Athens, London and the Plague

Ben Walter
History doesn't necessarily repeat itself. However, history instructs us on what can happen; it lets us see the triumphs and catastrophes that civilizations are capable of. The downfalls of great nations illustrate what our own culture must avoid. As Covid-19 looms over the two-thousand and twentieth year of grace, we should take a moment to look at the societal impact of pandemics in history. I've chosen two opposite examples for our glance backwards in time: Athens in 431 B.C. and England in 1665 A.D.
Athens reached the height of its power in 432BC. This city of 250,000 people had just built the Parthenon, the greatest combination of architectural and artistic splendor ever created. Unlike great civilizations that had come before it, citizens, not an emperor, ruled Athens in a purely democratic system of government. In 431 B.C., just a year after Phidias polished off the Parthenon's Pediment, war broke out with Athens' rival city-state, Sparta. Sparta was militaristic, philistine, and communistic. Athens was eager to demonstrate the superiority of its navy, a high-tech fleet manned by free men. Everything was pointing to a short war in which Athens would re-establish its democratic empire over the Mediterranean.
Then the plague struck.
The Greek historian Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, writes about the impact of the plague on Athens in 430BC. It is too long to quote entirely, but here are some selections.
First, the plague was novel. He writes, "...there was no previous record of so great a pestilence and destruction of human life. The doctors were unable to cope, since they were treating the disease for the first time..."
Second, the plague sparked conspiracy theory among Athenians. He writes, "It struck the city of Athens suddenly. People ... actually alleged that the enemy Spartans had put poison in the wells ... Everyone, whether doctor or layman, may say from his own experience what the origin of it is likely to have been, and what causes he thinks had the power to bring about so great a change."
(Thucydides then gives a graphic account of the horrific effects of the plague, which seems to resemble the worst symptoms of Covid-19 and Ebola, combined.)
Third, the plague marked a breakdown of the self-governing society that had made Athens great. He continues, "...The plague marked the beginning of a decline to greater lawlessness in the city. People were more willing to dare to do things which they would not previously have admitted to enjoying...No fear of the gods or law of men had any restraining power..." (accessed from
The horrific death toll of the plague, along with the Athenian response to it, was the "beginning of the end" for Athens, which suffered from societal breakdown, incompetent leadership, and a protracted war with Sparta that ended in military disaster in 405BC. Though it remained an intellectual capital, Athens never regained its former glory.
Let's now compare the impact that plague had on Athenian society with that of 17th century England. Although plague struck England every fifteen years from the 14th to 17th centuries, the nation gained political independence and grew in economic wealth, personal freedom, and religious diversity. Each outbreak, however deadly, was a short and temporary setback rather than a crushing blow to the burgeoning nation. Most importantly, there was no terminal collapse of public morals and trust as had occurred in Athens.
Stuart England knew its classical history. Scholars, clergy, and merchants—they had a classical education and understood the rise and fall of ancient empires—all realized that history presents possibilities for the future. They had read Thucydides and were aware of the dangers beyond mortality that the plague might bring.
Stuart England was also intensely religious. The Reformation in England and subsequent religious divisions and rivalries had invested people in the choice of religion. Being a Christian was no longer a chance by birth, but a decision of conviction. There was a widespread cultural engagement in practical piety and avoiding the sins that beset other great civilizations: sloth, pride, and greed. In such a cultural milieu, the result of the devastatingly deadly plague of 1665 in England did not decimate society's morale.
While a significant portion of London's population fled to more rural and isolated residences, large numbers of poor people, clergy, and pious tradesmen stayed. Through the worst times, they kept basic economies alive, tended for the sick and buried the dead.
During this time, sermons frequently reflected on Psalm 91.
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.[a]
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust.”
Surely he will save you
    from the fowler’s snare
    and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
    nor the plague that destroys at midday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
    ten thousand at your right hand,
    but it will not come near you.
The narrator of Daniel Defoe's semi-fictional novel A Journal of the Plague Year (based in London during the 1665 outbreak) wrestles with the interpretation of Psalm 91. He wishes neither to delude himself that he can't get sick because of his faith, nor give in to fear and flee London with everyone else. He at last decides to quarantine at home with his family, showing pious pragmatism (or courageous prudence).
A non-fictional example of courage in 1665 took place in the little village of Eyam. When a flea-infested delivery of cloth arrived, the town was forced with a difficult ethical dilemma: leave the town and spread the plague or stay put and die. The Puritan rectors Montpesson and Stanley were able to convince the entire town to quarantine within a small radius marked by boundary stones. Although two hundred seventy-three people died in a town of five hundred, the neighboring villages were spared through their sacrifice.
Times of widespread hardship reveal the fundamental positions that we hold. The questions "What is the purpose of life?" and "How can one live well? " are not merely theoretical; they determine how we act when push comes to shove. The overwhelming cultural consensus of 17th England was that this life was not the last. How one died (and how one acted before death) made a difference in the state of one's eternal soul. Plague did not cripple 17th century London as it had crippled classical Athens.
How will we, our families, and our society choose to act during this pandemic?

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