Athens and Sparta, the two most prominent powers in Greece, were already struggling to coexist years before the Greco-Persian Wars ended around 449-448 BCE. After the Greek forces delivered a significant defeat to the Persian Navy at Salamis in 480 BCE, followed quickly by an impressive victory over the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BCE, the cities of Athens and Sparta were cemented as proud and prestigious leaders of the Hellenistic world. Gravitating to the powerful states, the cities of Greece divided themselves between leagues led by the two rival powers. Most cities encircling the Aegean Sea aligned themselves with the sea power of Athens, eventually becoming subordinated into an Athenian empire. Similarly, the city-states in the Peloponnesus (with the exception of Argos) banded together under the leadership of mighty Sparta in the Peloponnesian League.
As early as 460 BCE, while the Greco-Persian War was still ongoing, Athens and Sparta began to fight in skirmishes and battles. A peace treaty technically halted the open conflict, but Athens and Sparta continued to undermine each other’s interests in proxy wars between neutral states and league allies. Nevertheless, a full open war between Athens and Sparta was successfully delayed for decades, until 431 BCE, the year in which the Great Peloponnesian War began.
Sparta and its allies declared war on Athens in 431 BCE, claiming that the Athenians had broken the peace treaty by attacking Spartan allies and affiliates. Thebes (on the Spartan side) opened up the conflict by launching a failed attack on Plataea, an ally of Athens. During the first few years of the Peloponnesian War, both sides were sizing each other up, not knowing how to best employ their resources and manpower. In the year 431, the militaries on both sides of the conflict performed relatively poorly. King Archidamus II of Sparta led a Peloponnesian coalition into Athenian-controlled Attica to raid the countryside, while their enemies took shelter behind the walls of Athens. The Peloponnesians stayed in Attica for as long as their supplies could support their army (less than a year), then they simply marched home. In a similar move, the Athenians sent a fleet to raid the Peloponnesian coast. The fleet made gains in some locations, but was repelled in others. Eventually, the ships rerouted to meet up with a huge Athenian army that was raiding near the city of Megara. After reuniting and pillaging the countryside for a time, the Athenians withdrew home to Athens before the year’s end.
In 430 BCE, both sides of the war again prepared for more pillaging and raiding. King Archidamus II led a second army of Peloponnesians into Attica to ravage the countryside, and the Athenians released another fleet to prowl the Peloponnesian coastline. This time, however, the Peloponnesians would have an unexpected biological ally—a plague. According to the Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE), the plague originated somewhere in Ethiopia and traveled first through Egypt and then through Persia to wreck havoc on the city of Athens. Thucydides, an Athenian military leader and historian, had the displeasure of personally experiencing the deadly plague. He even caught the illness, himself, but thankfully he survived to write his famous text, the History of the Peloponnesian War.
The city of Athens in 430 BCE was exceptionally susceptible to disease. Refugees from vulnerable regions of Attica had poured into Athens, quickly overpopulating the city. The newcomers had to live in huts and shanties that were poorly ventilated and generally unclean. Those who could not live in simple huts found shelter in local temples, but even those sacred spaces would eventually be filled with the dead and dying.
Thucydides described the symptoms of the plague in great detail—to the extent that critics call his account overly dramatic. Nevertheless, his words paint a decent picture of what the Athenian population faced. He wrote that symptoms of the plague first affected the head and, over the course of seven-to-eight days, the effects spread downward through the rest of the body, usually resulting in death. The first signs were red, irritated eyes and a foul-smelling, bleeding mouth and throat. This was combined with sneezing and a rough voice, which could lead to an inability to speak. As the plague spread down into the torso, the patient also suffered from persistent fits of coughing and abdominal pain. The stomach and intestines were also affected, causing vomiting and diarrhea. Other miscellaneous symptoms mentioned by Thucydides included the onset of an insatiable thirst, restless anxiety, insomnia, the appearance of pustules and a painful sensitivity to touch. The plague led to a staggering death toll in Athens—anywhere from 25%-66% of the Athenian population lost their lives to the sickness.
In Thucydides’ opinion, the most tragic observation that he made during the plague was the breakdown of law, order and morality. He wrote that a palpable gloom of morbid and fatalistic emotion descended on Athens. As more and more people thought their death was nigh, they began to take whatever pleasure, wealth or revenge they wanted, regardless of the consequences.
Even though the plague did enormous damage to Athens, the Athenians recovered with enough strength to keep the war going for nearly three decades, and they often appeared to be on the winning side. Nevertheless, after the war had expanded all the way to Sicily, the Athenian navy was finally defeated in several key sea battles, the last being the Battle of Aegospotami in 405 BCE, in which the Spartans captured most of the Athenian fleet. The next year, Athens surrendered to the Peloponnesians.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (The Plague at Ashdod, by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
- History of the Peloponnesian War (Book II) by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.