The Plague of Athens was an epidemic that devastated the city-state of Athens in ancient Greece during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC) when an Athenian victory still seemed within reach. It is believed to have entered Athens through Piraeus, the city's port and sole source of food and supplies. Much of the eastern Mediterranean also saw outbreak of the disease, albeit with less impact. The plague returned twice more, in 429 BC and in the winter of 427/426 BC. Some 30 pathogens have been suggested as causing the plague.
Sparta and its allies, with the exception of Corinth, were almost exclusively land based powers, able to summon large land armies that were very nearly unbeatable. Under the direction of Pericles, the Athenians pursued a policy of retreat within the city walls of Athens, relying on Athenian maritime supremacy for supply while the superior Athenian navy harassed Spartan troop movements. Unfortunately the strategy also resulted in adding many people from the countryside to an already well-populated city, introducing a severe crowding factor as well as resource shortages. Due to the close quarters and poor hygiene exhibited at that time Athens became a breeding ground for disease and many citizens died including Pericles, his wife, and his sons Paralus and Xanthippus. In the history of epidemics the 'Plague' of Athens is remarkable for its one-sided affliction and bias on the ultimate outcome of a war.
In his History of the Peloponnesian War the historian Thucydides, who was present and contracted the disease himself and survived, describes the epidemic. He writes of a disease coming from Ethiopia and passing through Egypt and Libya into the Greek world—a plague so severe and deadly that no one could recall anywhere its like, and physicians ignorant of its nature not only were helpless but themselves died the fastest, having had the most contact with the sick. In overcrowded Athens the disease killed an estimated one third to two thirds of the population. The sight of the burning funeral pyres of Athens caused the Spartans to withdraw their troops being unwilling to risk contact with the diseased enemy. Many of Athens' infantry and expert seamen died, as well as their general Pericles. After the death of Pericles, Athens was led by a succession of leaders Thucydides described as incompetent or weak. According to Thucydides, not until 415 BC had Athens recovered sufficiently to mount a major offensive, the disastrous Sicilian Expedition.
Accounts of the Athenian plague graphically describe the social consequences of an epidemic. Thucydides' account clearly details the complete disappearance of social morals during the time of the plague. The impact of disease on social and religious behavior was also documented during the worldwide pandemic best known as the Black Death.
Fear of the law
Thucydides states that people ceased fearing the law since they felt they were already living under a death sentence. Likewise, people started spending money indiscriminately. Many felt they would not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of wise investment, while some of the poor unexpectedly became wealthy by inheriting the property of their relatives. It is also recorded that people refused to behave honorably because most did not expect to live long enough to enjoy a good reputation for it.
Care for the sick and dead
Another reason for the lack of honorable behavior was the sheer contagiousness of the illness. Those who tended to the ill were most vulnerable to catching the disease. This meant that many people died alone because no one was willing to risk caring for them. The dead were heaped on top of each other, left to rot, or shoved into mass graves. Sometimes those carrying the dead would come across an already burning funeral pyre, dump a new body on it, and walk away. Others appropriated prepared pyres so as to have enough fuel to cremate their own dead. Those lucky enough to survive the plague developed an immunity and so became the main caretakers of those who later fell ill.
A mass grave and nearly 1,000 tombs, dated between 430 and 426 BC, have been found just outside Athens' ancient Kerameikos cemetery. The mass grave was bordered by a low wall that seems to have protected the cemetery from a wetland. Excavated during 1994–95, the shaft-shaped grave may have contained a total of 240 individuals, at least ten of them children. Skeletons in the graves were randomly placed with no layers of soil between them.
Excavator Efi Baziotopoulou-Valavani, of the Third Ephoreia (Directorate) of Antiquities, reported that "[t]he mass grave did not have a monumental character. The offerings we found consisted of common, even cheap, burial vessels; black-finished ones, some small red-figured, as well as white lekythoi (oil flasks) of the second half of the 5th century BC. The bodies were placed in the pit within a day or two. These [factors] point to a mass burial in a state of panic, quite possibly due to a plague."
The plague also caused religious uncertainty and doubt. Since the disease struck without regard to a person's piety toward the gods, people felt abandoned by the gods and there seemed to be no benefit to worshiping them. The temples themselves were sites of great misery, as refugees from the Athenian countryside had been forced to find accommodation in the temples. Soon the sacred buildings were filled with the dead and dying. The Athenians pointed to the plague as evidence that the gods favored Sparta, and this was supported by an oracle that Apollo himself (the god of disease and medicine) would fight for Sparta if they fought with all their might. An earlier oracle had warned that "War with the Dorians [Spartans] comes and at the same time death".
Thucydides is skeptical of these conclusions and believes that people were simply being superstitious. He relies upon the prevailing medical theory of the day, Hippocratic theory, and strives to gather evidence through direct observation. He notes that carrion-eating birds and animals disappeared as a result, though he leaves it an open question whether they died after eating the corpses or refused to eat them and were driven away:
All the birds and beasts that prey upon human bodies, either abstained from touching them (though there were many lying unburied), or died after tasting them. In proof of this, it was noticed that birds of this kind actually disappeared; they were not about the bodies, or indeed to be seen at all.
