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Will we go the way of the Athenians?

By Ad astra

As COVID-19 spreads relentlessly throughout the world, bringing with it the most devastating death toll that anyone alive can remember, people the world over are asking: How will it all end?

With confirmed cases worldwide numbering almost 2.5 million, and deaths over 170,000 and rising, with the economic consequences biting savagely, and the prospect of this catastrophe lasting many months if not years, the end is uncertain. Whatever it might be, it is terrifying even for the most sanguine. The only statistic of comfort is that 646,000 have recovered.

At times of uncertainty there have been precedents from which lessons might be learned. I invite you to read an instructive article dated March 23, 2020 from The Atlantic: What the Great Plague of Athens Can Teach Us Now which carries the subtitle: Disease changed the course of the war, and shaped the peace that came afterward, planting the seeds that would destroy Athenian democracy, by Katherine Kelaidis, Resident Scholar at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago.

For those of you who might find it tedious to read through this rather long article, I offer you some abstracts that might entice you.

It begins:

This is not the right time for a pandemic. Not that there is a right time for a pandemic, but some times are definitely the wrong one. And no time is worse than when a nation is already in crisis, when trust in its leaders and itself is already low, and at a time when international relations are strained and internal strife widespread. Basically, if the social and moral fibre of a society is already being tested, the widespread fear of death at the hands of an invisible killer makes everything exponentially worse. Fortunately, history offers us a number of examples of when a plague arrived at the wrong time.

And none of these examples is better than the Great Plague of Athens. This deadly epidemic swept through the city in 430 B.C., the second year of the Peloponnesian War, claiming perhaps 100,000 lives and revealing in stark contrast the fissures and fractures in Athenian life and politics. The disease, largely believed by modern scholars to have been either typhus or typhoid, even killed the great Athenian general and statesman Pericles, his wife, and their sons, Paralus and Xanthippus. It was a disaster of epic proportions that altered not only the Peloponnesian War, but the whole of Greek, and consequently world, history. While the war would not end for nearly 26 years after the first wave of sickness, there is little doubt that the Great Plague changed the course of the war (being at least in part responsible for Athens’s defeat) and significantly shaped the peace that came afterward, planting the seeds that would weaken and then destroy Athenian democracy.

Already you will be sensing the parallels between the Great Plague of Athens and the current Global Plague of COVID-19. Here is some more from the article:

The best ancient account of the Great Plague, as for all of the Peloponnesian War, can be found in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides was an Athenian general exiled from Athens after being blamed for a disastrous defeat. In exile, he was able to travel freely in a way few could at the time, and so provides a unique firsthand account of this tumultuous period. He also fell victim to the Plague, though managed to survive, making his narration of the disease’s symptoms and sensations not only reliable, but quite visceral. Thucydides has been called the “father of political realism,” and his assessment of the Plague and its consequences bears out the honour. As few others have before or since, Thucydides understood the ways in which fear and self-interest, when they are submitted to, guide individual motives, and consequently the fate of nations.

Thus, in his account of the Great Plague, Thucydides looks frankly at the practical and moral weaknesses that the disease was able to exploit. He sharply notes how crowding in Athens, along with inadequate housing and sanitation, helped the disease spread more quickly and added to the number of casualties. He is aware that a lack of attention to important public health and safety measures allowed the Plague to take root and made its effects much worse than they would have otherwise been. A stark lesson for us all.

But Thucydides is not concerned just with the ways in which poor urban planning caused the deaths of thousands of his countrymen. He is as much a moral critic as a political one. In his narration of the Plague’s devastation, he takes careful tally of instances of selflessness and courage, and those of selfishness and cowardice. It is clear that, for Thucydides at least, the death and suffering of a great epidemic (just like war) test the moral health of individuals and of societies. And a people who are not morally strong, when they become afraid, quickly slip into lawlessness and sacrilege: “For the violence of the calamity was such that men, not knowing where to turn, grew reckless of all law, human and divine.” What is also clear is that Thucydides does not think this collapse into immorality is simply a result of the Plague; rather, “Men who had hitherto concealed what they took pleasure in, now grew bolder.” To paraphrase Michelle Obama, ”Pandemics don’t make your character; they reveal your character.”

This is the danger for us all, here and now. As it was for Athens, so could it be for us. And the consequences could not be greater.

Here’s where you can access the whole article.

