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Coronavirus and the classics—what the ancient Greeks can teach us about pandemics

From Homer to Thucydides, plague provided a backdrop for drama

By Charlotte Higgins   May 2020

Covid-19BC. Illustration: Kate Hazell

European literature gets going with the arrival of a mysterious and deadly illness. At the dramatic opening of the Iliad, Apollo sends a plague, punishing the Greeks for Agamemnon’s refusal to ransom a captive, Chryseis. The god’s direct relationship with the sickness is vividly described—he descends “like night” on the Greek camp, his arrows clattering in their quiver, and he shoots first the mules and dogs, making them sick, before turning on the humans.  

As the bodies pile up—the pyres are burning day and night—a seer tells…

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