An Eyewitness to Useless Prayers

Thucydides 2.47-48

“And when they were in Attica for not very many days the disease first began to develop among the Athenians. It had allegedly emerged in many places before, especially around Lemnos and in other places. But so great a plague with such a high human mortality rate was not recorded as happening anywhere else. For the doctors were of no use at the beginning as caregivers because of ignorance, and they were dying especially because they were attending to sick people the most. And there was no other mortal means to approach it.

All the prayers in the temples and at oracles and those kinds of places amounted to nothing right up to the point they people stopped even trying them because they were overcome by the suffering.

The story goes that the sickness started in the part of Ethiopia above Egypt and then it moved to Egypt and Libya and then over most of the King’s land. When it suddenly fell on Athens, it afflicted people in the Piraeus first and it was there that it was said that the Peloponnesians must be throwing drugs into the cisterns, since there were no streams there. Later it spread to the higher part of the city where many more people begin to die.

Let each person who understands something about this, whether a doctor or a private citizen, speak about what its likely origin was and whatever causes he believes likely of such a great change. I will only say what kind of a disease it was and how someone might recognize it and be able not to be ignorant about it if it should appear again. I will describe it clearly because I was sick myself and I watched others suffering from it too.”

3] καὶ ὄντων αὐτῶν οὐ πολλάς πω ἡμέρας ἐν τῇ Ἀττικῇ ἡ νόσος πρῶτον ἤρξατο γενέσθαι τοῖς Ἀθηναίοις, λεγόμενον μὲν καὶ πρότερον πολλαχόσε ἐγκατασκῆψαι καὶ περὶ Λῆμνον καὶ ἐν ἄλλοις χωρίοις, οὐ μέντοι τοσοῦτός γε λοιμὸς οὐδὲ φθορὰ οὕτως ἀνθρώπων οὐδαμοῦ ἐμνημονεύετο γενέσθαι. [4] οὔτε γὰρ ἰατροὶ ἤρκουν τὸ πρῶτον θεραπεύοντες ἀγνοίᾳ, ἀλλ᾽ αὐτοὶ μάλιστα ἔθνῃσκον ὅσῳ καὶ μάλιστα προσῇσαν, οὔτε ἄλλη ἀνθρωπεία τέχνη οὐδεμία: ὅσα τε πρὸς ἱεροῖς ἱκέτευσαν ἢ μαντείοις καὶ τοῖς τοιούτοις ἐχρήσαντο, πάντα ἀνωφελῆ ἦν, τελευτῶντές τε αὐτῶν ἀπέστησαν ὑπὸ τοῦ κακοῦ νικώμενοι.

  1. ἤρξατο δὲ τὸ μὲν πρῶτον, ὡς λέγεται, ἐξ Αἰθιοπίας τῆς ὑπὲρ Αἰγύπτου, ἔπειτα δὲ καὶ ἐς Αἴγυπτον καὶ Λιβύην κατέβη καὶ ἐς τὴν βασιλέως γῆν τὴν πολλήν. [2] ἐς δὲ τὴν Ἀθηναίων πόλιν ἐξαπιναίως ἐσέπεσε, καὶ τὸ πρῶτον ἐν τῷ Πειραιεῖ ἥψατο τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ὥστε καὶ ἐλέχθη ὑπ᾽ αὐτῶν ὡς οἱ Πελοποννήσιοι φάρμακα ἐσβεβλήκοιεν ἐς τὰ φρέατα: κρῆναι γὰρ οὔπω ἦσαν αὐτόθι. ὕστερον δὲ καὶ ἐς τὴν ἄνω πόλιν ἀφίκετο, καὶ ἔθνῃσκον πολλῷ μᾶλλον ἤδη. [3] λεγέτω μὲν οὖν περὶ αὐτοῦ ὡς ἕκαστος γιγνώσκει καὶ ἰατρὸς καὶ ἰδιώτης, ἀφ᾽ ὅτου εἰκὸς ἦν γενέσθαι αὐτό, καὶ τὰς αἰτίας ἅστινας νομίζει τοσαύτης μεταβολῆς ἱκανὰς εἶναι δύναμιν ἐς τὸ μεταστῆσαι σχεῖν: ἐγὼ δὲ οἷόν τε ἐγίγνετο λέξω, καὶ ἀφ᾽ ὧν ἄν τις σκοπῶν, εἴ ποτε καὶ αὖθις ἐπιπέσοι, μάλιστ᾽ ἂν ἔχοι τι προειδὼς μὴ ἀγνοεῖν, ταῦτα δηλώσω αὐτός τε νοσήσας καὶ αὐτὸς ἰδὼν ἄλλους πάσχοντας.
The Plague of AthensMichiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654


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