Thursday, 20 September 2012

The sick did what they could, and the living suffered what they must

Book II.
47. Of such a kind were the funerals conducted in the winter, the end of which closed the first year of the war. The subsequent summer beheld the Peloponnesians and their allies, Archidamus of Sparta as before leading two thirds of their soldiery, invade and ravage Attica. However, before many days had passed the plague began to appear among the people of Athens. It is recorded to have broken out elsewhere, in Lemnos, for one, but no disease ever recorded was so virulent and deadly to humankind as this plague. No doctors could treat the sickness. Indeed, their rate of mortality was all the higher for being exposed to the sufferers, who became gradually more violent, and in the end filled with blood-lust, mordantly attacking those who wished to help them. Appeals to the gods were of no avail, and in time these were abandoned, the erstwhile suppliants crushed by the gravity of their misfortune.

48. The disease is said to have originated beyond Egypt, in Ethiopia, and to have fallen upon Egypt and the rest of North Africa, and then the majority of the Persian Empire. It then fell with destructive swiftness on the Athenians, first polluting those who lived and worked in the Peiraeus. At first there was suspicion that the Spartans had polluted the waterways, but when it reached the city proper and the number of deaths grew, this notion was disproved. Now, anyone, doctor or no, may describe the origin and causes he suspects led to this disaster, so different from natural death. I myself will describe the symptoms, serving as a precautionary and salutary guide to those who are unfortunate witnesses to any future outbreak. For I myself very nearly was carried off by the disease, narrowly avoiding death at the hands of one of its sufferers, and I saw a great many of those who had to be slain to preserve Athens.

49. All agree that insofar as other sicknesses are concerned, the year was remarkably healthy; although anyone who was already sick, being hampered in flight, was necessarily captured by the new sufferers and added to the swelling number of the sick. In several cases, healthy men were first seized with a feeling of burning within their heads, and suffered inflammations around their eyes and within and around their mouths, their breath becoming a foul stench. These signs were followed by sneezing and a hoarseness of the voice, which descended to the chest, leading to fits of coughing. Thereafter it descended to the belly, generating vomiting of every sort of bile known to medicine, combined with great distress. When the sufferers had no more to vomit up, they would wretch emptily, convulsing violently. These convulsions would sometimes end swiftly and again would on occasion continue for a while.

The body itself was cool to the touch, and in colour pale, with the skin in some areas breaking down as though the sufferer was already dead. However, just as with a fever, the infected felt such a burning heat they could not bear to have even a light sheet cover them, and many threw themselves into the water tanks, and attempted to quench the burning with copious drafts of water. It was all the same whether they drank much or little.

They could not rest, nor could they sleep. The body was wasted by the disease to a degree, but the sufferers' strength did not leave them. By the sixth or seventh day, in almost every case, the disease took their reason, although some of them persisted as long as nine days before they were no longer men but animals. For the disease, having destroyed man's capacity to reason, and his ability to love, left untouched his cupidity and hunger, leaving him with an unthinking desire to fill his belly, even with the flesh of other men. He became insensible to many kinds of pain. For often could one observe a sufferer dragging himself toward one, having lost a leg, yet still intent on feeding his brutish appetites.

50. The nature of the disease was so unprecedented as to baffle description, and the violent change so introduced did break the spirits of many who were even unaffected. It was remarkable in one way, as whereas birds and animals would feed on dead bodies, in this instance they would avoid them, or if they did feed on them, themselves perished gradually in a similar fashion. This is demonstrated by the scarcity of the birds at that time, and in the case of dogs, this could be more closely observed as they dwell among men.

51. These were the general characteristics of the disease. I pass over many uncommon symptoms, as one man would suffer this and another man that oddity. During the reign of the sickness, there were no other ailments, or if there were, they would be ended by this disease. For once the disease was contracted, very few passed through the sickness and recovered. In many cases, when the sick began to attack their doctors and families and friends, they were restrained. But if this proved ineffectual, as it did in almost every case, the only remaining recourse was to kill the sufferer, who now had but the mind of a mad dog, before he slew those whom he once had loved. The most terrible spectacles to behold was when a woman or child suffered from this malady, as they too would leave behind their kindly and passive natures, becoming violent, and hurling themselves even onto outstretched spear-points in a mad attempt to bite and feed.

