[Socrates] was so well-disciplined in his way of life that on several occasions when plague broke out in Athens he was the only man who escaped infection.
— Diogenes Laertius
In 430 BC, Athens was devastated by plague. We don’t know exactly what caused it but it’s been speculated that it was a form of typhus, typhoid, or possibly smallpox. What happened during the Athenian Plague seems to foreshadow aspects of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Our own experiences probably also help us to better understand what the ancient Athenians must have been going through. I won’t labour the obvious parallels but rather I’ll just tell the story and mention some comparisons briefly along the way…
The epidemic spread throughout the Mediterranean but Athens, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the region, was hit hardest of all. Attica, the area encompassing Athens, had a total population of roughly a quarter of a million, including thousands of foreign residents and maybe a hundred thousand slaves. The disease was apparently brought into the Greek port of Piraeus by travellers and merchants, from whence it quickly escalated into an epidemic, tearing through the population of neighbouring Athens.
After the first outbreak began to relent, the Athenians must have breathed a collective sigh of relief. Unfortunately, though, there were two further major outbreaks of the plague in Athens, occurring in 429 and 427 BC. Altogether, it killed approximately one third of the population, including Pericles himself, their most senior statesman and general. Even worse, the plague struck at the outset of the lengthy Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), in which Athens and her allies, known as the Delian League, faced Sparta at the head of the rival Peloponnesian League.
The Spartans and their allies had just invaded Attica, the area surrounding Athens, when the plague struck the city, but it didn’t really affect the Peloponnese region, where Sparta is located. The Spartans occupied Attica for 40 days, we’re told, before departing, possibly frightened off by the plague affecting Athens. So the plague’s effect on the war was very one-sided. As we’ll see, the philosopher Socrates, was caught right in the middle of all this.
The Plague in Homer’s Iliad
To understand fifth century Athens you have to turn to the eighth century writings of Homer, which formed part of the foundation of Greek culture. Every educated Athenian knew very well that The Iliad opens with the tale of a terrible plague that afflicted the Greek army besieging Troy. Particularly from a religious perspective, this story loomed large in their minds when faced with their own plague.
Homer says that the Greek king Agamemnon seized the daughter of one of Apollo’s Trojan priests and refused to return her in exchange for a ransom. In desperation, the girl’s father prayed to Apollo, “god of the silver bow,” asking him:
If I have ever decked your temple with garlands, or burned your thigh-bones in fat of bulls or goats, grant my prayer, and let your arrows avenge these my tears upon the Greeks. — The Iliad
Apollo was indeed angry and sent a plague to punish Agamemnon and the Greek army camped on the beaches of Troy.
He came down furious from the summits of Olympus, with his bow and his quiver upon his shoulder, and the arrows rattled on his back with the rage that trembled within him. He sat himself down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrow in the midst of them. First he smote their mules and their hounds, but presently he aimed his shafts at the people themselves, and all day long the pyres of the dead were burning. — The Iliad
Homer says this continued for ten days before the hero Achilles, complaining “we are being cut down by war and pestilence at once”, consulted a seer to learn why Apollo was angry, and how the Greeks could appease him. The plague was finally lifted when they dedicated a day to praying, singing hymns to the gods, and making sacrifices, and returned the captured girl to her father, the priest of Apollo.
The Iliad was as important to fifth century Athenians as The Bible is to Christians. This story comes in the very opening lines — it was extremely well-known. The Plague of Athens was therefore inevitably attributed to having angered the god Apollo, through hubris. Although this famous tale from The Iliad still loomed large in their minds, nevertheless, the Athenians soon discovered that no amount of sacrifice to the gods would offer them protection from the plague that now ravaged their home.
Our main source for information about the Athenian Plague is the History of the Peloponnesian War written by the Athenian general Thucydides. He echoes Homer’s words when he says of his countrymen that both “war and pestilence at once pressed heavy upon them.”
