In 430 BC the second year of the Peloponnesian war is fought. It is the initial phase of a fierce war between the democratic Athens and the oligarchic Sparta, which splits Greece in two sides for 28 years.
It is a clash of civilizations and political models. In 403, when the Athenians surrendered, decades of destruction put an end to the golden age of city-states, politics, philosophy, the arts.
In 430 Athens is still at the height of its power. To guide it is one of the most brilliant politicians of the ancient world, Pericles of Saints, descendant of the noble Alcmeonid family but converted to the revolutionary creed of democracy which prescribes equality before the law for all citizens.
In the Athenian polis the 60-year-old Pericles occupies the elective and collegial role of strategist and has established the guidelines for the war against Sparta. Describes her fellow citizen Thucydides. The father of modern history is thirty years old in 431-430 and is part of the army, made up entirely of Athens citizens and tax-allies gathered in the Delian-Attic League, an imperialist model that will be roughly imitated centuries later. from the British Commonwealth.
The war conduct decided by Pericles, whom Thucydides deeply admires, is simple. Athens, maritime power, must not accept the clash in the open field with the Spartan hoplites who, at that time, are the most fearsome military ground force in the known world, as the kings of Persia learned at their expense a few decades earlier at the time of the great Panhellenic alliance.
Athens then abandoned the interior of Attica to the Peloponnesian invasion forces, led by the Spartan king Archidamo of Zeuxidamo. The inhabitants of the Attic hinterland (Mesogheia) are invited to take refuge in the city where they are protected by the Lunga Mura, an unsurpassed fortification built fifty years earlier by Themistocles which connects the upper city with the port of Piraeus (about 10 kilometers).
Pericles' strategy is not limited to the defensive.
In 431, while the Spartans devastated Attica, a naval expedition started from Piraeus which brought the same destruction to the opponent's home in the Peloponnese.
The inability to survive long in the scorched earth and the need to defend their cities led the Spartans to withdraw at the end of the first summer of conflict (431) in the winter quarters of Corinth.
In the summer of 430, however, the invasion of Attica begins again. A few days later, in the city crowded with refugees, a contagion spread that no doctor can understand or cure and that soon fills houses and streets with dead people.
The description of the loimós, the plague that strikes Athens, occupies the central part of the second book of the history of the Peloponnese war of Thucydides, just after the epitaph that Pericles dedicates to the dead of the first year of battle and that the statesman transforms into an extraordinary exaltation of the Athenian democratic system.
The origin of the contagion is perhaps Lemnos, an Aegean island allied to Athens, or more likely Africa. For sure, the front door is Piraeus. Thucydides reports, without embracing the thesis, the rumor that the Spartans would have poisoned the wells of the port area, triggering the bacteriological war.
The greaser's paranoia occurs for the first, but not for the last time, among the Athenians at war.
The city could not be in a worse situation than an epidemic. Its inhabitants have reached about 300 thousand due to the huge influx of displaced people from the countryside. The peasants whom the Athenians of the city make fun of for their accent occupy shacks and makeshift accommodation in poor hygiene conditions.
The transformation of civilians into soldiers has serious consequences for all the economic and commercial activities on which Athens thrived and which are in full recession. The main summer crops, starting with wheat, are lost or destroyed by the enemy.
The escape from the outbreak of the epidemic, one of the historical constants of any plague, is made impossible by the presence of the invading army a short distance from the Lunga Mura.
It is not a siege in the proper sense also because the Spartans soon learn of the disease. They keep at a safe distance and prefer to devote themselves to the looting of the silver mines of Mount Laurio, about fifty kilometers south of Athens.
To relieve the pressure, Pericles orders and often leads disturbing operations. An expedition consisting of four thousand hoplites (heavy infantry) and three hundred knights loaded on one hundred and fifty ships attacks Epidaurus in the Peloponnese without success while another strategist, Agnone, besieges Potidea in the Chalkidiki peninsula.
Agnone gets the yield but at a very high price. The reinforcement troops arriving from Athens carry the contagion that is more massacre than the enemy killing 1050 hoplites, about a quarter of the troops. Again, it must be emphasized that the fallen are all citizens and that the armies of the time do not provide for the participation of mercenaries.
When the Athenian troops return, the Spartans have left Attica after forty days of occupation, ready for a new invasion the following year. The risk of returning to winter quarters with pestilence in tow is too high.
The mystery of the plague
The disease that goes down in history as the plague of Athens is a mystery of pathology. The hypotheses of scholars on the tucididal loimós fill volumes. We thought of bubonic plague, petechial typhus, enteric salmonella (typhoid fever), smallpox, measles, ergotism developed from infected grains, distemper, various epizootic diseases, hemorrhagic fevers of African origin (Ebola, Lassa), the flu and, finally, a combination of some of the listed diseases.
The reason for the uncertainty is in the symptomatological description offered by Thucydides who is not only the father of modern history with his autopsy method (direct observation of the event through documents and testimonies) but in the case of loimós he is himself part of the reconstruction autoptic because he is a survivor of the disease (“I myself was affected”).
Unfortunately, the symptoms he describes are so vast and chaotic that they do not fit exactly into any precise clinical picture. They range from mental imbalance to depression, from bleeding to diarrhea, from gangrene to amnesia. Other distinctive symptoms, such as the buboni of the bacterium Yersinia pestis or like the typical spots of smallpox, are instead absent.
