By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Britain Prime Minister Boris Johnson has long admired the Greek leader Pericles, BBC News reported. Johnson is well-versed in Greek history and writings and even has a bust of Pericles in his office. When Athens faced disease as the world does now, results were mixed.
Athenian democracy had its ups and downs, but Britain Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a stern reverence of its culture. “His political hero has long been the ancient Athenian leader, Pericles, whose bust sits in his office at 10 Downing Street,” the BBC News article said. “The prime minister has often quoted admiringly the stirring oration given by Pericles to honour the dead after the first year of a destructive war against Sparta. And he will be well aware that Pericles gave a second famous speech a year later, after a devastating plague, probably a form of typhus, had killed around one-third of Athens’ citizens.”
The world is currently fighting against a new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and Johnson—who has recently recovered from the virus himself—will likely look to Athens. However, he may do so not for guidance, but as a cautionary tale.
Athens and the Plague
Athenian historian Thucydides recounted a terrible plague striking Athens in the year 430 B.C.
“He begins by saying that there have been many such occurrences elsewhere at various times, but that no plague was ever like this one,” said Dr. Robert S. J. Garland, the Roy D. and Margaret B. Wooster Professor of the Classics at Colgate University. “He tells us that so many people died of the plague that the living were no longer adequate to conduct proper ceremonies on behalf of the dead. Sanctuaries became full of dead bodies, some threw their dead on funeral pyres and set light to them before anyone could stop them, others tossed their dead on already burning pyres.”
Dr. Garland said that the most striking takeaway Thucydides intended for his readers was “how far standards of morality had declined.” To Thucydides, the Greeks gave up on honor entirely and many abandoned the gods they worshiped, now believing worship to be pointless.
Governmental Impotency in Times of Illness
“Thucydides says nothing about any publicly orchestrated response to this horrific event,” Dr. Garland said. “He doesn’t suggest that the authorities stepped in and took charge, as our government would do at a time of crisis. There was simply no mechanism for dealing with a crisis of this magnitude and no provisions available, medical or otherwise.
“People were left to get on with it by themselves.”
The Athenian government isn’t quite as clearly at fault for its complete lack of action in the face of a disease epidemic as elected officials would be today. Their primitive understandings of anatomy and medicine and inability to communicate rapidly across great distances offer two examples of this.
However, another lesson that Prime Minister Boris Johnson could keep in mind is that of what wartime mentality does to a nation. By the time the plague hit Athens, the Greeks had been at war for a year with Sparta, and Thucydides seems to imply the toll the war took on the people’s values, which may have led to some of the chaos.
“The fault of society’s response should not be laid at the door of democracy, even though it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that Thucydides is making the point that the ideals of Athens that Pericles espoused couldn’t sustain themselves under the pressure of war,” Dr. Garland said. “It’s one of his central lessons, and it’s one that will never cease to be relevant: War corrupts and brutalizes, and the longer it goes on, the more and more it corrupts and brutalizes.”
Dr. Robert S. J. Garland contributed to this article. Dr. Garland is the Roy D. and Margaret B. Wooster Professor of the Classics at Colgate University. He earned his B.A. in Classics from Manchester University, his M.A. in Classics from McMaster University, and his Ph.D. in Ancient History from University College London.