The World

The Plague That Killed Athenian Democracy

Want to know how disease can permanently alter a society? Read Thucydides.

Seventeenth century painting shows people dying on the streets of Athens.
Plague in an Ancient City, by Michael Sweerts, circa 1652. LACMA

The extent and mortality of the pestilence—said to have begun somewhere in the east—was nowhere remembered. Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it. Various methods were tried, but they proved futile: the disease overwhelmed all of them.

Thus begins a report on the plague that devastated neither Milan nor Wuhan in the 21st century, but Athens in the 5th century B.C. The ancient Athenian historian Thucydides folds it into his History of the Peloponnesian War, his massive account of the decadeslong struggle between Athens and Sparta that ended with the former’s defeat. It was a work, Thucydides declared, that he wrote for “those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future.”

Is it possible that this future is now unfolding, one in which yet another plague may well decide the fate of another democracy?

While not thought of as medical history, Thucydides’ account had wide influence on plague literature to come. Works like Albert Camus’ The Plague and Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year—both of which have become newly popular among those looking to better understand the novel coronavirus—mined, and at times mimicked, Thucydides for their own texts. In fact, the shadow cast by Thucydides’ story stretches from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Even if you think you have never read Thucydides, the odds are you have.

Thucydides, in turn, had read Hippocrates. Like the founder of Western medicine, who emphasized the importance of describing the evolution of a disease, so too with the founder of Western history. “I shall simply set down,” Thucydides declares, “the nature of this disease and explain the symptoms by which perhaps it may be recognized by the student if it should ever break out again.”

Convinced that those who do not learn from past diseases are doomed to see them repeated, Thucydides proceeds to depict in vivid detail the plague’s impact on individuals. He notes the violent sneezing and coughing fits that wrack the body and the ulcers and pustules that burst out on the skin. The burning sensation was so great, Thucydides observes, that the diseased, seeking relief or death, would throw themselves into wells.

Thucydides does not identify the disease—typhus, smallpox, and Ebola have all been suspects—as he quickly moves from its impact on the human body to the body politic. Remarking upon the “spectacle of men dying like sheep, through having caught the infection in nursing each other,” he notes that “this sight led others to avoid the sick, emptying many houses of their residents for want of a nurse.” As houses emptied and burial sites filled, Athenians cast aside age-old traditions, throwing the bodies of loved ones into the closest funeral pyre. With the caving of rituals came the collapse of order, with men “now coolly venturing on what they had formerly done in a corner.” Now that there was no longer “fear of gods or law of man,” misrule became the rule.

At this point, Thucydides becomes less a diagnostician than a tragedian. It is no accident that he precedes the description of the plague with the funeral oration given by Pericles, Athens’ ruler. Given to praise those Athenians who died in the war against Sparta, Pericles recalls the many reasons for this sacrifice. He includes in this catalog of political achievements an “administration that favors the many and not the few,” laws that “provide equal justice to all,” and a system where advancement depends on “capacity and merit,” not wealth and social standing.

No less importantly, Pericles declares that Athenians, unlike other peoples, know that discussion and reflection are not “stumbling blocks to action, but an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.” Those who have wealth spend it “more for use than for show,” while those citizens who “attend only to their private business have no business at all in Athens.” This is how democracy works, Pericles concludes, and why Athens serves as “school for all Greece.”

But that was then, before the plague strikes Athens and takes Pericles as one of its first victims. Soon enough, the disease transforms Athens into a different kind of school, the sort found not in the texts of Hippocrates but in the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Like Oedipus in Oedipus Rex, Pericles’ intelligence failed to avert disaster. Instead, Pericles’ foresight in regard to defending Athens against Sparta, by crowding Athenians inside the walls of the city, quickened the disease’s transmission.

Like ancient Athens, present-day America has been ushered into the school of tragedy. In certain ways, of course, our country has added a dollop of the comic to the tragic. Rather than, in Thucydides’ words, the “genius of Pericles,” we have a leader who, in his own words, is a “very stable genius.” Unlike Pericles who, in Thucydides’ words, “never sought power by improper means,” we have a president who, again in his own words, has done it before and is prepared to do it again. In contrast to the man who led Athens by virtue of his moderation, ability, and integrity, the sole virtue of the man who now leads America is that he reminds us of all the virtues we desperately need to restore.

More important than the litany of tragic parallels are the traumatic consequences of the plague. Athens lost approximately a third of its population of 300,000, a percentage that beggars the mortality estimates for COVID-19. The social and psychological consequences for the surviving Athenians must have been massive. While Thucydides does not directly address this matter, instead noting drily that those who, like himself, fell ill and survived did not fall ill a second time.

But as the city’s subsequent history, told in majestic detail by Thucydides, reveals, Athens not only failed to acquire a resistance, but was fatally weakened by the disease. By the end of the century, a diminished and degraded Athens was finally defeated by Sparta, bringing to an end the world’s most extraordinary experiment in direct democracy. The question is whether we are at a similar crossroads. In the case of our leaders, history seems to be repeating itself, as Karl Marx would have it, not as tragedy but farce. But in the case of our own experiment in democracy, such an end would be too tragic for words.