Without going too far into the still controversial scientific debate, an archaeological and a historical element can be pointed out.
In 1995 the excavations of the mass graves in the Athenian district of Ceramico, north of the Acropolis, allowed the examination of some corpses dating back to the era of the great loimós. Gum and tooth tests showed traces compatible with enteric salmonella or typhoid fever, not to be confused with typhoid. The lethality of enteric Salmonella has already been mentioned in the article
on the conquest of the Americas
where the typhoid fever epidemic, in the mid-sixteenth century, caused millions of deaths among the natives.
The historical element that makes the African origin of loimós probable, in addition to the reconstruction of Thucydides himself, is the frequency of relations between Athens and countries such as Egypt, Libya, Ethiopia which send precious goods that cannot be found in Europe.
In 438, eight years before the plague, Phidias had built and installed in the internal cell of the Parthenon the colossal chryselephantine statue of Athena Parthenos combining the gold and ivory of the elephant tusks. Two years later (436), the genius of the sculpture and friend of Pericles gave an encore with the statue of Zeus to Olympia.
The two statues, which no longer exist in the original, were over 12 meters high and required tons of materials, contributing heavily to the delico-penthouse treasure, in theory the League's common chest, in practice an allied trust deposit managed by Athens and invested for the monumental religious architecture of the Acropolis.
The link between the Athenians and the divine is as contradictory and extremist as everything in Athens. Thucydides the rationalist does not take into consideration, if not for the record, prophecies, omens, aids and other practices that are superstitions for him.
The solar eclipse that many Athenians welcome as an announcement of misfortune is scientifically explained by the rationalist philosopher Anaxagoras, the preceptor of Pericles whom citizenship will thank, in a very typical way, on the charge of impiety and exile.
Phidias is instead accused of embezzlement of state funds and of blasphemy for having portrayed himself on Athena's shield. Absolved from corruption, he is sentenced for the second crime and dies in prison in 430, probably the victim of the disease that does not spare the prisoners.
In the face of catastrophe, the Athenians leave no stone unturned to appease the wrath of the gods. The city government decides one of the largest sanitizations in the ancient world. The place chosen is not Athens, where the situation of contagion is desperate. The purification recommended by the oracle of Delphi takes place in Delos, the Cycladic island where the treasure of the Delian-Attic League is kept.
Before being a political symbol, Delo has a religious meaning. It is home to the largest Panhellenic sanctuary dedicated to the cult of Apollo, the god who in the first book of the Iliad unleashes his anger on the Achaean army that besieges Troy and who has disrespected his priest Crise.
Apollo, through his lethal bow, sends the plague: “he threw bad arrows on the Achaeans, so men died on each other, the darts of the god flew from all sides”.
Centuries later, to escape another contagion, the Athenians exhume all the buried in Delos and take them to the nearby islet of Renea together with the sick. “They proclaimed,” writes Thucydides (III, 104), “that from then on no one died and no woman gave birth to Delos.”
Whatever pathology it was, Thucydides does more than just describe its bodily effects. The plague is presented as a formidable disruptor of the social fabric, customs and laws.
The discouragement of the total lack of treatment and the very high mortality that affects doctors, citizens show that they no longer have “any fear of the gods or human law”. Infringements and crimes are multiplying because nobody expected to live to account for his misdeeds and pay for it. “
The relationships of a society where the public dimension was essential are loosening. “For fear they didn't want to go to each other, they died abandoned and many houses were depopulated”.
The Greek rational mind does not overlook the concept that today is defined as antibody immunity: “The disease did not affect the same person a second time in a mortal way”.
Those who survived and acquired immunity “were considered happy by others and themselves for the joy of the moment had the vain hope of never being killed by any other disease.” But lethality remains very high.
“Many used indecent burial methods,” Thucydides continues, “while a corpse was burning, they threw what they carried on it and left.”
The infected seem crazy. They are taken by such an internal burning that they circulate naked and dive into the icy water. The dead abandoned on the street are devoured by dogs and birds that disappear after a while, exterminated by the toxins of the infected corpses.
The plague of 430 seems to give a definitive blow to the power of Pericles who comes to the assembly to plead his warlike line against those who want to find a peace agreement with the Spartans.
Thucycides also reports this speech immediately after telling the massacre of the disease that kills “like the sheep” (osper ta pròbata) at least a third of the residents of Athens and that will die only in 426.
Pericles risks ending up on trial and is fined. “Shortly thereafter,” writes Thucydides, “as the people usually do, they re-strategized him and entrusted him with all public affairs because they had been made milder as regards private disasters.”
But private mourning has not finished hitting Pericles. His sister and two legitimate children Santippo and Paralo die in succession. In 429 Pericles himself succumbed to the infection.
Only his third son, Pericles the Younger, who at the time is a ten-year-old boy, survives the plague. The statesman got it from his partner, the Aspasia ether, after separating from his wife.
Pericles junior obtains citizenship despite not being, as the law prescribes, the son of two Athenians (Aspasia is of Miletus in Asia Minor). He will survive the plague, grow in the city at war and become navarco (admiral). His victory at the Arginuse in 406 will cost him and other officers a trial for abandoning the shipwrecked.
Pericles the young man will be sentenced to death in one of the most disconcerting episodes in the history of Athenian democracy.
But already twenty years before the death of his father and the plague had addressed the fate of the Peloponnese war. A couple of millennia will pass before we speak of democracy in the world.