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St. Corona: The Coronavirus Pandemic and a Christian Martyr

by May 21, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The COVID 19 or coronavirus pandemic overturned all aspects of our daily life and many have sought comfort in religion. A nearly forgotten Christian saint has suddenly become popular again. This is St. Corona, and once again her story is inspiring many and giving hope to the faithful. Though the pandemic is not named after her, it has thrown the spotlight back on this forgotten saint.
Christian Saints in the Roman Empire
Christianity became slowly popular in Rome and throughout the provinces in the first century AD. It was widely suspected that it was an evil cult and that its teachings were opposed to Roman values and traditional religion. Many Christians were forced to practice their faith in secret.
The first Christian martyr was St Stephen. There were often persecutions of the followers of Jesus throughout the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd century AD. One of the best known of these was the persecution of the early Christians by Nero, who had them killed in the Coliseum.
Christian Punishment

Christian Dirce by Henryk Siemiradzki (National Museum, Warsaw) shows the punishment of a Roman woman who had converted to Christianity. At the Emperor Nero’s wish, the woman, like mythological Dirce, was tied to a wild bull and dragged around the arena.

Many of the followers of Jesus were cruelly killed in horrific ways throughout the Empire until Constantine granted the Church toleration in the early 4th century AD.
The Story of St. Corona
Little is known for certain about St Corona. It appears that she lived in the 2nd or 3rd century AD, somewhere in the Roman Empire. She may have been born in Italy, France, Spain, or Syria. The only thing that we know for certain is that monks began to venerate her during the 6th and 7th century.
It is not known why this happened. However, saints were important in converting the many pagans in Europe even as late as the 7th century AD. It seems likely that the saint was used to deepen the faith of believers and to encourage the still half-pagan rural folk to become fully Christianized. There are many stories about her but most of them are only fables, written to encourage people to be more devout.
Corona likely came from a good family and married young. It is claimed that she married the future St. Victor, a soldier who had been converted or an unidentified soldier. Other accounts claim that she was never married. It appears that she was converted at an early age to Christianity, possibly by a servant, which was common at the time.
St. Corona

St Corona by the Master of the Palazzo Venezia Madonna in the National Gallery of Denmark.

The Martyrdom of St. Corona
There is scholarly agreement that St Corona was martyred. However, according to some sources, she was martyred in the 2nd century and in others, the 3rd century AD. It is generally agreed that her death was in some way related to that of St. Victor. By converting to Christianity, he had committed a crime akin to treason. He was sentenced to hideous tortures and eventually beheaded.
St. Corona was present at the execution and she was so moved by the suffering of Victor that she ran to comfort him. This was against the law and she was arrested. St Corona then defiantly admitted that she was a Christian and was swiftly sentenced to death.
Her end was gruesome and, according to the sources, she was tied to two palm trees that had been tied to the ground. The two trees were then untied, and they snapped back into their original standing position. This tore the young woman’s body in two.
Later she came to be regarded as a saint by the Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches.
St. Corona

Ste. Couronne, martyre (St. Corona, Martyr), Jacques Callot (Nancy, France 1592–1635). Courtesy of The MET.

The Cult of St. Corona
Corona became immensely popular in the early Middle Ages, especially in the German territories. There are many churches and religious houses dedicated to her memory in Bavaria and Austria. There is even a town named after the saint in Austria— Sankt Corona am Wechsel.
There are a number of relics associated with the saint. These were highly prized, and the German Emperor took some to Aachen in the 10th century. Her remains are now in a shrine in the Aachen Cathedral. There is growing interest in Corona, and many, because she has the same name as the virus, believe that she can protect them.
The Saint of Treasure Hunters
The name Corona means ‘crown’ in Latin, the language of the Roman Empire and later the Christian Church. The young martyr was called Corona because she has worn the crown of martyrdom and had been granted eternal salvation.
Later, people came to believe that she could help them  secure wealth and treasures. This was because coins were often known as ‘crowns’. They assumed that St. Corona was somehow related to wealth and money. As a result, she is often held to be the patron saint of treasure hunters.

