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.
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."
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."
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 corpes 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 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.