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Thucydides, author of The History of the Peloponnesian War, is known for his compelling historical narrative and political analysis of the late fifth century (431– 404 BCE) war between Athens and Sparta. Centuries of thinkers have praised Thucydides as the first historian to be rigorous in his research—especially when compared with his predecessor Herodotus—and realistic in his analysis of power.  Thucydides writes:

… the absence of romance in my history, will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, … I shall be content. (I.22)1

Thucydides is less well known for his understanding of medical phenomena. Yet he offers his readers a keenly observed and vividly portrayed account of a disastrous epidemic that first affected Athens in 430 B.C., the second year of the war. The picture he paints of the illness is gripping and detailed; indeed, Thucydides tells us that he himself suffered from it and survived.

…people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as   the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath…  and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued,      accompanied by very great distress. (II. 49) 

He continues that although the body was not very hot to the touch outside, patients experienced unbearable heat so that they couldn’t tolerate wearing even the lightest linen and preferred to be naked.

What they would have liked best would have been to throw themselves into cold water; as indeed was done by some of the neglected sick, who plunged into the rain-tanks in their agonies of unquenchable thirst; though it made no difference whether they drank little or much (II.50)

In addition to his observations about bodily symptoms, Thucydides describes the psychic wounds resulting from this epidemic. He writes:

By far the most terrible feature in the malady was the dejection which ensued when anyone felt himself sickening, for the despair into which they instantly fell took away their power of resistance, and left them a much easier prey to the disorder. (II.51)

Beyond this dejection and despair, there are two features of “trauma,” a word derived from the ancient Greek word for a wound, that Thucydides captures well.  First, he notes that the illness was “too much for human nature to bear” and second, he observes that the experience “far surmounted all expression of words” (II.50). Traumatic experiences do indeed overwhelm what human nature can bear and may be unrepresented and at times even unrepresentable, thus leading to further despair and isolation.

Wounded as well was the social order. Sometimes the sick died alone because others were too worn out or too terrified to tend them. And as the “disaster passed all bounds, not knowing what was to become of them,” men ignored traditional funeral rites and stole others’ burial sites, sometimes “getting the start of those who had raised a pile, they threw their own dead body upon the stranger's pyre and ignited it; sometimes they tossed the corpse which they were carrying on the top of another that was burning, and so went off.” (II.52). Furthermore, what was once seen as shameful and to be done in secret was now done out in the open:

For everyone more readily dared to do what they had previously concealed their pleasure in doing, seeing the rapid transitions produced by persons in prosperity suddenly dying and those who before had nothing succeeding to their property. So they deemed it worthy to seek enjoyments that were quick and for pleasure, because they considered their bodies and their possessions equally ephemeral.  (II.53)

But alongside these despairing and desperate acts were honorable feats of heroism.  Although death was the consequence “with such as made any pretensions to goodness: honor made them unsparing of themselves in their attendance in their friends' houses.” (II.51).  Thucydides notes that physicians died in greater numbers from tending to the sick because the disease was transmitted from person to person, suggesting that physicians did not abandon their patients. And those who survived the illness tended to the sick with great empathy.

Yet it was with those who had recovered from the disease that the sick and the dying found most compassion. These knew what it was from experience, and had now no fear for themselves; for the same man was never attacked twice. (II.52) 

Note another aspect of Thucydides’ perceptiveness:  He is the first European author, as far as I am aware, to have written about the contagion of infectious diseases and to describe acquired immunity.2

Thucydides’ interlude about the epidemic in Athens examines the complex interaction between the biological, the psychological and the social during traumatic times.  His depiction of the impact an epidemic has on the body, on the mind and on society illuminates a mixture of despair alongside hope and tragic selfishness alongside exemplary altruism.  Thucydides wished his work to be judged useful by those who wanted “exact knowledge of the past as an aid to interpretation of the future.”  He would be content for his work to aid readers in clearer vision and expanded understanding, especially during our times of mass crisis and shared disaster.

1The Complete Writings of Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War. Richard Crawley, translator. New York: The Modern Library,1874. (Also available online at the Perseus website (along with many other texts) https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/)
2I believe the 16th century author G. Fracastoro was next to document this in his De Contagione (1536).

About the Author

Michelle Kwintner, PhD, LCSW-R, is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Ithaca, New York, USA, and a faculty member at International Psychotherapy Institute based in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Prior to that, she was a scholar of ancient Greek and Latin literature.