Plague and Civilization

Photograph Source: The National Guard – CC BY 2.0

The plague is a disease that raises its devouring and catastrophic head every so many decades and centuries, especially when humans violently disturb the natural world.

The 2020 plague is one of a variety of pandemic diseases that have afflicted humans for millennia, not necessarily with the same intensity or virulence.

The historical record of plagues is muddled. Like us, past societies under the existential stress of pandemics, failed to keep records, much less accurate records. In many instances, past and present, rulers, medical bureaucrats, and journalists subvert the truth. Political and economic oligarchs fight for survival and supremacy. The picture that survives death is distorted, exactly like the story victors tell after war.

The Plague Among the Greeks

The case of the plague in Greek history may still give us pose for reflection.

The Greeks gave diseases precise names. They called plague loimos (pestilence), nosos (disease, sorrow, suffering), and phthora (destruction, decay, mortality, death).

The plague made its first appearance among the Greeks as a weapon of divine wrath. God Apollo used the pestilence to punish the Greeks for offending his priest.

In the beginning of the first book of the Iliad of Homer, Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the Greek troops in the Trojan War, insulted the priest of Apollo by refusing to give back his daughter, whom he had captured in a raid. The priest knelt in front of Agamemnon and begged him to release his daughter. But Agamemnon told the priest to get out of his sight as quickly as he could, lest he lost his patience. The frighten priest run away from the Greek camp and went home. He immediately prayed to Apollo to punish the Greeks. He reminded the god he had built a temple to honor and worship him, offering him rich sacrifices. Make the Greeks pay for my tears, he appealed to Apollo.

Homer says Apollo listened to his priest. He rushed out of Mt. Olympos in Thessaly and landed in the Greek camp in Troy like night. He started shooting his invisible plague arrows at mules and dogs and then soldiers. The dead fell to the ground for nine days, Homer says, and fires everywhere burned their bodies.

This plague came to an end by appeasing Apollo. Achilles “of the swift feet,” the greatest hero of the Trojan War, asked Kalchas, the “blameless” seer accompanying the troops, to reveal the cause Apollo was spreading the plague among the Greeks. Kalchas said Apollo was very ungry because of the way Agamemnon had treated his priest. The Greeks, Kalchas said, should return “the glancing-eyed” daughter of the priest to him and sacrifice 100 cattle in honoring Apollo, who would then cease his biological warfare against them.

The next plague incident among the Greeks was bacteria pestilence. It happened about 800 years after the Trojan War. This was late fifth century BCE when Athens and Sparta were at each other’s throats, fighting the destructive and corrosive Peloponnesian War.

In the second year of the war, 430-429 BCE, the plague arrived in Athens. The timing of the disease could not have been worse. Rural Athenians from Attica had abandoned their villages, becoming war refugees living behind city walls. Spartans were burning their homes, crops and trees.

The walls of Athens went all the way to the port of Piraeus, Athens’ chief port. The deadly epidemic reached Athens all the way from Africa through the port of Piraeus.

Thucydides, Athenian historian and author of the masterpiece, The Peloponnesian War, survived the disease. His description of the malady is dispassionate and, very possibly, accurate.

Disorder of the Seasons

By late fifth century BCE, Greek medicine was on its way of becoming a healing process on the basis of science. The medical hero and god, Asklepios, dating from the Heroic Age of about 1,300 BCE, had built a tradition of divine healing and health protection from the careful observation of nature. His two sons, Machaon and Podalirios, fought in the Trojan War as leaders of Thessalian troops.

Asklepios’ greatest pupil, Hippokrates of Kos, flourished in late fifth century BCE. He spoke the language of science and diet. He saw trouble, perhaps the rise of plague, when in hot temperatures the rains came down violently. He advised physicians to study the environmental causes of health and disease: the rise and setting of the Sun and constellations, the decisive importance of climate and the seasons, the quality of water, frequency of rains, winds, and the fertility and availability of land and food. He said there was no divine disease, only disease caused by bad diet and the alteration of climate and nature. In his work, Airs, Waters, Places, he said, “Natural cause drives disease. Nothing happens without a natural cause” (22).