Raphael’s The Baptism of Constantine.

Many people have prayed to her during economic crises. During the Great Recession of 2008-2009, many believers prayed to her for help. Today, as the world struggles with the economic consequences of the virus, many more people could do with the saint’s help.
St. Corona is a mysterious figure. However, she is proof of the continuing power of saints and martyrs from the Roman Empire. It also shows us that, even in these more secular times, people seek solace from religion during a crisis.

Coronavirus Is Not the Biggest Threat… This Is

by May 20, 2020

Written by Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
You recall our mandate.
At Classical Wisdom, we believe classical wisdom can ring true for modern minds.
After all…
No calamity has been so calamitous… no disaster so disastrous… and no idea so idiotic that it hasn’t happened at least once over the millennia.
The ancients have a lot to teach us. We need only show up to class.
Today’s vision of our next calamity comes courtesy of that famed Greek historian, Thucydides.

Herodotus and Thucydides

His History of the Peloponnesian War recounts the fifth-century war between the states of Sparta and the Athenian Empire.
It is in Book II where our attention turns today. There, the old master describes the plague of Athens
[The plague] is said to have broken out previously in many other places, in the region of Lemnos and elsewhere, but there was no previous record of so great a pestilence and destruction of human life.
Having contracted the plague himself, Thucydides describes the symptoms…
The first internal symptoms were that the throat and tongue became bloody and the breath unnatural and malodorous. This was followed by sneezing and hoarseness, and in a short time the affliction descended to the chest, producing violent coughing.
When it became established in the heart, it convulsed that and produced every kind of evacuation of bile known to the doctors, accompanied by great discomfort.
To make matters worse, the classical Athenians seemed to have no conception of “social distancing.” Rather than flee the confines of the city, the statesman Pericles had ordered Athens to withdraw behind the newly erected city walls.
An ancient petri dish…
north Wall

Restoration of the North Wall of Athens

In the ensuing years, as many as 100,000 souls—25% of the population—were shuffled off to Hades.
We pause only briefly to imagine the scene.
The piles of wretched bodies, some screaming for water, littering the streets of Athena’s city. The dead were left to rot, burned en masse on funeral pyres, or shoved into collective graves.
In 1995, a mass burial of roughly 1,000 tombs was excavated near Athens’ Kerameikos cemetery. The skeletons of some 150 ancients were discovered there. A postcard from the past.
But, dear reader, let’s not dwell on the grisly details…
It is not the plague itself that concerns us today. It is the pestilence of Athens’ soul that we are troubled by.
And it is here that we fear our future lies…

Kerameikos Cemetery, Athens

No Fear of the Gods
Thucydides recognized that the plague infected more than the body. It infected the moral character of the city’s occupants. And it poisoned the societal fabric of glorious Athens.
Writes Thucydides…
No one was willing to persevere in struggling for what was considered an honorable result, since he could not be sure that he would not perish before he achieved it. What was pleasant in the short term, and what was in any way conducive to that, came to be accepted as honorable and useful. No fear of the gods or law of men had any restraining power, since it was judged to make no difference whether one was pious or not as all alike could be seen dying.
Pericles, in his Funeral Oration, had called Athens “the school of Hellas.” And the average Athenian had “the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace.”
Funeral Oration

Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz (1852)

But under the duress of plague, that myth was dispelled.
Athenians abandoned the gods… tradition… and honor. They fell instead to fear and ignoble behavior.
And as the morality of the people weakened, the city itself died.
Athens surrendered to Sparta in 404 BC. Its walls were torn down. Its fledgling empire—born from the Delian League—was dismantled.
Democracy, that uniquely Athenian custom, was the final casualty. It was disbanded. In its place, the “thirty tyrants” ruled over the city.
Democracy would eventually be restored—just in time to execute Socrates by popular vote!
But Athens would never regain her former glory.
The school of Hellas was no more.
The Plague

