The Great Events by Famous Historians/Volume 2/Great Plague at Athens
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Great Plague at Athens
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GREAT PLAGUE AT ATHENS
(Almost at the beginning of the Peloponnesian war, when the prosperity of Athens had placed her at the height of her power and given her unquestioned supremacy among the Grecian states, her strength was greatly impaired by a visitation against which there was nothing in military prowess or patriotic pride and devotion that could prevail.
It is one of the tragic contrasts of history—the picture of Athens, in her full triumph and glory, smitten, at a moment when she needed to put forth her full strength, by a deadly foe against whose might mortal arms were vain. Her citizens were rejoicing in her social no less than her military preëminence, and they had already been trained in the hardships necessary to be endured in defence of an invaded country. Again they were prepared to undergo whatever service might be laid upon them in her behalf. They could foresee the arduous tasks and inevitable sufferings of a great war, but had no warning of an impending calamity far worse than those which even war, though always attended with horrors, usually entails. Pericles had lately delivered his great funeral oration at the public interment of soldiers who had fallen for Athens. "The bright colors and tone of cheerful confidence," says Grote, whose account of the plague follows, "which pervaded the discourse of Pericles, appear the more striking from being in immediate antecedence to the awful description of this distemper."
The death of Pericles himself, who directly or indirectly fell a victim to the prevailing pestilence, marked a grievous crisis for Athens in what was already become a measureless public woe. During the autumn of the year B.C. 427 the epidemic again broke out, after a considerable intermission, and for one year continued, "to the sad ruin both of the strength and the comfort of the city.")
At the close of one year after the attempted surprise of Plataea by the Thebans, the belligerent parties in Greece remained in an unaltered position as to relative strength. Nothing decisive had been accomplished on either side, either by the invasion of Attica or by the flying descents round the coast of Peloponnesus. In spite of mutual damage inflicted—doubtless in the greatest measure upon Attica—no progress was yet made toward the fulfilment of those objects which had induced the Peloponnesians to go to war. Especially the most pressing among all their wishes—the relief of Potidaea—was in no way advanced; for the Athenians had not found it necessary to relax the blockade of that city, The result of the first year's operations had thus been to disappoint the hopes of the Corinthians and the other ardent instigators of war, while it justified the anticipations both of Pericles and of Archidamus.
A second devastation of Attica was resolved upon for the commencement of spring; and measures were taken for carrying it all over that territory, since the settled policy of Athens, not to hazard a battle with the invaders, was now ascertained. About the end of March or beginning of April the entire Peloponnesian force—two-thirds from each confederate city as before—was assembled under the command of Archidamus and marched into Attica. This time they carried the work of systematic destruction not merely over the Thriasian plain and the plain immediately near to Athens, as before; but also to the more southerly portions of Attica, down even as far as the mines of Laurium. They traversed and ravaged both the eastern and the western coast, remaining not less than forty days in the country. They found the territory deserted as before, all the population having retired within the walls.
In regard to this second invasion, Pericles recommended the same defensive policy as he had applied to the first; and apparently the citizens had now come to acquiesce in it, if not willingly, at least with a full conviction of its necessity. But a new visitation had now occurred, diverting their attention from the invader, though enormously aggravating their sufferings. A few days after Archidamus entered Attica, a pestilence or epidemic sickness broke out unexpectedly at Athens.
It appears that this terrific disorder had been raging for some time throughout the regions round the Mediterranean; having begun, as was believed, in Ethiopia—thence passing into Egypt and Libya, and overrunning a considerable portion of Asia under the Persian government. About sixteen years before, there had been a similar calamity in Rome and in various parts of Italy. Recently it had been felt in Lemnos and some other islands of the Aegean, yet seemingly not with such intensity as to excite much notice generally in the Grecian world: at length it passed to Athens, and first showed itself in the Piraeus. The progress of the disease was as rapid and destructive as its appearance had been sudden; while the extraordinary accumulation of people within the city and long walls, in consequence of the presence of the invaders in the country, was but too favorable to every form of contagion. Families crowded together in close cabins and places of temporary shelter—throughout a city constructed, like most of those in Greece, with little regard to the conditions of salubrity and in a state of mental chagrin from the forced abandonment and sacrifice of their properties in the country, transmitted the disorder with fatal facility from one to the other. Beginning as it did about the middle of April, the increasing heat of summer further aided the disorder, the symptoms of which, alike violent and sudden, made themselves the more remarked because the year was particularly exempt from maladies of every other description.
