[Socrates] was so orderly in his way of life that on several occasions when pestilence broke out in Athens he was the only man who escaped infection. — Diogenes Laertius
In 430 BC, Athens was devastated by plague. We don’t exactly what caused it but it’s been speculated that it was a form of typhus, typhoid, or possibly smallpox. What happened during the Athenian Plague seems to foreshadow aspects of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Our own experiences probably also help us to better understand what the ancient Athenians must have been going through. I won’t labour the obvious parallels but rather I’ll just tell the story and mention some comparisons briefly along the way…
The epidemic spread throughout the Mediterranean but Athens, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the region, was hit hardest of all. Attica, the area encompassing Athens, had a total population of roughly a quarter of a million, including thousands of foreign residents and maybe a hundred thousand slaves. The disease was apparently brought into the Greek port of Piraeus by travellers and merchants, from whence it quickly escalated into an epidemic, tearing through the population of neighbouring Athens.
After the first outbreak began to relent, the Athenians must have breathed a collective sigh of relief. Unfortunately, though, there were two further major outbreaks of the plague in Athens, occurring in 429 and 427 AD. Altogether, it killed approximately one third of the population, including Pericles himself, their most senior statesman and general. Even worse, the plague struck at the outset of the lengthy Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), in which Athens and her allies, known as the Delian League, faced Sparta at the head of the rival Peloponnesian League.
The Spartans and their allies had just invaded Attica, the area surrounding Athens, when the plague struck the city, but it didn’t really affect the Peloponnese region, where Sparta is located. The Spartans occupied Attica for 40 days, we’re told, before departing, possibly frightened off by the plague affecting Athens. So the plague’s effect on the war was very one-sided. As we’ll see, the philosopher Socrates, was caught right in the middle of all this.