Death in Athens

As the institute which produces the Positive Press is named after the city of Athens, Greece, it won’t surprise readers to learn that we are somewhat familiar with the history of that great city. Athens is rightly renowned for having given birth to many modern democratic ideals, as well as the great philosophers Plato and Aristotle. But while Athens enjoys its renown as the cradle of Western civilization, it’s easy to forget that it was subject to the same scourges of disease that afflicted all of mankind up until very recently. We touched on the plague of Athens in a Historical Perspective last July, Relative Horror: The Plagues of the Past and AIDS. But the destruction brought by large-scale disease was so great, and is so blessedly absent from modern life, that it seems worthwhile to examine one instance in depth.

According to Hans Zinsser, author of “Rats, Lice, and History,” the conditions in Athens were ripe for disaster in 430 BC. Large armies were camped in Attica. People from the countryside swarmed into the city of Athens, causing great overcrowding. (Yet note that the population densities were far below modern Manhattan, Hong Kong or London.) It appears that the plague began in Ethiopia and traveled through Egypt and Libya on its way to Athens.

It is impossible to determine the exact nature of the plague that hit Athens in 430 BC, although many medical historians have made the attempt. It was probably either smallpox or typhus. But whatever it was, once it hit Athens it came like lightning. Victims were suddenly seized with severe headaches and sore eyes. Then the tongue and throat became inflamed, accompanied by sneezing, hoarseness and coughing. Then vomiting, diarrhea and acute thirst. Delirium was common. Often the disease was fatal, usually taking the life of the victim between the seventh and ninth days. The “lucky” survivors’ bodies were often covered with sores and they frequently lost the use of toes, fingers and other essential body parts. Some became blind or suffered complete loss of memory.

The individual pain and suffering was, obviously, huge. But the survivors in Athens were affected in other ways as well. According to Zinsser, “Athenian life was completely demoralized, and a spirit of extreme lawlessness resulted.” When prosperous citizens died, survivors ravaged them for their goods. Survivors feared neither God nor man. In other words, the birthplace of Western civilization was reduced to the level of savages.

Zinsser concludes that the Athenian disease was probably one of the historically frequent smallpox epidemics “of an extent and severity of which it is hard for us to form any conception at the present time.” Although smallpox epidemics still occurred among American Indians in the very beginning of the 19th century (see the Historical Perspective Up the Missouri with Lewis and Clark) such epidemics have been unknown in Western Europe since 1720, and are now virtually non-existent throughout the world.