Plague in an Ancient City, Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

Prevented from Doing Wrong
Yes, dear reader. It was not the plague that doomed the Golden Age of Athens. It was the spiritual sickness that closed the crypt.
In his Funeral Oration, Pericles tells the Athenians…
[We] are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities.
But stricken with plague, Athens could no longer claim a “spirit of reverence.”
This was not an observation unique to Thucydides, either.
Writes to Stoic Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius in book IX of his Meditations
An infected mind is a far more dangerous pestilence than any plague. One only threatens your life. The other destroys your character.
And at the risk of piling on, we cite the existentialist Albert Camus. Writing of a fictional plague that swept the coastal French Algerian city of Oran, Camus writes…
For the moment, he wished to behave like all the others around him who believed, or made believe, that plague can come and go without changing anything in men’s hearts.
Yes, of course, the invisible enemy is a very real virus. And to the weak and infirm especially—as in Athens—it presents a potential offramp to the underworld.
But we wonder in what form our own moral decay will come…

A protester carries his rifle at the State Capitol in Lansing, Mich., Thursday, April 30, 2020. Hoisting American flags and handmade signs, protesters returned to the state Capitol to denounce Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-home order and business restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic while lawmakers met to consider extending her emergency declaration hours before it expires. (Photo: Paul Sancya, AP)

Today, citizens are rewarded for “snitching” on each other. We look with distrust at our fellow man if he (gasp!) goes un-masked in a public park. The respect for authorities—already frayed—is wilting with every week in lockdown.
We fear not the gods nor the laws of man, dear reader. Our own spirit of reverence is shirking.
How and when will our own empire fall?
We don’t know.
But what’s this we hear?
The distant footsteps of soldiers marching in cadence. The sound of bronze shields clashing echoes in the distance. The Spartans will soon be upon us.
Our own “school of Hellas” stands mighty for now.
But the walls are beginning to tremble…

The Fragility of Democracy: Athens and the Thirty Tyrants

by May 8, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Athens is traditionally seen as the birthplace of democracy. However, as we know, democracies are vulnerable to anti-democratic forces, such as populism and authoritarian movements. This was also the case with Athens. For some eight months (404-403 BC) the city was controlled by a pro-Spartan oligarchy known as the ‘Thirty Tyrants’. These autocrats unleashed a wave of terror, and Athens was steeped in blood during their time in government.
The Peloponnesian War
After the defeat of the Persians, the Greek world was dominated by the Spartans and their allies and the Athenians. However, in 431 BC, the Second Peloponnesian War broke out between the two most powerful city-states. This was a long and brutal conflict.
After the disastrous Athenian defeat in Sicily, the democratic government was briefly overthrown and replaced by an oligarchy. The Athenians were defeated in the sea-battle of Aegospotami (405 BC) and this effectively guaranteed Sparta’s victory in the war. The oligarchy that had been in power in Athens were discredited and they were soon removed from the government.

Lysander outside the walls of Athens. 19th century lithograph.

The Spartan Peace
The Spartans surrounded Athens and demanded that its ‘long walls’ or defensive ramparts be torn down around the city and its harbor, Piraeus. King Lysander dictated the peace terms to the Athenians who were almost totally defenseless. The Spartans did not want a return of the democracy which they despised. They supported Athenians who were sympathetic to Sparta and who believed in government by an elite. With the support of the Spartans, they controlled the city.
The so-called Thirty Tyrants’ most prominent leaders were Theramenes and Critias and they were pro-Spartan and hated democracy and democrats. They immediately stripped the ordinary citizens of political rights and ruled with a handpicked assembly of supporters.
From the Pnyx in Athens, a platform traditionally used by orators, the tyrants announced a series of measures that ended democracy in the city. They ruled with the help of a Spartan garrison and they forced all the citizens to hand over their arms. Only 3000 supporters of the tyrants had the right to bear arms.

