Ancient History & Civilisation


War and Pestilence [433-430 B.C.]

Here is the rock that strands me now:
With one side or the other it must come to war.
That’s as sure as a ship’s hull pegged tight.
Nowhere do I see safe, untroubled harborage.


ON A LATE SUMMER MORNING, AS WORK ON THE PARTHENON was drawing to completion, a squadron of ten fast triremes rowed out of the Piraeus bound for the west of Greece. Though small, the squadron was top-heavy with brass, as it carried no fewer than three Athenian generals. One was Lacedaemonius, the son of Cimon and grandson of Miltiades, victor of Marathon. With him were the generals Proteas and Diotimus, the latter of whom had visited in the course of his travels both the court of the Great King in the east and the Bay of Naples in the west. No practical military purpose could be served by putting three generals in command of ten ships. Their mission was not to make war but to prevent it.

As the little squadron pursued its course around the Peloponnese, Lacedaemonius and his colleagues had ample time to reflect on the difficulties that lay ahead. In their direst imaginings, however, they could never have predicted that their expedition to the island of Corcyra would renew dormant hostilities with the Spartans and ultimately embroil Athens in the most destructive of all its conflicts, the Peloponnesian War.

Pericles had just turned sixty, and Athens’ maritime empire was basking in peace and prosperity. A seemingly insignificant cloud had appeared on the horizon a couple of years earlier, when a war blew up between Corcyra and Corinth. Athenian steersmen knew Corcyra well: its harbors were the last stations in Greek waters for ships bound northward into the Adriatic Sea or westward to Italy. Almost from the time the Corinthians established a colony on Corcyra, many generations earlier, the islanders had been at odds with their mother city. The earliest known naval battle in Greek history had in fact been fought between these two antagonists, and the Corcyraeans had won. That battle was now ancient history, but disputes between mother city and colony had flared up once more in the days of the Persian Wars. Themistocles himself was called upon to act as arbitrator.

Now hostilities had erupted again. Faced with the prospect of contending against not only the Corinthians but also other maritime cities of the Spartan alliance, the stiff-necked and friendless Corcyraeans unbent from their policy of isolation and asked the Athenians to accept them as allies. When the Corinthians got wind of the Corcyraean embassy, they sent envoys of their own to Athens. The deputation from Corinth urged the Assembly to turn down the Corcyraean alliance and adhere to the spirit of the Thirty Years’ Peace. After the first day of debate the Assembly seemed ready to reject any involvement in this distant conflict. Afterward, talking over the question with friends and families, the Athenians began to envision the advantages of an alliance with Corcyra. That night many dreamed of extending their empire westward to Italy and Sicily or even into the realms of the Etruscans and Carthaginians.

Next morning the citizens climbed up to the Pnyx in a changed mood. They consented to a purely defensive alliance, promising to aid Corcyra in the event of an enemy attack on the island. The Assembly then voted to send a squadron of ten triremes to Corcyra. Three Athenian generals would act as observers of the conflict, and their presence would remind the Corinthians that the island was now an Athenian ally. Under no circumstances were they to launch an attack on Corinthians. Only if Corinthian ships attempted to land on Corcyra were the Athenian generals authorized to use force.

At Corcyra the three Athenian generals found that their new allies had assembled a fleet of 110 triremes. After some twenty days of suspense, messengers brought word that a large enemy fleet was approaching from the Gulf of Corinth. At once the Corcyraeans and Athenians launched their ships and moved southward to meet it. They planned to face the enemy in the opening of the gulf that divided the southern cape of Corcyra from the mainland, a wide and troubled stretch of water where the currents running up the coast met the winds that blew down the channel. The ten Athenian ships took up a position supporting the Corcyraean right wing at the southernmost tip of the island, where an expanse of shoals made navigation hazardous. To their left the line of Corcyraean triremes stretched away toward a pair of steep and rocky islets called the Sybota Islands.

Shortly after dawn triremes began to appear in the open sea to the south. The size of the enemy force was alarming. To their own ninety ships the Corinthians had been able to add sixty from their own allies and colonies. An army of barbarian warriors from tribes friendly to Corinth followed the fleet on the mainland shore. The lookouts on the Corinthian ships had no difficulty in picking out the Athenians, easily identified in the morning light by the gilded figures of Athena on their triremes. The Corinthians accordingly formed a battle line with their allies on the right wing, so that their own best ships would confront the Athenian “observers.” If they induced Lacedaemonius and the other Athenians to attack them, then the Thirty Years’ Peace could be considered broken. And if the Spartans could then be persuaded to make war on Athens with the full force of their Peloponnesian alliance, Athenian naval power would surely be humbled, leaving room for Corinth to recover its ancient position as mistress of the seas.