Historians have long tried to identify the disease behind the Plague of Athens. The disease has traditionally been considered an outbreak of the bubonic plague in its many forms, but reconsiderations of the reported symptoms and epidemiology have led scholars to advance alternative explanations. These include typhus, smallpox, measles, and toxic shock syndrome. Based upon striking descriptive similarities with recent outbreaks in Africa, as well as the fact that the Athenian plague itself apparently came from Africa (as Thucydides recorded), Ebola or a related viral hemorrhagic fever has been considered.
Given the possibility that profiles of a known disease may have morphed over time or the plague was caused by a disease that no longer exists, the exact nature of the Athenian plague may never be known. In addition, crowding caused by the influx of refugees into the city led to inadequate food and water supplies and a probable proportionate increase in insects, lice, rats, and waste. These conditions would have encouraged more than one epidemic disease during the outbreak. However, advancing scientific technologies may reveal new clues.
In January 1999, the University of Maryland devoted their fifth annual medical conference, dedicated to notorious case histories, to the Plague of Athens. They concluded that the disease that killed the Greeks and their military and political leader, Pericles, was typhus. "Epidemic typhus fever is the best explanation," said Dr. David Durack, consulting professor of medicine at Duke University. "It hits hardest in times of war and privation, it has about 20 percent mortality, it kills the victim after about seven days, and it sometimes causes a striking complication: gangrene of the tips of the fingers and toes. The Plague of Athens had all these features." In typhus cases, progressive dehydration, debilitation and cardiovascular collapse ultimately cause the patient's death.
This medical opinion is supported by the opinion of A. W. Gomme, who wrote a comprehensive annotated edition of Thucydides and who also believed typhus was the cause of the epidemic. This opinion is expressed in his monumental work Historic Comments on Thucydides, completed after Gomme's death by A. Andrewes and K. J. Dover. Angelos Vlachos (Άγγελος Βλάχος), a member of the Academy of Athens and a diplomat, in his Remarks on Thucydides (in Greek: Παρατηρήσεις στο Θουκυδίδη,  I: 177–-78) acknowledges and supports Gomme's opinion: "Today, according to Gomme, it is generally acceptable that it was typhus" ("Σήμερα, όπως γράφει ο Gomme, έχει γίνει από όλους παραδεκτό ότι ήταν τύφος"). The theory has also found support recent in a study of the plague by Greek epidemiologists.
Other researchers disagree, noting prominently among other discrepancies, the absence in typhus of the dramatic gastrointestinal symptoms described by Thucydides.
A different answer was found in a DNA study of teeth recovered from an ancient Greek burial pit, led by Manolis Papagrigorakis of the University of Athens, which found DNA sequences similar to those of the organism that causes typhoid fever. Symptoms generally associated with typhoid resemble Thucydides' description. They include:
- a high fever from 39 °C to 40 °C (103 °F to 104 °F) that rises slowly;
- bradycardia (slow heart rate)
- myalgia (muscle pain)
- lack of appetite
- stomach pains
- in some cases, a rash of flat, rose-colored spots called "rose spots"
- extreme symptoms such as intestinal perforation or hemorrhage, delusions and confusion are also possible.
Some aspects of typhoid are at clear variance from Thucydides' description. Scavenger animals do not die from infection with typhoid, the onset of fever in typhoid is typically slow and subtle, and typhoid generally kills later in the disease course. As typhoid is most commonly transmitted through poor hygiene habits and public sanitation conditions in crowded urban areas, it is an unlikely cause of a plague emerging in the less urbanized Africa, as reported by Thucydides. Some researchers have disputed the findings from the dental pulp study, citing what they claim are serious methodologic flaws. It is true that contamination-induced false-positives are one of the major problems with the technique used, PCR (polymerase chain reaction), and the Kerameikos burial area is known to have been heavily trafficked in antiquity by hogs, carriers of Salmonella species that may have been confused with the Salmonella typhi that causes typhoid. However, the authors of the original study assert that the basis of the objections is flimsy, and the methodology used to produce the disproof has been previously shown to give conflicting results.
