Ancient Greek History

Overview of the Plague of Athens

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Plagues and pandemics have been around for thousands of years. In fact, Athens had a particularly notable one that started in 430 BC, around the time when Athens was embroiled in a war against Sparta and its allies. It is thought that the plague itself began in the port city of Piraeus and spread throughout Athens. Eventually, the plague would kill about one-quarter of the population and the aftermath would be devastating in its own way. Here’s an overview of this plague:

About the Plague of Athens

Beginning in 431 BC, Athens was in a war with Sparta and its allies after hostilities had broken out. This war would go on for almost thirty years. This war led the rural citizens who resided in the Attic countryside to move and take refuge inside Athens’ city walls. Pericles, the leader of Athens at the time, enforced a policy of retreat within the city walls of Athens. Athens at the time was already a densely populated city, so the addition of the migrating citizens from the countryside created both a shortage of resources and overpopulation.

The plague started in Piraeus and swiftly made its way through the population of Athens, which was made worse by everyone’s proximity to each other as well as the poor hygiene of the time. Athens became the perfect breeding ground for a plague. In addition to the many citizens who died, Pericles lost his life to the plague in 429 BC.

Characteristics of the Plague

Thucydides, an Athenian historian, reported the plague symptoms, which included: inflamed, red eyes, headache, thirst, fever, chest pain, cough, and upset stomach with vomiting. The first wave of the plague lasted for about two years, which was followed by a second wave that lasted one year.

Just outside of Athens’ ancient Kerameikos cemetery a mass grave and 1,000 tombs which are dated during the years of the plague were discovered. The site was excavated during 1994 and 1995. The findings were 240 remains, which included 10 children.

It is most likely that the plague that swept through Athens was typhus. The University of Maryland explains that typhoid hits hard during times of war and poverty. The symptoms of typhoid match the description that Thucydides described during the plague.

Affect of the Plague on the War

The plague occurred during the early years of the war with the Spartans. When the Spartan’s saw the funeral pyres that were burning in Athens regularly, the Spartans withdrew their troops not wanting to catch the plague themselves. As for Athens’ troops, many of the seamen and infantry lost their own lives to the plague. It was not until 415 BC that Athens was recovered enough to organize an offensive, which would be known as the Sicilian Expedition. The Sicilian Expedition would last from 415 – 413 BC. Athens was on one side while Sparta, Corinth, and Syracus were on the other. Unfortunately, Athenian forces would be defeated and this would impact Athens.

The plague and the loss of the war both contributed to Athens’ loss of power. There were also social, emotional, and religious impacts to Athens after the plague.


Plague of Athens – Wikipedia

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This post was written by Greek Boston

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