Scapegoating Foreigners for Plagues

 

Thucydides, 2.48

“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.”

  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.

As historians note, epidemics during the time of Justinian were similarly sourced to Africa and the Near East and Medieval people saw the Black Death as coming from the Levant. Thucydides recounts that ,in their desperation to find a cause, the Athenians blamed the Spartans for poisoning their wells, just as Northern Europeans scapegoated Jewish populations in the 14th Century for the bubonic plague (See Marchant, 1891 ad loc.). The Athenians realized that they were wrong about sabotage when the Spartans and their allies started dying too.

(There are accounts of biological warfare from the Ancient world. Ironically, the Athenians are the ones implicated.)

The sad truth of this is not distant to us: as recently as today Fox News’ poster boy for white stupidity, Tucker Carlson, is arguing that it is not racist to call COVID-19 the “Chinese Coronavirus” [not linked too, because, well, it’s stupid and racist). And, last night, our brilliant commander in chief banned travel to and from Europe for non-Americans. This means US Citizens can come home. Oh, and people from the UK can come too. As such, the travel ban is mere improvisational propaganda, an attempt to seem to do something which actually may be worse than doing nothing at all.

Say what you will about the cupidity and stupidity of Agamemnon in the Iliad–when faced with the facts, he understood the cause of the plague and sent Chryseis’ daughter home.

The Plague of AthensMichiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

Other plague posts:

Keep Your Hands Clean With This One Easy Trick!

The Worst Part of a Plague: Despair

The Wages of a Wicked Man: Plague, Broken Walls, Fallen Armies

PSA: An Epidemic’s First Acts

Just Think Your Way Out of Sickness!

For more on plagues and leadership, see this post.

Aelian, Varia Historia 13.27

“Remember that Socrates’ body was thought to be orderly and in control of wisdom for this reason too. When the Athenians were suffering a pandemic and some were dying and others were near death, Socrates was the only one who was not sick. What mind do we think shared space with such a body?”

Ὅτι τὸ Σωκράτους σῶμα πεπίστευτο κόσμιον καὶ σωφροσύνης ἐγκρατὲς γεγονέναι καὶ ταύτῃ. ἐνόσουν Ἀθηναῖοι πανδημεί, καὶ οἱ μὲν ἀπέθνῃσκον, οἱ δὲ ἐπιθανατίως εἶχον, Σωκράτης δὲ μόνος οὐκ ἐνόσησε τὴν ἀρχήν. ὁ τοίνυν τοιούτῳ συνὼν σώματι τίνα ἡγούμεθα ἐσχηκέναι ψυχήν;

Apollonius of Tyana, 8.28

“Do these practices merely make a refinement of the senses or establish power over the greatest and most amazing forces? You need to see what I mean from different things, not the least of which were done during that epidemic in Ephesus.

When the disease was in the shape of an old beggar, I saw it and once I saw it I tackled it. I did not stop the disease but instead I destroyed it. The one I prayed to is clear as day in the temple which I built in thanks. It was for Herakles the Defender, the one I chose as a helper—because he is wise and brave, he once cleansed Elis of a plague and wiped away the waves of filth which the earth released when Augeas was tyrant.”

