430 v. Chr. — The Plague of Athens
Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War revisited
By Andreas Gehrlach
The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides is a representation of war. Not just a particular war between the urban, cosmopolitan, liberal, democratic, and imperial Athens and the militaristic, xenophobic, authoritarian, yet freedom-loving Sparta, rather a representation of war as such. Thucydides did not want to describe just any Aegean conflict between two city states from the Iron Age, rather the universal aspect of war. The same applies to the protagonists of this war: The people, their actions, their political speeches, all of this is typified. For the delivered speeches and debates held, Thucydides made this all the more explicit: »it was hard for me, and for others who reported them to me, to recollect the exact words,« (15) he says, and sometimes there simply were no witnesses that Thucydides could ask. So he took a different approach: »I have therefore put into the mouth of each speaker the sentiments proper to the occasion, expressed as I thought he would be likely to express them, while at the same time I endeavoured, as nearly as I could, to give the general purport of what was actually said.« (15) Thucydides’ hard to define »historiographical poetology« can be referred to as typification, universalization, or as objectification or idealization as well: First and foremost, it is not about »what actually happened«, rather it is about events that take place time and again in conflicts between humans, altercations that always happen in the same or a similar way, the justifications put forward and arguments exchanged, and courses of action that can be found throughout history.
This general representation of history and human conduct as such is not only Thucydides’ explicit program, this is how the text has always been read, and it can still be read in this way today: One can swap »Athens« with »the USA« and »Sparta« with »Russia«, and the text retains an exaggerated and abstract yet equally so glaring and captivating topicality. You can detect the Axis Powers in the strategy and self-justification of Sparta and the Allies in Athens. Athens can stand for »the liberal society«, for the democratic, republican, or socialist fraction, and Sparta for the AfD, the oligarchic, feudal, or neoliberal fraction—never completely and seamlessly, but the patterns that emerge were already depicted in the 700 pages that Thucydides wrote 2400 years ago. Hence, The Peloponnesian War is more of a reporting-anthropologizing philosophy of history of sorts than a historiography in the stricter sense. In this idealization there are no shining heroes, no glorious battles and rhetorically brilliant speeches, rather Thucydides’ representation reads more like a realism illuminated with a hard light, in which the horrors of war are just as remorselessly emphasized as the immoral endeavors and transgressions of all protagonists in this war. But it is precisely this slightly paradoxical »idealization of the realistic« that makes Thucydides so worth reading, and what makes his text into »an everlasting possession« instead of just »a prize composition which is heard and forgotten« (15), as he formulates it himself.
The speeches and descriptions of battles are merciless documents of the lust for power or attempts to fend off superior enemies. Thucydides does not engage in a duality of good and evil, rather he makes it possible to identify the entanglements and contradictions of all participants: No one in this war is innocent or »pure«; everyone lives in a dirty world steeped in violent political realism. While Sparta has internalized violence, the apparently more peace-loving Athens just implemented it in its empire. This lends the text a fascinating timelessness, which has ensured that now as before it is taught at military academies and in policy seminars: Thucydides portrays attitudes, strategies, forms of argumentation, and methods of political pragmatism, which have remained so stable for over 2500 years that today the structure of dual conflict partners can still be recognized—partners who are not just hostile to one another but also define themselves as the opposite of their enemy in all regards. In this typification Thucydides goes even a step further, not only describing the universal aspects of war but also proposing an early definition of »human nature«, which in his eyes needs strong leadership to keep it under control. This diagnosis of humans as being »in need of rule« was extremely influential; for example, it was Thomas Hobbes who made a first translation of The Peloponnesian War from Greek into English. With this in mind while reading his Leviathan (1651), many sections therein can be interpreted as comments on Thucydides. But there are also objections to Thucydides’ characterization of human nature; the strongest is likely formulated by Marshall Sahlins in his book The Western Illusion of Human Nature (2008), which takes a front against almost everything Thucydides and Hobbes stand for.
After approximately 30 years, Athens lost the war against Sparta. The reasons are numerous: among others, an overextended empire, underestimation of the Persian Empire, constant opponents of democracy from within—oligarchic populists, as we still know them today. And last but not least, a plague, which was introduced in Attica in 430 BC from somewhere in the eastern parts of the Mediterranean. It wasn’t just this plague that destroyed Athenian democracy—as, for instance, Robert Zaretsky argues—but it made a significant contribution to the state of Athens being conquered by Sparta and reorganized with the support of Athenian oligarchs.
The description and the course of the plague that ravaged Athens have an almost uncanny similarity with accounts of other pandemics, and just as every reflection on war is a Thucydidean reflection, his description of the Athenian disease was so authoritative that it can even serve as a model for plagues in general—one is almost inclined to read a type of pandemic simulation, a demonstration of the typical course of an unrestrained proliferating plague. (124–129) Of particular interest: The concrete symptoms of the disease, which Thucydides describes, do not paint a clear picture, and to this day it is uncertain which pathogen killed one quarter of all Athenian citizens. This descriptive ambiguity and stylization allow every age to identify precisely the disease that was most threatening to them: smallpox, measles, typhus, bubonic or pneumonic plague, ergotism, leptospirosis, ebola, or influenza are just a few of the roughly thirty diseases that have been read within it at different times—and an interpretation as a variant of SARS-CoV-2 is still to be expected or has perhaps already happened. Especially associations with the so-called Spanish flu and the different forms of the plague were put forward time and again. Endemic disease phenomena have ever since been read in the mirror of the Plague of Athens: Lucretius’ atomistic explanation of epidemics in De rerum natura (1st century BC), Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) about the devastating plague in London, and also Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947) refer back to Thucydides. The fact that the disease of Athens could become such a »universal plague« is not only owed to the vagueness of the medical symptom situation or to Thucydides’ perspectival description, but also because he observed the individual and societal reactions to sickness so precisely: the density and shortage of housing for the lower classes, migration flows across the country and into the cities, rampant fear and irrationality, lacking or delayed policies for dealing with the disease—for instance, the burial of the dead and isolation of the sick—linguistic misunderstandings, medical misdiagnoses, economic, hygienic, religious, political, and discursive follow-up problems, the highly affected medical personnel, and too much partying as opposed to withdrawing—all of this was already chronicled in Thucydides’ representation of this endemic.
In The Peloponnesian War Thucydides provides a description of a plague with an unconscious or explicit reference to reflection on endemic or pandemic disease phenomena; in a way, his representation is not historical, rather it forms a kind of origin myth of the human fear of pandemics, similar to how Sigmund Freud turned the events between Oedipus and his parents into a scientific reference myth of intergenerational conflicts. Every cultural science, sociological, or sociopolitical text on COVID-19 currently published in the daily papers is an indirect descendant of Thucydides’ description of the Plague of Athens.