In 431, the 2nd Peloponnesian war had begun. Greek city-states, led by Athens and Peloponnesian city-states, led by Sparta fought each other in a war that had a little bit of a twist to it. Like many wars, the fight was for power and control of new territory. But what would happen when soldiers were faced with a new kind of battle? A battle that would take the lives of hundreds of thousands unexpectedly. The battle is known as the plague.
The plague first appeared in sub-Saharan Africa, an area south of the country Ethiopia. Spreading from Egypt and Libya, the disease would make its way across the Mediterranean Sea into Persia and eventually Greece.
The symptoms of those infected have resulted in many questions of what not only causes the illness but what exactly the illness was. People infected would show signs of a fever, with blood appearing in their throat and on their tongue. Lesions surfaced on their skin, with their skin tones having a reddish tint to it.
Thucydides, an Athenian historian and general, a survivor of the illness, was able to describe exactly what he saw during this historical time:
“As a rule, however, there was no ostensible cause; but people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath.”
“These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. When it fixed in the stomach, it upset it; and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress.”
“In most cases also an ineffectual retching followed, producing violent spasms, which in some cases ceased soon after, in others much later.”
These symptoms did not appear to be the usual symptoms caused only by plague. Years later, researchers and historians would point to other illnesses other than plague that caused many to lose to their lives.
There were several different outlets that allowed the illness to spread. One way was through the increase of people crowding the streets of Athens. People had moved from the countryside to the city, resulting in overpopulation. Under the direction of their leader, Pericles, Athenian soldiers stayed behind the city walls of Athens, keeping a safe distance between them and their enemies of the Spartan army. With soldiers stationed in central areas, these parts became perfect “breeding ground” for a disease to spread from soldier to soldier. Another way the disease traveled was through the source of food and supplies that entered through Athens’s port of Piraeus. With all these factors playing a role, the plague spread like wildfire through the streets of Athens, taking the lives of soldiers and civilians.
More than one third of the Athenian population died from the plague. Researchers and historians believe the illness many experienced was tied to typhus (a bacterial disease transmitted through the bite of fleas, or ticks) and typhoid fever. Other illnesses related to this epidemic included smallpox, measles, toxic shock syndrome, anthrax and Ebola.