“Ἆρ᾿ οὖν τὸ οὕτως διαιτᾶσθαι λεπτότητα μόνον ἐργάζεται τῶν αἰσθήσεων ἢ ἰσχὺν ἐπὶ τὰ μέγιστά τε καὶ θαυμασιώτατα; θεωρεῖν δ᾿ ἔξεστιν ὃ λέγω καὶ ἀπ᾿ ἄλλων μέν, οὐχ ἥκιστα δὲ κἀκ τῶν ἐν Ἐφέσῳ περὶ τὴν νόσον ἐκείνην πραχθέντων· τὸ γὰρ τοῦ λοιμοῦ εἶδος, πτωχῷ δὲ γέροντι εἴκαστο, καὶ εἶδον καὶ ἰδὼν εἷλον, οὐ παύσας νόσον, ἀλλ᾿ ἐξελών, ὅτῳ δ᾿ εὐξάμενος, δηλοῖ τὸ ἱερόν, ὃ ἐν Ἐφέσῳ ὑπὲρ τούτου ἱδρυσάμην, Ἡρακλέους μὲν γὰρ Ἀποτροπαίου ἐστί, ξυνεργὸν δ᾿ αὐτὸν εἱλόμην, ἐπειδὴ σοφός τε καὶ ἀνδρεῖος ὢν ἐκάθηρέ ποτε λοιμοῦ τὴν Ἦλιν, τὰς ἀναθυμιάσεις ἀποκλύσας, ἃς παρεῖχεν ἡ γῆ κατ᾿ Αὐγέαν τυραννεύοντα.

File:Philosopher probably Apollonius of Tyana Heraklion museum original.jpg
Statue of a philosopher, probably Apollonius of Tyana. Late 2nd – 3rd century AD.

A Reminder: The Wages of a Wicked Man, Plague, Broken Walls, Fallen Armies

Hesiod, Works and Days, 101-105

“The land is full of evils; the sea is full of evils.
Diseases come to humans at day and at night
they come on their own bringing evils to mortals in silence
Since devious Zeus took their voices away.”

πλείη μὲν γὰρ γαῖα κακῶν, πλείη δὲ θάλασσα·
νοῦσοι δ’ ἀνθρώποισιν ἐφ’ ἡμέρῃ, αἳ δ’ ἐπὶ νυκτὶ
αὐτόματοι φοιτῶσι κακὰ θνητοῖσι φέρουσαι
σιγῇ, ἐπεὶ φωνὴν ἐξείλετο μητίετα Ζεύς.
οὕτως οὔ τί πη ἔστι Διὸς νόον ἐξαλέασθαι.

Hesiod, Works and Days 240-247

“The whole state often suffers because of a wicked man
Who transgresses the gods and devises reckless deeds.
Kronos’ son rains down great pain on them from heaven:
Famine and plague and the people start to perish.
[Women don’t give birth and households waste away
Thanks to the vengeance of Olympian Zeus.] And at other times
Kronos’ son ruins their great army or their wall
Or he destroys their ships on the the sea.”

πολλάκι καὶ ξύμπασα πόλις κακοῦ ἀνδρὸς ἀπηύρα,
ὅστις ἀλιτραίνῃ καὶ ἀτάσθαλα μηχανάαται.
τοῖσιν δ’ οὐρανόθεν μέγ’ ἐπήγαγε πῆμα Κρονίων,
λιμὸν ὁμοῦ καὶ λοιμόν, ἀποφθινύθουσι δὲ λαοί·
[οὐδὲ γυναῖκες τίκτουσιν, μινύθουσι δὲ οἶκοι
Ζηνὸς φραδμοσύνῃσιν ᾿Ολυμπίου· ἄλλοτε δ’ αὖτε]
ἢ τῶν γε στρατὸν εὐρὺν ἀπώλεσεν ἢ ὅ γε τεῖχος
ἢ νέας ἐν πόντῳ Κρονίδης ἀποτείνυται αὐτῶν.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti – Bad Government and the Effects of Bad Government

Four Years of Presidential Memory: The Wages of a Wicked Man, Plague, Broken Walls, Fallen Armies

Hesiod, Works and Days, 101-105

“The land is full of evils; the sea is full of evils.
Diseases come to humans at day and at night
they come on their own bringing evils to mortals in silence
Since devious Zeus took their voices away.”