Thucydides was in an extraordinary position to provide an account as he actually contracted the plague and survived to tell the tale.
I shall simply set down its nature, and explain the symptoms by which perhaps it may be recognized by the student, if it should ever break out again. This I can the better do, as I had the disease myself, and watched its operation in the case of others.
He claims the disease was first reported in Africa, passing from Ethiopia into Egypt and Libya. It then crossed the Mediterranean Sea, and appeared in the port of Piraeus, before spreading to neighbouring Athens. Thucydides describes it as the worst plague anyone could recall: “a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered.”
Thucydides says physicians could not identify the cause of the disease, in order to agree upon a diagnosis. He describes the symptoms in detail, although not always in a way that would help us retrospectively diagnose the condition. Symptoms began suddenly when people, even those in good health, were afflicted by overwhelming sensations of heat in their head, and reddening and inflammation in their eyes. The throat and tongue also typically became bloody and emitted an unusual and extremely unpleasant odour.
These initial symptoms were followed by by sneezing and hoarseness. Pain then spread to the chest, and a hard cough would develop. The illness would sometimes affect the stomach, causing upset, and “discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress.” In most of these cases an ineffectual retching followed, accompanied by violent spasms. Sometimes this lasted only a short while, sometimes longer.
The skin would become reddish and livid, breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. However, the body was neither very hot to the touch nor pale in appearance. Internally, though, sufferers reported a burning sensation and often expressed a desire to strip naked as they could not bear clothing or even the very lightest linen to touch their skin. What they said they craved most was to throw themselves into cold water. Some of the untended, Thucydides claims, actually plunged themselves into the city’s rainwater tanks to quench their agonizing thirst. However, it made no difference how much they drank.
Moreover, those afflicted by the disease were continually tormented by an inability to sleep or even rest. The body did not actually waste away while the fever was still at its height. This meant that victims typically survived to be tortured by these and other unpleasant symptoms. When they finally succumbed, usually around the seventh or eighth day, due to internal inflammation, they still had some strength in their limbs. If they survived this stage, and the disease descended further into the bowels, it induced violent ulceration there leading to severe diarrhea, which would weaken and finally kill them.
In other words, Thucydides says, symptoms began in the head, and spread through the whole of the body. Indeed, even when the victims survived they would still be left with permanent damage to their extremities. The disease could reach the genitals, fingers and the toes, and many survived but lost these. Some also lost their sight. Some had complete amnesia at first, on recovering, and did not recognize either themselves or their friends. Thucydides also claims that birds and other animals that feed on corpses disappeared and that domestic dogs were infected by the plague and showed broadly similar symptoms to humans.
However, Thucydides claims that by far the worst symptom was the profound depression into which many sufferers were cast by discovering they had the illness, leaving them feeling helpless and without the will to fight for their lives. (Some people have reported feeling profoundly depressed after developing COVID-19 symptoms, there have been suicides, and others have experienced mental health problems simply due to the social impact of the pandemic.)
Effect of Overpopulation
At the outset of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles had withdrawn his troops behind the safety of Athens’ city walls. His strategy involved relying on Athens’ superior navy against Sparta and her allies. However, this led to the sudden migration of many families from rural Attica, seeking protection in Athens. With the city straining to accommodate the influx of refugees, and public hygiene suffering, Athens now provided a perfect breeding ground for infectious disease.
An aggravation of the existing calamity was the influx from the country into the city, and this was especially felt by the new arrivals. As there were no houses to receive them, they had to be lodged at the hot season of the year in stifling cabins, where the mortality raged without restraint. The bodies of dying men lay one upon another, and half-dead creatures reeled about the streets and gathered round all the fountains in their longing for water. — Thucydides
Many sought refuge in the temples but these ended up full of the corpses of others who had died there. (COVID-19 has spread particularly quickly through care homes, and other residences where vulnerable individuals live in close proximity to one another — it has also spread rapidly through some densely populated modern cities, such as London and NYC.)
