Plague & Democracy
Essays Society

Plague & Democracy

Deb Malamud

Thucydides on the Infection of Athens

Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War examines statesmanship, hubris, and the contradictory nature of imperialism. These themes are emphasized in Thucydides’s brief description of the plague, through which nature challenges Athenian excellence. An unusual break from the History’s description of military and political conflict, this passage traces the progression of the plague in a human being’s body alongside its effect on law and society. In his famous Funeral Oration, Pericles acknowledges mortality and the threat of disease but insists that there will remain eternal monuments to Athenian glory. Several chapters later, the plague responds: nothing is forever.

Thucydides tells us that the plague began in Ethiopia and made its ascent into Greece. Immediately, we are introduced to Athens’s duality: its need to balance openness to different people and cultures with the preservation of its national character. In the Funeral Oration, Pericles describes Athenian success in stabilizing the two contradictory pillars that hold up the city’s nature, telling them that “we cultivate refinement without extravagance, and knowledge without effeminacy.”[1] Their interest in others’ culture, he says, makes them more sophisticated without causing them to forget their origin, and their knowledge of worldly things doesn’t change their character.

It does not occur to the Athenians that their exposure to the outside world may have caused the plague to reach them. Rather, they think that the “Peloponnesians had poisoned the reservoirs.”[2] That the Athenians jump to this conclusion exposes their fear and overestimation of what others think of them. In a later speech, Pericles calls Athens a “tyranny,” but one that must be protected. Athens cannot let go of its empire because of the many Greek enemies who seek revenge against their Attic overlords. Sparta chooses not to destroy Athens at war’s end, however, suggesting the Athenians’ post-bellum prediction was merely a reflection of their guilt over their tyranny.
Maintaining this sense of guilty paranoia, the Athenians assume that the disease’s source must be vengeance and spite. Perhaps the Athenians’ obsessive suspicion of their foreign perception informs their favored explanation for the plague. So too, perhaps, does their view that everything is about them: when tragedy befalls the Athenians, it’s personal—sometimes the Athenians believe the Spartans have it in for them, other times it is the gods. This untrammeled egocentrism keeps the Athenians united: they’re special.

The sudden onset of plague seems especially atrocious after Pericles’s description of Athenians as admirers of the present and owners of the future. The optimism Pericles expresses in the Funeral Oration edges progressively closer to hubris as the speech goes on, praising the invincible strength and miraculous abilities of Athens, notions the plague quickly dispels.

Despite their hubris, Athens did control its neighbors through imperial expansion. This thirst for dominance, on which domestic stability depended and which an insatiable demos craved, was the Athenian ethos. Athenians felt invulnerable to the perils that accompany expansion—death, exile, even the potential for the destruction of a civilization—while putting themselves in dangerous situations. After war, the hubris that led to Athenian downfall continued to manifest—defeat notwithstanding—as an expectation of controlling nature.

Thucydides then gives a clinical account of the plague. His tone is scientific and measured, and he provides great detail about the disease’s symptoms and effects, which has led to significant interest from the history of science and medicine.[3] That medical experts have interest in this passage testifies to the strangeness of the place of the plague in the History, an apolitical, transhistorical problem that turns out to play an important role in the Athenian political system and the course of Athenian history. Unlike many of the Peloponnesian War’s conflicts, such as the killing of prisoners and the incitement of battles, the enemy of the city here is natural and only “incidentally lead[s] to strife among human beings.”[4] War puts human beings at the mercy of other human beings; disease pits us against our own bodies.

Earlier in the History, Pericles instructs the Athenians that paranoia is necessary: losing the war would mean Athenian demise at the hands of a foreign enemy who, seeking revenge for the Athenian empire’s nearly-successful crusade for hegemony, seizes the city, destroys its democratic tradition, and thirsts for Athenian blood. But the Athenians end up drinking their own blood; victims of the plague felt “the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath.”[5] A humble virus, not lust for empire or holy war, breaks down Athenian society.

In the Funeral Oration, Pericles states his admiration for the Athenians’ ability to compete individually but organize collectively to create beautiful things, like the Acropolis, for their city. The juxtaposition of the Funeral Oration and the plague reveals the paradoxical relationship between men and their bodies: they “both live for their bodies and act as if they were free of them.”[6] In Pericles’s Athens, men give their bodies to the cause of nation-building. The city overshadows the body. But when the body experiences the torment of sleeplessness, the bubbling of “discharges of bile” in the stomach, and the “agonies of unquenchable thirst,” man has no choice but to live for his body, public works projects be damned.[7] As a patient’s symptoms worsened, Thucydides tells us, he could think of nothing but how quickly he could plunge into a “rain tank” to alleviate the agonizing burning of his internal organs.

