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THE PLAGUE

By Benjamin Jowett*

Chalkidian Helmet, 450 BCE. Thanks to www.hellenic-art.com for permission to use this image.

After listing features of the Plague in Thucydides (2.47), Jowett invites us to compare Thucydides' view of human behavior in the disaster with accounts of other great plagues, especially Gibbon on the great Plague of Constantinople (542 A.D.) and Boccaccio on the plague in Florence (1348 A.D.).


GENERAL and also particular symptoms of the plague at Athens recorded by Thucydides.

It was epidemic, 2.48.1; and also contagious, 2.51.4. It was said in former times to have ravaged Lemnos and other places, 2.47.3. It was brought from Ethiopia and Egypt to Persia and Greece, 2.48.1; and first appeared in the Piraeus in the second spring of the war, 2.48.2; at its commencement it was attributed to the poisoning of the cisterns by the Peloponnesians, 2.48.2; as the Black Death to the poisoning of the wells by the Jews. It was most fatal in crowded places, especially in Athens, 2.54.5, but scarcely found its way into the Peloponnesus. It destroyed more than one-seventh of the citizen hoplites, and a fourth of the knights, 3.87.3; and in forty days there had fallen victims to it more than a fourth of Hagnon's division of the army serving before Potidaea, 2.58.3. It lasted in all three years, at first for two years from the spring of 430 to the spring of 428; then reappearing after a partial cessation of a year and a half in the winter of 427-426, and continuing a third year, 3.87.1. It was incurable, or at any rate was never understood by the physicians; and the remedies which did good to one did harm to another, 2.51.2. It passed through the body from head to foot. The patient when recovered was rarely, if ever, affected a second time, and never fatally, 2.51.6. The summer in which it appeared was generally healthy; any other diseases were converted into it or absorbed in it, 2.49.1; 2.51.1. The plague was attended by the usual accompaniments of great epidemics, despondency and moral depravity, 2.51.4, 2.53.

More precise symptoms were:

In the next stage the disorder attacked the lungs, and was accompanied by a violent cough.

It then descended into the stomach, causing painful vomitings; then followed ineffectual retching and convulsions. The skin was reddish and livid, breaking out in small pustules and ulcers. Externally the heat was not very great, but internally excessive. The thirst and restlessness were intolerable and unceasing: the patient desired nothing so much as to tear off his clothes and throw himself into cold water. Meanwhile the strength was increased rather than weakened by the disease. At last, about the seventh or ninth day, came the end, produced by internal fever, or somewhat later, in those who survived this stage, by ulceration of the bowels, and by weakness supervening on diarrhoea. Loss of eyesight and gangrene of the extremities were of frequent occurrence in the case of those who recovered. Many of the survivors, when they rose from their beds, seemed to have forgotten all things.

Hippocrates, who at the commencement of the Peloponnesian war was probably about thirty years of age, is said by his biographers to have been an eyewitness of the plague: and his services on the occasion are duly chronicled in a spurious decree of the Athenians. His critics have generally supposed that a description of the plague at Athens is to be found in the Epidemics (Book iii.) which pass under his name. But the same ingenuity which invented the spurious decree, and also the panegyrical oration in which Hippocrates is celebrated, would have no difficulty in imagining that the father of medicine must have been present at a time when his services were so greatly needed. And the disorders described in the third book of the Epidemics bear but a slight resemblance to the plague of Athens, and only in a few superficial features. The writer of that book seems to be describing not one but many forms of malignant disease which prevailed chiefly at Perinthus: and he nowhere speaks of any great or general epidemic.

That Hippocrates witnessed the plague of Athens is very probable, though not established by historical evidence. But that he or any contemporary physician should have written upon epidemics and have omitted to mention the great epidemic of all, which was so widely spread, and of so definite a character, is nearly impossible. Hence we are driven to the conclusion that the treatise on Epidemics was not really written by Hippocrates, unless we may suppose that an account of the plague at Athens was to be found in some portion of the work now lost. Not much importance is to be attached to the non-occurrence of his name in Thucydides, who has omitted the names of many other distinguished contemporaries, e.g. Herodotus, Socrates, Phidias.

