Covid-19BC. Illustration: Kate Hazell

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

From Homer to Thucydides, plague provided a backdrop for drama
March 30, 2020
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 Agamemnon that the only way to end the crisis is for the prisoner to be returned to her father. So as not to lose face, Agamemnon seizes Briseis, one of Achilles’ captives, as compensation. This humiliation is what causes the famous wrath of Achilles—the rage that sets the whole plot of the poem going.  

Perhaps the greatest of all Athenian tragedies—Oedipus the King—also starts with a plague. Sophocles’ play begins as a deputation of the people come to Oedipus asking for help with a disease that’s ravaging the people of Thebes. Oedipus, always the great man of action, tells them that he’s already sent his brother-in-law to consult the Delphic oracle. The message comes back that the murderer of King Laius, Oedipus’s predecessor, must be found and punished. It turns out that the plague is a symbol of a deeper malaise, a moral disorder that’s afflicting the king’s family.  

Humans are story-makers. It’s not surprising that mysterious ailments might be explained in the world of Greek myth in terms of punishments for moral failings or for offending the gods. But 5th-century Athens also saw a different approach to disease. Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, provided an account of a real disease that ravaged Athens in 430 BCE. It started in Ethiopia perhaps, his narrative tells us. It seemed to spread inland from the port.

At first conspiracy theories abounded: the enemy had poisoned the reservoirs, people thought. Symptoms included sickness, retching, hoarseness, coughing. People’s bodies became hot and tender, and painful pustules broke out the skin. Patients had a raging thirst. As the disease took hold, healthcare workers were particularly at risk. The poor endured dreadful conditions. Social order broke down, and people stopped respecting the gods—after all, they seemed to have abandoned the people to their fate. The historian himself knew it firsthand: he had contracted the plague, and recovered.  

What was it? Theories have abounded. Perhaps it was typhus, or smallpox. It had profound consequences: it had a significant impact on the city-state’s ability to fight its war with Sparta. And it killed its greatest statesman, the one whose bust sits on the current prime minister’s desk: Pericles.  

The concepts of infection and contagion were unavailable to Thucydides. He was writing from a world in which (for example) being exposed to southwest winds supposedly made you particularly susceptible to vaginal discharges. (This is gleaned from one of my favourite ancient Greek medical texts, Airs, Waters, Places, about the effect of situation and climate on health.) And yet Thucydides is soberly empirical, dispassionately secular. He rejects conspiracy theories, makes no mention of the gods, and explicitly says that he will decline to speculate on the causes of the disease. Just for once, it’s Thucydides, not Homer, that we need just now.