Thucydides tells us that physicians, at first, had no idea what to do in response to the plague and were therefore of little help to anyone. Diets and other treatments they tried had no consistent benefits. Both the strong and weak alike were struck down and died.
Ancient Greeks typically assumed that plagues were sent as a punishment from the gods, as in The Iliad. Thucydides says that as the physicians failed to treat the initial outbreak, the people quickly turned to temples for divine guidance. This proved to be no help either. The people tried offering ritual sacrifices to the gods, he says, until “the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether.” Sufferers crowded in temples, seeking help, along with homeless refugees from the Attic countryside, but the disease spread quickly among those living in cramped conditions, in close proximity to one another.
During wars, a catastrophe such as a plague was naturally viewed as a sign that the gods favoured the opposing side, in this case the Spartans and their Peloponnesian allies. Apollo, the god of healing, was also the god of plagues, as we’ve seen. Perhaps this had implications for Socrates’ claim that he was serving the god Apollo by pursuing the study of philosophy. The plague added greatly to the fear of angering the gods. Impiety, was of course, one of the charges that ultimately led to Socrates’ execution, albeit three decades after the plague. (During the modern pandemic conspiracy theories and pseudoscience flourish — we don’t blame the god Apollo but look for other scapegoats.)
Deaths of Carers and Physicians
As they were in frequent close contact with the infected, physicians and carers became infected themselves. The greatest number of deaths, Thucydides says, came from people who caught the disease while nursing others. Either victims perished alone, through neglect, because others were afraid to visit their homes, or those tending them risked their own lives in doing so, and many died in this way. Athenians were therefore thrown into abject despair by what Thucydides calls the “the awful spectacle of men dying like sheep”.
This had the baleful consequence that many of the best, and most honourable, citizens were the first to die. Some brave souls tried to do good and selflessly attended sick friends, “where even the members of the family were at last worn out by the moans of the dying, and succumbed to the force of the disaster.” However, they risked their own lives and were often lost as a result. Over time, though, those who had recovered from the disease themselves found that they could attend to the sick without becoming reinfected.
These knew what it was from experience, and had now no fear for themselves; for the same man was never attacked twice — never at least fatally. And such persons not only received the congratulations of others, but themselves also, in the elation of the moment, half entertained the vain hope that they were for the future safe from any disease whatsoever.
(Today, doctors and nurses have been particularly exposed to the novel coronavirus, and many have died while trying to administer care to others. Perhaps if some people do acquire lasting immunity, they could find themselves in a position to help sufferers.)
The Athenians were relieved when the initial outbreak of the plague was over. Unfortunately, their troubles were just beginning. They had to face another two major outbreaks, the second of which claimed Pericles, their leader. (We’ve yet to see whether the coronavirus will return in waves after the initial outbreaks, although epidemiologists warn this is likely, so society should prepare in advance.)
Moral Panic / Law and Order
According to Thucydides, the impact of the plague on Athenian society led to a breakdown in law and order. We’re told that as people realized their lives were in serious peril, they began to disregard the law, and started committing more crimes. The response was a clamp-down with more draconian laws being passed to try to tighten control.
As the disaster passed all bounds, men, not knowing what was to become of them, became utterly careless of everything, whether sacred or profane.
Established burial rites were abandoned and bodies had to be disposed of with less care, e.g., tossed on an existing funeral pyre. Thucydides may also be alluding to the use of mass graves, one of which, a shaft containing 240 bodies, was uncovered by archaeologists in Athens in the 1990s.
Thucydides says that “Men now coolly ventured on what they had formerly done in a corner”, acting dishonourably and without regard to the future. Many suddenly came into money when the wealthy died unexpectedly. They began squandering their wealth because they felt that their own lives could end at any moment. He writes: “Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them.”