No description of the plague in any medical or other writer is to be compared with that of Thucydides. His narration is conceived in the same spirit as the rest of his history. He discards theories and describes the actual facts; he gives 'the symptoms by which any one who knows them beforehand may recognise the disorder should it ever reappear. For I was myself attacked, and witnessed the sufferings of others.' And it is not a mere fancy to suppose that he was one of those who, 'having recovered, tended the sick and dying with pitying care,' though in his impersonal manner he says nothing of himself individually.

His description has had many imitators; Lucretius, vi. 1138-1286 is nearly a translation, and should be compared throughout; the poetical version is generally accurate, though not free from misunderstandings of the original. See Munro's Notes on Lucretius, vi. 1138-1286. One or two traits of Thucydides, or more probably of Lucretius, appear in Virgil's account of the cattle plague, Georg. iii. 478 ff. Many more are found in the description of the mythical plague which afflicted the inhabitants of Aegina (Ovid, Metam. vii. 520 ff., who imitates Lucretius and Virgil as well as Thucydides). A still nearer parallel is found in the description by Diodorus (xiv. 71) of the plague which raged in the Carthaginian army when besieging Syracuse in 395 B.C. Some of the symptoms as well as the turns of rhetoric seem to be borrowed from Thucydides. Slighter traces of Thucydides are found in the description given by Livy (xxv. 26) of another plague which similarly afflicted the Roman and Carthaginian army in the siege of Syracuse under Marcellus, 212 B.C. The great plague in the time of M. Aurelius, of which Galen was a contemporary witness, nearly resembles the plague of Athens in several of its symptoms, such as the cough, the eruptions, the internal ulcerations, the redness of the mouth, and foulness of breath (Method. Med. v. 12. Praesag. e Puls. iii. 4); and the similarity is recognised by him (De Simp. Medicam. Temperam. ix. 1. §4.) It lasted during fifty years, and ravaged the greater part of the Roman world. See Littré's Introduction to the second book of the so-called Epidemics of Hippocrates, Oeuvres d'Hippocrate, vol. v. p. 62 ff.; cp. vol. i. p. 122.

The plague at Athens is described by Mr. Grote as an eruptive typhoid fever. Without giving a name to a disorder which no longer exists, and cannot be certainly identified with any later epidemic, we may remark that it has many symptoms in common with typhus fever, and with the more malignant forms of measles and small pox, and seems to combine the features of several modern diseases in one.

Whether our modern small pox was known to the ancients or not is uncertain. That eruptive diseases which are described as covering the whole body existed among them is admitted. But no modern form of small pox is attended by gangrene of the extremities or by ulcers (ἕλκη) such as are mentioned in Thucydides. Nor does Thucydides say anything of the appearance of the pustules (φλύκταιναι) forming a crisis in the disease, as is the case in small pox, and as Galen records to have been the fact with the ulcers which attended the 'pestis Antoniniana.' Nor does any ancient writer mention one of the most characteristic features of the disorder,—the marks left by small pox after the recovery of the patient.

The word φλύκταινα, which commonly means a blister, either on the skin or on bread, is not sufficiently precise to enable us to identify it with the pustule in small pox; it might with equal propriety signify bladder-like formations of another kind.

There are several difficulties which prevent our arriving at certain conclusions in these and similar inquiries. (1) The generality of the description, often passing over or but slightly mentioning the symptoms which to a modern pathologist would appear to be most characteristic of the disorder; (2) some uncertainty in the precise meaning of words; (3) the fluctuating character of the diseases themselves which do not always retain a clearly defined type, but vary with climate and circumstances and the variety of human constitutions. There is a struggle for existence in diseases as well as in animals, and they increase or diminish in strength and complexity according to their environments.

