Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars, Book II

Author: Thucydides

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The Plague Smites a War-Torn City

[430 B.C.]

At the beginning of summer, the Peloponnesian army, consisting, as before, of two-thirds of the force of each confederate state, under the command of the Lacedemonian king, Archidamus, the son of Zeuxidamus, invaded Attica, where they began to ravage the country. They had not been there for many days when the plague broke out in Athens for the first time.

A similar disorder had occurred previously in many places, especially Lemnos, but there is no record of such a pestilence taking place elsewhere, or of so great a destruction of human life. For a time physicians, ignorant of the nature of the disease, attempted to use remedies. But it was in vain, and they themselves were among the first victims, since they came into contact with it most often. No human art was of any avail. As for prayers in the temples, inquiries addressed to the oracles, and such things, they proved to be utterly useless. At last men were simply overwhelmed by the calamity and gave them all up.

The disease is said to have had its origin in Ethiopia, south of Egypt. Thence it descended into Egypt and Libya, and after spreading over the greater part of the Persian empire, suddenly struck Athens. First it attacked the inhabitants of the Piraeus; it was thought that the Peloponnesians had poisoned the wells. Afterwards it reached the upper city, where the mortality became much greater.

Every man, whether he be physician or not, will give his own opinion on the causes which might or could have produced so great a disturbance of nature. But I shall describe its actual course, as well as the symptoms by which any one who knows them beforehand may recognize the disease should it ever reappear. For I myself was attacked, and I witnessed the sufferings of others.

The season had been remarkably free of ordinary illness. If anybody was already sick from any other disease, his complaint was absorbed in the plague. Many persons who seemed to be in perfect health, suddenly and without any apparent reason, were seized with violent pains in the head and with redness and inflammation of the eyes. The throat and tongue were quickly diffused with blood, while the breath became unnatural and foul. Then came sneezing and hoarseness. Soon the disorder, accompanied by a violent cough, reached the chest. Then taking its grip lower down it would move the stomach and cause all the vomits of bile to which physicians have ever given names. It was in truth very distressing. An ineffectual retching, accompanied by violent convulsions, seized most of the sufferers. Externally, the body was not very hot to the touch, nor even pale; it was of a livid color, nearly red, and it broke out in pistules and ulcers. But internally, the fever was intense. Those affected could not bear to have on them even the finest linen garment. They insisted on being naked, and they longed to throw themselves into cold water.

Many who had no one to look after them plunged into the wells, for they were tormented by unceasing thirst, which was not in the least assuaged whether they drank a lot or a little. Intolerably restless, they could not sleep. While the disease was at its height, the body, instead of wasting away, seemed to hold out in a wonderful manner. They died either on the seventh or ninth day, not of weakness, for their strength was not exhausted, but of internal fever.

The sickness which had originally settled in the head gradually passed through the entire body. If a person survived the worst, the disease would often seize the extremities and leave its mark, attacking the privy parts and the fingers and toes. Some managed to escape with the loss of these, some with the loss of their eyes. Some had no sooner recovered than they were seized with a kind of amnesia, a forgetfulness of all things. They knew neither themselves nor their friends.

It is most difficult to describe the malady. The fury with which it gripped each sufferer was too much for nature to endure. There was one thing in particular which distinguished it from ordinary diseases. Although many bodies lay unburied, the birds and animals which feed on human flesh either never came near them, or died if they touched them. This was proved by an extraordinary disappearance of birds of prey, which were not to be seen either around the bodies or anywhere else. In the case of dogs this was even more striking, because they live with man.

Appalling was the rapidity with which men caught the infection, dying like sheep if they sought to help others. Indeed, this was the principal cause of mortality. Afraid to visit one another, the sufferers died in solitude. Many houses were empty because there was no one left to care for the sick. Those who ventured to help, especially those who aspired to heroism, perished. They went to see their friends without thinking of themselves and were ashamed to leave them, even at a time when the relatives of the dying were at last growing weary and, overwhelmed by the vastness of the calamity, had ceased to make lamentations. But despite such examples of devotion, more often the sick and the dying were tended by the pitying care of those who had recovered, because they knew the course of the disease and were themselves free of fear. Apparently no one was ever attacked a second time, or not without a fatal result. All persons congratulated them, and they themselves, being overcome by joy at the moment, innocently believed that they could not die of any other sickness.

The crowding of the people from the country into the city aggravated the misery. The newcomers suffered most. Having no homes of their own, they inhabited huts which were stifling in the summer heat. The mortality among these was dreadful, and they died in wild disorder. The dead lay where they had fallen, one upon another, while others hardly alive lay in the streets and crawled to every fountain craving for water. The temples were full of the corpses of those who had died in them. The violence of the calamity was so great that men, not knowing where to turn, became reckless and paid no attention to either human or divine law.

The customs which hitherto had been observed at funerals were universally violated. Each buried his dead as best he could. Many who had no necessary appliances, because there had been so many deaths in their households, did not hesitate to use the burial-places of others. When one man had raised a funeral pile, others would come and, throwing their dead on it first, set fire to the pile. Sometimes when corpses were already burning, others would come and, before they could be stopped, would throw their dead upon the pile and depart.

The plague brought other and even worse forms of lawlessness to Athens. Men who until this time had concealed their indulgence in pleasure now grew bolder. Observing the sudden changes—how the wealthy died in a moment, and how those who had nothing immediately inherited their property—they began to reflect that life and riches alike were transitory phenomena. Hence, they decided to enjoy themselves as much as they could and think only of pleasure. Who would be willing to sacrifice himself to the law of honor when he did not know whether he would live to be held in honor? The pleasure of the moment, anything which gave pleasure, took the place of both honor and expediency.

No fear of God or law of men deterred the criminal. Those who saw that all died alike, believed that the worship or neglect of the gods made not a particle of difference. No punishment was to be feared for offenses against human law. No one would live long enough to be called to account. Already a far more serious sentence had been passed and was hanging over a man’s head. Should not a man abandon himself to a little pleasure before the end?

Such was the grievous calamity that afflicted the Athenians. Within the walls the people were dying, and without, their country was being ravaged. In their troubles they called to mind a verse which the elders among them had declared to have been current long ago:

"A Dorian war will come, and a plague with it."

There was a dispute about the precise expression, some saying that limos (a famine), and not loimos (a plague), was the word. As might have been expected, since the memories of men reflect their sufferings, the argument in favor of loimos prevailed at the time. But if ever at some future time another Dorian war arises which happens to be accompanied by a famine, they will probably repeat the verse in the other form.

When the Lacedemonians asked the oracle "whether they would go to war or not" they received the reply: "that if they fought with all their might, they would conquer, and that he himself would take their part." This was not forgotten by those who had heard of it. They imagined that they were witnessing the fulfillment of the god’s words. In truth the disease did set in immediately after the invasion of the Peloponnesians, and did not spread into Peloponnesus in any degree worth speaking of. Athens felt its ravages most severely, and next to Athens those places which were most populated.

Such was the history of the plague.

1 See below, p. 120.

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Chicago: Thucydides, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars, Book II in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=YQCZ65MV7H2WHTH.

MLA: Thucydides. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars, Book II, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=YQCZ65MV7H2WHTH.

Harvard: Thucydides, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars, Book II. cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=YQCZ65MV7H2WHTH.