That is the second half in a two-part sequence on Thucydides’s classes for the 21st century.

Again in 430 BC, a plague gripped Athens, killing by some estimates as much as half the Greek metropolis’s inhabitants. 

The chronicler Thucydides meticulously recorded the bodily signs of the grotesque illness in a couple of pages of his tome concerning the Peloponnesian Conflict fought in historical Greece between Athens and Sparta. 

 His vivid account holds enduring classes for these of us dwelling by means of the coronavirus pandemic right this moment. 

“Instantly, individuals who had been beforehand wholesome had been affected by sensations of violent fever within the head and a redness and irritation of the eyes,” wrote Thucydides, who obtained the plague himself however survived. “Internally, each the throat and the tongue instantly grew to become bloody and emitted an unnatural and foul-smelling breath.

“On the subsequent stage, the victims suffered an onset of sneezing and hoarseness, and shortly afterwards, the affliction went to the chest, accompanied by violent coughing; when it took maintain within the abdomen, it precipitated extreme upset, and each sort of bile that had been named by physicians was discharged.”

Some modern-day scientists have speculated that the Athenian plague was typhoid fever.

Overcome by the acute fever and thirst, some victims would throw themselves into wells in a determined want for water. 

In addition to describing the agonizing signs, Thucydides additionally detailed the psychological and social breakdown of a society — classes students and consultants say nonetheless echo right this moment as people and societies deal with the novel coronavirus. 

‘Civilization is a really skinny veneer’

“Overwhelmed by the catastrophe, folks couldn’t see what was to change into of them and began shedding respect for legal guidelines of god and man alike,” Thucydides wrote.

Katherine Kelaidis, resident scholar on the Nationwide Hellenic Museum in Chicago, stated, “The Greeks very a lot had this sense … that civilization is a really skinny veneer and that beneath even slight quantities of stress, that social contract begins to interrupt down, and [when] folks lose that veneer … that may be very harmful.”

Some examples of social mores breaking down through the present pandemic, she stated, included a Michigan safety guard fatally shot after asking a buyer to put on a masks in a greenback retailer, folks punching one another for lavatory paper, and customers screaming at one another for going within the mistaken course down the aisle. 

Kelaidis stated the place she lives, folks by no means screamed at one another on the retailer and if you happen to noticed that, you’d go residence and say, “You are not gonna consider what I noticed right this moment.”

“And now each time I am going, someone yells at someone else. It simply occurs now.” 

Lawlessness motivated by xenophobia

Thucydides talked about the plague originated in Ethiopia — that it was a overseas illness. There was additionally a concept when Athenians first began getting sick that the enemy, the Spartans, had poisoned the wells. Kelaidis stated this speaks to the xenophobia that is stirred up throughout instances of disaster.

That sort of pondering “may be very harmful,” she stated, citing examples of latest hate crimes and vandalism in opposition to Chinese language People and their companies in New York.

“Making an attempt to level to a human enemy for what can be a organic calamity, that actually struck a chord with me,” she stated.

If a pandemic finds a society that’s fractured the place there may be mistrust, the place the general public well being system is uncared for or in decay … that’s going to be revealed.–  Katherine Kelaidis

She additionally identified the rhetoric in america from the White Home, which sought in charge China for the coronavirus pandemic. 

The fault strains of people and society are going to be uncovered throughout a disaster, she stated. 

To clarify her level, she stated there have been profiteers through the pandemic “prepared to make cash off human distress” by shopping for all of the hand sanitizer and promoting it at a mark up on Amazon. The identical can be true of societies.

“If a pandemic finds a society that’s fractured the place there may be mistrust, the place the general public well being system is uncared for or in decay … that’s going to be revealed.”

Pericles’ speech to rise above it

The plague raged in Athens by means of the summer season of 430 BC, with folks dying inside the town partitions by the tens of 1000’s. Surviving Athenians began in search of somebody in charge and finally directed their anger towards their chief, Pericles. 

Athenian statesman Pericles died from the plague in 429 BC. (Hulton Archive/Getty Photos)

Pericles was in command of Athens for about three a long time when the plague hit and had even led the city-state into its golden age.

“Within the pages of Thucydides, I might say Pericles represents democratic management at its finest,” stated Clifford Orwin, creator of The Humanity of Thucydides, who teaches political science on the College of Toronto.

Pericles went earlier than his folks and made it clear to the fuming mob earlier than him that their anger was misplaced and that they needed to rise above it. 

“A person could be doing properly in his personal affairs, but when his nation is destroyed, he nonetheless falls along with her,” Pericles stated. “Alternatively, if he’s faring badly whereas his nation is faring properly, then he’s extra prone to come by means of safely.”

Pericles then appealed to their higher natures, asking Athenians to proceed to assist one another.

“In your misery at your individual misfortunes, you might be sacrificing our widespread safety; you will need to subsequently put apart your non-public sorrows and focus on securing our widespread security,” he stated.

“The essential argument that he makes is it’s a must to notice that your well-being as people actually is dependent upon the flourishing of the better society,” Orwin stated. “You have to hold the well-being of the society foremost in your ideas.”

Pericles would finally die from the plague.

Blended outcomes

When requested whether or not society has been capable of rise above and do what’s proper for the collective, Kinch Hoekstra, chancellor’s professor of political science and legislation at College of California, Berkeley, stated the outcomes are blended. 

“[It varies] to a point from tradition to tradition … from one a part of a rustic to a different,” he stated. “And I believe one of many issues that clearly exacerbates issues is when the problem is what we would name politicized.” 

An 1852 portray by Philipp von Foltz depicting Pericles’s Funeral Oration — a speech from Thucydides’s Historical past of the Peloponnesian Conflict. The speech was delivered by Pericles on the finish of the primary yr of the warfare to memorialize the victims. (Wikimedia)

So what recommendation ought to 21st century leaders take from how Pericles dealt with Athens’s disaster? 

Orwin praised Pericles for his capacity to take care of that fashionable belief with out descending into “a sport of aggressive fomenting of distrust,” attribute of populistic democratic politics.

“I might say that it is this extraordinary capacity that Pericles has to satisfy the folks the place [they’re] at and [of] placing the plague into perspective as a horrible episode however nonetheless, only one episode, in a for much longer story of the wonderful historical past of Athens.”


Company on this episode:

Kinch Hoekstra is chancellor’s professor of political science and legislation at College of California, Berkeley. He’s the creator of Thucydides and the Politics of Necessity.

Katherine Kelaidis is resident scholar on the Nationwide Hellenic Museum and a visiting assistant professor in Classical Research at Loyola College Chicago.

Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science, classics and Jewish research on the College of Toronto. He is a senior fellow on the Berlin Thucydides Middle and creator of The Humanity of Thucydides.

Particular because of Linden MacIntyre for studying the a part of Thucydides and to Chris Howden for studying the a part of Pericles.

For our excerpts, we drew from a 2013 version referred to as Thucydides: The Conflict of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians. It’s edited and translated by Jeremy Mynott.


Written by Showwei Chu. This episode was produced by Nicola Luksic. Combine and sound design by Tom Howell.

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