Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War Part 2

1642again, Going Postal
unknown ancient, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Pericles’ Funeral Oration and the Great Plague of Athens

In Part 1 of this series of articles about what is widely regarded as the greatest surviving piece of ancient historical writing, I tried to sketch out who Thucydides was, to introduce his great work about the war between Athens and Sparta that ran between 431 and 404 BC, his motivations for writing it, the surprising and hidden structures within the narrative, and the points he was trying to make.

In the next few articles I want to focus on some particularly significant episodes within his book, what they were about and why he presented them as he did, even selected them at all.  In the previous article I pointed out all the paired structures threaded through the narrative, with some pairs then paired with others in a complex weave of underlying narrative threads.  You have to remember that everything a historian chooses to write down is there for a purpose, why select some things to record and let others be forgotten – a highly subjective act in itself?  Many of these dual narrative devices are compare-and-contrasts, whether speeches preceding events or one event being contrasted with another to make an authorial point.  One of these dualist devices appears at the start of Book 2, covering the events of the first year of the war 431/30 BC – Pericles’ Funeral Oration, one of the most famous speeches surviving from antiquity (if not the greatest), and the outbreak of the terrible plague in Athens in 430 BC straight afterwards.

One also has to remember that Thucydides wrote history like a great novelist following the mantra show, don’t tell.  So successfully did he achieve this that he fooled generations of Classical scholars and historians, and many even today simply choose to ignore his underlying narrative purposes and thing him just another particularly good ‘scientific’ historian.  He is far far greater than that.

The First Year of the War

The war between Athens and Sparta was one between a whale and an elephant.  Athens could not hope to challenge the army of Sparta and its allies on land while the latter simply lacked an effective navy to even begin to challenge the huge and near-professional Athenian navy which gave it maritime supremacy in the East Mediterranean and commercial dominance.  Athens itself was an inland city and theoretically vulnerable to siege but the Athenians had solved this several decades earlier by building the famous ‘Long Walls’ joining it to its main port at the Piraious, and during Spartan invasions the entire population moved within the space between the Long Walls.

These were still potentially vulnerable to assault by a superior army but fortunately the Spartans were utterly inept and unimaginative practitioners of siege warfare for all their brilliance in pitched battle, and so they never really tried.  They were reduced to invading Athenian territory (Attika) every Summer, destroying the harvest, any houses etc, camping outside the walls and then returning home. For any other Greek state this would have been devastating year after year, but Athens’ maritime supremacy, commercial dominance and overseas colonies and allies meant that the refugees from the countryside could be sustained at public expense until the withdrawal of the invaders for the winter.  Until the Spartans could learn bow to breach Athens’ walls or could deny it control of the sea, the war would drag on year after year in stalemate with neither side able to land a killing blow on the other.

Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Book 2, chapters 34-46)

So as the Spartans withdrew from Attika to winter quarters after their first invasion of the war, the Athenians gave a public funeral for those who died fighting for them in the year, the oration being given by the leading Athenian statesman and general of the time, Pericles.

It’s far from the normal memorial service praising the men who died in the service of their country and Pericles unapologetically focuses on the virtuous nature of the country, state and society the dead had died to defend.  It’s a love letter to Athens in fact, a statement of the ideal of Athens.  I will quote just one passage to illustrate this,

“Let me say that our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbours.  It’s more the case of being a model to others than of imitating anyone else.  Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands, not of a minority, but of the whole people.  When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law, when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class but the actual ability which the man possesses.  No one so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty.  And, just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life with our neighbour if he enjoys himself in his own way. Nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurry people’s feelings.  We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law.  This is because it commands our deep respect.”

Now clearly this is an idealisation of Athens as a country and society, and the truth was always somewhat less than this, but this is the only such funeral oration that Thucydides reports, let alone quotes in full, and the reason for that is that he wishes, from the lips of his statesman hero Pericles, to say what Athens tried to be at the start of the war, and what follows shows how this society was destroyed as much from within as by external military defeat.  Indeed, one surmises that Thucydides’ view was that Athens’ was the author of its own defeat in the end.  Furthermore, the next passage – the Great Plague of Athens – showed a snapshot of what was in store.

