A man at the ancient Roman Agora in Athens, Greece, March 2020
Costas Baltas / Reuters

It was the best of times, then—with shocking suddenness—it was the worst of times. An epidemic strikes the world’s most powerful nation, crippling its economy and threatening to collapse its civil and political institutions. In a world already burdened by tensions among rival nations and natural disasters from droughts to famines, the epidemic was nevertheless the “most calamitous and fatal” event. So begins the summer of 430 BC when, as the Greek historian Thucydides recounts in his History of the Peloponnesian War, “the plague first began to show itself among the Athenians.”

Although two and a half millennia have passed since Thucydides wrote those words, his historia, or “inquiry,” into the causes and consequences of the war that ended Athenian ascendancy over the Greek world resonates powerfully today. Thucydides would not be surprised to learn this—he announced, after all, that he had written “a possession for all time.” International relations theorists, among others, have agreed with this claim. Drawn to the ancient Greek’s seemingly dispassionate description and diagnosis of events, these scholars have hailed him not just as the father of history but also as the father of the many flavors of realism, from classical realism to neorealism to offensive realism.

But in truth, Thucydides was less a theorist than he was a moralist. His subject was no more international dynamics than, say, Sophocles’s was intergenerational dynamics. Instead, both of these writers—each of whom experienced and wrote about the plague—explored the human condition and extracted certain morals. As Sophocles does with the response of Oedipus to the plague in Thebes, so too does Thucydides with the response of the Athenians to the plague in their city: he examines the moral implications of certain acts, extolling some and excoriating others. If Thucydides was right that the “course of human things” never changes, the lessons he offers in his account of the plague might be lessons relevant for our own.

Thucydides was less a theorist than he was a moralist.

Modern scholars have long puzzled over the nature of the disease that devastated Athens, with candidates ranging from cholera and influenza to typhus and Ebola. But tellingly, Thucydides was not interested in its origin or causes—all that counted was that it was a plague like no other. From one moment to the next, intense headaches would strike healthy people, followed by sneezing, hoarseness, and inflammation. The pain would then “reach the chest, producing a hard cough.” Wracked by other internal disorders, the afflicted suffered as long as a week before dying. Some “died in neglect, others in the midst of every attention.” Stumped by the disease’s unprecedented nature, the physicians died more rapidly than those they tried to cure. The gods, too, proved useless. The usual supplications and sacrifices, going unanswered, soon go out the window.

This most “calamitous and awfully fatal visitation,” one “almost too grievous for human nature to endure,” battered not just the physical body but also the body politic. The cascading number of cases overwhelmed the city’s institutions. Traditional burial rites were quickly abandoned, with the streets and the temples piled high with the bodies of the dying and the dead. Those yet alive, shattered by the enormity of the event, “became utterly careless of everything, whether sacred or profane.” With the eclipse of the “fear of gods or law of men,” anarchy became the rule as men “calmly ventured on what they had formerly done only in a corner.”

Historians have estimated that some 30 percent of the city’s population of 200,000 died from the plague. This number becomes more stunning by the fact that Thucydides, who elsewhere in his history provides precise numbers of soldiers and materiel, offers no precise numbers of those who died from the plague. Numbers, it seems, are immaterial. Instead, he concludes his account with a lapidary phrase: “Such was the nature of the calamity, and heavily did it weigh on the Athenians; death raging within the city and devastation without.”

CHARACTER AND DESTINY

Thucydides recounts the plague hard on the heels of his work’s best-known passage: the funeral oration Pericles delivers ostensibly in praise of citizen-soldiers fallen in battle but as much in praise of the city’s nomoi. The Greek word means “laws” but also encompasses the traditions and customs—the norms—of a society. Pericles presents Athenian society as one of measure and moderation: daring but never rash, open but always vigilant, selfless yet driven by enlightened self-interest. Such qualities, he declares, make Athens a “school for all of Greece.”

Yet the fate of Athens schools us on the fragility of those very nomoi. As soon as the burial ceremony ends, the plague begins. Among its victims is Pericles, his vaunted foresight not only having failed to anticipate this particular event but ironically, setting it in motion. His decision to move farm families behind Athens’s already-crowded walls, thus protecting them from the Spartans, set the stage for the spread of disease and his own death. Set the stage indeed: Sophocles could have scripted this moment. In fact, sometime during the decade following the plague, he did script this moment. His play Oedipus the King may well have been performed in 426 BC, the moment that the second (and not the first) wave of the plague began to subside. An audience of stunned survivors thus witnessed Oedipus’s tragic decision to battle the plague ravaging his native Thebes—tragic because, done with the best of intentions, it undoes Oedipus and eventually, Thebes itself.

Power blinds us; hubris breaks us; fortune smiles on us, but always with irony.

In the end, Sophocles’s plays, much like Thucydides’s history, suggest that the course of historical events is always in flux, but the character of human beings is fixed. Power blinds us; hubris breaks us; fortune smiles on us, but always with irony. As both writers observe, anger moves people more powerfully than hope and always in the wrong direction. As the war and pestilence worsen, the Athenians blame Pericles, punishing him for the decisions they had previously praised. Soon after his death, Pericles’s place is taken by Alcibiades, who is equally brilliant but utterly self-serving, his greed and arrogance spelling the end of his city.

Thucydides does not leave much room for hope, but he leaves even less room for despair. As the classicist Lisa Irene Hau has rightly argued, the ancient historian offers a moral lesson based on an ideal of simplicity. Embodied by Pericles—tellingly, the one character in the history whom Thucydides never criticizes—this simplicity is the distillation of the nomoi that the plague has damaged but not destroyed. The history is a possession for all time in part because, then as now, the virtues of intelligence and integrity, civic-mindedness and open-mindedness are at times eclipsed, but they are never extinguished.

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