The Pnyx (right), sits across from the Acropolis (left)

Reign of Terror
The tyrants or the ‘overseers’, as they liked to be known, feared their fellow citizens, many of whom regarded them as traitors. Anyone who was deemed to be a democrat or could potentially oppose their government was executed after a show trial. Countless innocent Athenian men were executed often by being forced to drink the poison hemlock.
The Thirty Tyrants also had to provide pay and food to the Spartan garrison. This was at a time when Athens was on the brink of famine and resulted in great suffering. The oligarchs, to win popular support, tried to implicate ordinary citizens in their crimes. For example, Socrates was asked with others to bring an innocent man for execution. The philosopher bravely refused and just about escaped with his life.
Athens was bankrupt because of the war and the ‘Thirty Tyrants’ needed money to stay in power and to meet the Spartan demands. Critias, who was the cruelest of all the tyrants, decided to kill wealthy Athenians and foreign residents and seize their valuables and property. This was resisted by Thermanes, but Critias had him executed. He was a very complex man, a poet and cultured man who is a character in the Platonic dialogue named after him. He was also very cruel and seemed to enjoy bloodshed.

Critias, one of the Thirty Tyrants, ordering the execution of Theramenes, a fellow member of the oligarchy that ruled Athens in 404–403 BCE.
Prisma Archivo/Alamy

By this time, no-one was safe in Athens. It is estimated that thousands of people were killed and many more exiled and imprisoned during the rule of the oligarchs. The reign of the Thirty Tyrants can be likened to the ‘Reign of Terror’ in Revolutionary France, or the Purges of Stalin in the 1930s.
The End of the ‘Thirty Tyrants’
The brutality and corruption of the tyrants was so great, that all the city came to hate them and they had almost no supporters left. Many other Greek states did not want Athens controlled by a pro-Spartan group and they feared the growing power of Sparta. Thebes and others gave support to the many Athenian exiles and they formed military units to overthrow the tyrants and restore democracy.
In 404 BC the former general Thrasybulus gathered together a group of Athenians and in a surprise attack seized the Piraeus, the harbor of the city. Then he fortified a hill overlooking the port so that when the Thirty Tyrants came with their force to retake it, they were defeated. This was a remarkable victory, especially considering that the democrats were outnumbered five to one.

Thrasybulus (? – 389 Bc), Athenian soldier and statesman. A drawing by Mary Evans Picture Library.

In this battle, Critias was killed and the oligarchs were effectively leaderless. The Spartans intervened and inflicted a defeat on Thrasybulus, but at a high cost. They eventually negotiated a peace agreement between the democrats and the Thirty Tyrants. The oligarchs had to leave the city and in return were given the right to govern the nearby town of Eleusis.
In 403 BC, Thrasybulus restored democracy in Athens and the surviving tyrants were killed one by one in the following years.
The Aftermath of the Thirty Tyrants
The democrats eventually gained control of all Athenian territory and ended the influence of Sparta. The restored democracy was much more moderate than the one established by Pericles in the 5th century BC. Socrates’s reputation suffered greatly because, despite his principled stand against the tyrants, he had been the teacher of many of them, including Critias. Many believe that this ultimately led to his trial and execution.
Socrates' Death

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Thirty Tyrants shows how fragile democracy can be. Any crisis can be taken advantage of by anti-democratic forces and this can lead to dictatorship and a reign of terror. The example of the Tyrants shows that democracy is also at risk and should not be taken for granted.

The Antonine Plague

by April 17, 2020

Written by Katherine Kennedy, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Imagine, if you will, that it’s the year 165 AD. There are two Emperors of Rome, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, who have been ruling together for four years, and day-to-day life is good. The new emperor’s permit free speech, they’re popular with the Roman military, and the empire is stable.
That is, until the Parthians invade the Kingdom of Armenia. This act of war triggers a Roman counter-assault, along with the Roman army retaliating in kind. At the same time, the Germanic tribes along the northern borders begin raiding, then invasions of the northern territories.
Within a few short months, the mighty Roman Empire was embroiled in mass warfare on multiple fronts. It is during these already difficult times that a new foe would invade the empire. It was a far deadlier and quieter assault, and one whose effects would scar the pages of history as it decimated the population.
Rome was under attack from the plague.

Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire: Desolation, 1836 (Courtesy New York Historical Society/Wikipedia)

It’s easy to imagine the scene; it’s not wholly unfamiliar to the one we face currently with Covid-19. There were rumours about what was happening in far away lands, the government addressed the populace, but before many could make plans and prepare, their way of life was under attack.
The plague, named after the Antoninus family who ruled through out the plague’s duration, first appeared in the winter of 165-166 in Seleucia from an unknown source. Reports from the time suggest that the plague was spread by troops of the Roman Empire returning from their campaigns in the Near East. Once contracted by the army, it spread throughout the empire’s territories as the legions moved around through the villages and countryside.
After four years of the plague, in 169 AD, Lucius Verus was returning to Rome with Marcus Aurelius from Aquileia, when he contracted the disease. Although he would have taken some comfort in his adoptive brother being by his side, Lucius’ death was swift. The emperor’s rapid departure was labelled as ‘food poisoning’, although that is now thought to be inaccurate.

Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius (Caracalla) at the reconstructed fort at Saalburg, Germany.

Galen, the Greek physician, described the symptoms as consisting of fever, diarrhea and pharyngitis. Other symptoms included the skin erupting in boil-like blisters, ome dry and others filled with puss, which would appear around the ninth day. Galen didn’t identify the disease fully, or its origin, but some scholars believe this plague to have been smallpox.
One exception to this is historian William McNeill, who asserts that the Antonine Plague and the later Plague of Cyprian (251ca – 271) could quite possibly have been outbreaks of measles and smallpox. The survivors developed some immunity to these diseases, which suggests that neither disease had existed before 165 AD in Roman civilisations.
Sadly, this ‘great’ plague, as Galen called it, would last for many years more. For fifteen years it ravaged the Empire, from 165-180 AD. When the disease attacked the city of Rome, approximately nine years after the first outbreak, it’s believed to have caused up to 2,000 deaths per day, or a 25% chance of death for Rome’s population.
During this devastation, it’s thought that one-third of the population was killed by the plague, this includes those in the countryside and in the army, and with an estimated 5 million deaths attributed during it’s reign of terror.
Aurelius and Verus

Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, British Museum.

At the time, there was no treatment or cure. Rather, during wave after wave of the disease, Roman society built up immunity to its effects. However, it’s interesting to note that a plague with the same symptoms was afflicting the reigns of two Han emperors in the Near East, Huan of Han (146-168) and Ling of Han (168-189).
During the rules of these two emperors, there were outbreaks in 151, 161, 171, 173, 179, 182 and 185 – all of which have similar dates to known outbreaks in the Roman Empire, and have been suggested as being connected to the Antonine Plague in Eurasia.
It is suspected that this plague originated in some unknown and isolated part of Central Asia, and that it spread throughout the Chinese and Roman empires as trade between the two powers grew. The bulk of this trade was conducted via maritime trading, which suffered ‘irreparable’ damage as a result of the loss of life.
As such, trade with Southeast Asia slowed dramatically, and although silk and spice trade did continue into the 6th century, it would never return its full glory. Instead, the Antonine Plague’s legacy would be one that would only become apparent after 500 A.D., with the evolution of measles and its effects on our DNA.
Destruction of empire

The Course of Empire (Series of paintings by Thomas Cole): Destruction (1836).

