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

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