The Plague of Athens

However, a plague was and is a dreadful pestilence with no easy recipes for cure. This Thucydides knew, which is why he was so clinical in his details of the symptoms of the disease that killed the Athenian leader Pericles.

Thucydides’ comments on the pestilence reminds us of our vulnerability and almost accidental survival. Here are the highlights of his description of the plague:

“Not many days after the Spartans and their allies were scorching Attica, the plague struck Athens. People say the disease had already spread widely, including in [the Aegean island of] Lemnos. The plague was of enormous magnitude and caused a great loss of life. Physicians did not have the knowledge of treating the sick and dying. They were no match for it and died in droves. Other efforts of appealing to the priests at the temples and oracles did no good….

“The symptoms of the plague included high fever and redness and inflammation of the eyes. The throat and tongue were usually swollen with blood. Breathing became irregular and foul-smelling. Sneezing and hoarseness made everything else worse with extensive coughing. The plague was also responsible for heaving, vomiting, great thirst, insomnia, and restlessness….

“Helping each other became deadly. Healthy people assisting those in distress were infected and died like cattle….

“The effects of the plague became even more severe because of the crowding of Athens with Athenians from the villages of Attica. They had no homes but lived in huts, which became stifling in the hot summer. The death rate was high, the dead would fall over other dead in the streets and temples…. This plague, and the chaos it brought about, sparked lawlessness in the city. Infected Athenians broke the law and stopped worshipping the gods. Nothing made any difference to those who were dying or on the verge of death” (2.47-53).

Almost 400 years later, the Roman poet Lucretius returned to the plague of Athens.

Lucretius lived in the first century BCE. His poem on the universe praised science to heavens. Itsummarized in Latin verse the Atomic Theory of fifth century Greek natural philosophers Demokritos and Leukippos. They taught that everything in the universe is made up of atoms and empty space. However, Lucretius extracted atomic physics not from Demokritos but from Epikouros, a Greek natural philosopher of the fourth century BCE.

Epikouros blended atomic physics with the virtues of science, the wise conduct of life, and the elimination of superstition. He included the enjoyment of pleasure and happiness with the study and understanding of nature and doing good. The gods did not disappear, but stayed out of human affairs. Epicureanism became popular among Greeks and Romans.

Why would Lucretius go to the plague of Athens? He was an ambitious man with command of Latin and Greek and access to Thucydides. His ambition was to explain the nature of the cosmos, including the nature of disease. So what better way than paraphrasing Thucydides? He might also have had other sources that complemented Thucydides. We don’t know. But we know Lucretius had read widely in Greek literature, probably including Hippokrates.

Lucretius says there are good and bad atoms. Bad atoms cause disease and death. They do that by upsetting the balance of the atmosphere: the air becomes infected: plague comes in the form of clouds and mists, including heavy rains in hot sunlight. Infected air sows disorder. We breathe this air from a tainted atmosphere and, necessarily, we suck in the plague.

This “fatal tide of pestilence” wrecked Athens. The disease, Lucretius says, came from Egypt and dropped on the Athenians who “began to surrender, battalions at a time, to sickness and death.” Once a man fell ill, “he lost heart and lay in despair as though under sentence of death. In expectation of death, he gave up his life there and then.” The “contagion of the insatiable pestilence… heaped death on death” (On the Nature of the Universe, tr. R. E. Latham, 6.1089-1239).

By the time of Lucretius, medicine was on its way downward. Galen, a Greek physician of the second century and a polymath genius, put temporary brakes to the decline of medicine. Like Hippokrates, he thought heat and moisture cause chaos in the atmosphere, with the result of plagues triggered by the disorder of the seasons, whereby violent storms clash with burning heat (Mixtures 1.529-532).

A Bad Time for Humanity

After Galen, humans afflicted by plagues dug into religious superstition and suffered massive death.

In the sixth century, rat flees from Egypt spread a plague to Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (medieval Greece). From Constantinople, the pestilence reached East and West, killing in the next 50 years something like 25 to 100 million people.