The Athenian Plague of 430 BC

The plague appeared in Athens in the winter of 431/0 BC, spreading from Aegean islands under Athenian control, previously from the Levant and originally Africa it is thought, through Athens’ port the Piraious to the city itself.   Thucydides gives a very detailed account of its symptoms and progression, having caught and survived it himself, starting in the head and then spreading to the body and finally the extremities.  Symptoms typically included burning fever, redness and inflammation in the eyes, sore throats leading to bleeding and bad breath, sneezing, loss of voice, coughing, violent vomiting, pustules and bleeding ulcers on the body, extreme thirst, insomnia and diarrhea.  Most died at the seven-day point, those who lingered longer or who survived often suffered from necrosis of the extremities, losing the use of them.  A truly terrifying illness and spreading easily by person-to-person transmission.

It’s believed to have killed between 20 and 25% of Athens’ population and young or old, rich or poor, it made no difference to the chances of catching it or survival.  It was clearly highly contagious, spreading from the ill to carers and relatives, wiping out whole families in the space of a week or two.  Exactly what it was is a matter of debate, with bubonic plague now thought unlikely, and typhus or typhoid the most likely, although more recently more people argue it was some form of ebola.  Its symptoms certainly match.  Athens, with it densely packed population bolstered by all the refugees from the countryside sheltering behind the Long Walls was particularly vulnerable and the worst hit city in the Greek world.

Thucydides is even more interested in describing the societal effects of the plague than its symptoms.

“The most terrible thing of all was the despair into which people fell when they realised they had caught the plague, for they would immediately adopt an attitude of utter hopelessness, and, by giving in in this way, would lose their powers of resistance.  Terrible too was the sight of people dying like sheep through having caught it as a result of nursing others.  This indeed caused more deaths than anything else.  For when people were afraid to visit the sick, then they died with no one to look after them; indeed there were many houses in which all the inhabitants died for lack of attention…”

“The bodies of the dying were heaped one of top of the other, and half dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water.  The temples in which they took up residence were full of the dead bodies of people who had died in them. The catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen to them next became indifferent to every rule of religion or law…”

“In other respects also Athens owed to the plague the beginnings of a state of unprecedented lawlessness.  Seeing how quick and abrupt were the changes of fortune which came to the rich who suddenly died and to whose who had been penniless but now inherited their wealth, people now began openly to venture on acts of self-indulgence which before they used to keep dark.  Thus, they resolved to spend their money quickly and to spend it on pleasure since money and life alike seemed equally ephemeral.  As for what is called honour, no one showed himself willing to abide by its laws… As for offences against human law, no one expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and punished; instead, everyone felt that already a far heavier sentence had been passed on him…”

Thucydides paints a picture of a society inverted by a genuine pandemic in the space of a few months from the ‘shining city on a hill’ characterised by Pericles in the preceding passages.  Whereas Athens did largely recover from the effects of the plague it was not quite the same again, and the plague marked the first major step in the deterioration of its society’s culture and strength. Something that became the central underlying theme of the rest of his history.

The author emphasises his point in the passages following his description of the plague, with another speech of Pericles defending his record and setting out Athens’ strategy for the war, which was essentially one of attrition and encirclement, with a final and unusual section in which Thucydides gives his personal analysis of why Pericles’ strategy was correct and why his successors failure to adhere to it led to the city’s defeat.  It’s one of the few mid-narrative passages where Thucydides tells rather than shows, and one suspects that he worked have reworked it if he had lived to complete his work.


The juxtaposition of the idealised vision of Athens presented by Pericles with the plague driven societal breakdown only a few months later, while undoubtedly based on real events, does not happen by accident.  Who knows, the stark irony of the contrast might have occurred to Thucydides at the time and influenced him to see other such dualist devices through his book.  There is no doubt that he saw the plague as an intimation of what a prolonged war would do to the country he loved, a warning in effect of the societal breakdown to come and that it would end in defeat.  That such a pair of contrasting events, the idealistic vision spoken in words and the dreadful reality of subsequent events also prefigures the many pairs of speeches and linked events that follow throughout the text.

The plague rumbled on with diminishing mortality over the years after until it vanishes from history.  But for Thucydides and Athens it was to claim one late casualty.  Having seen both of his two legitimate sons die of the plague in 429 BC, Pericles himself succumbed a few months later.  Thucydides’ summary of his importance to Athens (Book 2, chapter 65) is quite explicit that Pericles’ successors were simply not the equal of the great man and ultimately this led to Athens’ defeat a quarter of a century later.

© JD de Pavilly 2021

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