Viral hemorrhagic fever
Thucydides' narrative pointedly refers to increased risk among caregivers, more typical of the person-to-person contact spread of viral hemorrhagic fever (e.g., Ebola virus disease or Marburg virus) than typhus or typhoid. Unusual in the history of plagues during military operations, besieging Spartan troops are described as not having been afflicted by the illness raging near them within the city. Thucydides' description further invites comparison with VHF in the character and sequence of symptoms developed, and of the usual fatal outcome on about the eighth day. Some scientists have interpreted Thucydides' expression "lugx kenē" (λύγξ κενή) as the unusual symptom of hiccups, which is now recognized as a common finding in Ebola virus disease. Outbreaks of VHF in Africa in 2012 and 2014 reinforced observations of the increased hazard to caregivers and the necessity of barrier precautions for preventing disease spread related to grief rituals and funerary rites. The 2015 west African Ebola outbreak noted persistence of effects on genitalia and eyes in some survivors, both described by Thucydides. With an up to 21-day clinical incubation period, and up to 565-day infectious potential recently demonstrated in a semen-transmitted infection, movement of Ebola via Nile commerce into the busy port of Piraeus is plausible. Ancient Greek intimacy with African sources is reflected in accurate renditions of monkeys in art of frescoes and pottery, most notably guenons (Cercopithecus), the type of primates responsible for transmitting Marburg virus into Germany and Yugoslavia when that disease was first characterized in 1967. Circumstantially tantalizing is the requirement for the large quantity of ivory used in the Athenian sculptor Phidias’ two monumental ivory and gold statues of Athena and of Zeus (one of the Seven Wonders), which were fabricated in the same decade. Never again in antiquity was ivory used on such a large scale.
A second ancient narrative suggesting hemorrhagic fever etiology is that of Titus Lucretius Carus. Writing in the 1st century B.C., Lucretius characterized the Athenian plague as having "bloody" or black discharges from bodily orifices. Lucretius cited and was an admirer of scientific predecessors in Greek Sicily Empedocles and Acron. While none of the original works of Acron, a physician, are extant, it is reported that he died ca. 430 B.C. after travel to Athens to combat the plague.
Unfortunately DNA sequence-based identification is limited by the inability of some important pathogens to leave a "footprint" retrievable from archaeological remains after several millennia. The lack of a durable signature by RNA viruses means some etiologies, notably the hemorrhagic fever viruses, are not testable hypotheses using currently available scientific techniques.
- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 2.48.1
- Manolis J. Papagrigorakis, Christos Yapijakis, and Philippos N.Synodinos, ‘Typhoid Fever Epidemic in Ancient Athens,’ in Didier Raoult, Michel Drancourt, Paleomicrobiology: Past Human Infections, Springer Science & Business Media, 2008 pp.161-173.
- History of the Peloponnesian War 1.117
- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 2.53
- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 2.51
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- Thuc. 2.53
- For both oracles, see Thuc. 2.54
- Thuc. 2.50
- Dr. Alexander Langmuir, formerly chief epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, USA - New England Journal of Medicine, 1985 Volume 313:1027-1030 http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,963885,00.html
- Olson PE, Hames CS, Benenson AS, Genovese EN. "The Thucydides syndrome: ebola deja vu? (or ebola reemergent?)" Emerging Infectious Diseases 2(1996): 155–156. ISSN 1080-6059.
- Papagrigorakis, Manolis J.; Yapijakis, Christos; Synodinos, Philippos N.; Baziotopoulou-Valavani, Effie (2006). "DNA examination of ancient dental pulp incriminates typhoid fever as a probable cause of the Plague of Athens". International Journal of Infectious Diseases. 10 (3): 206–214. doi:10.1016/j.ijid.2005.09.001. PMID 16412683.
- "Plague of Athens: Another Medical Mystery Solved at University of Maryland". University of Maryland Medical Center. Retrieved 2016-02-10.
- Gomme, A. W., ed. A. Andrewes and K. J. Dover. An Historical Commentary on Thucydides, Volume 5. Book VIII, Oxford University Press, 1981. ISBN 0-19-814198-X.
- Papagrigorakis, Manolis J.; Yapijakis, Christos; Synodinos, Philippos N.; Baziotopoulou-Valavani, Effie (2006). "DNA examination of ancient dental pulp incriminates typhoid fever as a probable cause of the Plague of Athens". International Journal of Infectious Diseases. 10: 206–214. doi:10.1016/j.ijid.2005.09.001. PMID 16412683.
- Thucydides equivocates on whether scavengers actually did die after eating corpses, or simply fled: See Thuc. 2.50.
- Shapiro, Beth; Rambaut, Andrew; Gilbert, M. Thomas P.; et al. (2006). "No proof that typhoid caused the Plague of Athens (a reply to Papagrigorakis et al.)". International Journal of Infectious Diseases. 10: 334–35. doi:10.1016/j.ijid.2006.02.006. PMID 16730469.
- "Insufficient phylogenetic analysis may not exclude candidacy of typhoid fever as a probable cause of the Plague of Athens (reply to Shapiro et al.)". International Journal of Infectious Diseases. 10: 335–336. doi:10.1016/j.ijid.2006.02.005.
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- Papagrigorakis, MJ; Yapijakis, C; Synodinos, PN; Baziotopoulou-Valavani, E (May 2006). "DNA examination of ancient dental pulp incriminates typhoid fever as a probable cause of the Plague of Athens". Int. J. Infect. Dis. 10: 206–14. doi:10.1016/j.ijid.2005.09.001. PMID 16412683. and the reply to it by Shapiro et al.
- History of the Peloponnesian War 2.47–55.
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