The Plague of Ancient Athens

The plague of ancient Athens, while extremely devastating, was not the most deadly plague to occur during the ancient time period. However it is very interesting due to the detailed, first person, account that Athenian historian Thucydides was able to provide. His account informs of the symptoms of the plague and describes how the Athenians dealt with the sickness from it. This timeline will put together the pieces of exactly went on during the plague of ancient Athens thousands of years ago.

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Thucydides did not Mention the Gods

Unusually for this time period, Thucydides did not include any deities or higher powers in his writing who may have held responsibility for setting the plague on Athens. He also did not offer any alternative beliefs on the origin of the disease. Likely he had doubts about the true power of the gods everyone was worshiping, but chose to stay quiet due to the severe consequences.

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Symptoms of the Plague

Just a few of the more prominent symptoms from this plague included pus secreting rashes, high fever, and diarrhea. Plague victims often died after a week from internal burning. If they survived, the sickness moved to their stomach, giving them severe diarrhea; at this point, weakness often killed them. Many who survived past the weakness and diarrhea lost their fingers, toes, genitals, and sometimes even eyes. Total loss of memory also was a common symptom of survivors.

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It was not uncommon for Athenians to commit suicide after finding out they had contracted the plague. This is because the number of survivors was so low and death from the plague was excruciatingly painful.

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What the Athenians did to keep Disease from Spreading

Since Athenians believed that divine powers were controlling the plague, they did very little to stop it from spreading. The one thing they did do though was blockade themselves by burning countryside surrounding Athens. While this strategy seemed to work initially, a few centuries later Rome contracted what is believed to be the same plague that struck Athens.

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What the Disease Actually was

Recently it has been discovered that the disease that struck Athens was Typhoid fever. Archaeologists uncovered this by examining the dentil pulp (soft tissue inside the teeth) of ancient Athenian plague victims taken from the Kerameikos cemetery. Inside the dentil pulp, Salmonella Typhi was found; the bacteria that causes Typhoid fever.

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Scientists from Greece were also able to reconstruct the face of an 11 year old girl who died from the ancient Athenian plague. The girl, they call Myrtis, was reconstructed from the same dentil pulp and skull bones used to discover that the plague was Typhoid fever.

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Origin of the Plague

The plague of ancient Athens was first believed to be either Small Pox or Typhus. It originated in Ethiopia and spread through the Mediterranean until reaching Athens. Athens was the city hit hardest by this disease.

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Contamination of water

Some people believed that the plague was spread because Peloponnesians poisoned the city’s water supply. However Thucydides and many others did not believe this theory and it is recorded that the Athenian people continued to drink the water. There is even a story of one sickly man who was so dehydrated and thirsty that he dove, head first, into the water tank.

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Religious Beliefs about why the Plague was Happening

One of the more popular beliefs that the Athenians had about why the plagues were occurring was that god Apollo, the healer and protector from evil, sent the disease after being angered by Agamemnon. Agamemnon who was the king of Mycenae, (a mythological kingdom of ancient Greece) allegedly treating Apollo’s priest offensively.

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Attempts to Get Rid of the Disease

There were very few attempts by the Athenians to physically get rid of the disease because they believed that when the gods were pleased, they would remove the disease. Unfortunately though, this belief created a lot of religious turmoil.

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Religious Conflict

In feeling like they were unable to please the gods despite their efforts, many Athenians abandoned their traditional religion out of anger. They then started new cults such as Baccanalianism; the worship of Phrygian, the “mountain mother”. These new cults brought on a lot of frustration from those who still believed strongly in traditional religion. They felt that worshiping new gods in these cults would only make the traditional gods angrier, and the plague would continue to get worse.

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Decree of Diopeithes

The decree of Diopeithes was passed after many religious arguments broke out concerning whether the gods were angry with the Athenians, or if the gods were even real. This new law incriminated anyone who refused to acknowledging “the divine” or who worshiped any untraditional gods. As a result, many of the leading individuals in Athenian society were found guilty and punished harshly.

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Thucydides, the 5th century BCE historian, wrote a detailed account of the Athenian plague in his book the History of the Peloponnesian War. It is thanks to his writings that we know so much today about what occurred during the plague of ancient Athens. In the book, Thucydides states that the reason he provided such a detailed account was so that, if the disease ever struck again, others may have a better idea of how to contain it.

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Death Toll

During the five years that the plague engulfed Athens, almost a hundred thousand people were killed; a third of the total population. People were dying so quickly that they could not be buried fast enough and would lie in the street to rot. However predatory animals would, strangely enough, not go near the dead bodies. The ones who did got sick and died immediately.

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Effect on the Peloponnesian War

Some Athenians believed that if the plague had not struck, Athens would not have lost the battle; or at least not have had as many casualties. However, others say that the plague protected Athens from more brutal attacks, since other armies were fearful to go near their city. It is important to note that the plague struck shortly after the Peloponnesian war had finished, so likely it had no effect at all.

The Plague of Ancient Athens

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