This is how an epidemic changed the course of war and the greatest ancient cities collapsed

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Source: Arabic.Net – Taha Abdel Nasser Ramadan

While preparing to confront the city of Isparta with the Peloponnesian War, a new enemy came to Athens from the side of the port of Piraeus, storming the city and, within a short period of time, resulted in a large number of casualties, including Pericles, one of the greatest historical leaders of Athens.

This enemy was only a plague, and it was hit by the then famous Greek historian Thucydides, who managed to survive after great suffering, to note later the conditions of Athena during the illness period, and chronicles the course of the Peloponnesian War that lasted between 431 and 404 BC.

Oil painting embodying the epidemic of Athens by painter Michael Swartz
Oil painting embodying the epidemic of Athens by painter Michael Swartz

The disease recorded its appearance in Athens in 430 BC during the second years of the Peloponnesian War. And according to what the historian Thucydides reported, this epidemic arose in sub-Saharan Africa, in areas of southern Ethiopia, and moved from there to Egypt before it came to Athens through the port of Piraeus, on which the Athenians depended during the war with Sparta.

With the outbreak of battles, the Spartans and their allies possessed large numbers of soldiers and focused their efforts on the ground campaign. On the other hand, Athens possessed an important number of ships and sailors, preferring to withdraw behind the city walls, launch a naval campaign and attack the Spartan forces from the sea. Because of the withdrawal, a large number of residents crowded into the walls of Athens amid poor health conditions, facilitating the epidemic.

According to Thucydides, doctors were unable to diagnose and treat this disease, and they were the first victims of it because of friction with the infected. The Greek historian also talked about the patients suffering from a high fever that forced many of them to take off their clothes or shower in cold water, stressing their inability to sleep, the emergence of diarrhea cases among them, and the spread of ulcers on their bodies.

Also, Thucydides told that predators and birds of prey refuse to eat meat of disease victims because of the unpleasant odors emitted from them and talked about the survivors suffering from congenital anomalies after their recovery.

The epidemic re-emerged twice during the years 429 and 426 BC and resulted in the death of about 100,000 people, which is equivalent to one third of the population of Athens, whose population ranged between 250 and 300 thousand people at the time. Among the victims of this disease was the historical leader Pericles who led Athens, who in turn led the guerrilla pact during the Peloponnesian War. With the spread of the epidemic in Athens, the Spartans feared an infection, and they deliberately withdrew their forces and retreated to avoid friction with the sick Athena soldiers.

According to what Thucydides mentioned, the bodies were spread out in the streets, leaving many of them to rot in the streets due to the Athenians’ fear that the infection would spread to them if they approached them.

Newly remodeled bust from the skull of a 11-year-old girl named Martyz who was said to have died from the plague of Athenia some 2,500 years ago
Newly remodeled bust from the skull of a 11-year-old girl named Martyz who was said to have died from the plague of Athenia some 2,500 years ago

On the other hand, the number of volunteers did not hesitate to transport some of these bodies for burial with deep mass graves. Also, the Athenians refused to respect the laws that prevailed in their city as they intended for religious strife and accused their deities, led by the god Apollo, of standing by the side of the Spartans of war and spreading the epidemic in Athens to destroy them.

On the other hand, the Athenian temples were transformed into shelters for the homeless and fleeing the epidemic, where everyone settled as the disease reached their areas.

This epidemic that ravaged Athens contributed to the decline in the status of this city and the collapse of its society. It also greatly affected the future of the Peloponnesian War, which saw the victory of Sparta and its allies.

Athens and the territories under its influence in 450 BC
Athens and the territories under its influence in 450 BC

During the contemporary period, many contemporary scholars question the nature of this epidemic that appeared in 430 BC. According to the symptoms mentioned by Thucydides, some spoke of bubonic plague, while others differed between smallpox, measles, typhus, typhoid fever, and Ebola.







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