The Plague That Killed Athenian DemocracyRoundup
tags: ancient Greece, democracy, plague, classics, athenian
Robert Zaretsky teaches at the Honors College, University of Houston. His new book, The Subversive Simone Weil, will be published in 2021.
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.
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