What Science Has Learned about the Plague of Athens

History and science of the disease blamed for the fall of Greece

Bust of Pericles, Royal Ontario Museum
Bust of Pericles, Royal Ontario Museum. Olga Berrios

The plague of Athens took place between the years 430-426 BC, at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. The plague killed an estimated 300,000 people, among which was the Greek statesman Pericles. It is said to have caused the death of one in every three people in Athens, and it is widely believed to have contributed to the decline and fall of classical Greece. The Greek historian Thucydides was infected by the disease but survived it; he reported that plague symptoms included high fever, blistered skin, bilious vomiting, intestinal ulcerations and diarrhea.

He also said that birds and animals which preyed on the animals were affected, and that doctors were among the most hard it.

What Disease Caused the Plague?

Despite Thucydides detailed descriptions, until recently scholars have been unable to come to a consensus of which disease (or diseases) caused the Plague of Athens. Molecular investigations published in 2006 (Papagrigorakis et al.) have pinpointed typhus, or typhus with a combination of other diseases.

Ancient writers speculating on the cause of plagues included the Greek physicians Hippocrates and Galen, who believed a miasmic corruption of the air arising from swamps affected the people. Galen said that contact with the "putrid exhalations" of the infected were quite dangerous.

More recent scholars have suggested that the Athens plague arose from bubonic plague, lassa fever, scarlet fever, tuberculousis, measles, typhoid, smallpox, toxic-shock syndrome-complicated influenze, or ebola fever.

Kerameikos Mass Burial

One problem modern scientists have had identifying the cause of the Athens plague is that classical Greek people cremated their dead. However, in the mid-1990s, an extremely rare mass burial pit containing approximately 150 dead bodies was discovered. The pit was located on the edge of the Kerameikos cemetery of Athens, and consisted of a single oval pit of an irregular shape, 65 meters (213 feet) long and 16 m (53 ft) deep.

The bodies of the dead were laid in a disorderly fashion, with at least five successive layers separated by thin intervening deposits of soil. Most bodies were placed in outstretched positions, but many were placed with their feet pointing into the center of the pit.

The lowest level of interments showed the most care in placing the bodies; subsequent layers exhibited increasing carelessness. The upper-most layers were simply heaps of the deceased buried one on top of another, no doubt evidence of a spike in deaths or a growing fear of interaction with the dead. Eight urn burials of infants were found. Grave goods were limited to the lower levels, and consisted of about 30 small vases. Stylistic forms of the Attic period vases indicate they were mostly made around 430 BC. Because of the date, and the hasty nature of the mass burial, the pit has been interpreted as from the Plague of Athens.

Study Results

In 2006, Papagrigorakis and colleagues reported on the molecular DNA study of teeth from several individuals interred in the Kerameikos mass burial. They ran tests for the presence of eight possible bacilli, including anthrax, tuberculosis, cowpox and bubonic plague. The teeth came back positive only for Salmonella enterica servovar Typhi, enteric typhoid fever.

Many of the clinical symptoms of the Plague of Athens as described by Thucydides are consistent with modern day typhus: fever, rash, diarrhea. But other features are not, such as the rapidity of the onset. Papagrigorakis and colleagues suggest that 1) perhaps the disease has evolved since the 5th century BC; 2) perhaps Thucydides, writing 20 years later, got some things wrong; or 3) it may be that typhoid was not the only disease involved in the Plague of Athens.


This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Ancient Medicine, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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