Feverish City

An Interview with Tom Holland

When they start seeing fire rising from funeral pyres and the news of the sufferings of the Athenians become ever more terrifying, the Spartans are nervous that they too may be infected and so they retreat. All that summer of 430, the Athenians are left to suffer within the cramped, polluted, death-haunted cityscape that is Athens in the summer of this terrible visitation.

OR: What is life like in Athens during plaguetime?

Holland: We know the plague comes to Athens through its port and the threat of this is one that, again, will be familiar to people who tracked the progress of the coronavirus. Of course, communications were much more limited in the Fifth Century BCE, but nevertheless, Athens is the great trade hub of the Eastern Mediterranean and it has shipping lanes that join it to the Persian world and to Africa. It is from Africa, we are told, that the disease initially comes. It comes through Ethiopia. It comes through Egypt. From Egypt, we're told, it then infects the Persian Empire and presumably either from Egypt or from the Persian world, it comes to Athens. It begins in Piraeus and then the infection spreads up the long walls and it then runs rife in Athens itself (which is in every sense in lockdown and unusually crowded).

There are shantytowns that have been built and constructed all around the base of the Acropolis in the theaters. It's crowded with refugees, and on top of that, Athens is in a kind of bowl. It's surrounded by mountains that make it difficult to drain off sewage, so it's stinking as well. It's overcrowded. It's sewage-ridden. The disease hits in May just as the weather is really starting to heat up. The conditions are absolutely terrible, and this is essentially why Athens uniquely gets hit by the plague. The other cities of Greece don't get hit by it. The other cities are not crowded. They're not plugged into the trade links in the same way that Athens is. Sparta, for instance, is removed from the sea so that's why nobody in Sparta seems to suffer from it at all. It's entirely Athens that suffers from it.

OR: How does Athens respond?

Holland: The initial response of the Athenians is to blame the Spartans. They ask themselves: is it coincidence that the plague arrives just as the Spartans come? But then as the Spartans leave and the plague continues to rage, they start to worry that perhaps they've done something. Is this reflective of the anger of the gods? As the disease continues to rage, so Thucydides says, people give up entirely that belief. They essentially abandon their belief in anything. Thucydides is a great pathologist not just of individual sufferers. Thucydides himself caught it and survived. He describes the symptoms. They are horrible, the concatenation of pretty much everything that you would not want to have happen to you — bile, bits of your body drop off — and he describes them in great detail, but he's also a pathologist of the city that is suffering this.

Just as he describes the physical breakdown of the body of the sufferer, so also he casts Athens itself as a body that is starting to break down. He essentially says that among the survivors and among those who've had it and then recovered, a kind of giddy sense of determination to live life to the full, to dare things, to push things to a limit starts to characterize them. This is also Thucydides's take on where Athenian strategy goes wrong: that it starts to push at military limits, it starts to push at geopolitical limits, and also it starts to push it moral limits. The implication is that the behavior of the Athenians during the years of the war that follows — and indeed the ultimate Athenian defeat — can be traced back to the shock to the body politic that the plague inflicted on Athens back in the second year of the war.

OR: It's almost as though the infection never went away. They're still carrying this germ of corruption, you seem to be suggesting.

Holland: Yes, absolutely. One of the things that's interesting is that although there are certain recurrences of the plague, it doesn't seem to have come back with anything like the same virulence. By the end of the war when the Athenians are, again, in lockdown in the city, conditions would seem just as ripe for the return of the plague. It doesn't. Thucydides's point essentially is that the aftereffects of this linger on. Presumably just as Thucydides ultimately comes back from exile when the war is lost in 404, even then there were people in Athens who'd lost limbs in the plague. They would be ghostly reminders of this horror.

Likewise in Thucydides's account, where he is clearly saying that the moral recklessness and the military recklessness that come to typify the Athenian war effort are a residue of the impact of the plague. In a way, one of the markers of that is that Pericles — the strategist who had led Athens into war and who had adopted this strategy of hunkering down, of allowing the Spartans to beat like waves against the great walls and then retreat — also dies in the plague and with him, as framed in Thucydides's narrative, this strategy that Thucydides clearly thinks was the likeliest route for success. What gives this real clarity is that the account of the plague immediately follows on what is possibly one of the most famous passages in the whole of the Peloponnesian War: Pericles's speech over the Athenians who had died in the previous year.

That would be his famous funerary speech in which he lauds Athens as a model not just in his own time, but for all future times to come, his great hymn to the democracy, to the ideals of the democracy, to Athens as an open city, a city that is open to the world. A school for Greece. All these qualities which make Athens this astonishing center of culture and political vibrancy and why we still remember it to this day are then counter-pointed to the horrors of the plague. Lurking in that is the irony that Thucydides clearly recognizes: almost everything that had served to make Athens great and successful is coming back to bite it with the plague. It's that very openness that has made Athens vulnerable to this terrible disease coming in and creating the devastation that it does. Again, we might want to think — looking at our globalized world — that there are parallels there.