The Plague of Athens - 430 BC

The Plague of Athens

During the Golden Age of Greece in the 5th century BC, a major disease struck which brought Greek society a severe challenge. The epidemic originated in sub-Saharan Africa, just south of Ethiopia. The deadly illness made its way through Libya and Egypt, into Persia and Greece.

The Peloponnesian war (431-404 BC), fought between Athens and Sparta, began one year prior to the epidemic. The Spartans were almost exclusively a land based power and could summon large armies. The Athenians retreated behind city walls and hoped to keep the Spartan supply lines choked off with their superior navy. This strategy unfortunately also added many people from the countryside into the city. As a result, Athens became a breeding ground for disease. This is the primary reason that Athens was most severely affected by the plague.

Port of Piraeus Port of Piraeus

The plague reached Athens in 430 BC through the city's port of Piraeus. It would persist throughout scattered parts of Greece and the eastern Mediterranean until finally dying out in 426 BC.

The Greek historian Thucydides recorded the outbreak in his monumental work, History of the Peloponnesian War. This was the first time that the details of a pandemic were recorded and analyzed. He recorded that the ones who became sick were those who had been in close contact with others who were already sick. He is therefore the first to record his belief that proximity of people was related to the spread of disease. This is the primary method that we are currently using to fight the spread of the pandemic our world is currently experiencing. Thucydides' ideas were the first step in learning how to respond to the spread of disease.

Thucydides provides a detailed description of the symptoms for those who contracted the plague:

Violent heats in the head; redness and inflammation of the eyes; throat and tongue quickly suffused with blood; breath became unnatural and fetid; sneezing and hoarseness; violent cough’ vomiting; retching; violent convulsions; the body externally not so hot to the touch, nor yet pale; a livid color inkling to red; breaking out in pustules and ulcers.

He further describes patients as having intense fever and "tormented by an unceasing thirst." Many died within 7 to 9 days of the onset of symptoms. If the patient survived past this initial period, they then suffered from "violent ulceration" and severe diarrhea. Those who ultimately survived the disease still suffered from disfigurement of fingers, blindness, and memory loss. However, they were then imuned to the plague and thus became the primary caretakers of those who were still suffering, regardless of their prior profession.


Hippocrates, considered the father of Western medicine, was 30 years old when plague struck Greece. He received a letter from an Athenean named Pericles, describing the plague and asking for his help. At the same time he also received a letter from Artaxerxes, King of Persia, asking for similar help. Without hesitation he set off for Athens, remarking that his first duty was to the people of Greece.

He worked bravely in both leadership and in patient care, helping to restore many who were suffering. Although many thousands died, the survivors knew that they owed Hippocrates their lives. The people of Athens gave him a golden crown and saw him as a fellow Athenian from then on.

Effects on Society

The pandemic caused severe moral panic to spread throughout Greek society, especially in Athens. Respect for the rule of law was greatly diminished, as most people feared they were already living with a death sentence over their heads. They began to spend all of their resources without any regard for the future. The Greek society, health, and economy all began to break down from this new pandemic. Thucydides describes the societal consequences:

"The catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.”

The Cause of the Epidemic

Many theories exist as to what disease affected the ancient world at this time. Conclusions range from bacterial infections, poisoning of water, and small pox. According to a 1999 study by the University of Maryland, the most likely cause of the plague is typhus. Causes of the epidemic are difficult to conclude because there is so little written on the subject outside of the writings of Thucydides.

The plague returned twice more, in 429 BC and in the winter of 427/426 BC. It is estimated that it killed 100,000 people within three years, 25% of the Athenian population at the time.

Athens would ultimately be defeated by Sparta, and fall from being a major power in Ancient Greece. However, the Greek Golden Age would continue for over 100 years after the plague. Greek civilization would continue to make substantial advancements, such as the water mill, invented by Philo of Byzantium around 250 BC.

Originally published
Researched and Written by: Thomas Acreman

  A Chronicle of Pestilence and Plagues by

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The Plague of Athens - 430 BC

  • joseph
    Interesting article! I'm curious, what were the sources about Hippocrates and his communications with Athens and Persia in regard to the plague?

  • Wake
    Thank you! Hippocrates' own writings on this subject have been translated into English. Wesley D. Smith has some good modern English translations:

    Artaxerxes sends a letter to Hippocrates begging for help: "the renown of whose techne has reached even to me, as much gold as he wants, and anything else that he lacks in abundance, and send him to me"
    Hippocrates replies:
    "Tell the King I have sufficient food, clothing, and shelter, and all the necessities that I require for life, and that I have no wish for Persian wealth or to save foreigners from disease, since they are enemies of the Greeks."

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