The Plague at Athens by H. L. Havell


At the beginning of the next summer the Peloponnesians again entered Attica, and resumed their work of devastation, destroying the young crops, and wrecking whatever had been spared in the previous year. Before they had been many days in Attica, a new and far more terrible visitation came upon the Athenians, threatening them with total extinction as a people. We have seen how the whole upper city, with the space between the Long Walls, and the harbour-town of Peiraeus, was packed with a vast multitude of human beings, penned together, like sheep in a fold. Into these huddled masses now crept a subtle and unseen foe, striking down his victims by hundreds and by thousands. That foe was the Plague, which beginning in Southern Africa, and descending thence to Egypt, reached the southern shores of the Mediterranean, and passed on to Peiraeus, having been carried thither by seamen who trafficked between northern Africa and Greece. From Peiraeus it spread upwards with rapid strides, and before long the whole space within the walls presented the appearance of a vast lazar-house.

From the description of the symptoms we may conclude that this epidemic was similar to that dreadful scourge of mankind which has been almost conquered by modern science, the small-pox. The patient who had taken the infection was first attacked in the head, with inflammation of the eyes, and violent headache. By degrees the poison worked its way into the whole system, affecting every organ in the body, and appearing on the surface in the shape of small ulcers and boils. One of the most distressing features of the disease was a raging thirst, which could not be appeased by the most copious draughts of water; and the internal heat, which produced this effect, caused also a frightful irritability of the skin, so that the sufferer could not bear the touch of the lightest and most airy fabrics, but lay naked on his bed, in all the deformity of his dire affliction. Of those who recovered, many bore the marks of the sickness to their graves, by the loss of a hand, a foot, or an eye; while others were affected in their minds, remaining in blank oblivion, without power to recognise themselves or their friends. The healing art had made great progress in Greece in the course of the last generation; and in this, as in all else, the Greeks remained the sole teachers of Europe for ages after. But against such a malady as this, the most skilful physicians could do nothing, and those who attempted to exercise their skill caught the plague themselves, and for the most part perished. Still less, as we may well suppose, was the benefit derived from amulets, incantations, inquiries of oracles, or supplications at temples; and at last, finding no help in god or man, the Athenians gave up the struggle, and resigned themselves to despair.

It is recorded as a curious fact, showing the strange and outlandish character of the pestilence, that the birds and animals which feed on human flesh generally shunned the bodies of those who died of the plague, though they might have eaten their fill, for hundreds were left unburied. The very vultures fled from the infected city, and hardly one was seen as long as the pestilence continued.

The fearful rapidity with which the infection spread caused a panic throughout the city, and even the boldest were not proof against the general terror. If any man felt himself sickening of the plague, he at once gave up all hope, and made no effort to fight against the disease. Few were found brave enough to undertake the duty of nursing the sick, and those who did generally paid for their devotion with their lives. In most cases the patient was left to languish alone, and perished by neglect, while his nearest and dearest avoided his presence, and had grown so callous that they had not a sigh or a tear left for the death of husband, or child, or friend. The few who recovered, now free from risk of mortal infection, did what they could to help their suffering fellow-citizens.

The mischief was aggravated by the overcrowded state of the city, especially among those who had come in from the country, and were living in stifling huts through the intense heat of a southern summer. Here the harvest of death fell thickest, and the corpses lay heaped together, while dying wretches crawled about the public streets, and encumbered the fountain-sides, to which they had dragged themselves in their longing for drink. All sense of public decency, all regard for laws, human or divine, was lost. The temples in which they had made their dwellings were choked with dead, and the sacred duty of burial, to which the conscience of antiquity attached so high an importance, was performed in wild haste and disorder. Sometimes those who were carrying out a corpse found a vacant pile prepared by the relatives of another victim, flung their dead upon it, set fire to the pile, and departed; and sometimes, when a body was already burning, others who were seeking to dispose of a corpse forced their way to the fire, and threw their burden upon it.