The above remarks are partly taken from Littré's excellent edition and translation of Hippocrates. He maintains the genuineness of the Epidemics on the ground that they are attributed to Hippocrates by the consentient voice of later Greek antiquity. But similar testimony might be adduced for writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon, which are confessedly spurious. That the Epidemics belong to the school of Hippocrates, that ancient school of inductive philosophy which sought to rest medicine on ascertained facts, may be safely asserted. But where nothing certainly belonging to an author or decidedly characteristic of him has been preserved to us and the writing attributed to him also contains little that is characteristic, it is impossible safely to connect them. We cannot, out of two unknown quantities, elicit a known one.

But although it is impossible to identify the plague of Athens with any known disease of other ages, both its moral and physical features may receive considerable illustration from the striking descriptions of two of the greatest pestilences by which the human race has been devastated.

The first is the remarkable account in Gibbon, c. xliii. § 3, of the great plague of Constantinople, which began in the year 542 and continued during half a century to desolate the Graeco-Roman world. It is chiefly based on Procopius, whose narrative is adorned by several terms borrowed from Thucydides, e. g. λεγέτω μὲν οὖν ὥς πη ἕκαστος περὶ αὐτῶν γινώσκει καὶ σοφιστὴς καὶ μετεωρολόγος, ἐγὼ δὲ ὅθεν τε ἤρξατο ἡ νόσος ἥδε καὶ τρόπῳ δὴ ὅτῳ τοὺς ἀνθρώπους διέφθειρεν ἐρῶν ἔρχομαι: De Bell. Persico, ii. 22. p. 142. The ex-emperor Cantacuzenus in the fourteenth century (Hist. iv. 8), who describes the death by the plague of his own son, Andronicus, about 1340, is a much more flagrant plagiarist of Thucydides. Agathias too, who gives a short account of the earlier plague (Hist. v. 10), has not forgotten his model; although how far his recollections are accommodated to the phrases or reflections of Thucydides, it is impossible to determine. A circumstance mentioned by Procopius but omitted by Gibbon, and not improbable, though at variance with the statement of Thucydides respecting the plague at Athens, is that the physicians or attendants of the sick and dying generally escaped.


Gibbon: the Plague of Constantinople

'Aethiopia and Egypt have been stigmatised in every age as the original source and seminary of the plague. In a damp, hot, stagnating air, this African fever is generated from the putrefaction of animal substances, and especially from the swarms of locusts, not less destructive to mankind in their death than in their lives. The fatal disease which depopulated the earth in the time of Justinian and his successors first appeared in the neighbourhood of Pelusium, between the Serbonian bog and the eastern channel of the Nile. From thence, tracing as it were a double path, it spread to the East, over Syria, Persia, and the Indies, and penetrated to the West, along the coast of Africa and over the continent of Europe. In the spring of the second year Constantinople, during three or four months, was visited by the pestilence; and Procopius, who observed its progress and symptoms with the eyes of a physician, has emulated the skill and diligence of Thucydides in the description of the plague of Athens. The infection was sometimes announced by the visions of a distempered fancy, and the victim despaired as soon as he had heard the menace and felt the stroke of an invisible spectre. But the greater number, in their beds, in the streets, in their usual occupation, were surprised by a slight fever; so slight, indeed, that neither the pulse nor the colour of the patient gave any signs of the approaching danger. The same, the next, or the succeeding day, it was declared by the swelling of the glands, particularly those of the groin, of the armpits, and under the ear; and when these buboes or tumours were opened, they were found to contain a coal, or black substance, of the size of a lentil. If they came to a just swelling and suppuration, the patient was saved by this kind and natural discharge of the morbid humour; but if they continued hard and dry, a mortification quickly ensued, and the fifth day was commonly the term of his life. The fever was often accompanied with lethargy or delirium; the bodies of the sick were covered with black pustules or carbuncles, the symptoms of immediate death; and in the constitutions too feeble to produce an eruption, the vomiting of blood was followed by a mortification of the bowels. To pregnant women the plague was generally mortal; yet one infant was drawn alive from his dead mother, and three mothers survived the loss of their infected foetus. Youth was the most perilous season, and the female sex was less susceptible than the male; but every rank and profession was attacked with indiscriminate rage, and many of those who escaped were deprived of the use of their speech, without being secure from a return of the disorder. The physicians of Constantinople were zealous and skilful; but their art was baffled by the various symptoms and pertinacious vehemence of the disease: the same remedies were productive of contrary effects, and the event capriciously disappointed their prognostics of death or recovery. The order of funerals and the right of sepulchres were confounded; those who were left without friends or servants lay unburied in the streets, or in their desolate houses; and a magistrate was authorised to collect the promiscuous heaps of dead bodies, to transport them by land or water, and to inter them in deep pits beyond the precincts of the city. Their own danger and the prospect of public distress awakened some remorse in the minds of the most vicious of mankind: the confidence of health again revived their passions and habits; but philosophy must disdain the observation of Procopius, that the lives of such men were guarded by the peculiar favour of fortune or Providence. He forgot, or perhaps he secretly recollected, that the plague had touched the person of Justinian himself; but the abstemious diet of the emperor may suggest, as in the case of Socrates, a more rational and honourable cause for his recovery. During his sickness the public consternation was expressed in the habits of the citizens; and their idleness and despondence occasioned a general scarcity in the capital of the East.

