Learning From the Epidemic That Destroyed Athens

There may be some light at the end of the tunnel as we finally emerge from the depths of a pandemic that wreaked havoc on all our lives. Confining ourselves to the cagey quarters of our homes throughout the quarantine period made some of us unnerved and uneasy, staring blankly at stark white popcorn ceilings. The seasons came and went and some of us started to crawl on tired limbs out of our cages to take a tentative sniff of the world. When we eventually crawled all the way out of our cage, many of us yearned for the warm embrace of others and slowly, relationships once again bloomed. But Covid-19 is far from over.

What if I told you that we are not all that different from people who lived 2,452 years ago? Maybe it is worth our time to take a look at one of the first documented pandemics in history. Let us take a trip back in time to around 430 BCE. Perhaps the similarities will bring you some comfort as they have for me.

An ominous shadow in the sky smothers the sunlight from illuminating the scintillating and wealthy city of Athens below. The city is bustling within the newly constructed walls that Athens has made to protect itself from the enemy, Sparta. You would have been walking along the cobblestone streets of Athens, going about your everyday tasks.

Catching an everyday cold was common, so a cough would not make you turn your head and run the other way. Until one day, when swarms of people are coughing—not a shallow, common cold type cough. This one made you shiver with fear. The cough was rough and deep. It was also not the only symptom. You would have seen people vomiting, trying to expel whatever “demon” they believed had nestled within the weak cracks of their human skeleton. You would have seen people with high fevers, bloodshot eyes, and bleeding throats, to name a few. As illness ravaged the city, many wondered if this was the end of the human race. Morals, values, and beliefs burned alongside the bodies lying in heaps on funeral pyres. The plague had found its breeding ground. It may have killed up to 100,000 people (roughly one-third of the Athenian population) in four years. The plague, whether it was typhus or smallpox, or even ebola, ultimately destroyed Athens. What was it about this plague that mirrors our own society is a question I have been asking myself ever since I heard this story. 

Comparing the Athenian plague to our own pandemic today, it is eerie to see the similarities that appear. For one, the Athenian plague overwhelmed the Greek people. They lost their standards and bearings, which resulted in chaos, moral, and political turmoil. Our modern Covid pandemic not only saw a spike in mental health cases, especially among the younger generations, but it also crushed economies worldwide and pushed many middle-class families into poverty as stated by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In Ancient Greece, people stopped believing in the Gods as there was no evidence of them interfering to save their wretched souls. They had once assumed that the sickness would only attack evil souls, but even the most religious died in droves. As the Greeks had created distinctions among people such as morally good or bad and social class, America has created similar divisions. For both civilizations, many who believed they were immune because they were morally good and of a higher class found themselves vulnerable to the pandemic. They came to believe that their whole lives had been a lie. Who could they turn to for relief and salvation now? Greeks before the plague always had some proper burial rituals, but with the plague, all those rituals were lost. Bodies were stacked on top of one another on large funeral pyres and burned to ashes. As people died, they were hastily thrown onto the pile. In our recent pandemic, in New York, morgues and funeral homes became overwhelmed, Hart Island became the perfect option for an efficient mass burial site for Covid-19 victims who were not claimed as reported by the “New York Times.” In hazmat suits, workers dug trenches and plopped the coffins with bodies into dirt holes. Roughly, one tenth of those who have died from the coronavirus in New York have been buried there as of 2021 according to the City newspaper.

Perhaps history is repeating itself. Much of what happened in Athens during the plague will remain a mystery, but from what we do know, it may be worth some of our time to comb through these shattered pieces and put together the puzzle. At the very least, it brings me some comfort knowing that others from thousands of years ago can sympathize with us.