The Plague of Athens- The Illness that helped end the Peloponnesian War

By: The Scribe on Friday, April 8, 2011

There have been many plagues that have rocked the world throughout the past. Some plagues, like the Black Death that killed as much as half of Europe, are widely known. Other plagues, like the Plague of Athens are known more by historians despite the fact that they caused massive amounts of death and suffering in their own right.

Map showing the course of the Peloponnesian WarThe year was 430 BCE. The Peloponnesian War was in full swing. It had started a year earlier. Athens and the other members of the Delian League were fighting against Sparta and the rest of the Peloponnesian League. The war was terrible. There were many atrocities committed by the forces on both sides. The city states abandoned the formalized combat that had been so common during Greece’s Golden Age and went at each other without mercy. They destroyed the countryside and destroyed cities in their hunger to win.

The war seemed like it was going well for Athens. The forces were fairly evenly matched in some ways. Sparta’s forces were devastating on land while Athens dominated the seas. While Sparta was launching attacks by land, Athens was busy sneaking in by sea and attacking cities along the coast. Then, in the second year of the war, disaster struck Athens. It was 430 BCE and the Athenians were holed up behind Athens’ city walls.

People from the surrounding area began to move into the city of Athens itself. Suddenly, the crowded conditions became a great place for illness to multiply. The illness was very contagious and people began to die at an alarming rate. As people became ill, law and order in the city began to break down. People suddenly began to ignore the laws or go on wild spending sprees.

The plague caused the eyes to become red and inflamed. The breath became fetid as Athens and Allied City-Statesindividuals bled from the throat and tongue. They started to sneeze and became hoarse. Victims felt that they were burning from within although they were not hot to the touch. The skin became red and developed pustules and ulcers. They often took seven to eight days to die. If they did not die, they often recovered but lost fingers, toes or eyes.

People who tended the ill were at great risk of getting sick themselves. Because of this, it was not uncommon to find that people were left alone once they became sick. They were often left to die in buildings or in the street. Some were dumped into mass graves or burned on communal pyres. In fact, the flames from the pyres were so large that they caused the Spartans to back away from the city in an attempt to avoid catching the plague.

It returned several times during the Peloponnesian War. At the end, Athens was crushed and reduced to a shadow of its former glory. While they did try to rally and mount a final attack in 415 BCE, they were never able to defeat the Spartans.

It is still not known what the Plague of Athens actually was. Scientists are fairly certain that it was not caused by the bubonic plague as was thought in the past. Scientists are now thinking it may have been a mutant form of some other illness that has not been seen since it last appeared in 427/6 BCE.


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