In March this year, as the extent and severity of the coronavirus pandemic were becoming increasingly obvious, many Greek historians found themselves in unusually high demand in the media. In my case the call came from The Economist, but for a while Thucydides and his account of an ancient outbreak of disease seemed to be all over the press and the internet. This prompted an instant rush of gratification in seeing our subject being noticed outside the academy, even if there was also irritation at seeing the inevitable misunderstandings. On a moment’s reflection, though, it was also rather surprising: why should anyone want to think about this episode in an ancient writer’s work?
The plague narrative is one of the most familiar sections of Thucydides’ work, and not just to our PhD students who wrestle with it as part of their reading list. As we have been repeatedly reminded in recent weeks and months, the plague narrative has been influential on writers of later disease narratives, fictional and factual, from Lucretius to Max Brooks. It is an exquisitely crafted gem within Thucydides’ “possession for all time” that neatly illustrates many of his themes and literary strategies. It is highly emotive, full of vivid detail, and carefully structured. The author asserts his credibility and authority in both implicit and bluntly explicit ways. It is also easy to conclude that he has a rather jaundiced view of humanity in general and his fellow Athenians in particular, and this clearly appeals to contemporary doom-mongers and disrupters who are keen to assert the fragility of norms and institutions. As usual with Thucydides’ text, however, on anything more than the most superficial reading it turns out to resist simple interpretations and easily-drawn conclusions.
In the absence of other narratives or documentation it is hard to assess the accuracy and validity of Thucydides’ account, although there is enough to be confident that he didn’t just make the whole thing up. The precisely recorded and detailed descriptions of symptoms do, however, turn out to be rather frustrating: Thucydides says that he wants us to be able to recognize the disease if we see it again, but in spite of the gallons of scholarly ink that have been spilled on the issue, and the confidence with which claims and counter-claims continue to be made, the identity of the disease is uncertain, and may always remain so. Thucydides also claims in a later passage that the plague delivered the biggest single blow to their power that the Athenians suffered during the war. In terms of the numbers of soldiers and sailors who died this may well not be an exaggeration. But the war continued for many years afterwards, and the plague cannot have been the cause of Athens’ eventual defeat. We remember Thucydides’ description of the horrifying consequences as the usual restraints on public behaviour, and even basic morality, seem to break down. Yet the institutions of democracy seem to have operated without serious interruption (which allowed the journalist with whom I spoke to produce a piece about the resilience of democratic regimes).
It is important to remember too that just as we see the “Peloponnesian” war from an implicitly Athenian perspective (it was the war they fought against the Peloponnesians), so we think of this disease as “the plague of Athens” because that is where Thucydides, unsurprisingly, keeps his focus. But he also tells us that it affected not just many other places in Greece but most of the huge Persian Empire. What happened in those places and how people reacted we cannot tell. Thucydides does invite us to wonder about them, and what the real long-term effects were in Athens. He certainly never gives us the easy answers we want. That’s a problem for anyone writing a short piece like this, but it helps to explain why we repeatedly return to the historian’s text.