I’ll leave it to you to respond individually to this terrifying tale.

This article was originally published on The Political Sword

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  1. RosemaryJ36

    Greatest number of deaths other than in wars?

  2. New England Cocky

    Hmmm ….. seems to pre-date “Lord of the Flies” by a few years and yet recognises the same behaviours.

    But why the despair when Scummo and the Happy Clapper Band of Misfits are there to lead us all in prayers and hallelujahs to scare away the nasty little COVID-19 virus particles. Why even Donnie Trumpery is saying that we must get out, go about and infect everybody we can so that the USA (United States of Apartheid) can lead the world in the number of infections, the number of deaths and the profiteering of personal protection equipment.

    Yep!! The USA should be afraid today because control of this pandemic is rapidly passing out of the capability of their government, such as it is.

    Now what was that about the Wuhan Military Games?

  3. wam

    ad astra per aspera was my school motto.
    with the reverence in which I hold you, I felt it odd that my mind shot to the dibley council meeting where the great storm and the great freeze but pretty obviously that was due to ignorance and reliance on my ‘suppository’ of knowledge.
    After a few seconds of scanning I would, pretty disgustingly prefer the great plague of athens over covid 19 where the former world put smirko et al 6 foot under and the latter puts the pricks on a 6 foot pedestal.
    it could have been labor now, thanks booby, my political life began with menzies’ marching on the spot and now ending with a religious wrecking ball. who relies on the truth of his ignorance

  4. Jack Cade


    I disliked Menzies, the ace draft dodger. And I deplored his politics. But he didn’t retire a multimillionaire from graft and corruption, and the only arse he kissed was Betty B’s.

  5. New England Cocky

    @Jack Cade: Yep!! Ming was a life long apologist for the Gothe Saxe Coberg German royal monarchy (aka Windsor after 1916 to pacify the English peasants who were being slaughtered on an industrial scale by the incompetent English High Command in WWI).

    After retirement from Austrian politics, Ming, aka Pig Iron Bob, received the Royal redundant position of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports (or was that Lord Warden for sinking ports?) in recognition of his willingness but inability to control Churchill during WWII. Indeed, at that time Ming was chucked out of government when he proposed sending Australian troops to Europe rather than defend Australia against the approaching Japanese.

    Perhaps his “best trick” was resigning his Australian Army commission on the first day of WWI. (Yes, I have read his military file).

  6. Phil Pryor

    Bitter and twisted, twitter and bisted, that’s us over certain reminiscences, and slightly faulty recalls. Menzies family had sent a son and wanted Bob to remain.., who can say? As for his later career, it is so amusing that Bob’s friends and colleagues hated him enough to get rid of him in 1941. But he was drenched in imperial sentiment and wanted to rise on merit to be establishment material, even scheming to be a kind of war imperial dominion prime minister. ( he was barely 10% of Smuts and some others). Bob would eventually take anything to rise from Jeparit born nonentiy, through brilliant legal career, on through establishment Melbourne society, to possible Great Man a la Lloyd George (only a bloody solicitor, like Jack Howard my old classmate.) and into the books they all crave, where others might believe their self seducing fantasies. The British Royals are now about the longest running, largest, parasitical blot on society…Menzies set a pattern of attractive precedence to misfits, as Jack Howard and A Abbott, the Manly Masturbator, have yearned to be super similar… yet our dogshit deficient dummies and dickheads in office are superior to the Orange Orifice overseas…

  7. Geoff Andrews

    Rosemary J36
    You are right to question that assertion.
    Apparently there were 745 influenza deaths in Australia in 2017. and that about this time of the year there were already over 400 deaths. It’s probably still more dangerous to go for a drive.
    But how good is capitalism? The oil producers are paying $40 a barrel for people to take the bloody (oops!) stuff off their hands and petrol at my local service station is just over 80 cents a litre. It will be so interested to see if NASA’s co2 readings around the world are affected.

  8. Ad Astra

    Thank you for your complimentary remarks. My school motto was ‘sic itur ad astra’, thus my nom de plume.

  9. Bruce

    From the WHO: “Lower respiratory infections remained the most deadly communicable disease, causing 3.0 million deaths worldwide in 2016”. There is some way to go to crack that record. Wouldn’t it be nice if not one more person died of COVID-19? We could put this thing to bed and go back to normal.

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