COVID Through the Eyes of Historians:
I have been thinking a lot lately about Thucydides’ account of the plague that struck Athens in 430 BCE, in book 2 of his History of the Peloponnesian War (2.47-54). As it happened, this was one of the readings on the syllabus of my Greek history course for the week after spring break, which made it one of the first things that I got to teach online when the University moved classes to remote instruction. Even without the eerie coincidence, I imagine I would have gone back to reread this passage anyway, as it is a great touchstone of how history helps us to make sense of events like the COVID-19 crisis we are experiencing today.
For good or bad, Thucydides’ influence on how we think about catastrophic disease reveals itself everywhere in the media coverage of the current health crisis, from the interest in the origins of spread of the virus (Thucydides’ plague emerged in then-distant Ethiopia) to the detailed but somewhat shifting accounts of the symptoms of the disease as it ravages the body. Scholars who question Thucydides’ commitment to historical accuracy tend to make a big deal about the inability of modern medical specialists to identify Thucydides’ plague on the basis of his description of it, but it certainly is unreasonable to expect him to have produced a differential diagnosis in the way that doctors do today. In fact, the current situation has made it abundantly clear how difficult it can be to obtain accurate information in the midst of a crisis, not to mention the importance of genuine expertise for distinguishing facts from misinformation.
Grisly symptoms aside, Thucydides’ most important contribution as a historian lies in his efforts to frame the plague itself within the context of larger shifts in attitudes and behavior. Following a discussion of how the burden of dealing with an overwhelming number of corpses led to violations of traditional mortuary practices, Thucydides goes on to argue that the experience of this plague marked the beginning of generalized lawlessness in Athens. He paints a grim portrait of a society succumbing to nihilism as common decency gives way in the face of omnipresent death and the uncertainties of fortune.
This does not make for easy reading, to be sure, and there have been times in the last two months when I struggle to get past Thucydides’ pessimism. What I try to keep in mind is the fact that he was formulating these views from a vantage of considerable hindsight. For Thucydides, the plague served as the prelude to an even darker history, marking the onset of a brutal and destructive war in which the Athenians would do many horrible things in an ill-fated attempt to hold on to their empire. But unlike Thucydides, we do not yet know what the future holds. The past is not the present, and while it seems inevitable that this pandemic will mark an important “inflection point” in history, it is still up to us to determine how we will respond.