Contagion is the inseparable symptom of the plague; which, by mutual respiration, is transfused from the infected persons to the lungs and stomach of those who approach them. While philosophers believe and tremble, it is singular that the existence of a real danger should have been denied by a people most prone to vain and imaginary terrors. Yet the fellow-citizens of Procopius were satisfied, by some short and partial experience, that the infection could not be gained by the closest conversation; and this persuasion might support the assiduity of friends or physicians in the care of the sick, whom inhuman prudence would have condemned to solitude and despair. But the fatal security, like the predestination of the Turks, must have aided the progress of the contagion; and those salutary precautions to which Europe is indebted for her safety were unknown to the government of Justinian. No restraints were imposed on the free and frequent intercourse of the Roman provinces: from Persia to France the nations were mingled and infected by wars and emigrations; and the pestilential odour which lurks for years in a bale of cotton was imported, by the abuse of trade, into the most distant regions. The mode of its propagation is explained by the remark of Procopius himself, that it always spread from the sea-coast to the inland country: the most sequestered islands and mountains were successiveiy visited; the places which had escaped the fury of its first passage were alone exposed to the contagion of the ensuing year. The winds might diffuse that subtle venom; but unless the atmosphere be previously disposed for its reception, the plague would soon expire in the cold or temperate climates of the earth. Such was the universal corruption of the air, that the pestilence which burst forth in the fifteenth year of Justinian was not checked or alleviated by any difference of the seasons. In time its first malignity was abated and dispersed; the disease alternately languished and revived; but it was not till the end of a calamitous period of fifty-two years that mankind recovered their health, or the air resumed its pure and salubrious quality. No facts have been preserved to sustain an account, or even a conjecture, of the numbers that perished in this extraordinary mortality. I only find that, during three months, five and at length ten thousand persons died each day at Constantinople; that many cities of the East were left vacant; and that in several districts of Italy the harvest and the vintage withered on the ground. The triple scourge of war, pestilence, and famine, afflicted the subjects of Justinian; and his reign is disgraced by a visible decrease of the human species, which has never been repaired in some of the fairest countries of the globe.'

The other narrative is the well-known account of the plague at Florence, depicted by the genius of Boccaccio in the Decameron.