πλείη μὲν γὰρ γαῖα κακῶν, πλείη δὲ θάλασσα·
νοῦσοι δ’ ἀνθρώποισιν ἐφ’ ἡμέρῃ, αἳ δ’ ἐπὶ νυκτὶ
αὐτόματοι φοιτῶσι κακὰ θνητοῖσι φέρουσαι
σιγῇ, ἐπεὶ φωνὴν ἐξείλετο μητίετα Ζεύς.
οὕτως οὔ τί πη ἔστι Διὸς νόον ἐξαλέασθαι.

Hesiod, Works and Days 240-247

“The whole state often suffers because of a wicked man
Who transgresses the gods and devises reckless deeds.
Kronos’ son rains down great pain on them from heaven:
Famine and plague and the people start to perish.
[Women don’t give birth and households waste away
Thanks to the vengeance of Olympian Zeus.] And at other times
Kronos’ son ruins their great army or their wall
Or he destroys their ships on the the sea.”

πολλάκι καὶ ξύμπασα πόλις κακοῦ ἀνδρὸς ἀπηύρα,
ὅστις ἀλιτραίνῃ καὶ ἀτάσθαλα μηχανάαται.
τοῖσιν δ’ οὐρανόθεν μέγ’ ἐπήγαγε πῆμα Κρονίων,
λιμὸν ὁμοῦ καὶ λοιμόν, ἀποφθινύθουσι δὲ λαοί·
[οὐδὲ γυναῖκες τίκτουσιν, μινύθουσι δὲ οἶκοι
Ζηνὸς φραδμοσύνῃσιν ᾿Ολυμπίου· ἄλλοτε δ’ αὖτε]
ἢ τῶν γε στρατὸν εὐρὺν ἀπώλεσεν ἢ ὅ γε τεῖχος
ἢ νέας ἐν πόντῳ Κρονίδης ἀποτείνυται αὐτῶν.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti – Bad Government and the Effects of Bad Government

A Vote Against Pericles is a Vote Against Plague

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.

Bust of Pericles. Picture credit: Jastrow

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).

Photo Credit: Konstantinos Tzortzinis and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens

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 there

Thycidides 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.

But…

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 Pericles

2.59

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.

Thucydides concludes,

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.

Picture Credit: Jonida Martini

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. 

A Miscarriage of Justice, an Avenging Plague

Scholia on Isokrates, Hypothesis to Oration 11 

“Some search for what the reason is that he did not enter the argument against him clearly, if he would spare his teacher. And we say that it is so that the Athenians would not be angered since they had recently convicted Socrates. Therefore, it seems through this as if he is rebuking them because they convicted him badly.

And, in fact, they did change their mind later on, believing that they had acted impiously in convicting Socrates and they were made a bit wiser to this because of a plague that struck them over the death of Socrates. He died during the archonship of Laches. For this reason they ordered that no one talk about Socrates in public, as in the theater.

This kind of thing is added in addition: Euripides desired to speak about him and even afraid shaped the plot of his Palamedes in order that he might have the chance to talk allegorical about Socrates and the Athenians. In this had had some figure speaking to the Greeks—when it was really Socrates speaking to the Athenians—that you have eliminated, you have eliminated the best of the Greeks,” which means, you murdered him. The whole audience wept together, because it was a coded reference to Socrates.”

ἐζήτησαν δέ τινες διὰ ποίαν αἰτίαν μὴ φανερῶς τὸν κατ’ αὐτοῦ λόγον εἰσῆλθεν, εἴ γε φείδεται τοῦ διδασκάλου. καὶ λέγομεν, ἵνα μὴ ὀργισθῶσιν οἱ Ἀθηναῖοι, ἀρτίως τοῦ Σωκράτους καταψηφισάμενοι. δοκεῖ οὖν διὰ τούτου ὥσπερ ἐλέγχειν αὐτοὺς ὡς κακῶς καταψηφισαμένους.

