Historians Now Think An Ebola-Type Plague Nearly Wiped Out Athens, And The Details Are Horrifying

There have been countless historic disease outbreaks, but some are better known than others. Diseases like the bubonic plague are ubiquitous, but most people forget about medieval sweating sickness, and few remember the dancing plague of the 16th century. Some of the worst diseases in history killed off the majority of people who came into contact with them, so facts about ancient diseases are obscure, and much of what we know today is based on speculation. 

Take for example the Plague of Athens, an unidentified disease that killed tens of thousands of Greeks in the fifth century BCE. Some people believe that the plague was actually the Ebola virus, which has opened up a new line of inquiry into the mysterious disease that caused painful hemorrhages, fevers, aches, pains, and often death.


  • At First, The Disease Caused Pain, Fever, And Misery
    Photo: William Blake / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    At First, The Disease Caused Pain, Fever, And Misery

    When writing The History of the Peloponnesian War, Greek historian Thucydides took time to describe plague-sufferers' symptoms. The mysterious disease broke out in 430 BCE, and Thucydides noted that initial symptoms included:

    a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath. These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. When it fixed in the stomach, it upset it; and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress.

    From there, things only get worse. In most cases, victims experienced:

    an ineffectual retching... producing violent spasms, which in some cases ceased soon after, in others much later. Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor pale in its appearance, but reddish, livid, and breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But internally it burned so that the patient could not bear to have on him clothing or linen even of the very lightest description; or indeed to be otherwise than stark naked. What they would have liked best would have been to throw themselves into cold water; as indeed was done by some of the neglected sick, who plunged into the rain-tanks in their agonies of unquenchable thirst; though it made no difference whether they drank little or much.

  • Surviving The Disease Only Led To More Suffering

    In his writings, Thucydides indicates that if a person survived the first series of symptoms — which usually ran their course in about seven or eight days — they were in for some major internal upheaval. As the disease continued to ravage the body, it "descended further into the bowels, inducing a violent ulceration there accompanied by severe diarrhoea, this brought on a weakness which was generally fatal."

    If, by chance, someone was strong enough to live through all of this, the disease left its victims with long-term damage. Many sufferers lost fingers, toes, and "privy parts," and some experienced memory loss. The only silver lining was that surviving the disease left some victims immune, and "the same man was never attacked twice — never at least fatally."

  • The Disease Sparked Fear, Hedonism, And A City Full Of Bodies

    There was much confusion regarding the cause of the disease, so victims had difficulty finding help. Sick people were afraid to leave their houses, and those who ventured out into the world had few places to go. Athenians turned their backs on Athenians, as caregivers were just as likely to die as the people they tried to nurse back to health. The only people who could safely provide aid were survivors, as they were potentially immune from contracting the disease a second time.

    Faced with a rash of meaningless death, some Athenians fell into states of existential crisis and turned their backs on the gods. Men began spending money on frivolities, partaking in excess, and prioritizing pleasure. Surrounded by apocalyptic chaos, many people didn't expect to be held accountable for their behavior, in this world or the next. 

    Bodies were everywhere; a constant reminder of the mass suffering afflicting Athens's citizens. Temples were full, unburied bodies littered the streets (the Ancient Greeks believed that proper burial was required to pass on to the next world), and religious ceremonies were abandoned as corpses were thrown into mass graves or burned on pyres. The disease was so horrible that even the city's birds disappeared, as they were either unwilling to peck at the bodies of fallen Athenians, or dead from having eaten infected flesh. 

  • The Disease Quickly Killed About A Third Of Athens's Population

    The death count of the mysterious disease that ravaged Athens beginning in 430 BCE varies, but historians believe that as many as 75,000 to 100,000 peoples' lives were claimed by the plague. In the fifth century BCE, the Athenian population was between 250,000 and 300,000, which suggests that anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of Athenians perished.

    No social class was safe (peasants were just as likely to die as noblemen), and the outbreak wasn't isolated to Athens. Thucydides states that the disease came from Ethiopia, and ravished Egypt, as well as other parts of Greece. Athens was hit particularly hard, perhaps due to the city's insularity during the early years of the Peloponnesian War. When war broke out between Sparta and Athens in 431 BCE, Athens closed its city walls and abandoned citizens living in the surrounding countryside, so as to better repel the city's adversaries. Cut off from the outside world, the overcrowded urban space was a prime breeding ground for disease. 

  • The Disease Killed Pericles, The Athenian General, Politician, And Patron
    Photo: Philipp Foltz / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The Disease Killed Pericles, The Athenian General, Politician, And Patron

    Pericles (495-429 BCE) was the son of Xanthippus, a well-to-do Athenian, but little is known about his life prior to 470 BCE. In the preceding decades, Pericles fought for Athens, was eventually elected strategos (or "general" in English), and became the de facto leader of Athens after eliminating his political rivals. 

    Pericles distinguished himself as a statesman in Athens, although the creation of the Delian League (which was formed after the second Persian War) sparked great tension between Athens and the other Greek city-states. Tempers flared when Pericles dipped into the League's treasury to fund the construction of the Acropolis of Athens, and Athens was eventually forced to wage war with Sparta. Athens's allies did not believe the city should have total control over the League and its resources, so they attacked in the interest of liberating "Greece from Athenian oppression." 

    Pericles was in charge of Athens's defensive tactics during the early years of the Peloponnesian War. However, when the plague struck the city, even he wasn't immune. In 429 BCE, "the plague seized Pericles, not with sharp and violent fits, as it did others that had it, but with a dull and lingering distemper, attended with various changes and alterations, leisurely, by little and little, wasting the strength of his body, and undermining the noble faculties of his soul." He died surrounded by friends who spoke "of the greatness of his merit, and his power."

  • The Death Of Pericles Was The Beginning Of The End For Athens
    Photo: Alonzo Chappel / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The Death Of Pericles Was The Beginning Of The End For Athens

    After Pericles died in 429 BCE, Athens never recovered from the loss of their great leader, according to Plutarch. The first century CE philosopher and educator described life in post-Pericles Athens, saying:

    The course of public affairs after his death produced a quick and speedy sense of the loss of Pericles. Those who, while he lived, resented his great authority, as that which eclipsed themselves, presently after his quitting the stage, making trial of other orators and demagogues, readily acknowledged that there never had been in nature such a disposition as his was, more moderate and reasonable in the height of that state he took upon him, or more grave and impressive in the mildness which he used.

    The loss of Pericles forced Athens to abandon its defensive tactics in the Peloponnesian War, which led to their defeat. Athens fell under the control of tyrants, and while there were attempts to return to democracy, all democratic endeavors eventually failed.