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Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Plague Of Athens

The plague that struck Ancient Athens in 430 BC—the second year of the Peloponnesian War—wiped out a third of its population of 300000. The historian Thucydides, who was in Athens, contracted the plague and survived. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, he claims that the plague entered the Greek world by the way of Egypt and Libya, before moving into the wider Mediterranean—wherever the plague went it killed close to 30 percent of the population. He writes, “...the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.” The physicians, he says, were the first to die since they were in contact with the sick.

The Athenian general Pericles and several infantry and sea commanders were among those who succumbed to the plague. Thucydides laments that after Pericles, Athens was led by weak and incompetent rulers. However, Pericles may have made Athens vulnerable to the plague because, to defeat the Spartans, he developed the strategy of making all Athenians live inside the city walls—he could not have foreseen that the crowded city would become a magnet for the plague which would consume his own life. Had Athens not been struck by the plague, it might have emerged victorious in the Peloponnesian War, which they continued to fight for more than two decades before accepting defeat at the hands of the Spartans.

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