The 1347-1350 plague was a pandemic of Black Death carried by ships from the Black Sea carrying goods to Messina, Sicily. The pestilence spread to Europe where, in five years, killed 20 million people.

Giovanni Bocaccio, an ardent Renaissance scholar, was caught in the spreading plague in Florence. The year was 1348. He left the city for a village where, in a spacious house and in the company of a few friends, spent ten days telling light and serious stories to each other. We know about this from his popular book, Decameron (Ten Days).

Boccaccio says the plague killed people in the streets of Florence and in their homes. Neighbors discovered dead people next door from the stench of rotting corpses. The fear of Black Death was so intense that brother abandoned brother and parents run away from their children. Society was disintegrating.

Barbara Tuchman, a historian and author of A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, writing in 1978 under the equally black clouds of the calamitous cold war of nuclear bombs, saw the Black Death as “the most lethal disaster in recorded history.” She said the first 50 years of the fourteenth century leading to the bubonic plague of 1347-1350 were “violent, tormented, bewildered, suffering and disintegrating.” This was in fact the distant mirror of our times.

The Black Death lasted for three centuries, killing 138 million, culminating in the London pestilence of 1665, which killed about 100,000.

Nevertheless, Black Death did not change Europe. Industrialization and the enclosures of land grabbing from the peasants or indigenous people proceeded at neck-breaking speed in Europe and European colonies in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Cities became fountains of coal-burning satanic mills for child labor and crushing poverty and inequality.

During the middle of the nineteenth century, in 1855, another plague hit the world. This pandemic started in Yunnan, China. It lasted until 1895 and  spread to Hong Kong and Guangzhou province.

During the pandemic in Hong Kong, in 1894, Alexander Yersin discovered the plague bacteria, known after him as Yersinia pestis. In time, those plague bacteria reached the rest of the world, killing about 12 million people.

The WWI influenza pandemic, 1918-1920, was another proof of the disorder of the seasons, why war of vast scale had vast consequences. The warriors, chemical warfare, and the canons of 1914-1918 had decimated huge territories of all life. Nature was striking back. The plague continued the pain and death of the war in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas: infecting 500 million people and killing 50 million.

Bush Meat

Finally, late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, gave birth to virus pandemics of the Ebola and the SARS – severe acute respiratory syndrome – variety. These are plagues transmitted by fruit-eating tree bats and cave horseshoe bats. These bats did not seek humans, but humans sought to eat them.

I remember visiting Nigeria in the late 1990s as an observer to an election. We spent time in Abuja, capital of the country built at the center of Nigeria. We stayed at the Abuja-Hilton where, the daily diet included, among numerous luxurious foods, “bush meats.” I asked the chef what kind of food was hiding in the bush meat, and he only smiled. I did not touch bush meat or meat from domesticate animals. But this bush meat – in hungry Africa or affluent China — is one of the sources of plagues.

Another plague factory is the animal farm where hundreds and thousands of animals are locked very close to each other. This animal farm contributes to the violence of climate change, and much more.

It is the twentieth-century satanic mill for millions of cattle, chicken and pigs. It breeds disease. Feeding these animals corn and soybeans mixed with antibiotic drugs is a temporary and desperate measure of irresponsible and immoral agribusiness. It’s another version of bush meat waiting to implode and explode.

The current pestilence could become another Black Death. Yet we pretend we know all about viruses, but we are woefully ignorant and apathetic to the orgies of destruction taking place out there, in the places of birds, fish, and wildlife, sometimes in our names and the national interest.

Billionaires and corporations, with the blessings of governments, have been annihilating the natural world, the sole source of life. In fact, their capitalism and state communism economies of the survival of the fittest are institutionalizing the disorder of the seasons, causing plagues through the back door of climate change.

Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D., studied history and biology at the University of Illinois; earned his Ph.D. in Greek and European history at the University of Wisconsin; did postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard. He worked on Capitol Hill and the US EPA; taught at several universities and authored several books, including The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise.