Thucydides – History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 2, Chapter 7 – Second Year of the War—The Plague of Athens—Position and Policy of Pericles—Fall of Potidaea

  1. The next summer, the Spartans & allies sent 2/3 of their forces to invade Attica under Archidamus. They laid waste to the countryside. Just as this force began the invasion, a plague struck Athens. It’s said that it had come in from Lemnos. This plague was like no other that anyone else had heard of. Doctors were of no use as they didn’t know how to deal with it & often they got sick themselves from tending to the sick. Supplications & divinations didn’t work either.
  2. The plague is said to have come from Ethiopia, made its way through Egypt & Libya. Suddenly it showed up in Piraeus & then in Athens. Some said that the Peloponnesians poisoned their water supply but there were no wells in Piraeus. I’ll go into the symptoms.
  3. Before it had arrived, there had been seeming no sickness & it appears to have come out from nowhere. Healthy people suddenly got fevers, redness & inflammation of the eyes, insides, throat & tongues, sometimes bleeding & with a terrible smell. Others symptoms were sneezing, hoarseness, pains in the chest & coughing. Retching & spasms followed. Externally, the body wasn’t hot or pale, but there were red postules & ulcers. Internally, the plague burned so hotly that the victim couldn’t wear any clothes. Some tried to dunk themselves in cold water to no avail. They were unable to sleep. But the body didn’t waste away immediately. But after a week or so, they succumbed to the internal inflammation. However, they did have some strength. After this point, the disease reached the bowels causing ulceration & diarrhea, at which point it became fatal. The disease started in the head & worked its way throughout the body.
  4. The plague baffled everyone & its effects were devastating. In fact, any animal who tried eating those who died of the plague also died, best seen in the case of dogs.
  5. Apart from this “distemper”, all other disorders disappeared. Some of those affected, either died from neglect or in the middle of case. It didn’t matter if you were of a strong or weak constitution, you died either way. Despair about the disease did seem to cause the affected to become easier prey. Many people died from attending to the sick. Many houses were emptied of their residents because they had no one to care for them. However dead it way, honor made people look after their friends & family. Some people even survived later tended to those who were sick, emboldening them to help in the care of others.
  6. What made this worse was the influx of all the new people. Most of the people who’d come in had no home, family or friends in the city. They lived in make-shift cabins but the dead were piled up around the city. Funeral rites weren’t done as they’d ordinarily be done because of the great number of dead. People threw their dead on other dead people’s funeral pyres to be rid of their expenses & dead bodies.
  7. This wasn’t the only lawlessness due to the plague. People saw formerly prosperous men dying without anyone to inherit their property. So people decided to spend the money they had be enjoying themselves while they were alive. Perseverance in things thought to be honorable now disappeared. Fear of the gods & the law didn’t work to restrain people. They saw that following the law or the gods’ will or not resulted in the same way. No one expected to be punished for their crimes. In fact, they felt they had already had a sentence put on them.
  8. The sickness & death weighed on Athenians. An old saying that a Dorian war would be followed by death may have meant “dearth” instead. The Spartans had asked the Oracle if they should go to war. The Oracle responded that if they put everything into it, they’d win & he’d be with them. The plague broke out as soon as the Spartans invaded.
  9. After ravaging the plain, the Peloponnesians moved into the Paralian region, near Laurium, where the Athenian silver mines were> Pericles held on to his plan not be drawn out into a fight because of the pillaging.
  10. While the Peloponnesians were in the plain, he had 100 ships prepared to go to the Peloponnese. He put on board 4000 infantry & 300 cavalry. 50 Chian & Lesbian ships joined them. The Peloponnesians were still in Attica while the Athenians were in Troezen, Halieis, Hermione & Prasiai destroying the place. Afterwards the Athenians went home.
  11. The plague affected both the people in the army & in Athens. It was said that the Peloponnesians’ departure was sped up because they saw the burials & heard from Athenian deserters that a plague was in Athens.
  12. Athenians Hagnon & Cleopompus took the army on an expedition to Thrace & Potidaea to fight the Chalcidians. They brought siege machines to help take Potidaea. The plague attacked them here too. The healthy troops caught it. Troops were only able to avoid the plague by not being around. Hagnon returned to Athens losing 1050 of 4000 in 40 days in the siege, mostly due to the plague.
  13. After the 2nd Peloponnesian invasion, the Athenian resolve was starting to crack. They had had their lands destroyed twice & the plague was affecting morale. They started to blame Pericles for everything going wrong for them & wanted to make peace with Sparta. They sent ambassadors without success. He saw their state & called an assembly to calm them down & build confidence. He spoke:
  14. “I’m not surprised at your anger but I don’t deserve the blame. I think this national suffering is being exploited by private citizens. A state can handle private misfortunes but individuals can’t bear the weight of public misfortunes. Since this is the case, the state may call upon you for its defenses. You’re so concerned with yourselves that you’ve forgotten about common safety. You blame me for pushing for war when you yourselves voted for it. I am the most knowledgeable on policy, with the best ability to expand it. I am a patriot & am honest. A man with knowledge but no ability to explain might as well know nothing. If he had knowledge & ability but no love for his country, he would just be a cold advocate for it. If his patriotism weren’t proof against bribery, everything could be had at a price. If I had only some of these qualities, I’d have no reason to be accused of doing wrong.
  15. “You are shrinking in front of the difficulties of war & you have no reason to be apprehensive about it result. We have a real advantage in our empire. The empire is not just our allies. Our field of action is on land & sea. We’re completely dominant at sea, not just now but in the future. Our ships can go where they want without fear of any danger from Sparta & its allies, or Persia. You may think the loss of land is a huge blow to us.
  16. Both land & houses are luxuries that can be easily be recovered. Our fathers go these through hard work & kept them by fighting for them. You have to prove yourselves to be their equals. Remember losing what you have is worse than being blocked in getting more. We can use our resources to maintain what we already have.
  17. “Athens has the right to ask you for your help to maintain its glories. These are a source of pride for you. You can’t enjoy the benefits of an empire without bearing the burden of maintaining it. We aren’t just fighting against slavery & for independence but the loss of our empire & the damages from the loss. We can’t go back now. You say that maybe it wasn’t right to have gotten it in the first place but it’d be wrong to let it go. Men who spread these ideas around will ruin Athens. Those who retire & are unambitious can never be secure without someone else protecting them. This attitude leads to servitude.
  18. “Don’t listen to people like these. We’ve seen the enemy invade & destroy the countryside & you know what they’ll do when you refuse to comply with his demands. The plague is not my doing. If you blame me for that, you’ll have to credit me with every bit of good luck. If Athens has its great name, it’s because it has never bent its knee when a disaster strikes. We’ve put more in war than any other place & we have this great city & empire to show for it. If your decline is written out already, we must say, we’ve held rule over more Greeks than anyone ever at any time. Hatred & unpopularity are inevitable in such cases. But with these comes a sort of wisdom. Hatred wears off but glory is forever. We must decide for glory & honor. We must be energetic & persistent. Let’s not send to Sparta for a deal. Those least sensitive to calamity & those whose hands are quickest to meet it are the greatest men & greatest communities.”
  19. Those words were how Pericles tried to get the Athenians off his back & get their minds off their present problems. They stopped thinking of appealing to the Spartans & started concentrating on how to win the war. The poor people lost what little they had but the rich lost so much because the war. Once he’d been fined, public sentiment against him cooled off & the reelected him their leader, because they saw him as an excellent leader who knew how to lead them. He was elected during the truce & had a fairly moderate & conservative policy. But once the war had started, he really had his finger on the pulse of the country. He only lived 2 ½ years into the war. His policy was ignore Spartan campaigns & focus on using the navy. They were not to augment the empire with the new conquests or expose the city to any dangers. But after his death, the leaders did the opposite, following private ambitions & interests, leading them into things destructive to the empire. These projects would have only resulted in private success on public detriment. During his time, Pericles exercised independent control, never overstepping his legal power. He never flattened the people & from time to time, contradicted them. When they needed to be admonished, he did so. If they panicked, he’d try to calm them. After him, there were many blunders, especially a buildup of the enemy in Sicily. Many allies abandoned Athens, & the Persian King’s son, Cyrus, even funded a Peloponnesian navy.
  20. That summer, the Spartans sent 100 ships to Zacynthus, an island off the coast of Elis in alliance with Athens. They had 1000 infantry on board & ravaged the countryside without the locals submitting to them, so they left for home.
  21. Peloponnesian envoys went on their way to talk to the Persian king about supplying them with money. They came upon Sitacles & tried to tempt him to betray the Athenians & march to Potidaea & relieve them in the siege of their city. They also wanted passage across the Hellespont. But they caught Sitacles when the Athenian ambassador was there. They were seized & sent down to Athens. The Athenians didn’t want to imprison them for fear they’d escape somehow, so they killed them without trial or defense. The Spartans would’ve done the same.
  22. Also that summer, Ambraciot forces moved on Amphilocian Argos. This city was a colony set up by Argives after the Trojan War in the Ambracian Guld in Amphilocia. They joined up with their neighbors, the Ambraciots. After a while, the Ambraciots kicked out the Amphilocians. The Amphilocians went to the Acarnanians who sent them the Athenian general, Phormio, who took the city & enslaved the Ambraciots. Afterwards, the Acarnanians & the Athenians formed an alliance. They marched into Argive territory & conquered the countryside but had no luck in taking the city, & so, went home.
  23. That winter, Athens sent 20 ships to the Peloponnese under Phormio who stationed himself at Naupactus to survey ingress & egress near Corinth. Others went to Caria & Lycia to give their tribute & prevent Peloponnesian privateers from setting up shop. Melesander went into the country there & died in battle with many troops.
  24. At this point, Potidaea could no longer maintain life under siege. The Peloponnesians couldn’t provide any relief to them. There was no food left & people had to resort to cannibalism. They began to ponder surrender. They offered to leave for free passage out of the city to the Chalcidice. The Athenians were upset with their own generals for accepting these terms. They sent up colonists to settle the city.

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