Except for the ten triremes from Athens, the ships on both sides were crowded with hoplites, archers, and javelin throwers. This use of galleys as mere floating platforms for soldiers struck the Athenians, holding aloof, as very primitive. They would see no sophisticated ramming maneuvers, no displays of skill from steersmen or rowers. As the two lines surged forward and collided, the ships became locked together in a great crush. The decks then became a floating battlefield. Amid a din of shouts and cheers the troops forged across onto the enemy ships that were caught alongside their own.

From their station the Athenians saw the Corcyraean triremes on the distant left wing making short work of the Megarians and the other allied contingents. After the first reverses most of the enemy ships broke free and fled south into the open sea. Nothing could prevent the jubilant Corcyraeans from abandoning their own line and giving chase. Discipline and tactical sense were thrown to the winds by these western Greeks, not giving a thought to the battle that still hung in the balance behind them.

On the other wing the fighting followed a different course, as the presence of the Athenian ships gave the advantage to the Corcyraeans. Initially the Athenians were able to keep the enemy at bay without actually striking a blow. As a Corinthian ship bore down on an opponent, one of the ten Athenian triremes would move up to threaten its flank. Frustrated and fearful, the Corinthians would veer off or back away from their targets. For all their skill and speed, however, the Athenians could not be everywhere at once. As the morning wore on, Corinthians beyond the reach of Athenian rams were able to engage and board Corcyraean triremes. Finding that their maneuvers no longer had any effect, the Athenian triremes were drawn one by one into actual contact. They made no more feints but now engaged in open attacks and hand-to-hand fighting. In the fury of battle, they forgot the Assembly’s orders and the dictates of prudence. As if the two cities were already at war, the ships from Athens began to ram those of Corinth.

Had the Corcyraean left wing maintained order and turned their attack on the Corinthians, they might have saved the day. By now they were far away, however, chasing their prizes. Worse, it soon became clear that the Athenians had waited until too late to help the right wing. All moral and strategic advantage lost, the Athenians had to break off their attacks and join the fleeing Corcyraeans in the dash to shore and safety. From there they watched helplessly as the Corinthians rowed back and forth among the wreckage, spearing most of the men struggling in the water or clinging to floating timbers. Only when the enemy had finished this killing did they take in tow the abandoned ships, pick up their own dead, and row away to a cove on the mainland, beyond the Sybota Islands.

It was now afternoon. The crews had been at the oars since before dawn, and the struggle on the decks had exhausted the fighting men. The Corcyraeans on the right wing had lost most of their triremes, and even with the return of the renegade left wing they were no match now for the enemy. So it was with consternation that they saw movement on the opposite shore. The Corinthians were putting out again, rowing up the channel to attack a second time. Evidently they meant to finish the job that the morning’s battle had begun: the complete destruction of Corcyraean naval power and the extinguishing of Athenian efforts to avoid all-out war. Doggedly the Corcyraeans and their Athenian allies, observers no longer, manned their ships once again and rowed out to face their attackers.

In the fading light the two lines approached each other, the Corinthian troops singing their paean as they rowed forward. Then the chant abruptly ceased. The Athenians awaited the attack. Yet after a short hesitation the Corinthians began to back away. Oars reversed, they retreated from the line of battle, keeping their rams toward the enemy as they moved off. The Athenians and Corcyraeans watched this strange maneuver, mystified, until their lookouts caught sight of the apparition that had motivated the Corinthian retreat. More triremes were coming up over the southern horizon, twenty in all: triremes of Athens, sent by the Assembly. Second thoughts had convinced the Athenians at home that the original squadron had been too small. Through a watery field of wreckage came these reinforcements, arriving at the end of their long voyage a few hours too late to rescue Athenian honor. Still, they had come in time to save the lives of their fellow citizens.