Boccaccio: the Plague at Florence

'In the year then of our Lord 1348, there happened at Florence, the finest city in all Italy, a most terrible plague; which, whether owing to the influence of the planets, or that it was sent from God as a just punishment for our sins, had broken out some years before in the Levant; and after passing from place to place, and making incredible havoc all the way, had now reached the west; where, spite of all the means that art and human foresight could suggest, as keeping the city clear from filth, and excluding all suspected persons; notwithstanding frequent consultations what else was to be done; not omitting prayers to God in frequent processions: in the spring of the foregoing year, it began to show itself in a sad and wonderful manner; and, different from what it had been in the east, where bleeding from the nose is the fatal prognostic, here there appeared certain tumours in the groin, or under the arm-pits, some as big as a small apple, others as an egg; and afterwards purple spots in most parts of the body: in some cases large and but few in number, in others less and more numerous, both sorts the usual messengers of death. To the cure of this malady, neither medical knowledge nor the power of drugs was of any effect; whether because the disease was in its own nature mortal, or that the physicians (the number of whom, taking quacks and women pretenders into the account, was grown very great) could form no just idea of the cause, nor consequently ground a true method of cure; whichever was the reason, few or none escaped; but they generally died the third day from the first appearance of the symptoms, without a fever or other bad circumstance attending. And the disease, by being communicated from the sick to the well, seemed daily to get a-head and to rage the more, as fire will do by laying on fresh combustibles. Nor was it given by conversing with only, or coming near the sick, but even by touching their clothes, or anything that they had before touched. It is wonderful what I am going to mention; which, had I not seen it with my own eyes, and were there not many witnesses to attest it besides myself, I should never venture to relate, however credibly I might have been informed about it: such, I say, was the quality of the pestilential matter, as to pass not only from man to man, but, what is more strange and has been often known, that anything belonging to the infected, if touched by any other creature, would certainly infect, and even kill that creature in a short space of time: and one instance of this kind I took particular notice of, namely, that the rags of a poor man just dead, being thrown into the street, and two hogs coming by at the same time and rooting amongst them, and shaking them about in their mouths, in less than an hour turned round and died on the spot. These accidents, and others of the like sort, occasioned various fears and devices amongst those people that survived, all tending to the same uncharitable and cruel end; which was to avoid the sick, and everything that had been near them; expecting by that means to save themselves. And some holding it best to live temperately, and to avoid excesses of all kinds, made parties, and shut themselves up from the rest of the world; eating and drinking moderately of the best, and diverting themselves with music, and such other entertainments as they might have within doors; never listening to anything from without, to make them uneasy. Others maintained free living to be a better preservative, and would baulk no passion or appetite they wished to gratify, drinking and revelling incessantly from tavern to tavern, or in private houses; which were frequently found deserted by the owners, and therefore common to everyone; yet avoiding, with all this irregularity, to come near the infected. And such at that time was the public distress, that the laws, human and divine, were not regarded; for, the officers to put them in force being either dead, sick, or in want of persons to assist them, everyone did just as he pleased. A third sort of people choose a method between these two; not confining themselves to rules of diet like the former, and yet avoiding the intemperance of the latter; but eating and drinking what their appetites required, they walked everywhere with odours and nosegays to smell to; as holding it best to corroborate the brain: for they supposed the whole atmosphere to be tainted with the stink of dead bodies, arising partly from the distemper itself, and partly from the fermenting of the medicines within them. Others of a more cruel disposition, as perhaps the more safe to themselves, declared that the only remedy was to avoid it: persuaded, therefore, of this, and taking care for themselves only, men and women in great numbers left the city, their houses, relations, and effects, and fled into the country: as if the wrath of God had been restrained to visit those only within the walls of the city; or else concluding that none ought to stay in a place thus doomed to destruction. Divided as they were, neither did all die nor all escape; but falling sick indifferently, as well those of one as of another opinion, they who first set the example by forsaking others, now languished themselves without mercy. I pass over the little regard that citizens and relations showed to each other; for their terror was such that a brother even fled from his brother, a wife from her husband, and, what is more uncommon, a parent from its own child. On which account numbers that fell sick could have no help but what the charity of friends, who were very few, or the avarice of servants supplied; and even these were scarce, and at extravagant wages, and so little used to the business, that they were fit only to reach what was called for, and observe when they died; and this desire of getting money often cost them their lives. From this desertion of friends, and scarcity of servants, an unheard of custom prevailed; no lady, however young or handsome, would disdain being attended by a man-servant, whether young or old it mattered not; and to expose herself naked to him, the necessity of the distemper requiring it, as though it was to a woman; which might make those who recovered less modest for the time to come. And many lost their lives who might have escaped had they been looked after at all. So that between the scarcity of servants and violence of the distemper, such numbers were continually dying, as made it terrible to hear as well as to behold. Whence from mere necessity, many customs were introduced, different from what had been before known in the city. It had been usual, as it now is, for the women who were friends and neighbours to the deceased, to meet together at his house, and to lament with his relations; at the same time the men would get together at the door, with a number of clergy, according to the person's circumstances; and the corpse was carried by people of his own rank, with the solemnity of tapers and singing, to that church where the person had desired to be buried; which custom was now laid aside, and, so far from having a crowd of women to lament over them, that great numbers passed out of the world without a single person: and few had the tears of their friends at their departure; but those friends would laugh, and make themselves merry; for even the women had learned to postpone every other concern to that of their own lives. Nor was a corpse attended by more than ten or a dozen, nor those citizens of credit, but fellows hired for the purpose; who would put themselves under the bier, and carry it with all possible haste to the nearest church; and the corpse was interred, without any great ceremony, where they could find room.