In the general relaxation of public morality all the dark passions of human nature, which at ordinary times lurk in secret places, came forth to the light of day, and raged without restraint. Some, who had grown rich in a day by the death of wealthy relatives, resolved to enjoy their possessions, and indulge every appetite, before they were overtaken by the same fate. Others, who had hitherto led good lives, seeing the base and the noble swept away indifferently by the same ruthless power, began to doubt the justice of heaven itself, and rushed into debauch, convinced that conscience and honour were but empty names. For human laws they cared still less, for in the universal panic there was none to enforce them, and before the voice of public authority could be heard again, both judge and transgressor, as they believed, would be involved in a common doom. All shame and fear were accordingly thrown aside, and those whom the plague had not yet touched seemed possessed by one sole desire—to drown thought and care in an orgy of fierce excess, and then to die.


The second invasion of the Peloponnesians was prolonged for forty days, and the whole Attic territory was laid waste. Pericles again refused to venture a pitched battle against them, knowing well that the Athenian army was no match for them in the open field. But a powerful fleet was sent to cruise round Peloponnesus, which inflicted much damage on the coast districts. It was a welcome relief to the Athenians selected for this service to escape for a time from the plague-stricken city; but unhappily they carried the infection with them, and the crews were decimated by the same disease. Nor did the evil stop here: for the same armament being afterwards despatched to Potidaea, to reinforce the blockading army and fleet, caused a virulent outbreak of the plague among the forces stationed there, which up till then had been healthy. After some fruitless operations against the town this second armament was withdrawn, and returned to Athens with the loss of more than a thousand men.

After all these disasters the reaction against Pericles, which had begun with the first invasion of Attica, reached a climax, and on all sides he was loudly decried by the Athenians, as the author of all their miseries. Envoys were sent with overtures of peace to Sparta, and when these returned with no favourable answer, the storm of popular fury grew more violent than ever. Pericles, who knew the temper of his people, and had foreseen that some such outbreak would occur, remained calm and unmoved. But wishing to allay the general excitement, and bring back the citizens to a more reasonable view of their prospects, he summoned an assembly, and addressed the multitude in terms of grave and dignified rebuke. He reminded them that they themselves had voted for war, and remonstrated against the unfairness of making him responsible for their own decision. If war could have been avoided without imperilling the very existence of their city, then that decision was wrong; but if, as was the fact, peace could only have been preserved by ruinous concessions, then his advice had been good, and they had been right in following it. The welfare of the individual citizen depended on the welfare of the community to which he belonged; as long as that was secured, private losses could always be made good, but public disaster meant private ruin. On this principle they had acted two years before, when they determined to reject the demands of Sparta. Why, then, were they now indulging in weak regrets, and turning against him whom they had appointed as their chosen guide and adviser? Was there anything in his character, any fact in his whole life, which justified them in suspecting him of unworthy motives? Was he the man to lead them astray, in order to save some selfish end—he, the great Pericles, whose loyalty, eloquence, clear-sightedness, and incorruptibility, had been proved in a public career of more than thirty years? If any other course had been open to them, he would have been to blame in counselling war; but the alternative was between that and degradation. The immediate pressure of private calamity was blinding them to the magnitude of the interests at stake—Athens, with all her fond traditions, and all the lustre of her name. That they were sure of victory he had already declared to them on many infallible grounds. But seeing them so sunk in despair, he would speak in a tone of loud assurance, and boldly assert a fact which they seemed to have overlooked. They were lords of the sea, absolute masters, that was to say, of half the world! Let them keep a firm grasp on this empire, and they would soon recover those pretty ornaments of empire—their gardens and their vineyards—which they held so dear: but, that once relinquished, they would lose all. Surely this knowledge should inspire them with a lofty contempt of their foes, a contempt grounded, not on ignorance or shallow enthusiasm, but on rational calculation. They could not now descend from the eminence on which they stood. Athens, who had blazed so long in unrivalled splendour before the eyes of the world, dared not suffer her lustre to be abated: for her, obscurity meant extinction. Let them keep this in mind, and not listen to counsels of seeming prudence and moderation, which were suicidal in a ruling state. All their calamities, except the plague, were the foreseen results of their own decision. Now was the time to display their known courage and patience. Let them think of the glory of Athens, and her imperial fame.