The next morning the remnant of the Corcyraean fleet and the squadron of Athenian ships, doubly shamed by the events of the day before, arrayed themselves in line of battle offshore from the Corinthian camp. The Corinthians launched their ships but did not advance, unwilling to attack a fleet that included even thirty Athenian ships in open water. Eventually the Athenians saw a small boat rowing across from the enemy line. When the boat was within hailing distance, a Corinthian on board called across to the Athenians, ignoring the Corcyraeans. He accused the Athenians of breaking the Thirty Years’ Peace and thus putting themselves in the wrong. The Corinthians, the herald claimed, were only chastising rebellious allies of their own. If the Athenians intended to block their way to Corcyra or anywhere else, and if they meant to break the peace, then they could start by seizing the Corinthians in the boat as their first prisoners.

The Corcyraeans all shouted to the Athenians to take the Corinthians and kill them. The Athenians were more moderate. They told the Corinthians to take their ships anywhere that they wished, so long as they left Corcyra alone. The Corinthians and their allies then rowed away to the south, confident that the Athenians would not risk a further breach of the treaty by attacking their rear. Corcyra had been preserved, but at a cost of seventy Corcyraean triremes, a thousand prisoners now in Corinthian hands, and thousands more killed in the fighting or drowned. As the Athenians made their way home through autumn seas, they could add two other casualties to the list: the military and political career of Cimon’s son Lacedaemonius, and the Thirty Years’ Peace itself, now gravely wounded but not quite dead.

The Corinthians lost no time in descending upon the leaders of their alliance, the Spartans, to accuse Athens of breaking the peace. The Corinthian cause attracted others. Megarians complained that Pericles had barred them from the harbors under Athenian control. Islanders from Aegina bemoaned their lost autonomy. There were even Macedonians among the throng, fearful of Athenian power in the north. That winter Sparta hummed with angry allies demanding that Athens be attacked and humbled.

When the Athenians heard the generals’ report on the battle of the Sybota Islands, they sent a peremptory order to the one and only Corinthian colony within their empire, the wealthy northern city of Potidaea. Though the Potidaeans had as yet done nothing wrong, the Athenians doubted their loyalty. To prevent the Corinthians from using Potidaea as a base, the Athenians ordered the Potidaeans to expel their Corinthian magistrates, pull down part of their fortifications, and send hostages to Athens. The Potidaeans delayed responding to the Athenian demands, while secretly they sent messages to Sparta, begging for aid.

On receiving a covert and unfounded assurance that the Spartans were prepared to invade Attica, the Potidaeans revolted openly from Athenian rule. Many neighboring cities followed their lead, creating a crisis for imperial Athens. Unmoved by these events, the Spartans took no action at all. A Corinthian force went by sea to defend its colony. Athens in turn sent fleet after fleet to recapture the city and the surrounding region. When the strong walls of Potidaea withstood their first attacks, the Athenians dispatched a fleet under the veteran general Phormio carrying sixteen hundred hoplites, the pick of Athens’ land forces, to join the siege.

Among the troops who went north with Phormio were two citizens very much in the public eye: Alcibiades and Socrates. Alcibiades, a young kinsman and ward of Pericles, was setting out on his first military campaign. Only eighteen, wild and handsome, Alcibiades had already become notorious for escapades that not even the sober Pericles could keep under control. The young man had inherited martial courage from his father, who had been killed in action under general Tolmides’ command, and political gifts from his mother, a great-niece of the lawgiver Cleisthenes. Alcibiades’ ungovernable passions, however, seemed to be very much his own. His rich horse-breeding clan must often have dealt with rogues among their herds. Now they had one in the house, eager to make himself master of the family and then perhaps of all Athens.

The philosopher Socrates, the constant companion of Alcibiades, was in his late thirties. He reminded Athenians irresistibly of a satyr, or the pot-bellied, snub-nosed, wine-imbibing companion of Dionysus called Silenus. A familiar figure in the Agora, Socrates was the first native Athenian to vie intellectually with the many foreign-born philosophers who had made Athens their home, from Anaxagoras with his primordial elements to Zeno with his paradoxes. Socrates’ father was a sculptor, his mother a midwife. Early training as a sculptor had given way to an interest in natural history. Now he bemused his fellow Athenians with theories about the origin of the sun and moon, and whether humans think with their blood. However rarefied his scientific pursuits, Socrates was a citizen of the hoplite class. When his name appeared on the call-up lists, it was his duty to appear bearing his arms and three days’ rations to join the expedition.

