N.B. I saw a few threads from the amazing Flint Dibble earlier in the year and invited him to put them together here. Just in time for an epidemic spike, he delivered! – Joel
There are lessons to be learned from the failed leadership of Pericles during the plague of Athens in 430 B.C.E. Despite his popularity and great deeds, his mismanagement of the plague and the resulting misery inflicted on the Athenian people led to him losing his election the following year and losing his leading role in the city.
While the situations are very different, there is value in looking to the past to help contextualize our present. Given the unique nature of our own historical moment, this is a key test for the old adage that history repeats for those who don’t learn from it.
The disease first struck in the summer of the second year of the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta. It ravaged the Athenians as their entire population was crowded in the besieged city. The specific disease is still debated by scholars, but we know it caused fever, blisters, and sores. Due to the histories of Thucydides (and despite the risk of being infected with Thucyd-431), we have a reasonably detailed record of these events from 2500 years ago (all translations from Mynott 2013).
Thucydides’ eyewitness narrative includes a personal appeal:
I will say what it was like as it happened and will describe facts that would enable anyone investigating any future outbreak to have some prior knowledge and recognize it. I speak as someone who had the disease myself and witnessed others suffering from it.Thucydides 2.48
The parallels to our perilous situation today are immediately obvious.
The physicians were not able to help at its outset since they were treating it in ignorance, and indeed they themselves suffered the highest mortality since they were the ones most exposed to it. Nor were other human arts of any avail. Whatever supplications people made at sanctuaries and whatever oracles or the like they consulted, all were useless and in the end they abandoned them, defeated by the affliction.Thucydides 2.47
With no cure from ancient medicine or religion, many people blamed foreigners:
It first came, so it is said, out of Ethiopia beyond Egypt, and then spread into Egypt and Libya and into most of the territory of the Persian King. When it got to Athens it struck the city suddenly, taking hold first in the Peiraeus, so that it was even suggested by the people there that the [Spartans] had put poison in the rain-water tanks… Later on it reached the upper city too and then the mortality became much greater.Thucydides 2.48
Unfortunately, this is true of most epidemics. It’s really easy to blame others, whether or not they deserve the blame. It’s harder to accept responsibility and deal with the problem. Then and now, us humans need to work at being better to others.
Thucydides’ emotions still resonate with us today: “The most terrible thing of all in this affliction, however, was the sense of despair when someone realised that they were suffering from it; for then they immediately decided in their own minds that the outcome was hopeless” (2.51).
The plague tore at the fabric of society:
There was also the fact that one person would get infected as a result of caring for another so that they died in their droves like sheep, and this caused more death than anything else. If in fear they were unwilling to go near each other they died alone… but if they did make contact they lost their lives anyway.Thucydides 2.51
These are some of the first historical descriptions of the need for social distancing during an epidemic. The invading Spartans recognized the need and “made haste to leave the territory through their fear of the plague” (2.57).
The Athenians trusted in Pericles to lead them through their own unique historical moment. From the wealthy Alcmaeonid family and blessed with powerful oratory skills and nativist and populist policies, he had led the city-state for over two decades. He consolidated Athenian control over the far-flung anti-Persian alliance known as the Delian League turning it into what some historians call the Athenian Empire.
Taking control of the League’s treasury, he oversaw a monumental building program that included lavish marble temples such as the Parthenon (which Shaquille O’Neal once called Greece’s most forgettable nightclub) and also a massive urbanization program that brought water, food, and security for those lucky enough to be citizens (you only had to be born a free male to two Athenian parents and wealth enough to own land).
Pericles’ confidence in Athenian power helped spur the start of the Peloponnesian Wars. Tensions had been building up between Athens and Sparta for decades, and as war was debated among the people, Pericles harnessed an innovative strategy to win.
It relied on big, beautiful walls and convenient, at-home delivery.
Sparta had the dominant army, while Athens had the dominant navy. Pericles thought to rely on the city walls to keep Sparta’s army away. The bustling port at Piraeus was also walled and connected by “The Long Walls” to the city, creating a protected corridor for commerce.
Before the war began, Pericles called the entire rural population and the inhabitants of nearby towns into the city. He figured that with the wealth of Athens and a strong naval empire, they could just import everything they needed.
This was a big deal! Thucydides writes (2.16-7) that most Athenians had
lived in the countryside in the traditional way and therefore did not find it at all easy to make the move with their entire households… changing their way of life and leaving behind what each of them felt to be the equivalent of their native city. When they arrived in Athens only a few had homes or places they could take refuge with friends or relatives. Most settled in unoccupied parts of the city and occupied sanctuaries…. [or] in the towers of the city walls or wherever else each of them could. The city could not cope with this general influx; indeed they later divided up the long walls and most of Piraeus into lots and occupied those too.Thucydides 2.16-7
Pericles’ strategy worked for a year. The Spartan army pillaged the Athenian countryside. The Athenian navy raided the Spartan coastal settlements. But most people were safe. Pericles wrapped up the first year with his famous Funeral Oration, encouraging them to fight on.
