Such was the History of the Plague

By Danielle Saade

Plagues, panic and fear; in times of unprecedented crisis, history has never been more relevant. How can the social response of ancient societies inform modern choices? COVID-19 is not the first pandemic to hit, nor will it be the last. What can we learn from the past, what legacy can we leave for the future?

Such was the nature of the calamity, and heavily did it weigh on the Athenians; death raging within the city and devastation without. Among other things which they remembered in their distress was, very naturally, the following verse which the old men said had long ago been uttered: A Dorian war shall come and with it death.… Such was the history of the plague.

Thucydides 2.54.1-2, 5, trans. Crawley.

Plagues and Panic: A Continuation

History is valued for what it can teach us about the past and how that knowledge can inform the present and future. Society is accustomed to repeating the mistakes of the past as human nature persistently veers towards forgetfulness. Antiquity reveals the recurring conditions of crisis; panic, fear and hysteria.

2020 has seen our world plummet into a global health and economic crisis within a matter of months. The emergence of Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) has thrown the modern world into a state of emergency. At this time, a reflection on previous crises can be useful in informing the present. If not providing a gleaming goal, it will serve as a dire warning.

Plagues in Antiquity

The Athenian Plague

The Athenian plague of the 5th century BC, viewed through Thucydides’ history, reveals a familiar human response to sickness and contagion. The epidemic began in 430 BC, during the second year of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides glosses over the origin and spread of the disease and notes the speculation that arose as every man had his own opinion on the matter (Thuc.2.48.2). He focuses on recording the symptoms of the disease, including: fever, red and inflamed eyes, sneezing, hoarseness, violent coughing, bloodied tongue and throat and violent convulsions (Thuc.2.49).

Throughout the initial spread of the disease, physicians were one of the first to be infected due to the nature of their work and their attempts at remedying the infection (Thuc.2.47.3-4). The rapid speed of the infection was propelled by the contamination of cisterns and fountains, which had become inundated with the sick who were overwhelmed by fever (Thuc.2.50, 52). Thucydides observes that the principal cause of mortality was the healthy constantly interacting with the sick, as they visited to care for them or to lament (Thuc.2.51.4). Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the plague was the ensuing depravity that overwhelmed Athenian society, motivated by fear, panic and hysteria.

The written evidence records that the dead were found in the streets, looting and rape soared and there was an abandonment of moral ideologies and practices. While this serves as a dire warning of social reactions to crisis, the reliability of Thucydides on the plague has been scrutinised by modern scholars (Hillard 2006:152). Many conclude that his literary style is exaggerated for effect, although there is no reason to doubt the truth of the details he recorded of the plague. Hillard highlights the observation that the plague inflicted a blow from which Athens never entirely recovered (Hillard 2006:151). While there is a risk of moral depravity throughout crises, the question must be asked: how will the decisions made within emergencies impact the economy and the future?

The Athenian plague is a warning of the social response to a crisis. The plague of the 5th century does not inform us of the perfect response, rather it warns us of the dangers of rising calamity that can take hold in society and is proof that the effects of a plague endure long after the illness has settled (Johansen & Mirhady 2009:75). The Athenian Plague returned in the winter of 427/6 BC, which Hillard had very tentatively posited might have been more deadly than the first bout of illness (Thuc.3.87; Hillard 2006: 160). The recurring nature of disease points to the first concern for the future, which is our basic health, the second concern would be our moral judgment and economic stability. In a recent interview with Associate Professor Tom Hillard of Macquarie University, he raises these same concerns with reference to COVID-19 and asks what ramifications will this pandemic have for the future (pers. comm. T. Hillard)?

In another interview with Professor Ian Worthington, of Macquarie University, he posits that the collapse of morality in Athens was due to the overwhelming fear that grew in society (pers. comm. I. Worthington). Much like Hillard, Worthington asks the question of our own society: what change will people find after this? Not only economically, but morally and socially. While we must endure the very real health risks of COVID-19 we must also be wary of the social implications it can have on modern morality.

The Plague of Justinian

During these times there was a pestilence, by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated.

Procopius, Wars, 2.22.1, trans. Dewing.

