THE PLAGUE AT ATHENS
 DURING the period after the Persian war two great powers arose in Greece, which were destined to come into close and
virulent conflict. These were the league of Delos, which developed into the empire of Athens, and the
Peloponnesian confederacy, under the leadership of Sparta. The first of these was mainly an island empire, the
second a mainland league; the first a group of democratic, the second one of aristocratic, states; the first a
power with dominion over the seas, the second a power whose strength lay in its army. Such were the two rival
confederacies into which Greece gradually divided, and between which hostile sentiment grew stronger year after
It became apparent as the years went on that a struggle was coming for supremacy in Greece. Outbreaks of active
hostility between the rival powers from time to time took place. At length the situation grew so strained that
a general conflict began, that devastating Peloponnesian war which for nearly thirty years desolated Greece,
and which ended in the ruin of Athens, the home of poetry and art, and the supremacy of Sparta, the native
school of war. The first great conflict of the Hellenic people, the
 Persian war, had made Greece powerful and glorious. The second great conflict, the Peloponnesian war, brought
Greece to the verge of ruin, and destroyed that Athenian supremacy in which lay the true path of progress for
that fair land.
In 431 B.C. the war broke out. Sparta and her allies declared war against Athens on the ground that that city
was growing too great and grasping, and an army marched from the Peloponnesus northward to invade the Attic
state. Meanwhile the Athenians, under the shrewd advice of Pericles, adopted a wise policy. It was with her
fleet that Athens had defeated Persia, and her wise statesman advised that she should devote herself to the
dominion of the sea, and leave to Sparta that of the land. Their walls would protect her people, their ships
would bring them food from afar, they were not a fair match for Sparta on land, and could safely leave to that
city of warriors the temporary dominion of Attic soil.
This advice was taken. When the Spartan army came near Attica all its people left their fields and homes and
sought refuge, as once before, within the walls of their capacious capital city. Over the Attic plain marched
the invaders, destroying the summer crops, burning the farmers' homesteads, yet recoiling in helpless rage
before those strong walls behind which lay the whole population of the state. From the city, as we know, long
and high walls stretched away to the sea and invested the seaport town of Pirĉus, within whose harbor lay the
powerful Athenian fleet. And in the treasury of the city
 rested an abundant supply of money,—the sinews of war,—with whose aid food and supplies could be brought from
over the seas. In vain, then, did Sparta ravage the fields of Attica. The people of that desolated realm defied
them from behind their city walls.
When winter came the invaders retired and the farmers went back to their fields. In the spring they ploughed
and sowed as of yore, and watched in hope the growing crops. But with the summer the Spartans came again, to
destroy their hopes of a harvest, and the country people once more fled for safety to their great city's
It was a strange spectacle, that of a powerful invading army wreaking their wrath year after year on deserted
fields, and gnashing their teeth in impotent rage before lofty and well-defended walls and ramparts, behind
which lay their foes, little the worse for all that their malice could perform.
Athens felt secure, and laughed her enemy to scorn. Unhappily for her, a new enemy was at hand, against whom
the mightiest walls were of no avail. Sparta gained an unthought-of ally, and death stalked at large in the
Athenian streets, silent and implacable, without clash of weapon or shout of war, yet more fatal and merciless
than would have been the strongest army in the field.
Athens was crowded. The country people filled all available space. There was little attention to drainage or
sanitary regulations. An open invitation was given to pestilence, and the invited enemy came. For some years
before the plague had been
 at its deadly work in Egypt and Libya, and in parts of Persian Asia. Then it made its appearance in some of the
Grecian islands. Finally its wings of destruction were folded over Athens, and it settled down in terrific form
upon that devoted city.
The seeds of death found there fertile soil. Families were crowded together in close cabins and temporary
shelters, to which they had been driven in multitudes from their ravaged fields. The plague first appeared in
mid-April in the Pirĉus,—brought, perhaps, by merchant-ships,—but soon spread to Athens, and as the heat of
summer came on the inhabitants of that thronged city fell victim to it in appalling multitudes.
The plague, they called it. The disease seems to have been something like the smallpox, though not quite the
same. Its victims were seized suddenly, suffered the greatest agonies, and most of them died on the seventh or
the ninth day. Even when the patients recovered, some had lost their memory, others the use of their eyes,
hands, feet, or some other member of the body. No remedy could be found. The physicians died as rapidly as
their patients. As for the charms and incantations which many used, we can scarcely imagine that they saved any
lives. Some said that their enemies had poisoned the water-cisterns, others that the gods were angry, and vain
processions were made to the temples, to implore the mercy of the deities.
When nothing availed to stay the pestilence, Athens fell into deep despondency and despair. The sick lost
courage, and lay down inertly to await
 death. Those who waited on the sick were themselves stricken down, and so great grew the terror that the
patients were deserted and left to die alone. Fortunately the disease rarely attacked any one twice, and those
who had been sick and recovered became the only nurses of the new victims of the disease.
So dread became the pestilence that the dead and the dying lay everywhere, in houses and streets, and even in
the temples; half-dead sufferers gathered around the springs, tortured by violent thirst; the very dogs that
meddled with the corpses died of the disease; vultures and other carrion birds avoided the city as if by
instinct. Many bodies were burnt or buried with unseemly haste, many doubtless left to fester where they lay.
Misery, terror, despair, overwhelmed all within the walls, while the foe without drew back in equal terror,
lest the pestilence should leap the walls and assail them in their camps.
Nor have we yet told all. Other evils followed that of the plague. Law was forgotten, morality ignored. Men
hesitated not at crime or the indulgence of evil passions, having no fear of punishment. Many gave themselves
up to riot and luxurious living, with the hope of snatching an interval of enjoyment before yielding to death.
The story we here tell is no new one. It has been realized again and again in the flight of the centuries, when
pestilence has made its home in some crowded city. Human nature is everywhere the same, and the bonds of law
and morality are loosened when death stalks abroad.
 For two years this dread calamity continued to desolate Athens. Then, after a period of a year and a half, it
came again, and raged for another year as furiously as before. The losses were frightful. Of the armed men of
the state nearly five thousand were swept away. Of the poorer people the loss was beyond computation. Nothing
the human enemy was capable of could have done so much to ruin Athens as this frightful visitation, and to the
end of the war that city felt its weakening effects.
But perhaps the greatest of the losses of Athens was the death of Pericles. In him Athens lost its wisest man
and ablest statesman. The strong hand which had so long held the rudder of the state was gone, and the
subsequent misfortunes of Athens were due more to the loss of this wise counsellor than to the efforts of her