Although the Antonine Plague would have little influence over the arts or Roman culture, its social and political effects have left an indelible mark on the pages of history. With it, the plague brought the death knell of the Roman Empire, and would herald in a time of constant upheaval, betrayal, and—some would argue—insanity at the hands of a capricious dictator.
But, perhaps what we should also remember is the effect the plague had on Roman society. Amid the terror and confusion, Romans gave in to believing falsehoods, behaving badly, and acting without true understanding and honour.
Marcus’ thoughts had been plagued by another pestilence, and according to his writings in the Meditations, he was deeply troubled by what he observed. His beloved Rome was descending into chaos, wanton acts, denying fact in favour of fiction, and choosing lies over truth and justice. Perhaps we have something to learn from the following reflection of his,
“Real good luck would be to abandon life without ever encountering dishonesty, or hypocrisy, or self-indulgence, or pride. But the ‘next best voyage’ is to die when you’ve had enough. Or are you determined to lie down with evil? Hasn’t experience even taught you that—to avoid it like the plague? Because it is a plague—a mental cancer—worse than anything caused by tainted air or an unhealthy climate. Disease like that can only threaten your life; this one attacks your humanity.” Meditations, IX.2

Sanitary Problems in Ancient Rome

by April 10, 2020

Written by Visnja Bojovic, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
After having arrived home from the supermarket, I was just able to sit and stare blankly at one spot for one hour, wondering where the empathy and consideration have gone. When has it become normal to buy 10 bags of flour, or 40 packs of antibacterial wet wipes when a person behind you is left with none? Haven’t we learnt anything from the past?
Yes, the situation in which the world has found itself these days is scary, and yes, it is serious. However, please be reminded that we live in the 21st century, when it is possible to identify diseases that killed people 2000 years ago, not to mention the modern ones. We live in an age in which we can measure our body temperature in less than five minutes, in which we have the second person cured from HIV!
So, take a deep breath, sit at home with your family, take all the prevention measures expected of you, watch a movie, and be grateful for living in an age in which you can rely on experts doing their job.
People of ancient times did not have the same privilege, though. Let’s forget about our worries for a second and take a look at the struggles that the people in ancient Rome were facing.
Roman sewer

The first Roman sewer system called the Cloaca Maxima was built in the sixth century B.C. It started out as an open channel but was eventually closed and vaulted. The Cloaca Maxima is the oldest sewer system still in use today with some of its original masonry work still existing. (SOURCE)

Romans are still well-known for their advance in hygiene in comparison to the cultures preceding them, along with their sanitary innovations such as the sewage system and public toilets. What is less known, however, are the challenges that those innovations brought with them.
Public baths
As the majority of the Roman population could not afford private baths, they came up with public baths, or thermae. As bathing was an important part of Roman culture, these public baths became the center of socialization for the Romans. Therefore, it was expected to visit them regularly.
Even though bathing sounds like the best method of prevention when it comes to bacteria and disease, in ancient Rome it was quite the opposite at times. The problem with these baths was that the water was rarely changed, hence the dirt in it was kept warm, and as such, was fertile ground for bacteria. Moreover, doctors used to prescribe baths to patients, which led to the sick and healthy often bathing together.
Sewer system and public toilets
The Roman sewer system was considered one of the biggest sanitary achievements of ancient times. However, more recent researches (particularly those of Koloski-Ostrow and Jansen) have shown that Roman toilets were not as common as it had been previously thought, and that they did not offer that many benefits. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Public latrine

Remnants of an Ancient Roman latrine in Ostia Antica

It was discovered that Romans were in some kind of fear of public toilets. This is supported by the smaller number of graffiti on the walls, as well as the high number of shrines to goddess Fortuna, who was believed to protect toilet users from bad things happening there.
One of the biggest problems that Roman toilets had was the lack of protection from flies. This made human waste easily accessible to flies, which then made the spread of the pathogens very easy (not to mention the fact that human waste was (overly) used as a fertilizer). Another threat were rodents that could have easily lurked into toilets and homes, naturally contributing to this spread.
There was no official cleaning service when it came to public toilets, which naturally meant the neglect of proper care. This led to sewage pipes being more than often blocked by the amount of waste, which then led to people throwing waste on the street, and excrement-filled water flowing upwards during flooding.
Roman toilets

Artist’s impression of Roman toilets at Housesteads Fort on Hadrian’s Wall. It may seem very surprising today that there was no privacy in Roman toilets. People used sponges on sticks instead of toilet paper. (SOURCE)

