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How a Pandemic Affected Ancient Greek Wars

Pandemic Greek wars
“Plague in an Ancient City,” presumably Athens, by Michiel Sweerts (c 1652-1654). Public Domain

Throughout history, a plague or pandemic, has affected the outcome of more than one ancient Greek wars, as studies by historians and medical scientists suggest.

From the War of Troy to the long Peloponnesian War, and to the death of Alexander the Great, researchers believe that infectious viruses and pandemics have played a role in ancient Greek wars.

Plague sent upon fighters in the Greek War of Troy

Homer’s Iliad is a work of fiction, but several modern scholars have concluded that it was based on memory of actual events of the Trojan War.

As in all ancient Greek war epics and dramas, the gods play an important part in determining the conclusion.

In Troy, it was angry god Apollo who sent a plague to decimate the Achaean (Greek) contingent besieging Troy. It was sent to the huts the Greeks had set on the beach.

The cause of the god’s anger was because the daughter of one of his priests had been taken as a war prize by the Greek leader of the campaign, King Agamemnon.

When the woman’s father came to the Greek camp to ransom her, Agamemnon committed hubris by refusing to release her, and he publicly dishonored the priest of Apollo.

The holy man prayed to Apollo for retribution, and the god responded by bringing the plague:

He came as night comes down and knelt then
Apart and opposite the ships and let go an arrow.
Terrible was the clash that rose form the bow of silver.
First he went after the mules and the circling hounds, then let go
A tearing arrow against the men themselves and struck them.
The corpse fires burned everywhere and did not stop burning.

Homer does not give any account of symptoms of the disease that killed the Achaeans,
but states that the mules and dogs died before the men.

According to scientists, the likely disease in the Iliad is equine encephalomyelitis which at the present time kills equines 7 to 14 days before symptoms appear in man.

Peloponnesian War and the pandemic of Athens

An excellent account of the pandemic that killed most Athenians is given by Thucydides in his book Histories, an historical account of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), the longest ancient Greek war.

In the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC) and while Athens was besieged by the Spartans, the city was struck by a disease with terrible contagion and a high level of mortality.

Thucydides, as an eyewitness, and a surviving victim, is the main source for the characteristics of the plague during the ancient Greek war.

Everything suggests that the epidemic first appeared in the main port of Athens, Piraeus, which was the main entrance to the city’s supplies.

The plague struck other parts of the eastern Mediterranean, returning twice, in 429 BC and in the winter of 427-426 BC and the devastation it caused to the people of Athens was a major first blow to the city in terms of the course of the war.

Thucidides reports that the plague came at a time when the people of Athens were otherwise healthy.

But the pestilence caused the death of one third of the city’s inhabitants. Among the victims are the leader of Athens, Pericles and his family.

The detailed testimonies of Thucydides are invaluable for the study of the event as not only did he record it but he himself became infected, but managed to survive.

Thucydides states that the disease originated in Ethiopia, and passed through Egypt and Libya to the Greek world.

The pandemic was so terrible that no one remembered anything like it in the past, and doctors did not know how to treat it. In fact, they were the first to die since they were in constant contact with the patients.

Thucydides’ descriptions state that people who already had another illness ended up getting the plague.

Those who were healthy experienced sudden headaches and a high fever, along with signs of irritation on the body and eye irritation with a tingling sensation.

The inside of the mouth, the pharynx and the tongue became bloody and the exhalation was unnatural and smelly.

After the above initial symptoms, sneezing and hoarseness in the voice followed, and then the disease went down from the head to the chest causing a strong cough.

Reaching the stomach, the illness caused nausea and vomiting of bile, while people who had a tendency to vomit but could not, had strong convulsions.

The skin turned red while rashes and blisters appeared. The patients, however, felt so hot that they could not even wear light clothes or sheets, but they were particularly relieved when cold water fell on their bodies.

Most died on the seventh or ninth day after the onset of the pandemic, with those who managed to survive longer experiencing severe stomach pain and diarrhea. Many died of exhaustion.

Thucydides states that if one wanted to escape death, one would cut off the part of the body where there were obvious signs of the disease.

Some cut off their hands and feet, and some would even take out their eyes. Still others, immediately after their treatment, suffered general amnesia and did not recognize themselves or their loved ones.

The historian reports that birds and other scavenger animals tended to avoid feasting on the corpses, and those that did so died of the infection. The plague had an especially severe effect on dogs, he wrote.

The city of Athens was filled with corpses with authorities burning them in large bonfires or burying them in mass graves.

In the area of ​​the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos, a mass grave of 240 people and almost 1,000 individual graves have been discovered which date between 430 and 426 BC.

Did Alexander the Great die of West Nile Virus Pandemic?

The causes of the death of Alexander the Great after the wars has been a case of wide speculation among historians and scientists.

There have been several suggestions as to what killed the great general, from malaria to a common cold complications. A pandemic was never considered, though.

However, a study by epidemiologists John S. Marr and Charles H. Calisher entitled Alexander the Great and West Nile Virus Encephalitis has made the issue topical, attributing the death to West Nile Virus encephalitis.

When Alexander the Great entered Babylon after winning so many Greek wars, a flock of ravens inexplicably fell dead on his feet. At the time it was seen as an omen.

However, the two scientists argue that the unusual behavior of the ravens is reminiscent of avian illness and death weeks before the first human cases of West Nile virus infection were identified.

Even though symptoms of encephalitis have been suggested, West Nile fever was never before considered as cause of Alexander’s death, possibly because it has only recently emerged globally.

West Nile virus, first found from a febrile patient in Uganda in 1937, is one of the viruses that cause encephalitis.

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