καὶ γὰρ καὶ αὐτοὶ ὥσπερ μετέγνωσαν ὕστερον,ὅτι ἀσεβῶς ἔπραξαν καταψηφισάμενοι Σωκράτους, εἶτα καὶ σωφρονισθέντες διὰ τοῦ λοιμοῦ τοῦ ἐγκατασκήψαντος αὐτοῖς διὰ τὸν Σωκράτους θάνατον. ἀπέθανε δὲ ἐπὶ Λάχητος ἄρχοντος. ὅθεν λοιπὸν ἐκέλευσαν μηδένα δημοσίᾳ, οἷον ἐν κοινῷ θεάτρῳ, λέγειν περὶ Σωκράτους.

ἀμέλει λέγεταί τι τοιοῦτον, ὡς [ὅτι] τοῦ Εὐριπίδου βουλομένου εἰπεῖν περὶ αὐτοῦ καὶ δεδιότος ἀναπλάσαι τὸ δρᾶμα τὸν Παλαμήδην, ἵνα διὰ τούτου σχοίη καιρὸν τοῦ αἰνίξασθαι εἰς τὸν Σωκράτην καὶ εἰς τοὺς Ἀθηναίους καὶ ποιήσαντός τινα πρὸς τοὺς Ἕλληνας λέγοντα, τὸ δὲ ἀληθὲς πρὸς Ἀθηναίους διὰ Σωκράτην ‘ἐκάνετε, ἐκάνετε τῶν Ἑλλήνων τὸν ἄριστον’, ὅ ἐστιν ἐφονεύσατε. καὶ νοῆσαν τὸ θέατρον ἅπαν ἐδάκρυσε, διότι περὶ Σωκράτους αἰνίττεται.

“The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David

Plague Refugees: Kadmos, Danaus and Moses

This passage is interesting for the motif that famous founders of Greece were from Egypt (present in mythographical texts like Apollodorus’ LibraryIt also integrates Jewish origins into the same narrative.

Photios, Bibliotheca, 3801-381b [=Diodorus Siculus Histories 40.3]

“Since we are about to go over the Jewish War, I think this is a good time to go through the origins of the people from the beginning along with their customs.

When a deadly plague happened in ancient Egypt, many laid blame on the divine for their suffering. For there were many foreigners from every place living there, practicing diverse customs concerning religion and sacrifices, and the traditional religious rites were being destroyed. For these reasons, the indigenous people supposed that if they did not get rid of the foreign peoples then there would be no end to their suffering.

The different ethnic groups were expelled immediately. Some who were the most famous and eager for action gathered to leave together, as some claim, to Greece and other places, since they had leaders worthy of repute, among whom the most famous were Kadmos and Danaos. A great number of people fled to the land now called Judea, which is not far from Egypt and was completely deserted at the time. The leader of those refugees was named Moses, distinct from all by his intelligence and bravery.”

ἡμεῖς δὲ μέλλοντες ἀναγράφειν τὸν πρὸς ᾽Ιουδαίους πόλεμον, οἰκεῖον εἶναι διαλαμβάνομεν προδιελθεῖν ἐν κεφαλαίοις τήν τε τοῦ ἔθνους τούτου ἐξ ἀρχῆς κτίσιν καὶ τὰ παρ᾽ αὐτοῖς νόμιμα.  κατὰ τὴν Αἴγυπτον τὸ παλαιὸν λοιμικῆς περιστάσεως γενομένης, ἀνέπεμπον οἱ πολλοὶ τὴν αἰτίαν τῶν κακῶν ἐπὶ τὸ δαιμόνιον· πολλῶν γὰρ καὶ παντοδαπῶν κατοικούντων ξένων καὶ διηλλαγμένοις ἔθεσι χρωμένων περὶ τὸ ἱερὸν καὶ τὰς θυσίας, καταλελύσθαι συνέβαινε παρ᾽ αὐτοῖς τὰς πατρίους τῶν θεῶν τιμάς· ὅπερ οἱ τῆς χώρας ἐγγενεῖς ὑπέλαβον, ἐὰν μὴ τοὺς ἀλλοφύλους μεταστήσωνται, κρίσιν οὐκ ἔσεσθαι τῶν κακῶν.