Last but not least, we should mention the Roman version of toilet paper. It was called xylospongium or tersorium and it consisted of a wooden stick and a sea sponge. They were used by everyone in the public toilet, and washed simply in a bucket of water and salt/vinegar. This wasn’t exactly the greatest hygienic practice that the world has ever seen, so naturally, the bacteria thrived in these sponges as well.
A research on parasitology conducted in 2016, by Piers Mitchell, showed that the presence of the fish tapeworm, an infection caused by a parasite Diphyllobothrium latum, increased significantly in Europe under the Romans. Mitchell suggests that this happened due to the Roman dietary customs.
A popular Roman dish called garum was a type of sauce whose main ingredient was fish. As the presence of the fish tapeworm was found in other areas of the Roman territory, there is a great possibility that garum made in northern Europe contained fish infected with this parasite. With the evidence of manufacture, transport and sale of this food, it is probable that this infected people outside of the area typical for the disease.
Antonine plague

The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome; engraving by Levasseur after Jules-Elie Delaunay

Don’t Forget Your Humanity
These are only some of the problems that the residents of ancient Rome were facing. We can now read this information with the sigh of relief and gratefulness to our ancestors for overcoming all these challenges.
However, we should not forget one thing – no science and advancement can save us from the lack of humanity. There is not an innovative scientific method that will prevent some people from buying one-year worth stocks of toilet paper, without thinking if someone else will need it. The moral of the story is: trust medicine, be responsible towards yourself and others, and don’t only keep calm, keep consideration and compassion.

The Plague of Athens

by April 1, 2020

Written by Katherine Kennedy, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Throughout history, civilization has overcome natural and manmade challenges and adversities. Our histories are riddled with accounts of famines, wars, pestilences, and of course, plagues.

One such instance was the Plague of Athens, and now as the Coronavirus sweeps through our cities and countries, it is perhaps timely to remember the lessons of the past and learn from their experiences.


The epidemic, known as the Plague of Athens, swept through the main city of Athens in the second year of the Peloponnesian War, in about 430 BC. It entered the city after decimating an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 inhabitants who lived in the city and near its port of Piraeus; Athens’ only port for food and supplies. Before the plague, it was believed that the Athenians would win the war. The outbreak shattered that belief.

So, what happened? Where did this epidemic come from, and what were the effects? In today’s climate of panic and hysteria surrounding the Coronavirus, it’s interesting to reflect on our predecessors’ experiences when facing an invisible enemy.


The Acropolis of Athens, as seen from Philopappou Hill. A. Savin/Wikimedia Commons

How was the disease able to cause such extreme damage? It’s a case of supply and demand gone wrong. As the war between the Delian League (Athens and supporting city-states) and the Peloponnesian League (Sparta and supporting city-states) raged on, the Delian League’s favorite tactic was to advance and then retreat behind the city walls, using the Athenian navy to harry their opponents.
Conversely, the Peloponnesian League was better suited to land attacks. After repeated skirmishes, more and more inhabitants of the Attica countryside began moving towards Athens and the city walls for protection. It didn’t take long for this shifting populace to start overcrowding the already busy streets of the city.

Whilst under the leadership of Pericles, the Athenians used this method of attack-and-defend. Though it worked for a while, their reliance on the Athenian navy to then bring in food through Piraeus was the weak point in their armor. With the increased numbers within the city, the navy could not supply enough food to meet the demand.

Alongside this, with a burgeoning population, who were now living too close to one another, hygiene was questionable, and this allowed for diseases to develop and spread at an unstoppable speed. The plague was indiscriminate, and the death-toll grew rapidly, claiming even the lives of Pericles, his wife, and their two sons.

Scene from the History of the Peloponnesian War

Pericles’ Funeral Oration by Philipp Foltz (1852). Pericles’ Funeral Oration was a famous part in Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides, who also contracted but survived the epidemic, wrote that it was so severe and deadly, that no one could remember anything like it. Physicians at the time didn’t understand what caused it, or how it was spreading so quickly, and were unable to treat the symptoms. In fact, they often died quicker than their patients due to multiple exposures to the infected.