The Plague of Justinian was a disease that impacted Northern and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia during the reign of Justinian in 541 AD (Horden 2005:134). Procopius’ judgement of the scale of the plague is dramatic since it was of an unprecedented magnitude (Horden 2005:134). The plague travelled throughout the known world and had devastating effects on such a large scale. The most concerning aspect of the Plague of Justinian was its endurance. The first wave of infections began in 541 AD, but evidence of multiple waves of the pandemic continued until 750 AD (Horden 2005:138). The symptoms of the plague, as recorded by Procopius, included: fever, delirium, insomnia, vomiting blood, black pustules and bubonic swelling (Horden 2005:140-143). Horden concedes that summarising the impact of the plague on this era “is virtually to rewrite the demographic, economic, social, cultural, and political history of the Mediterranean world in the later sixth and early seventh centuries” (Horden 2005:153). The Plague of Justinian was not recorded to have brought moral depravity like that of the Athenians, however, it emphasises another warning. The recurring waves of the Plague of Justinian (similar to the devastating return of the Athenian plague in the winter of 427/6 BC) is a relevant caution in the current crisis to be prepared for the possible repetitive intensity of disease.

The Relevance of Ancient Plagues

A concerning theme recorded in some plagues of antiquity is the overwhelming social depravity that takes hold in, even, the most advanced and intellectual societies. Both the Romans and Athenians were leading powers in their time, enjoying the most advanced technologies of their respective era. The overwhelming spread of fear and anxiety was understood to destroy the social and moral integrity of these civilisations. The risk of repeating history is not so unrealistic during the current crisis. This may have been a means to comprehend disease and its outcomes, but it could also reflect how people respond to disease with criticism of the behaviour of others. Think today of how the beach-goers at Bondi were characterised before the beach was closed: seen as back-packers, party-goers and hedonists spreading disease.

Today we are more informed and educated and can take practical measures to protect ourselves and others against disease. We look to the past for a comparison and judgement on our actions today, yet the truth of our situation is that we need only look back to our immediate past to be disappointed with certain behaviours. During the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires the Australian community came together with incredible compassion and bravery to assist those in need. Our response during the bushfire emergency was one to be proud of and a credit to our nation. We cannot say the same for this pandemic. The social dynamic has already changed to ‘every man for himself’, one only needs to mention ‘toilet paper’ to trigger the not-so-distant memory of panic buying that alarmed the state. Although we in New South Wales have not fallen into anarchy, we certainly have fallen into hysteria.

We are responsible for ourselves and our actions. How will you contribute to the legacy we all will leave during this time of crisis? Will we turn to the anarchy of the Athenians, the fear of the Romans, or will we be proud of our response 50 years in the future?

Looking to the Future

The perpetual nature of plagues and pandemics in history is a reminder that the effects and consequences of crises survive well into the future. While the health effects might dwindle for a season, it is essential to practise caution. The history of plagues attests to their longevity, not only in waves of illness, but moral and economic ramifications in society that are symptoms of the changes brought about by earlier pandemics.

From the past, we can observe both ethical and adverse reactions to crises, where humanity can either negatively add to their dire circumstances or take great bounds to assist in overcoming their situation. I would encourage us to be like the latter, in the hopes that future generations might use the current crisis and our response to it as an example to inform their own age. In the complicated times that we are now facing, I encourage you all to look out for each other and represent the best of humanity.

Further Readings


Ancient Sources:

Procopius. History of the Wars, Volume II: Books 3-4. (Vandalic War). Translated by H. B. Dewing. Loeb Classical Library 81. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1916.

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 2. Translated by R. Crawley. Kindle: A Public Domain.

Modern Sources:

Cohn, S.K.J., (2018). Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS. Oxford Scholarship Online.

Hillard, T., (2006). Children and the Onset of the Athenian ‘Plague’, Mediterranean Archaeology, 19/20, 151-167.

Horden, P., (2005). Mediterranean Plague in the Age of Justinian. In: M. Maas, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 134–160.

Johansen, M., & Mirhady, D.C., (2009). Belief, fear, and manipulation: the intersection of religion and the Athenian legal system in the second half of the 5th century BCE. Simon Fraser University.

Danielle Saade

Danielle Saade is an undergraduate student at Macquarie University who specialises in Greece, Rome and Late Antiquity. Danielle is a student contributor participating in an internship under the supervision of Professor Ray Laurence for the Ancient History Blog.