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 honor. 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.
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 truly the danger, then, both for Athens and for us. And the consequences could not be greater. There is an argument, and a rather good one at that, that Athenian democracy was the great casualty of the Peloponnesian War. After Athens surrendered, a pro-Spartan oligarchy, known as the Thirty Tyrants, took control of the city. Though they were later ejected in a coup lead by Thrasybulus (a pro-democracy veteran of the Peloponnesian War who did not accept that the defeat of Athens meant the end of its democracy), Athenian democracy would never again recover its self-confidence and flirted with its own demise. This was the Athens that executed Socrates (whose own relationship with democracy and democratic principles was complicated). It was also the world in which Plato would write The Republic, the political treatise that became the template for totalitarianism for millennia. And when the end did eventually come for democracy in Athens, it was through the conquest of the Macedonian King Alexander (the Great, if you are curious), and Athens had provided him with his tutor, Aristotle, a man who had transmitted to his royal pupil his own anxieties around the excesses of democracy, particularly those born as a result of moral shortcomings among the people.