For when the disease had felled many hundreds of Athenians, it became necessary to arm the citizenry and to fight against the sick, as they would otherwise have imperilled every person in Athens. The police first attempted to employ their arrows against the sick, but it became apparent that the resistance of the infected to pain demanded harsher measures. For this reason every man took up weapons, while the elderly men and women and children locked themselves up in houses. The heavy infantry and skirmishers were much engaged in the bloody business of cutting down the sick. This was not just a horrible business to behold, but on account of the bestiality of the sick, wounds that were normally mortal very frequently did not slay them. The only certain measure was to crush the head or cut it from the torso. This was both sickening and also heavy work. If one of the sick got too close, and bit one of the soldiers, he then knew he would become sick. Many men who fought in the battle-line would grow sick, and some would suddenly turn against their fellows in battle, precipitating a general flight, leading to more men joining the ranks of the savage sick.

52. The troubles of the Athenians were greatly worsened as the city was crowded with refugees from the countryside, who has crowded into the city to escape the Peloponnesians. No houses having been available to house them, they had lived in ramshackle huts, which were indefensible when the sick fell upon them, tearing them to pieces. Many took refuge from the sickness in the temples, and the temples to Aesculapius were often filled with the sick, so when they fell to savagery, the suppliants were among the first to suffer as a result of their piety. The normal funerary customs could no longer be observed, so overwhelmed was the city by the disaster, and when slain, the sick were heaped up in piles, some being buried, and others burned. Lacking the material for their own pyres, some would steal wood from the piles of others, and others would throw corpses onto an already-burning heap of wood, and flee.

53. The plague was also instrumental in introducing much thievery and immorality into the city. Whereas men had heretofore been restrained by shame and custom from indulging their desires, the threat of imminent death stripped away their restraints, leaving a careless audacity. They beheld the sudden changes of fortune, both in the prosperous who fell sick, and in the poor who inherited the property of the dead. They therefore decided to steal every pleasure from life in the short span that might be left them, gratifying their lusts, condemning as worthless their bodies and wealth.

None concerned himself with matters of honour, everyone fearing he would lose his life before he could attain it, and so instant pleasure came to be seen as honourable and expedient. They beheld the demise of all, and felt that piety and impiety were alike ineffectual, while believing he would not live to be called to account in the law courts. Instead they believed that they had already been condemned to die, and so resolved to take pleasure in what life remained to them.

After this, there is a lacuna in the text, but we know from scholiasts and other historians, notably Plutarch and Xenophon, that the Peloponnesians retreated from the siege when they began to suffer the effects of the plague. The Athenians may have lost as much as one in three of their population, and Thucydides recounts that the city, which was to suffer two further recurrences of plague in the next several years, one of which carried off Pericles, did not recover until it mounted the Sicilian Expedition a decade and a half later. It is more reasonable to remark that with such a diminution of population at such an early stage of the war, that Athens never did truly recover from this disastrous plague. The disease has proved impossible to eradicate, and recurred many times in the ancient world, for instance in Rome in 293 BC and the Antonine Plague or Plague of Galen that lasted from 165-180 AD. As indicated by Jenner in his pioneering work of...


Those of you wondering why I am ripping off Thucydides may be demanding an explanation. A friend of mine has suggested a little literary contest, which you can read more of here (please note that you have to be a member to access that part of the site). In short, to participate in this I have taken a historical event, the Plague of Athens, and very slightly altered Thucydides' words so that rather than fearing a disease, the Athenians are now having to slay zombies in order to survive. I dashed this off rather quickly, but I fancy it might be well-received for two reasons. First, it's getting some friendly comments on the two sites I have posted it on. Second, a lot of wargamers like fiddling about with zombies, and I have never heard of them being sent against hoplites before. I did read an amusing tale of zombies and Ancient Egyptians once, mind you. So there may be some scenario-fodder here for some of you. If you did enjoy the above, I really recommend to you the man whose work I am stealing. Thucydides is a wonderful read. If you thought it dreadful, all flaws are mine, and you should go read Thucydides!

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