εὐθὺς οὖν ξενηλατουμένων τῶν ἀλλοεθνῶν, οἱ μὲν ἐπιφανέστατοι καὶ δραστικώτατοι συστραφέντες ἐξερρίφησαν, ὥς τινές φασιν εἰς τὴν ῾Ελλάδα καί τινας ἑτέρους τόπους, ἔχοντες ἀξιολόγους ἡγεμόνας(?), ὧν ἡγοῦντο Δαναὸς καὶ Κάδμος τῶν ἄλλων ἐπιφανέστατοι· ὁ δὲ πολὺς λεὼς ἐξέπεσεν εἰς τὴν νῦν καλουμένην ᾽Ιουδαίαν, οὐ πόρρω μὲν κειμένην τῆς ᾽Αἰγύπτου, παντελῶς δὲ ἔρημον οὖσαν κατ᾽ ἐκείνους τοὺς χρόνους. ἡγεῖτο δὲ τῆς ἀποικίας ὁ προσαγορευόμενος Μωσῆς, φρονήσει τε καὶ ἀνδρείαι πολὺ διαφέρων.

Print, Cadmus Building Thebes, MET

A Plague of Gout on Goats

Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 2.52

“Puthermos asserts, as Hêgêsandros claims, that during his time the mulberry trees did not bear fruit for 20 years and produced an epidemic of gout so badly that it affected not only men but also boys and girls, eunuchs, and women too. The plague hit a herd of goats so badly that two thirds of them died because of that same sickness”

Πύθερμος δὲ ἱστορεῖ, ὥς φησιν Ἡγήσανδρος, καθ᾿ αὑτὸν τὰς συκαμίνους οὐκ ἐνεγκεῖν καρπὸν ἐτῶν εἴκοσι καὶ γενέσθαι ἐπιδημίαν ποδαγρικὴν τοσαύτην ὥστε μὴ μόνον ἄνδρας τῷ πάθει ἐνσχεθῆναι, ἀλλὰ καὶ παῖδας καὶ κόρας καὶ εὐνούχους, ἔτι δὲ γυναῖκας. περιπεσεῖν δὲ οὕτω τὸ δεινὸν καὶ αἰπολίῳ ὡς τὰ δύο μέρη τῶν προβάτων ἐνσχεθῆναι τῷ αὐτῷ πάθει.

Wild Goat Style

Just Think Your Way Out of Sickness!

For more on plagues and leadership, see this recent post.

Aelian, Varia Historia 13.27

“Remember that Socrates’ body was thought to be orderly and in control of wisdom for this reason too. When the Athenians were suffering a pandemic and some were dying and others were near death, Socrates was the only one who was not sick. What mind do we think shared space with such a body?”

Ὅτι τὸ Σωκράτους σῶμα πεπίστευτο κόσμιον καὶ σωφροσύνης ἐγκρατὲς γεγονέναι καὶ ταύτῃ. ἐνόσουν Ἀθηναῖοι πανδημεί, καὶ οἱ μὲν ἀπέθνῃσκον, οἱ δὲ ἐπιθανατίως εἶχον, Σωκράτης δὲ μόνος οὐκ ἐνόσησε τὴν ἀρχήν. ὁ τοίνυν τοιούτῳ συνὼν σώματι τίνα ἡγούμεθα ἐσχηκέναι ψυχήν;

Apollonius of Tyana, 8.28

“Do these practices merely make a refinement of the senses or establish power over the greatest and most amazing forces? You need to see what I mean from different things, not the least of which were done during that epidemic in Ephesus.

When the disease was in the shape of an old beggar, I saw it and once I saw it I tackled it. I did not stop the disease but instead I destroyed it. The one I prayed to is clear as day in the temple which I built in thanks. It was for Herakles the Defender, the one I chose as a helper—because he is wise and brave, he once cleansed Elis of a plague and wiped away the waves of filth which the earth released when Augeas was tyrant.”