Of this plague—or, more properly, eruptive typhoid fever, distinct from, yet analogous to, the smallpox—a description no less clear than impressive has been left by the historian Thucydides, himself not only a spectator but a sufferer. It is not one of the least of his merits, that his notice of the symptoms, given at so early a stage of medical science and observation, is such as to instruct the medical reader of the present age, and to enable the malady to be understood and identified. The observations with which that notice is ushered in deserve particular attention. "In respect to this distemper (he says), let every man, physician or not, say what he thinks respecting the source from whence it may probably have arisen, and respecting the causes which he deems sufficiently powerful to have produced so great a revolution. But I, having myself had the distemper, and having seen others suffering under it, will state what it actually was, and will indicate in addition such other matters as will furnish any man, who lays them to heart, with knowledge and the means of calculation beforehand, in case the same misfortune should ever occur again."
To record past facts, as a basis for rational prevision in regard to the future—the same sentiment which Thucydides mentions in his preface, as having animated him to the composition of his history—was at that time a duty so little understood that we have reason to admire not less the manner in which he performs it in practice than the distinctness with which he conceives it in theory. We infer from his language that speculation in his day was active respecting the causes of this plague, according to the vague and fanciful physics, and scanty stock of ascertained facts, which was all that could then be consulted. By resisting the itch of theorizing from one of those loose hypotheses which then appeared plausibly to explain everything, he probably renounced the point of view from which most credit and interest would be derivable at the time. But his simple and precise summary of observed facts carries with it an imperishable value, and even affords grounds for imagining that he was no stranger to the habits and training of his contemporary Hippocrates, and the other Asclepiads of Cos.
It is hardly within the province of a historian of Greece to repeat after Thucydides the painful enumeration of symptoms, violent in the extreme and pervading every portion of the bodily system, which marked this fearful disorder. Beginning in Piraeus, it quickly passed into the city, and both the one and the other was speedily filled with sickness and suffering, the like of which had never before been known. The seizures were sudden, and a large proportion of the sufferers perished after deplorable agonies on the seventh or on the ninth day. Others, whose strength of constitution carried them over this period, found themselves the victims of exhausting and incurable diarrhoea afterward; with others again, after traversing both these stages, the distemper fixed itself in some particular member, the eyes, the genitals, the hands, or the feet, which were rendered permanently useless, or in some cases amputated, even where the patient himself recovered.
There were also some whose recovery was attended with a total loss of memory, so that they no more knew themselves or recognized their friends. No treatment or remedy appearing, except in accidental cases, to produce any beneficial effect, the physicians or surgeons whose aid was invoked became completely at fault. While trying their accustomed means without avail, they soon ended by catching the malady themselves and perishing. The charms and incantations, to which the unhappy patient resorted, were not likely to be more efficacious. While some asserted that the Peloponnesians had poisoned the cisterns of water, others referred the visitation to the wrath of the gods, and especially to Apollo, known by hearers of the Iliad as author of pestilence in the Greek host before Troy. It was remembered that this Delphian god had promised the Lacedaemonians, in reply to their application immediately before the war, that he would assist them whether invoked or uninvoked; and the disorder now raging was ascribed to the intervention of their irresistible ally; while the elderly men further called to mind an oracular verse sung in the time of their youth: "The Dorian war will come, and pestilence along with it." Under the distress which suggested, and was reciprocally aggravated by these gloomy ideas, prophets were consulted, and supplications with solemn procession were held at the temples, to appease the divine wrath.