The plague is believed to have originated in Ethiopia, where it spread to Egypt, Libya, and into the Greek territories through the Mediterranean Sea. Once the navy was exposed to this epidemic, it was only a matter of time before Athens would become infected; it is thought that an estimated 25% of the population died as a result.

Plague on Society

With the Spartan army watching the funeral pyres burn from a safe distance, and with the plague ravaging the city, it’s no wonder that the city’s inhabitants became quite fatalistic. As a result, society’s morals disappeared, and lawlessness became the new norm.

Thucydides also documented his observations on society’s response to the outbreak. He states that people ceased to fear the law because they already felt that they had a death sentence hanging over them. They believed there was no point in acting with honor, as they wouldn’t live long enough for this to matter. 

MICHAEL SWEERTS Plague in an Ancient City, ca. 1652-54

Plague in an Ancient City, ca. 1652-54

As such, people who would normally be money conscious became excessive spenders to the point of bankruptcy, whilst poorer relations suddenly inherited great wealth due to extended family dying.

In fact, this was one reason why the plague swept through the city so easily; people initially acting with compassion for those afflicted then became infected themselves. The greater their exposure, the more likely it became that they would die. As a result, caring for the sick was stopped, and the ill were left to die alone.

Once deceased, the bodies were placed on pyres for burning. At this time, it was not uncommon for a funeral pyre to be appropriated by other users, who wished to burn their dead as soon as possible. Others were dumped in mass graves, one atop the other. One such mass grave was discovered at Kerameikos, outside of Athens, with 240 bodies interred, 10 of which were children—all victims of the plague.

As the disease wore on, those who survived developed an immunity, which allowed for them to care for those who would become ill. There may have been some semblance of gratitude from patient to carer, as many of the city’s inhabitants felt abandoned by their gods.

Sick child

John William Waterhouse – A Sick Child Brought Into the Temple of Aesculapius

The temples had become sites of mass grieving, filled with refugees from the war, or from the plague. These temples would soon become filled with the dead or dying, and the Athenians took this as a sign that the gods favored the Spartans. Thucydides, however, cites this behavior as the city’s residents simply being superstitious.


Whatever the cause, the effect on Athens’ society was irrevocable. With many of the poorer inhabitants inheriting wealth from their deceased family, the power balance between the rich and poor shifted dramatically. 

As mentioned above, survivors who had developed an immunity were better able to care for the infected. Thucydides backs this up, stating that the most sympathetic to the plights of others were those who had contracted and survived the disease themselves. However, a large number of these survivors were eventually discovered to have been “metics” (a foreign resident of Athens who did not have citizen rights in their Greek city-state of residence)—that is, illegal citizens—who did not have rights and protections as a legal Athenian citizen.

Once discovered, many of these metics were reduced to being slaves and stricter laws were passed regarding becoming an Athenian citizen. These laws not only significantly reduced the rights and well-being of the remaining metics, but also resulted in a decreased number of available soldiers for the Athenian military, as well as a decrease in the political power of Athens herself.


Kerameikos Archeological park. Taken at Athens, greece, April 2011 (public domain)

The damage caused by loss of political strength and citizen morale could not be reversed. In time, Athens would be defeated by Sparta, and their place in history, as a major power in Ancient Greece, would become forfeit.


It’s easy to become swept up in the hype and hysteria that surrounds Coronavirus. But, just like the Athenians, if we only focus on that, instead of following good hygiene and keeping a respectful distance of others, we will likely face a similar fate. 

What can we observe from this ancient experience? To be reasoned and compassionate towards others. Not to put ourselves at risk, but also not to deny others assistance if it is safe to offer it. Care for those around us, and when we find ourselves to be survivors, not to turn on each other out of greed or fear.

We can learn much from our ancient forebears, and the best lesson is to be moderate and mild, to temper our intake—both of food and information; to act with reason and to refrain from ill tempers and dishonorable acts. That way, we leave a fine example for history to share with future generations.