“Ἆρ᾿ οὖν τὸ οὕτως διαιτᾶσθαι λεπτότητα μόνον ἐργάζεται τῶν αἰσθήσεων ἢ ἰσχὺν ἐπὶ τὰ μέγιστά τε καὶ θαυμασιώτατα; θεωρεῖν δ᾿ ἔξεστιν ὃ λέγω καὶ ἀπ᾿ ἄλλων μέν, οὐχ ἥκιστα δὲ κἀκ τῶν ἐν Ἐφέσῳ περὶ τὴν νόσον ἐκείνην πραχθέντων· τὸ γὰρ τοῦ λοιμοῦ εἶδος, πτωχῷ δὲ γέροντι εἴκαστο, καὶ εἶδον καὶ ἰδὼν εἷλον, οὐ παύσας νόσον, ἀλλ᾿ ἐξελών, ὅτῳ δ᾿ εὐξάμενος, δηλοῖ τὸ ἱερόν, ὃ ἐν Ἐφέσῳ ὑπὲρ τούτου ἱδρυσάμην, Ἡρακλέους μὲν γὰρ Ἀποτροπαίου ἐστί, ξυνεργὸν δ᾿ αὐτὸν εἱλόμην, ἐπειδὴ σοφός τε καὶ ἀνδρεῖος ὢν ἐκάθηρέ ποτε λοιμοῦ τὴν Ἦλιν, τὰς ἀναθυμιάσεις ἀποκλύσας, ἃς παρεῖχεν ἡ γῆ κατ᾿ Αὐγέαν τυραννεύοντα.

File:Philosopher probably Apollonius of Tyana Heraklion museum original.jpg
Statue of a philosopher, probably Apollonius of Tyana. Late 2nd – 3rd century AD.

Scapegoating Foreigners for Plagues

Today I published a piece in the Conversation about the function of plagues in ancient myth as frameworks to think about human leadership and how we generally make things worse for ourselves because of our own stupidity, ignorance, or denial

Individuals and groups cope with trauma and fear by externalizing causality, by searching for people or things to blame apart from ourselves. This often takes the form of scapegoating–typically aimed at the weak or those we position as different from ourselves. In Athens’ calamitous plague, this happened too.

Thucydides, 2.48

“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.”

  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.

As historians note, epidemics during the time of Justinian were similarly sourced to Africa and the Near East and Medieval people saw the Black Death as coming from the Levant. Thucydides recounts that ,in their desperation to find a cause, the Athenians blamed the Spartans for poisoning their wells, just as Northern Europeans scapegoated Jewish populations in the 14th Century for the bubonic plague (See Marchant, 1891 ad loc.). The Athenians realized that they were wrong about sabotage when the Spartans and their allies started dying too.

(There are accounts of biological warfare from the Ancient world. Ironically, the Athenians are the ones implicated.)

The sad truth of this is not distant to us: as recently as today Fox News’ poster boy for white stupidity, Tucker Carlson, is arguing that it is not racist to call COVID-19 the “Chinese Coronavirus” [not linked too, because, well, it’s stupid and racist). And, last night, our brilliant commander in chief banned travel to and from Europe for non-Americans. This means US Citizens can come home. Oh, and people from the UK can come too. As such, the travel ban is mere improvisational propaganda, an attempt to seem to do something which actually may be worse than doing nothing at all.

Say what you will about the cupidity and stupidity of Agamemnon in the Iliad–when faced with the facts, he understood the cause of the plague and sent Chryseis’ daughter home.

The Plague of AthensMichiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

Other plague posts:

Keep Your Hands Clean With This One Easy Trick!

The Worst Part of a Plague: Despair

The Wages of a Wicked Man: Plague, Broken Walls, Fallen Armies

PSA: An Epidemic’s First Acts