When it was found that neither the priest nor the physician could retard the spread or mitigate the intensity of the disorder, the Athenians abandoned themselves to despair, and the space within the walls became a scene of desolating misery. Every man attacked with the malady at once lost his courage—a state of depression itself among the worst features of the case, which made him lie down and die, without any attempt to seek for preservatives. And although at first friends and relatives lent their aid to tend the sick with the usual family sympathies, yet so terrible was the number of these attendants who perished, "like sheep," from such contact, that at length no man would thus expose himself; while the most generous spirits, who persisted longest in the discharge of their duty, were carried off in the greatest numbers. The patient was thus left to die alone and unheeded. Sometimes all the inmates of a house were swept away one after the other, no man being willing to go near it: desertion on the one hand, attendance on the other, both tended to aggravate the calamity. There remained only those who, having had the disorder and recovered, were willing to tend the sufferers.
These men formed the single exception to the all-pervading misery of the time—for the disorder seldom attacked anyone twice, and when it did the second attack was never fatal. Elate with their own escape, they deemed themselves out of the reach of all disease, and were full of compassionate kindness for others whose sufferings were just beginning. It was from them too that the principal attention to the bodies of deceased victims proceeded: for such was the state of dismay and sorrow that even the nearest relatives neglected the sepulchral duties, sacred beyond all others in the eyes of a Greek. Nor is there any circumstance which conveys to us so vivid an idea of the prevalent agony and despair as when we read, in the words of an eyewitness, that the deaths took place among this close-packed crowd without the smallest decencies of attention—that the dead and the dying lay piled one upon another not merely in the public roads, but even in the temples, in spite of the understood defilement of the sacred building—that half-dead sufferers were seen lying round all the springs, from insupportable thirst—that the numerous corpses thus unburied and exposed were in such a condition that the dogs which meddled with them died in consequence, while no vultures or other birds of the like habits ever came near.
Those bodies which escaped entire neglect were burnt or buried without the customary mourning, and with unseemly carelessness. In some cases the bearers of a body, passing by a funeral pile on which another body was burning, would put their own there to be burnt also; or perhaps, if the pile was prepared ready for a body not yet arrived, would deposit their own upon it, set fire to the pile, and then depart. Such indecent confusion would have been intolerable to the feelings of the Athenians in any ordinary times.
To all these scenes of physical suffering, death, and reckless despair was superadded another evil, which affected those who were fortunate enough to escape the rest. The bonds both of law and morality became relaxed, amid such total uncertainty of every man both for his own life and that of others. Men cared not to abstain from wrong, under circumstances in which punishment was not likely to overtake them, nor to put a check upon their passions, and endure privations, in obedience even to their strongest conviction, when the chance was so small of their living to reap reward or enjoy any future esteem. An interval, short and sweet, before their doom was realized—before they became plunged in the widespread misery which they witnessed around, and which affected indiscriminately the virtuous and the profligate—was all that they looked to enjoy; embracing with avidity the immediate pleasures of sense, as well as such positive gains, however ill-gotten, as could be made the means of procuring them, and throwing aside all thought both of honor and of long-sighted advantage. Life and property being alike ephemeral, there was no hope left but to snatch a moment of enjoyment, before the outstretched hand of destiny should fall upon its victims.
The picture of society under the pressure of a murderous epidemic, with its train of physical torments, wretchedness, and demoralization, has been drawn by more than one eminent author, but by none with more impressive fidelity and conciseness than by Thucydides, who had no predecessor, nor anything but the reality, to copy from. We may remark that amid all the melancholy accompaniments of the time there are no human sacrifices, such as those offered up at Carthage during pestilence to appease the anger of the gods—there are no cruel persecutions against imaginary authors of the disease, such as those against the Untori (anointers of doors) in the plague of Milan in 1630.
Three years altogether did this calamity desolate Athens: continuously, during the entire second and third years of the war—after which followed a period of marked abatement for a year and a half; but it then revived again, and lasted for another year, with the same fury as at first. The public loss, over and above the private misery, which this unexpected enemy inflicted upon Athens, was incalculable. Out of twelve hundred horsemen, all among the rich men of the state, three hundred died of the epidemic; besides forty-four hundred hoplites out of the roll formally kept, and a number of the poorer population so great as to defy computation. No efforts of the Peloponnesians could have done so much to ruin Athens, or to bring the war to a termination such as they desired: and the distemper told the more in their favor, as it never spread at all into Peloponnesus, though it passed from Athens to some of the more populous islands. The Lacedaemonian army was withdrawn from Attica somewhat earlier than it would otherwise have been, for fear of taking the contagion.
