Plague of Athens

The Plague of Athens, Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652-1654

The Plague of Athens (Greek: Λοιμός των Αθηνών) was an epidemic that devastated the city-state of Athens in ancient Greece during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC) when an Athenian victory still seemed within reach. It is believed to have entered Athens through Piraeus, the city's port and sole source of food and supplies. Much of the eastern Mediterranean also saw outbreak of the disease, albeit with less impact.[1] The plague returned twice more, in 429 BC and in the winter of 427/426 BC. Some 30 pathogens have been suggested as causing the plague.[2]


Sparta and its allies, with the exception of Corinth, were almost exclusively land based powers, able to summon large land armies that were very nearly unbeatable. Under the direction of Pericles, the Athenians pursued a policy of retreat within the city walls of Athens, relying on Athenian maritime supremacy for supply while the superior Athenian navy harassed Spartan troop movements. Unfortunately the strategy also resulted in adding many people from the countryside to an already well-populated city, introducing a severe crowding factor as well as resource shortages. Due to the close quarters and poor hygiene exhibited at that time Athens became a breeding ground for disease and many citizens died including Pericles, his wife, and his sons Paralus and Xanthippus. In the history of epidemics the 'Plague' of Athens is remarkable for its one-sided affliction and bias on the ultimate outcome of a war.

In his History of the Peloponnesian War the historian Thucydides, who was present and contracted the disease himself and survived,[3] describes the epidemic. He writes of a disease coming from Ethiopia and passing through Egypt and Libya into the Greek world—a plague so severe and deadly that no one could recall anywhere its like, and physicians ignorant of its nature not only were helpless but themselves died the fastest, having had the most contact with the sick. In overcrowded Athens, the disease killed an estimated 25% of the population. The sight of the burning funeral pyres of Athens caused the Spartans to withdraw their troops being unwilling to risk contact with the diseased enemy. Many of Athens' infantry and expert seamen died, as well as their general Pericles. After the death of Pericles, Athens was led by a succession of leaders Thucydides described as incompetent or weak. According to Thucydides, not until 415 BC had Athens recovered sufficiently to mount a major offensive, the disastrous Sicilian Expedition.

Other Languages
español: Plaga de Atenas
français: Peste d'Athènes
italiano: Peste di Atene
português: Peste de Atenas
Simple English: Plague of Athens
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Atenska kuga