The Plague of Athens: Lessons from Ancient Greece

Plague in an Ancient City

Ever heard of the terrible 5th century Plague of Athens? Over 2400 years later we’re living though another dreadful health crisis. How did the Greeks handle theirs? And is coronavirus comparable to the many illnesses that have hit the world so far? Historians and art-historians like us love to say that the past always teaches us something. Some stories, like that of the Plague of Athens, are timeless, and we can learn from them even today.

Plague in an Ancient City
Plague in an Ancient City, 17th century, Michiel Sweerts, Ahmanson Building

1. What we know about the Plague of Athens

During the second year of the Peloponnesian War, in 430 BC, a terrible epidemic devastated the city of Athens. We are not entirely sure what kind of disease it was, and scholars continue to fight over it. But Thucydides, who contracted it himself (and got over it!) left a detailed description of the catastrophe. The Plague probably killed over one third of the Athenian population and Pericles himself, one of the most important Greek statesmen, died of it too.

Bust of Pericles at the British Museum
Bust of Pericles, Greek statesman who died during the Plague of Athens, 2nd century, British Museum

2. How society reacted to the Plague of Athens

The epidemic had its social consequences. Social panicking and extreme, irrational behaviour were a clear result of the fear of the threat. As Thucydides wrote, ‘men became indifferent to every rule of religion or law’. People, scared to die soon, didn’t think that it made sense to obey the law. Many spent most of their money, fearing that they wouldn’t live long enough to enjoy their wealth. Sadly, those who contracted the disease died alone (people were too scared of contracting the disease to take care of the infected), and bodies were all buried together in mass graves with few or no offerings.

Myrtis, an 11-year-old girl who died of the Plague of Athens
Myrtis, an 11-year-old girl who died during the Plague of Athens, National Archaeological Museum of Athens

3. Abandoned by the gods

The Plague of Athens also resulted in religious doubt: Athenians felt abandoned by their gods. What was the point of worshipping them if the disease infected everyone regardless of one’s piety towards the gods? Ever heard of the beauty and perfection of Greek temples? Well… during the Plague of Athens, temples became sites of great misery, filled with the infected and the dead.

The Parthenon of Athens, the most celebrated of all Greek temples, 5th cent. BC

4. The Plague of Athens and its teachings

It’s important to say that the spread of coronavirus is a sad and tragic event. But it is important to go back in time, and discover how the Greeks handled a similar crisis. And hey… this time’s lesson is clear: while some stories are timeless and all humans are defenceless to infectious diseases, society’s reactions can be different – and ours is better! Since the outbreak of coronavirus, the priority has been to ‘shield’ the most vulnerable.  Doctors and nurses are working around the clock, and there is a communal effort to protect those around us. Believe it or not, the Athenians were much more selfish and irrational than us!

5. More plagues, more deaths

Perhaps not a surprise, but the Plague of Athens was only one of the many health crises that have hit the population of the world through history. Titian, a 16th-century Venetian painter, died during a terrible plague as well. Alexandre Hesse represented the horrible event in a 19th-century painting. Seurat, a French post-impressionist artist, also died of a terrible infectious disease in Paris, at the end of the 19th century, followed by his son who was killed by the same illness two weeks later. And there’s more… an even more tragic story is that of Modigliani, an Italian portraitist, who died of tubercular meningitis at the age of 35. The day after his death, his lover and muse, Jeanne Hébuterne, killed herself and their unborn child by jumping from a window.

Death of Titian from the Plague, 1832, Alexandre Hesse, Louvre
Death of Titian from the Plague, 1832, Alexandre Hesse, Louvre

6. Where to see more

We named several historians, statesmen, artists and painters. Now that museums are closed, you can google their names and see what they and their works look like. But don’t forget to run to the British Museum as soon as it re-opens to check out Pericles’ beautiful portrait, a piece of our treasure hunt there. Many artists died too young and of terrible diseases… the Louvre is home to Alexandre Hesse’s painting representing the death of Titian, which is also part of two of our Treasure Hunts there. As for Seurat, you can plan your visit to the Musée d’Orsay, to see some of his works and for some museum fun with us! And how could we forget about Titian, whose beautiful paintings can be seen at the Uffizi, in Florence. Before you go, if you enjoyed the topic of this blog post and want to learn more about it, we’ve provided below our kid-friendly art-history class on the Plague of Athens. Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram and Facebook to watch more art talks with your kids and friends!

Art-history class by THATMuser Anna Verde on the Plague of Athens

5 Comments on “The Plague of Athens: Lessons from Ancient Greece

  1. Anna,
    This is great (well dark and macabre, fitting to our times – but hey, as you say, we’re better than the Greeks) post! Especially interesting is how society reacted to the plague of Athens and to see how ours will digest all of this in the year to come. And as always, I’m a huge fan of your Art during Covid video Art History chats, thank you!

  2. An interesting read – can’t wait to visit museums gain x

  3. Fascinating and timely blog. Thanks for sharing!

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