But it was while the Lacedaemonians were yet in Attica, and during the first freshness of the terrible malady, that Pericles equipped and conducted from Piraeus an armament of one hundred triremes and four thousand hoplites to attack the coasts of Peloponnesus; three hundred horsemen were also carried in some horse-transports, prepared for the occasion out of old triremes. To diminish the crowd accumulated in the city was doubtless of beneficial tendency, and perhaps those who went aboard might consider it as a chance of escape to quit an infected home. But unhappily they carried the infection along with them, which desolated the fleet not less than the city, and crippled all its efforts. Reenforced by fifty ships of war from Chios and Lesbos, the Athenians first landed near Epidaurus in Peloponnesus, ravaging the territory and making an unavailing attempt upon the city; next they made like incursions on the most southerly portions of the Argolic peninsula—Troezen, Halieis, and Hermione—and lastly attacked and captured Prasiae, on the eastern coast of Laconia. On returning to Athens, the same armament was immediately conducted under Agnon and Cleopompus, to press the siege of Potidaea, the blockade of which still continued without any visible progress. On arriving there an attack was made on the walls by battering engines and by the other aggressive methods then practised; but nothing whatever was achieved. In fact, the armament became incompetent for all serious effort, from the aggravated character which the distemper here assumed, communicated by the soldiers fresh from Athens even to those who had before been free from it at Potidaea. So frightful was the mortality that out of the four thousand hoplites under Agnon no fewer than one thousand and fifty died in the short space of forty days. The armament was brought back in this distressed condition to Athens, while the reduction of Potidaea was left as before, to the slow course of blockade.
On returning from the expedition against Peloponnesus, Pericles found his countrymen almost distracted with their manifold sufferings. Over and above the raging epidemic they had just gone over Attica and ascertained the devastations committed by the invaders throughout all the territory—except the Marathonian Tetrapolis and Deceleia, districts spared, as we are told, through indulgence founded on an ancient legendary sympathy—during their long stay of forty days. The rich had found their comfortable mansions and farms, the poor their modest cottages, in the various demes, torn down and ruined. Death, sickness, loss of property, and despair of the future now rendered the Athenians angry and intractable to the last degree. They vented their feelings against Pericles as the cause not merely of the war, but also of all that they were now enduring. Either with or without his consent, they sent envoys to Sparta to open negotiations for peace, but the Spartans turned a deaf ear to the proposition. This new disappointment rendered them still more furious against Pericles, whose long-standing political enemies now doubtless found strong sympathy in their denunciations of his character and policy. That unshaken and majestic firmness, which ranked first among his many eminent qualities, was never more imperiously required and never more effectively manifested.
In his capacity of strategus, or general, Pericles convoked a formal assembly of the people, for the purpose of vindicating himself publicly against the prevailing sentiment, and recommending perseverance in his line of policy. The speeches made by his opponents, assuredly very bitter, are not given by Thucydides; but that of Pericles himself is set down at considerable length, and a memorable discourse it is. It strikingly brings into relief both the character of the man and the impress of actual circumstances—an impregnable mind conscious not only of right purposes, but of just and reasonable anticipations, and bearing up with manliness, or even defiance, against the natural difficulty of the case, heightened by an extreme of incalculable misfortune. He had foreseen, while advising the war originally, the probable impatience of his countrymen under its first hardships, but he could not foresee the epidemic by which that impatience had been exasperated into madness: and he now addressed them not merely with unabated adherence to his own deliberate convictions, but also in a tone of reproachful remonstrance against their unmerited change of sentiment toward him—seeking at the same time to combat that uncontrolled despair which for the moment overlaid both their pride and their patriotism. Far from humbling himself before the present sentiment, it is at this time that he sets forth his titles to their esteem in the most direct and unqualified manner, and claims the continuance of that which they had so long accorded, as something belonging to him by acquired right.
