“The doctors were unable to cope, since they were treating the disease for the first time and in ignorance: indeed, the more they came into contact with sufferers, the more liable they were to lose their own lives. No other device of men was any help.
“The [disease] struck the city... suddenly. People in [coastal cities] caught it first... Afterwards, it arrived in the [other cities] too, and then deaths started to occur on a much larger scale. Everyone, whether doctor or layman, may say from his own experience what the origin of it is likely to have been, and what causes he thinks had the power to bring about so great a change. I shall give a statement of what it was like, which people can study in case it should ever attack again, to equip themselves with foreknowledge so that they shall not fail to recognize it. I can give this account because I both suffered the disease myself and saw other victims of it.
“It was universally agreed that this particular year [began] exceptionally free from disease as far as other afflictions were concerned. If people did first suffer from other illnesses, all ended in this. Others were caught with no warning, but suddenly, when they were in good health. The disease began with a strong fever in the head and reddening and burning in the eyes; the first internal symptoms were that the throat and tongue became bloody and the breath unnatural and malodorous. This was followed by sneezing and hoarseness, and in a short time the affliction descended to the chest, producing violent coughing. When it became established in the heart, it convulsed that and produced every kind of evacuation of bile known to the doctors, accompanied by great discomfort. Most victims then suffered from empty retching, which induced violent convulsion: they abated after this for some sufferers, but only much later for others.
“The nature of the disease was beyond description, and the sufferings that it brought to each victim were greater than human nature can bear. There is one particular point in which it showed that it was unlike the usual run of illnesses: the birds and animals which feed on human flesh either kept away from the bodies, although there were many unburied, or if they did taste them it proved fatal. To confirm this, there was an evident shortage of birds of that kind, which were not to be seen either near the victims or anywhere else. What happened was particularly noticeable in the case of dogs, since they live with human beings...
“Some victims were neglected and died; others died despite a great deal of care. There was not a single remedy, you might say, which ought to be applied to give relief, for what helped one sufferer harmed another. No kind of constitution, whether strong or weak, proved sufficient against the plague, but it killed off all, whatever regime was used to care for them. The most terrifying aspect of the whole affliction was the despair which resulted when someone realized that he had the disease...”
The description is of the Plague of Athens, which ran through the Greek capital from 430 to 426 B.C. E. The narrative derives from Thucydides's History of the Peloponessian War, providing the first recorded empirical study of an epidemic.
Approximately 25% of the people in the city of Athens died. The disease was most likely smallpox or typhus, but historians and scientists have never arrived at an absolute conclusion. That people like Thucydides labeled it a plague makes one think of bubonic plague. However, the plague of Athens victims lacked the black discolored buboes identified during the so called Black Death pandemic of the 14th century.
One of the reasons Athenians died in such extraordinary numbers has its roots in political decision making. Nearly forty years earlier the Greeks had beaten back the armies of the Persian king, Xerxes I. Fears of a follow up Persian invasion attempt caused the formation of the Delian League, an alliance between Greece's then independent city-states. Other city-states, such as Sparta and Corinth, grew to distrust Athens and vice versa. Athens, under general and political leader Pericles, spent more than its share of Delian League funds to build defensive walls first around the city of Athens itself then around monuments, temples, and select government buildings within the city. The Acropolis and Parthenon were constructed in this period.
The other city-states feared that Athens was growing too powerful at their expense. Athenians grew more and more distrustful of the “foreign” Greeks in the outlying city-states. The Peloponnesian Wars started with a conflict between Athens and Corinth, with a second fight between the two major rivals, Sparta and Athens.
Pericles ordered all Athenians to withdraw within the city's walled fortress. Thus, he set up a perfect scenario for disease to ravage a confined population for multiple years.
The plague actually started in Piraeus, Athens chief port. Most Athenians believed that Spartan spies had poisoned the wells in Piraeus. This drove many citizens of Piraeus, already infected with the disease, inside the walls of Athens itself. The Plague of Athens proved so virulent that the Spartan military forces abandoned plans for an all out attack on the city during the initial outbreak in 429 B.C.E.
A resurgence of the epidemic occurred during the winter of 427-426. The first surge in 429 killed Pericles, his wife, and his sons. The loss of the city-state's most powerful leader played a factor in the Spartan victory in what was known as the Second Peloponessian War.
Athenian survivors of the plague suffered from a panoply of after effects, including blindness, memory loss, as well as disfigurement of the genitals and extremities. Survivors did develop an immunity, allowing them to care for other victims and burn the bodies of the dead. Reportedly, the smoke and stench from the huge funeral pyres, seen and smelled from afar, proved a factor in initially turning away the Spartan armies from the city.
One result of the epidemic was the rounding up of metics, foreign residents of Athens without citizenship papers. Many metics were enslaved. Athenians also enacted tougher and tougher laws regarding who could obtain Athenian citizenship.
Are there parallels in modern times or lessons to be learned here? That is for readers to judge for themselves.