The plague struck Athens in the summer of the second year (430 B.C.). Pericles’ wartime strategy was a terrible strategy for containing a contagious disease. Most Athenians, rich or poor, were living in the ancient equivalent of a refugee camp in a besieged city.
Yet, Thucydides’ descriptions, despite not having our germ theory, demonstrate that the Athenians recognized that this disease was spread through close contact. Like today, responsible people knew they needed to socially distance during a plague.
Their general misery was aggravated by people crowding into the city from the fields, and the worst affected were the new arrivals. There were no houses for them but they lived in huts that were stifling in the heat of summer and they were visited by death in conditions of total disorder…. The bodies of those dying were heaped on each other, and in the streets and around the springs half-dead people reeled about…. The sanctuaries in which they had taken shelter were full of the bodies of those who had died thereThycidides 2.52
Greek archaeologists have uncovered clear archaeological evidence for this dire situation in the form of a mass grave, or plague pit, in which bodies were heaped together. But Pericles ignored the need for social distancing and kept going with his original strategy, letting the Spartans pillage the Attic countryside, while the navy raided Spartan coastlands. The plague didn’t care, it continued to spread through Athens.
The Athenians had undergone a change of heart… feeling the combined pressure of the plague and the war. They now began to criticize Pericles, holding him responsible for persuading them to go to war and for being the agent of the misfortunes they had encountered. They became eager to come to terms with the Spartans. They even sent ambassadors to them, though to no effect. And in complete despair they turned their anger on Pericles2.59
As Joel Christensen has written, there’s a long tradition in Greek mythology and tragedy of blaming the leader for plague. Pericles recognized this and gave the last of his famous speeches.
It’s amazing really, but it can really be boiled down to: “I take no responsibility.”
I have been expecting your outbreak of feeling against me – and I know the reasons for it. I mean to administer some reminders to you and take you to task for any misplaced resentment against me or any undue weakening in the face of difficulties.” Continuing: “Even though this plague has been inflicted on us, coming out of nowhere (it is in fact the only thing out of all that has happened to have defied prediction). I know it is largely because of this that I am even more a hated figure now – unjustly so.Thucydides 2.60 and 2.64
He argues to ignore the plague: “We must treat afflictions sent by the gods as necessary ills and bear with courage those that come from our enemies” (2.64) in order to protect their empire.
With such words Pericles tried to dispel the anger the Athenians felt towards him and distract them from their present troubles…. Indeed the people as a whole did not put aside their anger towards him.Thucydides 2.65
After this, Pericles’ power as a demagogue waned. This is the last point Thucydides mentions the deeds of Pericles, ending the section by saying “Pericles lived on two years and six months longer.”
We find out from Plutarch’s later biography of Pericles (translated here by Waterfield 1999) how he watched his family died of plague, and eventually caught it himself and died. As Plutarch notes (176) he lost his next election and was relieved of his command: “But he did not succeed in getting them to shed their anger or change their minds before they had taken their ballots in their hands.”
They had been persuaded by his political enemies that the plague was caused by packing crowds of refugees from the countryside into the city, where, at the height of summer, large numbers of people were being forced to stay all jumbled together in stifling tents…. The man responsible for all this, his enemies said, was Pericles: because of the war he had squeezed the rustic rabble inside the city walls and … left them penned up like cattle, to infect one another with death.Plutarch, Life of Pericles, 34
If Pericles had not ignored the devastation of the plague and sued for peace, they could have protected their refugee population. Ancient history would look very different. Instead, the plague ravaged them and – weakened – then they still lost the war.
History shows that the decisions leaders make matter. We can see this with the Athenian plague and, in front of our own eyes, in our current historical moment.
We must learn from history and entrust our fate to a leader who will take our pandemic seriously, listen to scientists (and historians), and enforce mask-wearing and social distancing. Thucydides and the ancient Athenians knew this. They voted out of office the greatest leader their city had known. While our situation is different, our misery is similar. It is time to vote.
Flint Dibble is currently Lecturer in the Department of Classics at Dartmouth College. He is an environmental archaeologist who studies food trash (animal bones) from ancient Greece and is Field Director for the Histria Multiscalar Archaeological Project in Romania. For more on how ancient animal bones can answer important questions into the past, check out his recent interview with the Peopling the Past podcast: No Bones About It: Climate Change in the Ancient World. Also, check him out on Twitter (@FlintDibble) or YouTube where he shares his archaeological research and teaching with the broader public. But right now, he’s mostly hoping you’ll vote – if you’re able to – because it does matter.