This memorable speech, the last recorded utterance of Pericles, had the desired effect. It was resolved to continue the war, and no further embassies were sent to Sparta. But resentment still smouldered in the hearts of the Athenians against their great statesman. How fearful was the contrast between the high hopes with which they had embarked in this struggle, and the scenes of horror and desolation which lay around them! From the walls they could see their trampled fields, their ravaged plantations, and the blackened ruins of their homes. Within, the pestilence still raged undiminished, and the city was filled with sounds and sights of woe. Under the pressure of these calamities the ascendency of Pericles went through a brief period of eclipse, and he was condemned to pay a fine. Soon, however, he recovered all his influence, and remained at the head of affairs until his death, which occurred in the autumn of the following year.

Pericles is the representative figure in the golden age of Athenian greatness, the most perfect example of that equable and harmonious development in every faculty of body and mind which was the aim of Greek civic life at its best. As an orator, he was probably never equalled, and the effect of his eloquence has found immortal expression in the lines of his contemporary Eupolis. Persuasion, we are told, sat enthroned on his lips; like a strong athlete, he overtook and outran all other orators; his words struck home like the lightning, while he held his audience enchained, as by a powerful spell; and among all the masters of eloquence, he was the only one who left his sting behind him. As a statesman, it was his object to admit every freeborn Athenian to a share of public duties and privileges; and for this purpose he introduced the system of payment, which enabled the poorer citizens to perform their part in the service of the state. His military talents, though never employed for conquest or aggression, were of no mean order; and on two occasions of supreme peril to Athens, the revolt of Euboea, and the revolt of Samos, it was his energy and promptitude which saved his city from ruin.

But it is as the head of the great intellectual movement which culminated in this epoch, as the friend of poets, philosophers, and artists, that Pericles has won his most enduring fame. By his liberal and enlightened policy the surplus of the Athenian revenues was devoted to the creation of those wonders of architecture and sculpture, whose fragments still serve as unapproachable models to the mind of modern Europe. And under his rule Athens became the school of Greece, the great centre for every form of intellectual activity, a position which she maintained until the later period of the Roman Empire.

If, however, we would understand the character of Pericles, and the spirit of the age which he represents, we must never forget that this aspect of Athenian greatness, to us by far the most important, was not the aspect which awoke the highest enthusiasm in him and his contemporaries. Those things which have made the name of Athens immortal, her art and her literature, were matters of but secondary importance to the Athenian of that age. He worshipped his city as a beloved mistress, and, like a lover, he delighted to adorn her with outward dignity and splendour. But to lavish all his thought and care on these external embellishments would have been, in his estimation, a senseless waste of his highest faculties, as if a lover should make the robes and jewels of his mistress the objects of his highest adoration. To make Athens the mightiest state in Greece, to build up the fabric of her material greatness—these were the objects for which he was ready to devote the best energies of heart and brain, and if need were, to lay down his life. He might be skilled in every elegant accomplishment, an acute reasoner, an orator, a musician, a poet; and to some extent he was all of these. But before all else he was in the highest sense a practical man, finding in strenuous action his chief glory and pride. And such a man was the last to melt into ecstasies over the high notes of a singer, or dream away his life in the fairyland of poetry.

We have dwelt at some length on the work and character of Pericles, as his death marks a turning point in Athenian history. From that day onward the policy of Athens takes a downward direction, denoting a corresponding decline in Athenian character and aspiration. Pericles had been able, by his commanding talents and proved integrity, to exercise a salutary check on the restless energies and soaring ambition of his countrymen. He had been a true father and ruler of his people, in evil times and in good, curbing them in the insolence of prosperity, comforting and exalting them in the dark hour of disaster. But the government now passed into the hands of weaker men, who, since they were incapable of leading the people, were compelled to follow it, and to maintain their position by pandering to the worst vices of the Athenian character. Rash where they should have been cautious, yielding where they should have been resolute, they squandered the immense resources of Athens, and led her on, step by step, to humiliation and defeat. The course of our narrative will show how easily the Athenians might have emerged triumphant from the struggle with their enemies, if they had followed the line of conduct marked out by Pericles. They might, indeed, have avoided the occasion of offence which led immediately to the war, and thus have escaped the necessity of fighting altogether; and this, as we have seen, was the one fatal mistake made by Pericles. But, once launched in the conflict, they were sure of an easy victory, if they had only shown a very moderate degree of prudence and self-restraint. And we need not blame the great statesmen too harshly for not foreseeing the wild excesses of folly and extravagance which we shall have to record in the following pages.