Considerations on the Athenian Plague

Jul 2011
The plague described in the history of the Peloponnesian War is largely held to be a contagion but the possibility of poison shouldn't be ruled out in my opinion. Although Thucydides mentions that people contracted the disease when caring for and coming into contact with those who had the disease (a very astute observation that deviates from the Hippocratic thinking based on diseases being contracted by miasma), it's still possible that while caring for the people dying - food in the house was ingested by those caring for the sick.

I find myself leaning towards poison as the source of the plague and am also entertaining the possibility of a disease striking at about the same time.

Warranted: the conditions are perfect for an outbreak of a contagious disease but the spread of the disease is almost non existent. Also, animals died of the disease - the disease must be able to reside in numerous hosts, whereas a poison could easily adversely affect many different animals.

Also under consideration: mass importation of grain, limited water supply, close proximity of livestock to humans, and the common sharing of it all by a large population (capable of supporting a poorly adapted contagion which kills its host).

The fact that the population was large enough to support the disease and that I have not found any other cases of poison leads me towards contagion, I guess.

Any thoughts?
Jul 2011
Athens would have been importing grains for a huge population. Downgraded and garbage grains infected with egotism would have found a market among the hungry mouths in Athens. Grains and cereals athenians usually wouldnt consume may have been imported. If improperly stored, does ergot spread?
Dec 2011
High fever and diarrhoea were among the symptoms, suggesting a microbial infection. Wells contaminated by dense population is most probable. Could be a combination of more than one disease, like typhoid and salmonella.
Ergotism can be ruled out because its symptoms are different.


Forum Staff
Jun 2009
land of Califia
Disagree. Ergotism has many symptoms as described by Thucydides, including gangrene.
I was going to say this...beat me to it.

One possible detraction to the theory however (correct me if I am wrong). I believe that Thucydides stated that once someone had been ill, and not died, they were never ill again. This points to a gaining of immunity from a disease.

What we may have in all actuality, is something of a perfect storm where many different situations may have hit Athens hard. God knows how many foul things were imported into the Athens' harbors while they attempted to wait this out. You could actually have a case where ergotism and any number of bugs slammed these people.

One more idea to mull over. Could Thucydides actualy have made up the entire narrative, as no known disease can be pinpointed through the description of 'symptoms'?
Jul 2011
That is a GREAT point! The immunity. Amazing of the man to see that and write it down! Yes, I think that is an excellent reason against ergot and for contagion.

On Bubonic Plague: (No the Athenian plague was not Bubonic but this excerpt about it IS pertinent to the discussion)

"Matossian (1988) believed that while deaths could ultimately be attributed to Bubonic Plague, the consumption of grains infected with T-2 or related mycotoxins compromised the immune system and increased the likelihood of death in human and rats. Because of the increase in death of rats, the fleas carrying the disease would require a new host, which in heavily populated area, often was a human host. This led to a higher death rate than might have normally occurred. She also presented evidence, based on what seemed to be selectivity of the disease, based on age and wealth, grain storage and environmental moisture."

Ergot could be a vital part of "the perfect storm" theory.

On your last point... diseases evolve and go extinct. They evolve rather rapidly as maladapted parasites quickly go extinct from killing their hosts or a variety of other reasons. The contagion, if it was, would have evolved or gone extinct. If it evolved, there is reason to believe it would now be much better adapted to the human body and therefore immensely less harmful to people. (This is what I get from my reading. I am not an expert.)

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