His main object, through this discourse, is to fill the minds of his audience with patriotic sympathy for the weal of the entire city, so as to counterbalance the absorbing sense of private woe. If the collective city flourishes, he argues, private misfortunes may at least be borne; but no amount of private prosperity will avail if the collective city falls—a proposition literally true in ancient times and under the circumstances of ancient warfare, though less true at present. "Distracted by domestic calamity, ye are now angry both with me who advised you to go to war, and with yourselves who followed the advice. Ye listened to me, considering me superior to others in judgment, in speech, in patriotism, and in incorruptible probity—nor ought I now to be treated as culpable for giving such advice, when in point of fact the war was unavoidable and there would have been still greater danger in shrinking from it. I am the same man, still unchanged—but ye in your misfortunes cannot stand to the convictions which ye adopted when yet unhurt. Extreme and unforeseen, indeed, are the sorrows which have fallen upon you: yet inhabiting as ye do a great city, and brought up in dispositions suitable to it, ye must also resolve to bear up against the utmost pressure of adversity, and never to surrender your dignity. I have often explained to you that ye have no reason to doubt of eventual success in the war, but I will now remind you, more emphatically than before, and even with a degree of ostentation suitable as a stimulus to your present unnatural depression, that your naval force makes you masters not only of your allies, but of the entire sea—one-half of the visible field for action and employment. Compared with so vast a power as this, the temporary use of your houses and territory is a mere trifle, an ornamental accessory not worth considering: and this too, if ye preserve your freedom, ye will quickly recover. It was your fathers who first gained this empire, without any of the advantages which ye now enjoy; ye must not disgrace yourselves by losing what they acquired.
"Delighting as ye all do in the honor and empire enjoyed by the city, ye must not shrink from the toils whereby alone that honor is sustained: moreover, ye now fight, not merely for freedom instead of slavery, but for empire against loss of empire, with all the perils arising out of imperial unpopularity. It is not safe for you now to abdicate, even if ye chose to do so; for ye hold your empire like a despotism—unjust perhaps in the original acquisition, but ruinous to part with when once acquired. Be not angry with me, whose advice ye followed in going to war, because the enemy have done such damage as might be expected from them: still less on account of this unforeseen distemper: I know that this makes me an object of your special present hatred, though very unjustly, unless ye will consent to give me credit also for any unexpected good-luck which may occur. Our city derives its particular glory from unshaken bearing up against misfortune: her power, her name, her empire of Greeks over Greeks, are such as have never before been seen; and if we choose to be great, we must take the consequence of that temporary envy and hatred which is the necessary price of permanent renown. Behave ye now in a manner worthy of that glory: display that courage which is essential to protect you against disgrace at present, as well as to guarantee your honor for the future. Send no further embassy to Sparta, and bear your misfortunes without showing symptoms of distress."
The irresistible reason, as well as the proud and resolute bearing of this discourse, set forth with an eloquence which it was not possible for Thucydides to reproduce—together with the age and character of Pericles—carried the assent of the assembled people, who when in the Pnyx, and engaged according to habit on public matters, would for a moment forget their private sufferings in considerations of the safety and grandeur of Athens. Possibly, indeed, those sufferings, though still continuing, might become somewhat alleviated when the invaders quitted Attica, and when it was no longer indispensable for all the population to confine itself within the walls. Accordingly, the assembly resolved that no further propositions should be made for peace, and that the war should be prosecuted with vigor.
