Plague and theatre in ancient Athens

Plague and theatre in ancient Athens

Mitchell-Boyask, Robin (Department of Greek and Roman Classics, Temple University)

The Lancet, Vol 373, January 31 (2009)

As the Athenian historian Thucydides first pointed out in his account of the great plague of Athens during the late 5th century BCE, the social effects of epidemics can be at least as important as their biological impact. There have certainly been many plagues throughout recorded human history, but perhaps none arrived at such a pivotal moment in the affairs of a centre of western civilisation. Yet only recently have we been able to assess the true effect of the plague that first struck Athens in 430 BCE and continued intermittently for several years. New evidence from archaeology, modern medicine, historiography, theatre history, and literary criticism are all part of the story of how this plague, which arrived almost simultaneously with the onset of Athens’ long war with her rival Sparta, altered the cradle of democracy.

Until a recent archaeological discovery, our understanding of what happened in Athens during the plague had been almost entirely reliant on the gripping narrative of Thucydides, which seems so dramatically shaped that some have wondered whether the historian embellished his vivid, harrowing eye-witness report. No other evidence seemed to have survived, save perhaps echoes in tragic dramas, the importance of which was largely overlooked by scholars who downplayed the relation between Athenian tragic drama and its immediate environment. It is a strange irony that the first real advance in our knowledge of the Athenian plague involved the Olympics—not the ancient games, but the modern version held in Athens during 2004. In 1998, as part of the various infrastructure projects in Athens, construction of a subway stop at the edge of the Kerameikos, the ancient cemetery just outside the city gates, revealed a wealth of surprises, including a mass grave. Analyses of votive pottery that accompanied the skeletons led the Greek archaeologist Efi Baziotopoulou-Valavani to date the grave to between 430 and 426 BCE, the precise years of the plague. But the corpses themselves seemed to have been simply dumped into the grave, without evidence of typical ancient funerary rituals, and the layers of corpses showed a progressive increase in anarchy.

This picture suggested a sense of mounting panic in the city, besieged from without by the Spartans, besieged from within by an epidemic of unprecedented virulence. Indeed, the two sieges were intimately connected, as the population of the Attic countryside had been compelled by the Athenian leader Pericles (himself an eventual plague victim) to move inside the city walls for protection from the enemy, thus overcrowding Athens and creating the ideal conditions for massive mortality from infection. The plague is thought to have killed a quarter to a third of the population during its course.

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