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‘Civilization is a very thin veneer’: What the plague of Athens can teach us about dealing with COVID-19

Sunday, June 28th, 2020

The painting by artist Michael Sweerts, circa 1652, represents the plague of Athens. The disease struck Athens in 430 BC, killing by some estimates up to half its population. Historian Thucydides was on hand to document the grim events and aftermath. (Wikmedia)

Back in 430 BC, a plague gripped Athens, killing by some estimates up to half the Greek city’s population.

The chronicler Thucydides meticulously recorded the physical symptoms of the gruesome disease in a few pages of his tome about the Peloponnesian War fought in ancient Greece between Athens and Sparta.

“Suddenly, people who were previously healthy were affected by sensations of violent fever in the head and a redness and inflammation of the eyes,” wrote Thucydides, who got the plague himself but survived. “Internally, both the throat and the tongue immediately became bloody and emitted an unnatural and foul-smelling breath.

“At the next stage, the victims suffered an onset of sneezing and hoarseness, and soon afterwards, the affliction went to the chest, accompanied by violent coughing; when it took hold in the stomach, it caused severe upset, and every kind of bile that had been named by physicians was discharged.”

Besides describing the agonizing symptoms, Thucydides also detailed the psychological and social breakdown of a society — lessons scholars and experts say still echo today as individuals and societies cope with the novel coronavirus.

Click here to read the full story originally published by CBC Radio’s Ideas.

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