Thucydides on Pericles and the Plague

Having lived through the great plague of our time (the COVID-19 pandemic) I recently turned to the wisdom of Thucydides for some refuge from the discord in his famous account of a plague that struck Athens during the Peloponnesian War. In ancient Athens, the plague first emerges in Book II of Thucydides’s text during the second year of the war. The arrival of the plague is bookended by two notable speeches from Pericles which highlight the uniquely vulnerable character of Athens amidst a pestilential scourge.

In the winter of 431 BC Pericles delivered his famous funeral oration speech in honor of the dead from the first year of the war. In the eulogy Pericles spends minimal effort actually honoring the dead and instead he praises Athens above and beyond its adversaries. In particular, he describes Athens and its cosmopolitan regime as an inherited empire which relies on resources to supply the mother country (2.36.2-4). He says Athens possesses the freedom from fear among its citizenry (2.37.2-3) and that Athenians are free from “distress” by enjoying endless games and sacrifices to form a “daily source of pleasure” while the “magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbor, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own” (2.38). Pericles says, “We throw open our city to the world” in praise of a universal horizon for its economy and culture. While the Spartan education begins at birth with a rigorous discipline aimed at “manliness,” the Athenian citizen lives exactly as he pleases, “ready to encounter every legitimate danger” (2.39). But are the Athenians truly prepared for every legitimate danger?

As Pericles describes in his funeral oration, Athens is characterized by a freedom from fear, an outgrowth of its optimistic liberality and universalism, and above all else: Athens is known for its tolerance of risk. It has grown accustomed to the story of its own grandeur and so The People demand ever riskier ventures to preserve their empire. In contrast earlier in Book II (during the first year of the war) Sparta’s king Archidamus argues that Sparta and its allies “should always be prepared for the advent of danger” (2.11.3) and he advocates “precaution of apprehension” as well as regarding “discipline and vigilance as of the first importance” (2.11.4-9). Therefore, whereas Athens is characterized by risk, Sparta is characterized by caution. How does this dichotomy affect the course of the war?

What follows occurs in the early days of summer 430 BC Sparta under King Archidamus invades Athens (with two-thirds of its forces) and lays waste to the countryside. Thus all the farmers of Attica are brought inside the walls of the city and Athens expands its importation of sustenance. “Not many days later” after Sparta attacks the countryside the plague breaks out and causes vast destruction -the city’s physicians begin dying, while supplications and divinations in the temple are equally frivolous to stop the spread of the disease. To complicate matters all the farmers are packed into tenement housing and as a consequence many die. Some say the disease initially began in Ethiopia and spread to Egypt and then to Libya but it first enters Athen through the Piraeus (the port). The devastation of the plague leads many Athenians to propagate a conspiracy about the Spartans poisoning the wells of Athens. Thucydides says he will remain silent on the causes of the disease but he mentions that he himself once contracted the disease and survived. He describes the disease in terms of inflammation, head ache, stomach sickness, bodily heat, and many people lost their extremities, eyesight, or memory. It caused widespread “lawless extravagance” because the people who survived the disease felt themselves invincible, and they lost their fear of punishment, whether divine or mortal. However, the pestilence never enters the Peloponnesus (2.54.5). Perhaps the Spartan regime is more resilient to foreign exposure in ways Athens is not.

The Spartans assault the vital silver mines of Attica while Athenian hoplites die in the thousands from the plague. When the Athenians demand peace with Sparta and begin blaming Pericles for all their woeful misfortune, Pericles addresses the people by imploring them to focus on “the commonwealth” above private gain, and he dismisses the plague as an example of a mere ‘burden of empire’ and that losing the war would be the loss of, what he calls, a tyrannical empire which would be unsafe to relinquish because it would cause their downfall (2.63.2). Apparently they are not entirely free from fear. Once Athens, an empire of conquest, has been established it cannot reverse course, according to Pericles. With this argument Pericles wins over the “community” of Athenians again, despite the fact that the common people have lost what little that they ever possessed, and the wealthy lost their country estates.

Nevertheless the wayward masses of Athens elect Pericles and he increasingly becomes the sole voice of the city, or as Thucydides says “democracy was becoming in his hands of government by the first citizen” (2.66.9). And once populist demagoguery took hold in Athens under Pericles it did not soon dissipate. After Pericles died of the plague the following year in 429 BC his string of successors spent much of their time squabbling over how best to rule The People and they continue Pericles’s vision of a risky empire to win back Athens’s former glory.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

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