The Plague of Athens and the Coronavirus: How History Revives Itself

There is a certain sense of  bittersweet beauty that comes along with relating mythology or history with the life that we currently lead. Wars, epidemics, lockdowns – our generation has been fortunate to have only read about these and to have the freedom to choose if we want to imagine what life was in those times or to dismiss it as the past.

But now, as our lives turn into an event that will be remembered for several years to come, like how we remember the Black Plague or the Bengal famines, it may be soothing to look back to instances like ours, where we have fought and survived. 

“….a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered. Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often; nor did any human art succeed any better. Supplications in the temples, divinations, and so forth were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether.” –Thucydides on the Plague

The COVID -19 Virus has now managed to almost place the entire world at standstill as Doctors and Health Care workers attempt to fight the large sense of doom that pans over us right now.

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But the words that you see in the quote above is not from some poetic blog that talks about what is currently happening around us but rather, from the 5th century work of Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, and his account of the Plague of Athens. 

He does not talk about the origin of the disease and leaves that duty in the hands of his contemporaries while he focuses on describing the effects that the plague had – both on those who were affected and those who were not with the hopes that they would help others in case the disease rose again.

While we do not have the ulcers or diarrhoea that Thucydides describes in his account, the impact that it has on society, material or otherwise, seems familiar to all those who go back to read it now. 

“An aggravation of the existing calamity was the influx from the country into the city, and this was especially felt by the new arrivals. As there were no houses to receive them, they had to be lodged at the hot season of the year in stifling cabins, where the mortality raged without restraint.” –Thucydides on the Plague

Knowing that the disease comes from outside contact, society now tends to look at any outsider with a suspicious lens, afraid that merely talking to them will make you ill. All concepts of hospitality are thrown outside the window as it becomes necessary to distance yourself from other people in order to save yourselves.

This reaction of flight to danger has been one that has been accounted for both by scientists and history alike. And while it seems surreal to most of us that people have to take such measures in order to stay safe, Thucydides reminds us that this has happened before, and has proved to have some effect.

However, not everyone reacts to fear in the way. While some people sit at home, trying to stay safe and pray that the disease does not catch up to them, there is another group of people that suppress it and use it to justify their actions. About these people, Thucydides says:

“So they resolved to spend quickly and enjoy themselves, regarding their lives and riches as alike things of a day.”

People often try to make the most out of the situations that they are in and this is no different. What starts first as a simple dismissal of the events that happen soon turns into a desperate attempt to live life while they have the chance. The havoc, the chaos, the fear and the loss that people face in this time of trails leave behind a very tense atmosphere that clings onto the chest of every man, woman and child. 

But as all of us go through this tiring journey together, look back at the history and the stories of the world and take comfort that mankind survives in spite of all pestilence that has attacked them.

And although Ancient Rome believed that diseases were caused by the arrows aimed our way by Apollo and his sister Artemis and science believes that it is caused by microscopic organisms that we cannot even see, the fact remains that the story remains one and the same – a battle of survival. 

About the Author

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Uma Anilkumar is currently pursuing her Bachelor’s Degree in English Studies. She is often captivated by new, interesting ideas, especially that of pop culture and is always in search of learning something new.  A lover of all kinds of art, she is a writer and poet during her free time and dreams of publishing her own work in the future.

Author: Mith Books

Mith Books | The Merchant of Stories | Publisher of Timeless Tales from Around the World

2 thoughts

  1. Vava
    Murali uncle here. Congratulations! Well written.
    Please dig up some history on Bengal famine and do a write up. People don’t know much about it. It is important that they know about it.

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