'With regard to the lower sort, and many of a middling rank, the scene was still more affecting; for they staying at home either through poverty, or hopes of succour in distress, fell sick daily by thousands, and, having nobody to attend them, generally died: some breathed their last in the streets, and others shut up in their own houses, when the stench that came from them made the first discovery of their deaths to the neighbourhood. And, indeed, every place was filled with the dead. A method now was taken, as well out of regard to the living, as pity for the dead, for the neighbours, assisted by what porters they could meet with, to clear all the houses, and lay the bodies at the doors; and every morning great numbers might be seen brought out in this manner; from whence they were carried away on biers, or tables, two or three at a time; and sometimes it has happened that a wife and her husband, two or three brothers, and a father and son, have been laid on together: it has been observed also, whilst two or three priests have walked before a corpse with their crucifix, that two or three sets of porters have fallen in with them; and where they knew but of one, they have buried six, eight, or more: nor was there any to follow and shed a few tears over them; for things were come to that pass, that men's lives were no more regarded than the lives of so many beasts. Hence it plainly appeared, that what the wisest in the ordinary course of things, and by a common train of calamities, could never be taught, namely, to bear them patiently; this, by the excess of those calamities, was now grown a familiar lesson to the most simple and unthinking. The consecrated ground no longer containing the numbers which were continually brought thither, especially as they were desirous of laying every one in the parts allotted to their families; they were forced to dig trenches and to put them in by hundreds, piling them up in rows, as goods are stowed in a ship, and throwing in little earth till they were filled to the top. Not to rake any farther into the particulars of our misery, I shall observe that it fared no better with the adjacent country; for to omit the different castles about us, which presented the same view in miniature with the city, you might see the poor distressed labourers with their families, without either trouble of physicians, or help of servants, languishing on the highways, in the fields, and in their own houses, and dying rather like cattle than human creatures; and growing dissolute in their manners like the citizens, and careless of everything, as supposing every day to be their last, their thoughts were not so much employed how to improve as to make use of their substance for their present support: whence it happened that the flocks, herds, etc., and the dogs themselves, ever faithful to their masters, being driven from their own homes, would wander, no regard being had to them, among the forsaken harvest; and many times, after they had filled themselves in the day, would return of their own accord like rational creatures at night. What can I say more, if I return to the city? unless that such was the cruelty of Heaven, and perhaps of men, that between March and July following, it is supposed, and made pretty certain, that upwards of a hundred thousand souls perished in the city only; whereas, before that calamity, it was not supposed to have contained so many inhabitants.'







Benjamin Jowett presents "The Plague" as an appendix to the notes on Book 2 in his first (1881) edition of Thucydides, Vol. 2, pp. 143-155.

There is a version of Chapter 43 in Gibbons with notes at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. For a different translation of Boccaccio's account of the plague of Florence at the beginning of his Decameron, including a few sentences at the end which are not presented by Jowett, see the Richard Hooker translation Washington State University's World Civilizations Internet classroom.