But though the public resolution thus adopted showed the ancient habit of deference to the authority of Pericles, the sentiments of individuals taken separately were still those of anger against him as the author of that system which had brought them into so much distress. His political opponents—Cleon, Simmias, or Lacratidas, perhaps all three in conjunction—took care to provide an opportunity for this prevalent irritation to manifest itself in act, by bringing an accusation against him before the dicastery. The accusation is said to have been preferred on the ground of pecuniary malversation, and ended by his being sentenced to pay a considerable fine, the amount of which is differently reported—fifteen, fifty, or eighty talents, by different authors. The accusing party thus appeared to have carried their point, and to have disgraced, as well as excluded from reelection, the veteran statesman. The event, however, disappointed their expectations. The imposition of the fine not only satiated all the irritation of the people against him, but even occasioned a serious reaction in his favor, and brought back as strongly as ever the ancient sentiment of esteem and admiration. It was quickly found that those who had succeeded Pericles as generals neither possessed nor deserved in an equal degree the public confidence. He was accordingly soon reelected, with as much power and influence as he had ever in his life enjoyed.
But that life, long, honorable, and useful, had already been prolonged considerably beyond the sixtieth year, and there were but too many circumstances, besides the recent fine, which tended to hasten as well as to embitter its close. At the very moment when Pericles was preaching to his countrymen, in a tone almost reproachful, the necessity of manful and unabated devotion to the common country in the midst of private suffering, he was himself among the greatest of sufferers, and most hardly pressed to set the example of observing his own precepts. The epidemic carried off not merely his two sons—the only two legitimate, Xanthippus and Paralus—but also his sister, several other relatives, and his best and most useful political friends. Amid this train of domestic calamities, and in the funeral obsequies of so many of his dearest friends, he remained master of his grief, and maintained his habitual self-command, until the last misfortune—the death of his favorite son Paralus, which left his house without any legitimate representative to maintain the family and the hereditary sacred rites. On this final blow, though he strove to command himself as before, yet at the obsequies of the young man, when it became his duty to place a wreath on the dead body, his grief became uncontrollable, and he burst out, for the first time in his life, into profuse tears and sobbing.
In the midst of these several personal trials he received the intimation, through Alcibiades and some other friends, of the restored confidence of the people toward him, and of his reelection to the office of strategus. But it was not without difficulty that he was persuaded to present himself again at the public assembly and resume the direction of affairs. The regret of the people was formally expressed to him for the recent sentence—perhaps, indeed, the fine may have been repaid to him, or some evasion of it permitted, saving the forms of law—in the present temper of the city; which was further displayed toward him by the grant of a remarkable exemption from a law of his own original proposition.
He had himself, some years before, been the author of that law whereby the citizenship of Athens was restricted to persons born both of Athenian fathers and Athenian mothers, under which restriction several thousand persons, illegitimate on the mother's side, are said to have been deprived of the citizenship, on occasion of a public distribution of corn. Invidious as it appeared to grant, to Pericles singly, an exemption from a law which had been strictly enforced against so many others, the people were now moved not less by compassion than by anxiety to redress their own previous severity. Without a legitimate heir, the house of Pericles, one branch of the great Alcmaeonid gens by his mother's side, would be left deserted, and the continuity of the family sacred rites would be broken—a misfortune painfully felt by every Athenian family, as calculated to wrong all the deceased members, and provoke their posthumous displeasure toward the city. Accordingly, permission was granted to Pericles to legitimize, and to inscribe in his own gens and phratry, his natural son by Aspasia, who bore his own name.
It was thus that Pericles was reinstated in his post of strategus as well as in his ascendency over the public counsels—seemingly about August or September, B.C. 430. He lived about one year longer, and seems to have maintained his influence as long as his health permitted. Yet we hear nothing of him after this moment, and he fell a victim, not to the violent symptoms of the epidemic, but to a slow and wearing fever, which undermined his strength as well as his capacity. To a friend who came to ask after him when in this disease, Pericles replied by showing a charm or amulet which his female relations had hung about his neck—a proof how low he was reduced, and how completely he had become a passive subject in the hands of others.
And according to another anecdote which we read—yet more interesting and equally illustrative of his character—it was during his last moments, when he was lying apparently unconscious and insensible, that the friends around his bed were passing in review the acts of his life, and the nine trophies which he had erected at different times for so many victories. He heard what they said, though they fancied that he was past hearing, and interrupted them by remarking: "What you praise in my life belongs partly to good fortune—and is, at best, common to me with many other generals. But the peculiarity of which I am most proud, you have not noticed—no Athenian has ever put on mourning through any action of mine."