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A pestilential time in Athens

By William Seaton

There can be no good time for a pestilence, but the citizens of ancient Athens had reason to feel that the disease which spread in 430 BCE was peculiarly unlucky.  The city was in year two of the second Peloponnesian War with Sparta when, as Thucydides tells us, its citizens were suddenly struck by a greater plague than any had ever before experienced.  

Physicians of the day had no effective treatment.  Thucydides notes that, as they were caring for the stricken, a great many doctors died.  Magical recourse such as “supplications in the temples, divinations, and so forth” likewise proved of no value.  Ultimately the disease killed a hundred thousand people, a good third of the population of Athens.  Thucydides, himself a survivor, describes the progress of symptoms in agonizing detail, but he regards the most horrifying effects to be psychological, the “dejection of mind” that brought despair.  He notes a detail that will not surprise Americans in 2020.  The suffering of those on their deathbeds was increased by their isolation, causing people to die “forlorn.”


As the number of victims grew, the living neglected burial rites and eventually “grew careless both of holy and profane things alike.”  Licentiousness ruled ranging from rudeness to outright crime and social bonds dissolved.  As Athenians neglected the gestures of cooperation that joined them in community, the city’s fabric unraveled.  


The significance of Thucydides’ depiction of the epidemic is heightened by the fact that it immediately follows his celebrated account of Pericles’ funeral oration for the dead of the first year of the war.  The social ideals in the speech are meaningful despite ancient Athens’ use of slaves, its exclusion of women from public life, its oligarchs and greed.  Athens was proud of its system’s superiority to “Asian” despotism.


Pericles praises his city’s “liberty,” saying “our ancestors have handed down to us a free country,” a “democracy” that “favors the many instead of the few.”  He celebrates equality under the law and claims that people might advance through individual merit in spite of low birth, sounding very like an American.  


Pericles’ Athens is multiculturalist; all are treated with civility and liberal tolerance.  “We do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive.”  In contrast to what Athenians saw as the gloomy rigor of the Spartan garrisons, Athenians, he says, enjoy life.  “Our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please.”  For a civilized person, Pericles thought, that embraces the pursuit of pleasure including games and sacrifices.  At home “the elegance of our private establishments forms a daily source of pleasure and helps to banish the spleen.”


To him such apparent casualness need bring no weakness.  “This ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens.”  “We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners” out of fear that they may be spying, trusting in “the native spirit of our citizens” to protect the city.  In sum he says Athenians “are just as ready [as those in tyrannical regimes] to encounter every legitimate danger.”


Pericles is clear that to him freedom, democracy, and tolerance make Athens stronger than regimentation by encouraging every individual to engage in community life.  The cohesiveness that comes from mutual respect and the joy that arises from the collective pursuit of the good life will, he feels, allow his people to defeat any despot’s challenge.  They had, after all, defeated the mighty Persians.

This glorious ideal was shredded by the plague.  With the physical and psychological damage of the epidemic weighing against them, Athens lost to Sparta, and a puppet regime, the Thirty Tyrants, was imposed.  Socrates refused an unjust order from the Tyrants to arrest Leon of Salamis.  According to Plato’s Apology he would have been killed for his defiance if the regime had not fallen just in time.  (A few years later, under so-called democracy, he was, in fact, executed.)   The Athenian system never recovered its strength, and eventually Alexander subjugated Greece and much of the world to autocratic rule.


No nation presently threatens the United States as Sparta did Athens, but we would do well to bear other parallels in mind.  The fear of the Other in American racism and xenophobia, the appeal of a militarized economy, disrespect for the values of others, and the lure to some of an all-knowing strong man, all of these, I think, weaken America.  They are likely to attract more people as fearfulness and anxiety increase.


American society has long valued freedom and tolerance as ideals, however imperfectly they have been realized.  The reader of Thucydides will surely conclude that, even under an epidemic, a society that loses these values may never recover them.  America had been stressed by terrorism, economic inequality, and bad actors among other nation states, and the addition of a frightening illness adds another potential catalyst for irrational decisions.  The fact is that people who have a stake in their society, who have some control over their own lives, will be better citizens than those under tyranny.  


Ancient Athens offers a cautionary example.  Frightened by the very real danger of illness and death, citizens gave up their commitment to each other and fell into fragmented isolation.  I have never seen such a danger of fascism as looms over the United States today.  For the future of the American experiment, the right course can only be to redouble our cooperation and reinforce a sense of community that includes everyone.  The yahoos holding demonstrations against pandemic precautions resemble the Athenians who panicked in fear.  The medical workers, the teenagers who are stocking grocery shelves, the workers delivering our mail, these are the upholders of true American values.  There is no easy way out, and people are daily dying, but the United States might still save its soul.   


William Seaton is a poet, translator, and critic, the author of Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems and Dada Poetry: An Introduction.  His book of new poetry Planetary Motions is forthcoming from Giant Steps.  Seaton maintains a largely literary blog offering “a blend of thought available nowhere else” at

The quotations from Thucydides are from Richard Crawley’s translation which is in the public domain.

William Seaton
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