An American archaeologist in Athens is being productive with his time in home isolation and sharing his knowledge and expertise of the past– and how it relates to what the world is experiencing today during the coronavirus pandemic.
Flint Dibble, a postdoctoral fellow at the Malcolm H. Wiener Laboratory for Archaeological Science at the American School for Classical Studies at Athens, is teaching analogies from ancient Greece’s own pandemic and how it relates to our experiences today.
In about 20 Tweets, he outlines the history of the devastating Athenian Plague in 430 BC and draws scary comparisons to the coronavirus — more than 2,000 years later.
Flint Dibble’s Tweets
I find solace in contextualizing the world around me through my study of history and archaeology. I hope we can all learn from it
So, buckle up, here’s my first thread on the Plague of Athens. It struck in 430 B.C., lasting years and devastating the city and its population
It wasn’t really the plague (Yersina pestis). Scholars still argue over what disease it was. But, we still have a ton of info on how it affected society because we have an eyewitness account from Thucydides (all translations here by Mynott) and archaeological evidence
“I will say what it was like as it happened and will describe facts that would enable anyone investigating any future outbreak to have some prior knowledge and recognize it. I speak as someone who had the disease myself and witnessed others suffering from it” (Thuc. 2.48.3)
The disease first struck in the summer of the second year of the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta, just as campaigning season was getting under way. It ravaged the Athenians as their entire population was crowded in the besieged city
Unfortunately, “the physicians were not able to help at its outset since they were treating it in ignorance, and indeed they themselves suffered the highest mortality since they were the ones most exposed to it” (Thuc 2.47.4)
“Whatever supplications people made at sanctuaries and whatever oracles or the like they consulted, all were useless and in the end they abandoned them, defeated by the affliction” (Thuc 2.47.4)
Neither ancient medicine nor religion were any help against the disease
Like today, many people blamed foreigners:
“It first came, so it is said, out of Ethiopia beyond Egypt & then spread into Egypt and Libya and into most of the territory of the Persian King. When it got to Athens it struck the city suddenly….
“taking hold first in the Peiraeus, so that it was even suggested by the people there that the [Spartans] had put poison in the rain-water tanks… Later on it reached the upper city too and then the mortality became much greater” (Thuc 2.48.1-2)
Unfortunately, this is true of most epidemics. It’s really easy to blame others, whether or not they deserve the blame…
It’s harder to accept responsibility and deal with the problem
Then and now, us humans really need to work at being better to others
The Athenian plague caused fever, blisters, and sores. Many who weren’t being cared for jumped into rain-water cisterns, “possessed by a thirst that could not be quenched – since it made no difference whether they drank much or little”
That’s a super-spreading event…
You are not alone in your anxiety: “The most terrible thing of all in this affliction, however, was the sense of despair when someone realized that they were suffering from it; for then they immediately decided in their own minds that the outcome was hopeless” (2.51.4)
It tore at the fabric of society: “There was also the fact that one person would get infected as a result of caring for another… If in fear they were unwilling to go near each other they died alone; but if they did make contact they lost their lives anyway” (2.51.4)
These are some of the first historical descriptions of the need for social distancing during an epidemic
The invading Spartans recognized the need and “made haste to leave the territory through their fear of the plague” (2.57.1)
Stay a spear’s length away from people
I really hope that the world listens to the call made by the UN general secretary to desist violent conflict as we fight our own pandemic
The Athenian plague was exacerbated since #covidiots “resolved to exploit opportunities for quick enjoyment… whatever gave immediate enjoyment” (2.53)
And of course, its contagiousness meant families suffered together, most clearly described in Plutarch’s Life of Pericles
It all began with a typical spat between a boomer parent (Pericles) & his zoomer son (Xanthippus)
With the plague, Athens lost faith in Pericles’ leadership (future thread). He returned to private life, spending more time at home, restricting his son’s high-flying lifestyle
Xanthippus resented his meager allowance and got in touch with one of his father’s friends, securing a loan, pretending it was in his father’s name
Pericles found out and a huge argument erupted
Xanthippus “began to make rude remarks about his father… he went around telling people, in a way designed to raise a laugh, what Pericles got up to at home and the conversations he used to have with the sophists” (Pericles 36, transl Waterfield)
Of course with all his partying, Xanthippus caught the plague and died soon after, with the two never patching up their feud
“Pericles also lost his sister to the same disease, and the vast majority of his relatives and friends as well” (Pericles 36)
“However, Pericles did not let these disasters make him give up… in fact, no one saw him weeping, either when he was preparing any of his relatives for burial or at the tomb, until he also lost his remaining legitimate son, Paralus”
“He continued to try to hold true to his character & maintain his detachment, but as he was laying a garland on the corpse he was overcome by emotion at the sight of his dead son. He burst into copious tears, although he had never done anything like that in his entire life”
Epidemics are a time for grief. The world is changing around us, and we are cut off from, cooped up with, and losing those we love
But we aren’t alone, nor the first to feel these feelings
We’re in this together
If Pericles could express his grief, so can we all
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