Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: Greek by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: Greek by  Charles Morris

The Plague At Athens

During the period after the Persian war two great powers arose in Greece, which were destined to come into close and virulent conflict. These were the league of Delos, which developed into the empire of Athens, and the Peloponnesian confederacy, under the leadership of Sparta. The first of these was mainly an island empire, the second a mainland league; the first a group of democratic, the second one of aristocratic, states; the first a power with dominion over the seas, the second a power whose strength lay in its army. Such were the two rival confederacies into which Greece gradually divided, and between which hostile sentiment grew stronger year after year.

It became apparent as the years went on that a struggle was coming for supremacy in Greece. Outbreaks of active hostility between the rival powers from time to time took place. At length the situation grew so strained that a general conflict began, that devastating Peloponnesian war which for nearly thirty years desolated Greece, and which ended in the ruin of Athens, the home of poetry and art, and the supremacy of Sparta, the native school of war. The first great conflict of the Hellenic people, the Persian war, had made Greece powerful and glorious. The second great conflict, the Peloponnesian war, brought Greece to the verge of ruin, and destroyed that Athenian supremacy in which lay the true path of progress for that fair land.

In 431 b.c. the war broke out. Sparta and her allies declared war against Athens on the ground that that city was growing too great and grasping, and an army marched from the Peloponnesus northward to invade the Attic state. Meanwhile the Athenians, under the shrewd advice of Pericles, adopted a wise policy. It was with her fleet that Athens had defeated Persia, and her wise statesman advised that she should devote herself to the dominion of the sea, and leave to Sparta that of the land. Their walls would protect her people, their ships would bring them food from afar, they were not a fair match for Sparta on land, and could safely leave to that city of warriors the temporary dominion of Attic soil.

This advice was taken. When the Spartan army came near Attica all its people left their fields and homes and sought refuge, as once before, within the walls of their capacious capital city. Over the Attic plain marched the invaders, destroying the summer crops, burning the farmers' homesteads, yet recoiling in helpless rage before those strong walls behind which lay the whole population of the state. From the city, as we know, long and high walls stretched away to the sea and invested the seaport town of Pirĉus, within whose harbor lay the powerful Athenian fleet. And in the treasury of the city rested an abundant supply of money,—the sinews of war,—with whose aid food and supplies could be brought from over the seas. In vain, then, did Sparta ravage the fields of Attica. The people of that desolated realm defied them from behind their city walls.

When winter came the invaders retired and the farmers went back to their fields. In the spring they ploughed and sowed as of yore, and watched in hope the growing crops. But with the summer the Spartans came again, to destroy their hopes of a harvest, and the country people once more fled for safety to their great city's defiant walls.

It was a strange spectacle, that of a powerful invading army wreaking their wrath year after year on deserted fields, and gnashing their teeth in impotent rage before lofty and well-defended walls and ramparts, behind which lay their foes, little the worse for all that their malice could perform.

Athens felt secure, and laughed her enemy to scorn. Unhappily for her, a new enemy was at hand, against whom the mightiest walls were of no avail. Sparta gained an unthought-of ally, and death stalked at large in the Athenian streets, silent and implacable, without clash of weapon or shout of war, yet more fatal and merciless than would have been the strongest army in the field.

Athens was crowded. The country people filled all available space. There was little attention to drainage or sanitary regulations. An open invitation was given to pestilence, and the invited enemy came. For some years before the plague had been at its deadly work in Egypt and Libya, and in parts of Persian Asia. Then it made its appearance in some of the Grecian islands. Finally its wings of destruction were folded over Athens, and it settled down in terrific form upon that devoted city.

The seeds of death found there fertile soil. Families were crowded together in close cabins and temporary shelters, to which they had been driven in multitudes from their ravaged fields. The plague first appeared in mid-April in the Pirĉus,—brought, perhaps, by merchant-ships,—but soon spread to Athens, and as the heat of summer came on the inhabitants of that thronged city fell victim to it in appalling multitudes.

The plague, they called it. The disease seems to have been something like the smallpox, though not quite the same. Its victims were seized suddenly, suffered the greatest agonies, and most of them died on the seventh or the ninth day. Even when the patients recovered, some had lost their memory, others the use of their eyes, hands, feet, or some other member of the body. No remedy could be found. The physicians died as rapidly as their patients. As for the charms and incantations which many used, we can scarcely imagine that they saved any lives. Some said that their enemies had poisoned the water-cisterns, others that the gods were angry, and vain processions were made to the temples, to implore the mercy of the deities.

When nothing availed to stay the pestilence, Athens fell into deep despondency and despair. The sick lost courage, and lay down inertly to await death. Those who waited on the sick were themselves stricken down, and so great grew the terror that the patients were deserted and left to die alone. Fortunately the disease rarely attacked any one twice, and those who had been sick and recovered became the only nurses of the new victims of the disease.

So dread became the pestilence that the dead and the dying lay everywhere, in houses and streets, and even in the temples; half-dead sufferers gathered around the springs, tortured by violent thirst; the very dogs that meddled with the corpses died of the disease; vultures and other carrion birds avoided the city as if by instinct. Many bodies were burnt or buried with unseemly haste, many doubtless left to fester where they lay. Misery, terror, despair, overwhelmed all within the walls, while the foe without drew back in equal terror, lest the pestilence should leap the walls and assail them in their camps.

Nor have we yet told all. Other evils followed that of the plague. Law was forgotten, morality ignored. Men hesitated not at crime or the indulgence of evil passions, having no fear of punishment. Many gave themselves up to riot and luxurious living, with the hope of snatching an interval of enjoyment before yielding to death. The story we here tell is no new one. It has been realized again and again in the flight of the centuries, when pestilence has made its home in some crowded city. Human nature is everywhere the same, and the bonds of law and morality are loosened when death stalks abroad.

For two years this dread calamity continued to desolate Athens. Then, after a period of a year and a half, it came again, and raged for another year as furiously as before. The losses were frightful. Of the armed men of the state nearly five thousand were swept away. Of the poorer people the loss was beyond computation. Nothing the human enemy was capable of could have done so much to ruin Athens as this frightful visitation, and to the end of the war that city felt its weakening effects.

But perhaps the greatest of the losses of Athens was the death of Pericles. In him Athens lost its wisest man and ablest statesman. The strong hand which had so long held the rudder of the state was gone, and the subsequent misfortunes of Athens were due more to the loss of this wise counsellor than to the efforts of her foes.

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