People became disillusioned with religion as they readily saw that others suffered and died whether or not they sacrificed to the gods. Nobody respected the law because nobody expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and punished for his offences and they were, in any case, more afraid of the plague than of the courts. So they began to live for the moment and behaved recklessly. (We’ve not seen a major breakdown of law and order yet but there are some signs that the pandemic has affected policing and the criminal justice system.)
Socrates and the Plague
During the initial outbreak of the Athenian Plague, Socrates, aged around 38, was apparently serving as a hoplite, or heavy infantryman, in the Battle of Potidaea. In 432 BC, the Athenians had sent a force to attack the rebellious city of Potidaea, a former tribute-paying ally. They ended up laying siege to its defences for about three years, one of the events that triggered the ensuing Peloponnesian War.
Once the initial outbreak of plague hit Athens, it quickly spread to the soldiers who were now two years into their siege of Potidaea. According to Thucydides, the troops camped at Potidaea were infected with the plague by reinforcements arriving from Athens. By this time, the Athenians camped by the enemy city had been cut off from their supplies and were suffering considerable hardship as a result. Socrates, however, is remembered for his self-discipline and resilience during the siege and epidemic.
During one intense battle, the Athenian lines broke, and their troops began to scatter in retreat. Alcibiades was wounded but Socrates single-handedly rescued him, saving his comrade’s life. Plato set The Charmides the day after Socrates returned from Potidaea. It says little about the events except for mentioning Socrates’ long absence from Athens on military service and the fact that on the journey home some of his friends had been slain in skirmishes. It perhaps comes across as though Socrates doesn’t want to dwell on the experience.
In Plato’s Symposium, however, Alcibiades is portrayed describing how, when they served together during the Potidaea campaign, Socrates would enter meditative trances to the amazement of his fellow soldiers. After recounting tales of Socrates’ bravery, Alcibiades quotes from Homer’s Odyssey, comparing him to the Ithacan king, adventurer, and general Odysseus.
You should hear what else he did during that same campaign, ‘The exploit our strong-hearted hero dared to do.’ One day, at dawn, he started thinking about some problem or other; he just stood outside, trying to figure it out. He couldn’t resolve it, but he wouldn’t give up. He simply stood there, glued to the same spot. By midday, many soldiers had seen him, and, quite mystified, they told everyone that Socrates had been standing there all day, thinking about something. He was still there when evening came, and after dinner some Ionians moved their bedding outside, where it was cooler and more comfortable (all this took place in the summer), but mainly in order to watch if Socrates was going to stay out there all night. And so he did; he stood in the very same spot until dawn! He only left next morning, when the Sun came out, and he made his prayers to the new day.
— Plato, The Symposium
Socrates seems to have gotten on with life relatively untroubled while serving at Potidaea, despite the fact the Athenian camp was badly affected both by the disease and by having their supplies cut off. Whereas others panicked and struggled to cope with the food shortages, he seems to have remained more composed.
Xenophon, an accomplished Athenian general and close friend of Socrates, portrays him describing how he trained himself to endure hardship and deprivation.
Don’t you think that I, who am always training myself to put up with the things that happen to my body, find everything easier to bear than you do with your neglect of training?
Which could more readily go on military service — the man who can’t live without an expensive diet, or the one who is content with whatever is to hand? And which would be sooner reduced to surrender in a siege — the one whose requirements are most difficult to obtain, or the one who is satisfied with whatever he comes across? — Memorabilia
Today, lockdown and the other social consequences of the impact are a challenge for many people who struggle to put up with the change to their lifestyle. Socrates was a minimalist, though, untroubled by deprivation.
I have always thought that to need nothing is divine, and to need as little as possible is the nearest approach to the divine; and that what is divine is best, and what is nearest to the divine is the next best.
During the siege of Potidaea, when the Athenians were dying from plague and starving for food, Socrates was apparently quite content, using the time to practice meditation and contemplate philosophy.
Previously Published on Medium
Plague in an Ancient City by Michiel Sweerts, public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and LACMA