Poem 212 ± January 2, 2016

Description of the Plague in Athens

Aside from the epidemic, the year 430 BC was said to have been remarkably free of sickness. The few cases of illness on record ultimately proved to be early cases of the epidemic. There did not seem to be any obvious cause of the disease. Rather, people in good health were suddenly attacked by violent fevers along with redness and inflammation of the eyes. The oral cavity, including the tongue and throat, became bloody and emitted an unnatural and fetid breath. These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. Some patients had severe abdominal symptoms followed by biliary discharges of every kind named by physicians and accompanied by the greatest distress. In most cases an unproductive cough followed, producing violent spasms, which in some cases ceased soon after its onset, in others much later. Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor pale in its appearance, but reddish, livid, and breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But internally it burned so that the patient could not bear to have on him clothing or linen even of the very lightest description or indeed to be otherwise than stark naked. What they would have liked best would have been to throw themselves into cold water, as indeed was done by some of the neglected sick, who plunged into the rain-tanks in their agonies of unquenchable thirst, though it made no difference whether they drank little or much. Besides this, the miserable feeling of not being able to rest or sleep never ceased to torment them. The body meanwhile did not waste away so long as the distemper was at its height, but held out to a marvel against its ravages, so that when they succumbed, as in most cases, on the seventh or eighth day to the internal inflammation, they had still some strength in them. But if they passed this stage, and the disease descended further into the bowels, inducing a violent ulceration there accompanied by severe diarrhea, this brought on a weakness which was generally fatal. For the disorder first settled in the head, ran its course from thence through the whole of the body, and even where it did not prove mortal, it still left its mark on the extremities; for it settled in the privy parts, the fingers and the toes, and many escaped with the loss of these, some too with that of their eyes. Others again were seized with an entire loss of memory on their first recovery, and did not know either themselves or their friends.

thucydidesThucydides (c. 460–c. 400 BC) was an Athenian historian, political philosopher and general. His History of the Peloponnesian War recounts the war between Sparta and Athens (and their respective allies) that took place from 431–404 BC. While the Greek historian Herodotus is often called the father of history, Thucydides is notable for his more rational approach to historiography that eschewed references to divine intervention and sought to analyze the causes and effects of human actions. The plague was a typhoid-like epidemic that seized Athens in 430 BC and returned in 429 BC and 427 BC. Thucydides himself contracted the disease, but recovered and was able to describe it based on his own experience and his observation of others.

This passage (Book 2, Chapter 49) appears in The Peloponnesian War (London, J. M. Dent; New York, E. P. Dutton. 1910), translated by Richard Crawley (1840-1893). This translation is in the public domain. The editor has made some revisions for style and clarity.