With Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) we find ourselves in interesting times—one might even say unprecedented; but I work with academics, and this was mentioned on a text the other day to which the response was, “These are actually precedented times.”
What does that even mean?
Unprecedented: never done or known before.
Precedented: Provided with or having a precedent; in accordance with or warranted by precedent; paralleled or supported by a similar previous case.
If we are discussing COVID-19 and the idea of a plague or pandemic, it is indeed precedented. If we are talking the US response to COVID, we might make a case that the response is unprecedented.
There have been many plagues/pandemics—the top 10:
- HIV/AIDS PANDEMIC (AT ITS PEAK, 2005-2012): Death Toll: 36 million
- FLU PANDEMIC (1968): Death Toll: 1 million
- ASIAN FLU (1956-1958): Death Toll: 2 million
- FLU PANDEMIC (1918): Death Toll: 20 -50 million
- SIXTH CHOLERA PANDEMIC (1910-1911): Death Toll: 800,000+
- FLU PANDEMIC (1889-1890): Death Toll: 1 million
- THIRD CHOLERA PANDEMIC (1852–1860): Death Toll: 1 million
- THE BLACK DEATH (1346-1353): Death Toll: 75 – 200 million
- PLAGUE OF JUSTINIAN (541-542): Death Toll: 25 million
- ANTONINE PLAGUE (165 AD): Death Toll: 5 million
Every morning I get up and look at the Johns Hopkins Corona Resource Center map and wonder where does this end? Strategically thinking, what does COIVD-19 mean to the world as we know it–or knew it? History really does have a lot to offer if we just take the time to look and then parse through similarities and differences. Ponder the Plague of Athens.
The Plague of Athens was an epidemic that devastated the city-state of Athens in ancient Greece during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC) when an Athenian victory still seemed within reach. The plague killed an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 people and is believed to have entered Athens main city through Piraeus, the city’s port and sole source of food and supplies. Much of the eastern Mediterranean also saw an outbreak of the disease, albeit with less impact. The plague had serious effects on Athenian society, resulting in a lack of adherence to laws and religious belief; in response laws became stricter, resulting in the punishment of non-citizens claiming to be Athenian. The plague returned twice more, in 429 BC and in the winter of 427/426 BC. Some 30 pathogens have been suggested as having caused the plague.
At the time, Sparta and its allies, with the exception of Corinth, were almost exclusively land based powers, able to summon large land armies that were very nearly unbeatable. In the face of a combined campaign on land from Sparta and its allies beginning in 431 BC, the Athenians, under the direction of Pericles, pursued a policy of retreat within the city walls of Athens, relying on Athenian maritime supremacy for supply while the superior Athenian navy harassed Spartan troop movements. Unfortunately, the strategy also resulted in massive migration from the Attic countryside into an already highly-populated city, generating overpopulation and resource shortage. Due to the close quarters and poor hygiene exhibited at that time, Athens became a breeding ground for disease and many citizens died. In the history of epidemics, the ‘Plague’ of Athens is remarkable for the one-sidedness of the affliction as well as for its influence on the ultimate outcome of the war.
In his History of the Peloponnesian War, the historian Thucydides, who was present and contracted the disease himself and survived, describes the epidemic. He writes of a disease coming from Ethiopia and passing through Egypt and Libya into the Greek world and spreading throughout the wider Mediterranean; a plague so severe and deadly that no one could recall anywhere its like, and physicians ignorant of its nature not only were helpless but themselves died the fastest, having had the most contact with the sick. In overcrowded Athens, the disease killed an estimated 25% of the population. The sight of the burning funeral pyres of Athens caused the Spartans to withdraw their troops, being unwilling to risk contact with the diseased enemy. Many of Athens’ infantry and expert seamen died. According to Thucydides, not until 415 BC had Athens recovered sufficiently to mount a major offensive, the disastrous Sicilian Expedition.
Thucydides’ account clearly details the complete disappearance of social morals during the time of the plague:
…the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.”
— Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
Thucydides states that people ceased fearing the law since they felt they were already living under a death sentence. Likewise, people started spending money indiscriminately. Many felt they would not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of wise investment, while some of the poor unexpectedly became wealthy by inheriting the property of their relatives. It is also recorded that people refused to behave honorably because most did not expect to live long enough to enjoy a good reputation for it.
The plague was an unforeseen event that resulted in one of the largest recorded loss of life in ancient Greece as well as a breakdown of Athenian society. The balance of power between citizens had changed due to many of the rich dying and their fortunes being inherited by remaining relatives of the lower class. According to Thucydides, those who had become ill and survived were the most sympathetic to others suffering, believing that they can no longer succumb to any illness a number of survivors offered to assist with the remaining sick.
The plague dealt massive damage to Athens two years into the Peloponnesian War, from which it never recovered. Their political strength had weakened and morale among their armies as well as the citizens had fallen significantly. Athens would then go on to be defeated by Sparta and fall from being a major superpower in Ancient Greece.
The disease, largely believed by modern scholars to have been either typhus or typhoid, even killed the great Athenian ruler, general, and statesman Pericles, his wife, and their sons, Paralus and Xanthippus. It was a disaster of epic proportions that altered not only the Peloponnesian War, but the whole of Greek, and consequently world history.
While the war would not end for nearly 26 years after the first wave of sickness, there is little doubt that the Great Plague changed the course of the war (being at least in part responsible for Athens’s defeat) and significantly shaped the peace that came afterward, planting the seeds that would weaken and then destroy Athenian democracy.
There is an argument—that Athenian democracy was the great casualty of the Peloponnesian War. After Athens surrendered, a pro-Spartan oligarchy, known as the Thirty Tyrants, took control of the city. Though they were later ejected in a coup lead by Thrasybulus (a pro-democracy veteran of the Peloponnesian War), Athenian democracy would never again recover its self-confidence. This was the Athens that executed Socrates. It was also the world in which Plato would write The Republic. And when the end did eventually come for democracy in Athens, it was through the conquest of the Macedonian King Alexander the Great, and Athens provided him with his tutor, Aristotle, a man who had transmitted to his royal pupil his own anxieties around the excesses of democracy, particularly those born as a result of moral shortcomings among the people.
In the panic of the Great Plague, Athenians had experienced something about their world they could never purge and revealed something about themselves they could never forget. Gone were the days when they could comfortably see themselves in the words Pericles spoke in the funeral oration at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, before the Plague carried him off to a less-than-glorious death: “We are not suspicious of one another … a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws.”
The Great Plague tested this Athenian self-conception and found it wanting. Who people of a nation collectively believe they are is incredibly import, particularly in a democracy where the people are tasked with the responsibility of government. Self-government requires self-confidence. A democracy is unlikely to survive when the people have grown unsure of themselves and their leaders, laws, and institutions. Is there a lesson here for America going forward? This isn’t a LEFT or RIGHT issue–it’s a lesson of history.
The Great Plague of Athens wrote the first chapter in the end of Athenian democracy. The coolest thing about the past is that it can be an instructor. The ancient Greeks believed virtue was something one practiced. Thucydides and his contemporaries did not believe that one was born good. One becomes good by choosing to do good. One becomes brave by choosing courage. America—home of the brave—we we must choose to believe it.