Disease readjusted the course of the war, and shaped the tranquility that came afterward, planting the seeds that would damage Athenian democracy.

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About the author: Katherine Kelaidis is a residents scholar at the nationwide Hellenic Museum and a visiting assistant professor in classic Studies in ~ Loyola college Chicago.


This is no the ideal time because that a pandemic. Not that there is a right time for a pandemic, however some times are certainly the dorn one. And also no time is worse than once a nation is currently in crisis, once trust in the leaders and also itself is already low. A time when global relations room strained and internal strife widespread. Basically, if the social and also moral fiber the a culture are already being tested, the widespread are afraid of fatality at the hands of one invisible killer makes whatever exponentially worse. Happily (or maybe unfortunately; that is very hard come tell in ~ this point), history offers united state a variety of examples of as soon as a plague arrived on the dorn time.

And none of these instances is much better than the good Plague the Athens. This deadly epidemic brushed up through the city in 430 B.C., the 2nd year of the Peloponnesian War, claiming maybe 100,000 lives and also revealing in stark contrast the fissures and also fractures in Athenian life and politics. The disease, largely believed by modern-day scholars to have actually been one of two people typhus or typhoid, even killed the great Athenian general and statesman Pericles, his wife, and also their sons, Paralus and Xanthippus. It to be a catastrophe of epic proportions that transformed not only the Peloponnesian War, however the whole of Greek, and consequently world, history. While the war would not end for virtually 26 year after the very first wave the sickness, there is small doubt that the great Plague adjusted the course of the war (being at the very least in component responsible because that Athens’s defeat) and also significantly shaped the peace that came afterward, planting the seeds that would certainly weaken and then damage Athenian democracy.

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The best ancient account of the great Plague, together for every one of the Peloponnesian War, can be uncovered in Thucydides’s History that the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides was an Athenian general exiled native Athens after being blamed for a devastating defeat. In exile, he had the ability to travel freely in a way few could at the time, and so gives a unique firsthand account the this blatant period. He likewise fell victim to the Plague, though managed to survive, make his narration the the disease’s symptoms and sensations not only reliable, but quite visceral. Thucydides has actually been called the “father of politics realism,” and also his assessment of the Plague and its consequences bears out the honor. As couple of others have prior to or since, Thucydides construed the means in i m sorry fear and also self-interest, as soon as they space submitted to, guide individual motives, and consequently the fate of nations.

Thus, in his account that the good Plague, Thucydides look at frankly at the practical and also moral weakness that the disease was able come exploit. He high solution notes exactly how crowding in Athens, in addition to inadequate housing and also sanitation, assisted the disease spread much more quickly and added to the number of casualties. That is aware that a lack of attention to essential public-health and safety measures allowed the pester to take it root and made its results much worse than they would have actually otherwise been.

But Thucydides is not came to just through the ways in which poor urban planning caused the deaths of hundreds of his countrymen. The is as lot a moral doubter as a political one. In his narration the the Plague’s devastation, the takes mindful tally that instances the selflessness and courage, and also those the selfishness and also cowardice. The is clean that, for Thucydides in ~ least, the death and also suffering of a an excellent epidemic (just prefer war) test the moral health and wellness of individuals and of societies. And a civilization who space not morally strong, once they end up being afraid, easily slip into lawlessness and sacrilege: “For the violence of the calamity to be such the men, not understanding where to turn, prospered reckless of every law, human and also divine.” What is also clear is the Thucydides does no think this collapse right into immorality is simply a an outcome of the Plague; rather, “Men who had actually hitherto concealed what they took pleasure in, now grew bolder.” come paraphrase Michelle Obama, pandemics don’t make her character; they reveal your character.

