01 February 2008

The Good and the Bad Dying Indiscriminately

The point about the Popes wasn't the only thing that bothered me about yesterday's talk, fascinating though it was. As part of a general description of plagues, the speaker mentioned the plague that struck Athens during the early years of the Peloponnesian War in the Fifth Century BC.

In case you're not familiar with what happened, here's our one contemporary description of the plague's symptoms, as recorded by Thucydides, an Athenian general who had himself suffered from but survived the epidemic.
People in perfect health suddenly began to have burning feelings in the head; their eyes became red and inflamed; inside their mouths there was bleeding from the throat and tongue, and the breath became unnatural and unpleasant. The next symptoms were sneezing and hoarseness of voice, and before long the pain settled on the chest nd was accompanied by coughing. Next the stomach was affected with stonach-aches and with vomiting of every kind of bile that has been given a name by the medical profession, all this being accompanied by great pain and difficulty. In most cases there were attacks of ineffectual retching, producing violent spasms; this sometimes ended with this stage of the disease, but sometimes continued long afterwards.

Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor was there any pallour: the skin was rather reddish and livid, breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But inside there was a feeling of burning, so that people could not bear the touch even of the lightest linen clothing, but wanted to be completely naked, and indeed most of all would have liked to plunge into cold water. many of the sick who were uncared for actually did so, plunging into the water-tanks in an effort to relieve a thirst which was unquenchable; for it was just the same with them whether they drank much or little. Then all the time they were afflicted with insomnia and the desperate feeling of not being able to keep still.

In the period when the disease was at its height, the body, so far from wasting away, showed surprising powers of resistance to all the agony, so that there was still some strength left on the seventh or eighth day, which was the time when, in most cases, death came from the internal fever. But if people survived this critical period, then the disease descended to the bowels, so that most of them died later as a result of the weakness caused by this.

For the disease, first settling in the head, went on to affect every part of the body in turn, and even when people escaped its worst effects, it still left its traces on them by fastening upon the extremities of the body. It affected the genitals, the fingers, and the toes, and many of those who recovered lost the use of these members; some, too, went blind. There were some also who, when they first began to get better, suffered from a total loss of memory, not knowing who they were themselves and being unable to recognize their friends. [Thuc. 2.49]
Powerful stuff, I'm sure you'll agree. Thucydides describes the plague as hitting Athens early in the second year of the war with Sparta, with previous attacks having been reported from Lemnos and elsewhere. Supposedly it first appeared in southern Egypt, spreading through North Africa and the Persian Empire, reaching Athens through its port at Piraeus. It devastated the city, spreading rapidly among the population, especially amongst those who looked after those already infected, the entire situation being exacerbated by the terrible overcrowding within the city, the population of which had swollen in response to the Spartan pillaging of the surrounding countryside.
A factor which made matters much worse than they were already was the removal of people from the country into the city, and this particularly effected the incomers. There were no houses for them, and, living as they did during the hot season in badly ventilated huts, they died like flies. The bodies of the dying were heaped on 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 their quarters were full of the dead bodies of people who had died inside them. For the catstrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law. [Thuc. 2.52]
Our speaker, talking about this last night, remarked that this was all we had to go on in attempting to establish just what the plague actually was: there's no archaeological evidence.

The thing is, that's not quite true, as I learned a couple of years back thanks to a brilliant friend of mine.

During the construction of Athenian metro lines in the mid-nineties, a large mass grave was found and excavated north-west of the Kerameikos cemetery. The grave contained at least 150 bodies, with the bodies apparently being layered on top of each other in increasingly haphazard fashion. Vases within the pit can be confidently dated to about 430 BC, the year the plague first hit Athens, and the careless and apparently impious method of burial points towards a city desperately trying to rid itself of large numbers of corpses.

Recent genetic analysis of dental pulp extracted from the remains within the pit has strongly suggested that the deceased had succumbed to a variety of Typhus fever -- microbial DNA shared a 93 per cent similarity with Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi. While this identification is far from certain, the symptoms of modern Typhoid certainly resemble many of those cited by Thucydides, and it would seem likely that some Typhoid variant -- perhaps in conjunction with another virus -- was responsible for the Athenian Plague.

Even if our speaker didn't believe that the grave in question had anything to do with the Plague, I'm surprised that he didn't mention it. Hmmm.

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