Thucydides says that although the symptoms of the plague are indeed horrifying, what sets this disaster apart from “all ordinary disorders” is its effect on birds and beasts of prey. These animals “either abstained from touching [their food]... or died after tasting them.” Pericles’s Funeral Oration raises the question of whether enough hubris can protect a city. The plague seems to answer negatively, and the inability of the birds of prey to eat provides the resounding no the reader is waiting for. Thucydides tends to avoid religious themes and superstitions, but his writing does seem to contain a sense of justice. The timing of the plague after Pericles’s nearly arrogant display of nationalism, paired with the birds of prey’s eerie inability to eat normally, points to the idea that justice is being served here. The Athenian hubris that goes around comes around to more than just the Athenians themselves. The attempt to control nature contorts nature. A large-scale game of karmic whack-a-mole, the suppression of a problem posed by nature for human beings merely makes another one pop up.

In war, the allocation and magnitude of one’s strengths play a key role in the outcome of the conflict. But in the face of the plague, “strong and weak constitutions proved equally incapable of resistance.”[8] The Athenians, who fight with skill, wit, and little regard for the gods, are now forced to see what their enemy so often claims to see on the battlefield: fortune. As the human body withers away, so too does the state. Pericles’s project turns out to be impossible: man can live beyond the means of his body only for as long as his body allows him to do so.

The worst feature of the plague, according to Thucydides, “was the dejection which ensued when anyone felt himself sickening, for the despair into which they instantly fell took away their power of resistance, and left them a much easier prey to the disorder, besides which, there was the awful spectacle of men dying like sheep, through having caught the infection in nursing each other.” At the core of this crisis is the hopelessness that accompanies the reliance on mere luck as a means of survival. There is no preventative measure, just inevitable suffering and a chance of survival. And yet, men continue to nurse each other in an attempt to change the course of nature. Those who care for each other end up “dying like sheep”; they seem to lose the dignity of man (whether they actually do is a separate question) and fail to avoid the unavoidable. The plague “overwhelms” civic relations.[9] People too afraid to be in contact with others for fear of infection die of neglect, and those who help care for others die of contagion. The people become indifferent to “kinsmen, party, and city.”[10] The enemy is indiscriminate, and lives within every person’s body. Divisions of social order, like landownership or status as a freeman, become irrelevant and dissolve. The plague overhauls this order, replacing it with fear.

The disorder causes serious social fissures, “assault[ing] even the family” and discouraging interaction.[11] The “sick and the dying found most compassion,” therefore, with those who had survived the disease.[12] Survivors could not be afflicted twice and thus could understand the pain of the sufferers without fearing contagion. They “not only received the congratulations of others, but themselves also,” as they began to fantasize of inoculation from any other forthcoming disease. The survivors of the plague have faced near-death, and have lived to see the utter viral destruction of the Athenians, and yet they hold on to the “vain hope” that they are invincible. The survivors’ foolish hope amidst despair and destruction suggests that it is impossible to quell the human desire to control nature. There is no escape from the effects of nature, but there is also no escape from our belief that there must be an escape.

As the disease makes its way from the countryside into cities, public squares and sacred sites start to teem with corpses. As bodies pile up, living citizens become overwhelmed by the horror and lose control over everyday tasks, “whether sacred or profane,” careless of both the holy and ordinary. Notably, the Athenians abandon their traditional burial rites. The gods and the afterlife, once important parts of Athenian society (even if mostly for public purposes), no longer have the power to influence the people’s behavior. The Athenians are trapped by their own bodies, living examples of Tocqueville’s belief that “liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”[13]

Thucydides tells us that this was not the only “form of lawless extravagance which owed its origin to the plague.”[14] The Greek word for lawlessness, anomia, has implications beyond literal law-breaking. Nomos refers not only to laws sanctioned by the Athenian legislature but also to “all habits and usages sanctioned by public opinion, whether or not a penalty is specified for infractions.”[15] We learn from Robert Putnam and other neo-Tocquevillian thinkers that democracies are “powerfully influenced by norms and networks of civil engagement.”[16] These norms are not laws, but the stability of a democracy depends on the people treating them as though they are. Pericles emphasizes the power of nomos when he tells the Athenians that “all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens.”[17] The Athenians’ ability to enjoy personal liberties and still maintain the same code of norms is a reason for pride, according to Pericles. The strength of the foundation of a democracy turns out to be incidental, since the norms that uphold it can be tarnished by something as unpredictable as health. Democracy can never be as stable as Pericles would like, because it depends on factors that human beings cannot control.

