Plagues follow bad leadership in ancient Greek tales
12, 2020 8.05am EDT
Professor of Classical Studies, Brandeis University
Joel Christensen does not work for, consult, own shares in or
receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this
article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic
Brandeis University provides
funding as a member of The Conversation US.
In the fifth century B.C., the
playwright Sophocles begins “Oedipus Tyrannos” with the title character
struggling to identify the cause of a plague striking his city, Thebes.
(Spoiler alert: It’s his own bad leadership.)
As someone who writes about early
Greek poetry, I spend a lot of time thinking about why its performance was so
crucial to ancient life. One answer is that epic and tragedy helped ancient
storytellers and audiences try to make sense of human suffering.
From this perspective, plagues
functioned as a setup for an even more crucial theme in ancient myth: a
leader’s intelligence. At the beginning of the “Iliad,” for instance, the
prophet Calchas – who knows the cause of a nine-day plague – is
praised as someone “who knows what is, what will be and what happened before.”
This language anticipates a chief
criticism of Homer’s legendary King Agamemnon: He does not know “the before and
The epics remind their audiences that
leaders need to be able to plan for the future based on what has happened in
the past. They need to understand cause and effect. What caused the plague?
Could it have been prevented?
Zeus, the head Greek god, who lamented humans’ tendency to bring
suffering upon themselves. Carole Raddato/Flickr, CC BY-SA
Myths help their audiences understand
the causes of things. As narrative theorists like Mark Turner and
specialists in memory like Charles Fernyhough emphasize, people learn
how to behave from stories and concepts of cause and effect in childhood. The
linear sequence of before, now and after communicates the relationships between
things and how we, as human beings, understand our own responsibility in the
Plague stories provide settings where
fate pushes human organization to the limit. Human leaders are almost always
crucial to the causal sequence, as Zeus observes in Homer’s “Odyssey,” saying,
as I’ve translated it, “Humans are always blaming the gods for their suffering
/ but they experience pain beyond their fate because of their own
The problems humans create go beyond
just plagues: The poet Hesiod writes that the top Greek god, Zeus, showed his
disapproval for bad leaders by burdening them with military failures as
well as pandemics. The consequences of human failings are a refrain in the
ancient critique of leaders, with or without plagues: The “Iliad,” for
instance, describes rulers who “ruin their people through recklessness.” The
“Odyssey” phrases it as “bad shepherds ruin their flocks.”
A plague in Athens. J. Fittler after M. Sweerts/Wellcome
Images/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY
Plagues were common in the ancient
world, but not all of them were blamed on leaders. Like other natural
disasters, they were frequently blamed on the gods.
But historians, like Polybius in the
second century B.C. and Livy in the first century B.C., also frequently recount
epidemics striking armies and people in swamps or cities with poor sanitation.
Philosophers and physicians also searched for rational approaches – blaming
the climate, or pollution.
When the historian Thucydides recounts
how a plague with alleged origins in Ethiopia hit Athens in 430 B.C., he vividly
describes patients suffering a sudden high fever, shortness of breath and an
array of sickly discharges. Those who survived the sickness had endured such
delirious fevers that they might have no memory of it all.
Athens as a state was unprepared to
meet the challenge of that plague. Thucydides describes the futility of any
human response: Appeals to the gods and the work of doctors – who died in
droves – were equally useless. The disease wreaked havoc because the
Athenians were massed within the city walls to wait out the Spartan armies
during the Peloponnesian War.
Yet despite the plague’s terrible
nature, Thucydides insists that the worst part was the despair people felt from
fear and the “horror of human beings dying like sheep.”
Sick people died of neglect, of the
lack of proper shelter and of disease spreading from improper burials in an
unprepared and overcrowded city, followed by looting and lawlessness.
Athens, set up as a fortress against
its enemies, brought ruin upon itself.
The Spartan general Lysander orders the walls of Athens
be destroyed, as part of the Athenian capitulation to Sparta. The Illustrated History of the
Making sense out of human flaws
Left out of plague accounts are the
names of the multitudes who died in them. Homer, Sophocles and Thucydides tell
us that masses died. But plagues in ancient narratives are usually the
beginning, not the end of the story. A plague didn’t stop the Trojan War,
prevent Oedipus’ sons from waging civil war or give the Athenians enough
reasons to make peace.
For years after the ravages of the
plague, Athens still suffered from in-fighting, toxic politics and selfish
leaders. Popular politics led to the disastrous Sicilian Expedition of
415 B.C., killing thousands of Athenians – but still Athens survived.
A decade later, the Athenians again
broke into civil factions and eventually prosecuted their own generals after a
naval victory in 406 B.C. at Arginusae. In 404 B.C., after a siege, Sparta
defeated Athens. But, as we learn from Greek myth, it was – again – really
Athens’ leaders and people who defeated themselves.