(ORDO NEWS) — The first documented plague in history hit Athens in 430 BC, destabilizing the powerful Greek city during the Peloponnesian War with Sparta.
The first major epidemic in history, which is documented (for example, in the stories of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who himself had the misfortune to get sick), was recorded in 430-426 BC and is widely known as the Plague of Athens.
It is generally accepted that Athens was struck by the bubonic plague – a deadly infection, which subsequently mowed down the population of the Earth more than once or twice with terrifying fury.
But there are other points of view, based both on the analysis of the DNA of the victims of the epidemic, and on some indirect data: scientists suggest that the Athenians did not suffer from the plague, but from typhoid fever. At the end of the article, I will consider several alternative opinions.
A Brief Description of the Events Preceding the Plague of Athens
The epidemic began in the second year of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), which the Athenian maritime alliance waged with Sparta and her allies.
From the very beginning of hostilities, the Spartans chose aggressive tactics: in the summer, for about two or three weeks, they invaded Attica to devastate fields, burn houses and take away prisoners.
The Athenians could not put up a worthy army against the Lacedaemonians (the fleet was always considered the strength of Athens), so they hid behind the city walls.
When the Spartan army appeared in Attica, the inhabitants hurried to hide behind the high walls of Athens. And, of course, no one suspected that a trouble awaited them beyond these walls, much more serious than the fury of the Spartans.
The infection came from Egypt
The infection came to Athens through Piraeus – at that time the largest port not only of Hellas, but of the entire Mediterranean. Merchant ships from Egypt arrived regularly.
The sailors were the first to fall ill in Piraeus, followed by port workers, and then everyone else. Soon the epidemic was already raging with might and main in the crowded city.
“The disease struck Athens suddenly and first of all struck the inhabitants of Piraeus,” writes Thucydides, “so the Athenians said that the Peloponnesians poisoned the tanks there; there were no aqueducts in Piraeus at that time. Subsequently, the disease reached the upper city, and people began to die. already in much more.”
Information about the terrible things happening in Athens, of course, quickly reached the Spartans, and in the same summer they interrupted the robberies, collected spears and hoplons and hurried to leave Attica.
The rural population managed to return to their olive groves, but it was too late – the epidemic swept the entire village. But, what is interesting and even somewhat unusual, the matter, in fact, was limited to Attica.
Nothing is known about the spread of the disease to neighboring Boeotia or the Peloponnese, and this fact, among other things, casts doubt on the version that Athens was overwhelmed by bubonic plague, for which there were no borders.
But the Athenians, despite the raging epidemic, made military campaigns. It is known that after one of these campaigns, the Athenian army lost fifteen hundred hoplites in its ranks.
Not from enemy swords and spears, but from illness. And if they really were sick with the plague, then they broke out all over Greece, and there, you see, all over the Mediterranean.
In Athens, the infection raged for about four years, flaring up, then fading away, sparing neither the poor, nor the rich, nor the pious citizens, nor the misguided sinners. For the latter, by the way, a dangerous, but at the same time happy time has come.
Thucydides writes that there never was such rampant immorality and such violation of laws in Athens.
The result of the epidemic for Athens was catastrophic – the disease mowed down about 30 thousand people, about a quarter of the entire population of the city.
The strategist Pericles fell victim to an epidemic, during which the war with the Peloponnesian League developed more or less favorably for Athens.
They were able to recover only 15 years after the start of the epidemic. But Pericles was no longer there, there were no worthy personalities in his place, and Athens eventually lost the Peloponnesian War with a bang.
Of course, no one considers the plague to be the main cause of the defeat, but that it contributed to the outcome is an absolute fact.
Alternative theories about the nature of the Athenian plague
Before ending this article, I should also mention that there are several opinions about the real disease. Many experts claim that the bubonic plague never happened in Athens.
According to them, the ancient historians called the plague any mass disease, which is true to a certain extent. Here are the other most plausible diseases, besides the bubonic plague, according to modern historians.
1) Typhoid fever, which corresponds to the symptoms described by Thucydides and explains the small area of the epidemic. In addition, molecular genetic studies have shown the presence of traces of typhoid salmonella DNA in the remains of victims of the epidemic.
2) A currently unknown disease, the causative agent of which has died out or mutated over the past 2.5 thousand years.
3) Hemorrhagic fever (e.g. Ebola), since this disease came from Egypt (and the regions of the middle and upper Nile have long been known to be hotbeds of a fever like Ebola), and many of the symptoms and effects described by Thucydides were perfectly manifested in Ebola victims during outbreaks in Sudan and Zaire in 2012-14
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