Pericles’s dream is not one that can be willed. And yet, as long as political life exists, it will depend “on hopes and fears for the future, and therefore on the expectation of one.”[18] Partaking in politics, like studying history, “means submitting to chaos and nevertheless retaining faith in order and meaning.”[19] The city uses the future to “coax and coerce a certain indifference to the pleasures and pains” of the body.[20] Politics is based on this impossible dream, and yet the arrogance that leads us to believe we can defeat nature causes many of the city’s problems.

Once lawlessness becomes the norm, men begin to do whatever pleases them. They “spend quickly and enjoy themselves, regarding their lives and riches as alike things of a day,” feeling free to do so because “fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them.”[21] Punishment becomes powerless, rendering law a suggestion rather than an authority. The lawlessness exhibited by the Athenians is aggravated by the fact that they think they are already being punished for something. Their destiny is sealed, they believe, so they commit crimes that fit the punishment. Even as the city is in turmoil, the Athenians retain a sense of justice and act accordingly. So too with honor:

So [the Athenians]. . . resolved to spend quickly and enjoy themselves, regarding their lives and riches as alike things of a day. Perseverance in what men called honor was popular with none, it was so uncertain whether they would be spared to attain the object; but it was settled that present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was both honorable and useful.[22]

Athens lies in ruins; everyone has become greedy and pathetic. Traditional honor is nowhere to be found and can’t be conjured—but it isn’t abandoned. Instead, the Athenians change the standard for what is noble and good. It becomes honorable to indulge in base pleasures and live strictly for the present. At the height of lawlessness, the Athenians develop a new nomos (a “new normal,” we might say). They establish custom during a crisis in which custom could not survive. It doesn’t matter that they have seen that they cannot control nature. It only means that they’ll have to try again.

Author's note: I’d like to thank Fred Baumann for inspiring this project.

  1. Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, trans. Robert B. Strassler and Richard Crawley, 1998. 113. ↩︎

  2. Ibid, 228. ↩︎

  3. Many scholars believe that Thucydides’s description of the plague echoes the Hippocratic Corpus, proving that Thucydides engaged with medical theory, favoring it over the popular superstition that disease was a form of retribution from the gods. His account has even served as fodder for argument among physicians in scholarly journals about what disease best fits the description of the plague. See: Adam Parry, “The Language of Thucydides’s Thucydides’ Description of the Plague,” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, no. 16 (1969): 107. and A.J. Holladay and J.C.F. Poole, “A Further Footnote,” The Classical Quarterly 34, no. 2 (1984): 483. ↩︎

  4. Clifford Orwin, “Stasis and Plague: Thucydides on the Dissolution of Society,” The Journal of Politics 50, no. 4 (1988): 843. ↩︎

  5. Thucydides, 119. ↩︎

  6. Orwin, 844. ↩︎

  7. For these and following quotations, see Thucydides, 119. ↩︎

  8. For this and following quotations, refer to Thucydides, 120. ↩︎

  9. Orwin, 843. ↩︎

  10. Orwin, 841. ↩︎

  11. Ibid. ↩︎

  12. For this quotation and following, refer to Thucydides, 120. ↩︎

  13. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1831. Introductory Chapter. ↩︎

  14. Thucydides, 121. ↩︎

  15. Orwin, 841. ↩︎

  16. Robert D. Putnam, “Bowling Alone,” Journal of Democracy (1995): 65. ↩︎

  17. Orwin, 844. ↩︎

  18. Thucydides, 112. ↩︎

  19. Hermann Hesse ↩︎

  20. Orwin, 844. ↩︎

  21. Thucydides, 121. ↩︎

  22. Thucydides, 121. ↩︎

Featured image: Painting (c.1652-1654) depicting the plague in Athens by Michiel Sweerts via Wikimedia Commons.

Deb Malamud is a student at the University of Chicago Law School and an alumna of Kenyon College. She invites you to follow her on Twitter.