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This is truly the danger, then, both for Athens and for us. And also the aftermath could not be greater. Over there is one argument, and a rather good one at that, that Athenian democracy was the an excellent casualty that the Peloponnesian War. ~ Athens surrendered, a pro-Spartan oligarchy, known as the Thirty Tyrants, took manage of the city. Despite they were later ejected in a coup command by Thrasybulus (a pro-democracy veteran of the Peloponnesian battle who did not accept that the defeat of Athens meant the finish of the democracy), Athenian democracy would never again recover its self-confidence and also flirted v its own demise. This to be the Athens that executed Socrates (whose own relationship v democracy and democratic ethics was complicated). The was likewise the human being in i beg your pardon Plato would write The Republic, the political treatise that became the design template for totalitarianism because that millennia. And also when the end did ultimately come because that democracy in Athens, it was through the occupation of the Macedonian King Alexander (the Great, if you space curious), and also Athens had provided him v his tutor, Aristotle, a guy who had actually transmitted come his imperial pupil his own anxieties approximately the excesses that democracy, particularly those born as a result of moral shortcomings amongst the people.

In the scare of the good Plague, Athenians had experienced something around their human being they could never purge and revealed something about themselves they might never forget. Gone to be the days once they can comfortably check out themselves in the native Pericles spoke in his renowned funeral oration at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, before the Plague lugged him turn off to a less-than-glorious death: “We room not suspicious of one an additional … a soul of reverence pervades ours public acts; we space prevented from doing not correct by respect because that the authorities and for the laws.”

The an excellent Plague tested this Athenian self-conception and found that wanting. Who world collectively think they are is that the utmost importance, particularly in a democracy wherein the people are tasked v the grave duty of government. Self-government calls for self-confidence. A democracy is unlikely to survive as soon as the people have grown unsure of themselves and also their leaders, laws, and also institutions.

For almost four years, the unified States has experienced its own dilemm of identity. Donald Trump’s presidency has actually been not simply a series of politics missteps and upheavals, one endless sequence of low-burning fires, but a serious test (arguably the most serious test because the polite War) that the foundational values and institutions that prop increase the American experiment. However the figure of the coronavirus is something altogether different. To begin with, the virus touches us all in a method that many of the trump card administration’s failures, for far better or worse, carry out not. No quantity of privilege or absence of interest can safeguard you native a pandemic. This is, through the way, something Thucydides noted: Diseases carry away both rich and poor, pious and impious. Tom Hanks is just as prone as you are. Accurate no one can ignore this.

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But perhaps an ext important, the virus has actually no mind. The great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan was absolutely right when she provided that gift careless is only a trouble if you operation into another careless person; the is, as soon as you have an accident. Chairman Trump has actually been significantly aided through the truth that he has actually not run into anyone quite as careless as he is. His most devastating actions have actually been mitigated in no small component by other, cooler (or at least less volatile) heads. However a virus has actually no head. It is not simply without reason, but without motive. The is truly only fifty percent alive. It has actually nothing to gain and also nothing come lose. No feeling of itself. No desire come live, other animals and even details planets possess. This is why diseases and the risks they lug lay united state all for this reason bare. The just soul in the equation is our own. That is the can be fried test.

It is a check that for this reason far, Donald Trump and also his management are, unsurprisingly, failing. What remains to be viewed is exactly how the rest of united state will execute at this exam. The world of old Athens failed. Already in a time the war and also upheaval, when world started to die from a condition they had actually never seen before, they exit the values that had gone to the heart of their ability to administrate themselves. Castle failed in their responsibility to one an additional because they no longer thought that the mattered. Everything that had actually come before the crisis and also everything that happened during it conspired to give them this belief.

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And this is what we should resist. The an excellent Plague that Athens wrote the first chapter in the end of Athenian democracy, but we execute not must accept that is fate. The best thing about the previous is that it can be our instructor, also if us seldom permit it to be. The ancient Greeks, by and also large, thought that virtue to be something friend practiced. Like most everyone who lived before the theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thucydides and his contemporaries did not think that we space born good. We become great by picking to perform good. We end up being brave by picking courage. We get over the twin vices that self-interest and fear by proactively rejecting them. The ancient Athenians fail to do this in the confront of a plague and also lost your democracy. Currently the same choice is ours.