, and was accompanied by a violent cough. Sometimes the disease settled in the stomach and caused violent vomiting. In many cases, however, there was much ineffectual retching, attended by spasmodic pain, lasting much longer in some cases than in others. Externally the body was not very hot, neither was there much pallor. On the contrary, the skin was red or livid, and covered with small pimples or sores. The internal heat, however, was so violent that the patient could not bear clothing or linen of even the lightest kind to be laid upon him. His chief desire seemed to be to throw himself into cold water. Those that were not carefully watched did so, plunging into cisterns in the agony of their unquenchable thirst, a thirst which was equally troublesome, whether they drank much or little. The body did not fall away as much as might have been expected. As long as the fever lasted it held out wonderfully. Most cases terminated fatally, either on the seventh or the ninth day, while there was some strength still left. Escaping that, the patient was afflicted by a violent diarrhœa. Many died from the weakness this caused. Generally it was to be noted that the disease began in the head and passed through the whole body. Not a few of those who escaped with their lives suffered in their extremities, losing fingers or toes; in some the eyesight was destroyed. Others, on recovering, had a total loss of memory, and did not know their friends or even themselves. One notable thing seemed to distinguish this disease from others with which mankind are attacked. The birds and beasts that prey on human bodies, in this case did not come near the corpses of those who perished of the plague, though many lay unburied, or they died from feeding on them. There was, indeed, a marked disappearance of birds of prey. The effect on the dogs, which, as domestic animals, are more easily observed, was still more manifest.

"Whether the sick were neglected or most carefully treated, the result seemed to be much the same. No constitution was fortified against attack, the most careful attention to diet was of no avail. Of all the symptoms that accompanied the disease, the most painful was the extreme depression that settled upon those who felt themselves attacked by it. They abandoned themselves to despair, and made no attempt to bear up against it. The new-comers who had crowded into the city, suffered most. Living, as they did, not in houses, but in stifling cabins, and that in the very height of the summer, they died in crowds. They might be seen lying one on another in the death agony, while half dying creatures, in their longing for water, rolled about the fountains. The sacred enclosures were full of corpses, for in the general despair, all laws, sacred and profane, were disregarded. The custom of burial was observed no longer, the dead being disposed of in the readiest way possible. Some would place the corpse of a relation on funeral piles that had been prepared for others, and so set fire to them, or they would do the same while the pile was actually burning.

"Lawlessness increased terribly. Poor men came suddenly into the possession of property, and determined to enjoy what had come to them so speedily, and might pass out of their hands as soon. Of honour there was little thought; who could tell whether he might not be cut off before he could grasp it. Only the pleasure of the moment seemed to be worth caring for. As for the fear of the gods, or the laws of men, they were of no avail. The godly and the ungodly were seen to perish alike, and it seemed unlikely that a man would live to answer for his offences."

The writer of this account tells us that he was himself attacked by the disease. His account of the symptoms leaves little doubt that it was something of the typhus kind. We do not know the amount of the mortality caused by this terrible visitation. Probably the number was not accurately ascertained even at the time. That it was frightfully large we may take for certain. Out of a force of four thousand heavy-armed troops, under the command of Hagnon, which vainly attempted to take Potidæa, as many as fifteen hundred died. The infection is said to have been communicated to the force already in Thrace by the new arrivals from the city.

We are equally in the dark as to the nature and means of the treatment employed by the physicians of the time. There is a story that the famous Hippocrates was called in by the Athenians, and that he ordered large bonfires to be lighted in the streets and squares of the city. One author gives the prescription of the medicine which he is said to have administered, but the whole narrative is probably fictitious.