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The Plague That Killed Athenian Democracy
Want to know how disease can permanently alter a society? Read Thucydides.
By ROBERT ZARETSKY
The extent and mortality of the pestilence—said to have begun somewhere in the east—was nowhere remembered. Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it. Various methods were tried, but they proved futile: the disease overwhelmed all of them.
Thus begins a report on the plague that devastated neither Milan nor Wuhan in the 21st century, but Athens in the 5th century B.C. The ancient Athenian historian Thucydides folds it into his History of the Peloponnesian War, his massive account of the decadeslong struggle between Athens and Sparta that ended with the former’s defeat. It was a work, Thucydides declared, that he wrote for “those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future.”
Is it possible that this future is now unfolding, one in which yet another plague may well decide the fate of another democracy?