As the troop carriers rowed north, the air grew cold, but Socrates wore only one cloak as usual. He seemed oblivious to physical discomfort. Alcibiades, universally attracted and attractive, fixed on the imperturbable philosopher as his next amorous target. Socrates for his part was interested in the challenge of educating a youth who promised, more than Pericles’ own sons, to become a force—whether for good or evil—in the city’s future.

Phormio’s forces made a landfall nine miles south of Potidaea and advanced slowly toward the city, ravaging the farms in the countryside in the hope of provoking the citizens within the walls to come out and attack. When the Potidaeans declined the gambit, the Athenian troops launched a series of direct assaults. During one attempt to storm a defensive wall that ran from sea to sea across a narrow isthmus, Alcibiades battled alongside Socrates. At length he exposed himself so rashly that he was struck by an enemy missile and fell. The Athenian line moved on and left the pair exposed. Socrates stayed on guard, shielding the wounded Alcibiades till a rescue party reached them. After the battle Phormio awarded Alcibiades the coveted prize for valor: a complete bronze hoplite panoply. Socrates was eager in approving their general’s decision. Alcibiades just as eagerly insisted that by rights the prize belonged to Socrates.

While the Athenians in the north kept up their long and costly siege, Spartan envoys began to arrive in Athens. They declared that Athens had indeed broken the Thirty Years’ Peace and must be punished with war if they did not redress the wrongs they had done to the Peloponnesians. The Spartans had formulated three demands. First, the Athenians must end the siege of Potidaea, where Phormio and other commanders were attempting to starve the rebels into submission. Second, they must restore the autonomy of Aegina. Finally, they must rescind the notorious proclamation known as the Megarian Decree, which excluded citizens of Megara from the Agora and the harbors of the Athenian empire. If not, there would be war.

It was—initially, at any rate—a war of words. In response to the Spartan demands Pericles posed a series of awkward questions. Why had the Spartans not asked to submit their complaints to arbitration? Athens was willing. Why did the xenophobic Spartans not open their own borders to the Athenians? The Athenians would allow the Megarians into their harbors as soon as the Spartans ceased to exclude foreigners from their own territory. Finally, when would Sparta permit its allies to choose their own governments, even if the choice was for a democracy? Athens would agree to free its allies as soon as Sparta led the way.

Pericles assured the Athenians that as long as they maintained their rule of the sea, they held an insuperable advantage over the Spartans. The Athenians had gained experience of land fighting through amphibious naval operations. He predicted that the Spartans would find seamanship difficult to learn. After half a century of practice, the Athenians had still not entirely mastered the subject. How could Spartans make much progress? They were landsmen, not seafarers.

It remained for Pericles to calm Athenian concerns that the Spartans could defeat them by invading Attica. Here again the great statesman assured the Assembly that the navy would prove their salvation. His strategy evoked the vision of Themistocles. “Sea power is of enormous importance. Look at it this way. Suppose Athens were an island, would we not be absolutely secure from attack? As it is, we must try to think of ourselves as islanders; we must abandon our land and our houses, and safeguard the sea and the city.” With Athens linked to the sea by the Long Walls, and the navy ensuring that food and other supplies continued to reach the Athenians, no Spartan attack or siege could have any hope of succeeding.

The strategy that Pericles had devised was entirely based on the Athenian navy: its ability to control the seaways that brought food to Athens, and its power to keep the treasury full. He foresaw a war in which the Athenian army would never have to confront the Spartans on land, regardless of the temptations of honor and national pride. Instead, Pericles would voluntarily give up Attica and its farmlands to the invaders, just as Themistocles had once done. With the Peloponnese stripped of its troops, the Athenian fleet could attack the enemy’s coasts with impunity. Yes, there would be war, or something very like a war, but it would be a war without battles. The combatants would be locked in mutual hostilities without ever actually confronting each other. Soon the fire-breathing Spartans, balked of a decisive battle and worn down by seaborne raids, would sue for peace. Pericles’ strategy was as triumphantly scientific, as coolly calculated, as a mathematical formula or a medical prescription.

Young Athenians were eager for war, but Pericles’ strategy made no demands on their enthusiasm, courage, or willingness to die for their city. Those hot emotions belonged to hoplite warfare. They would be a positive danger to Athens in the coming war with the Peloponnesians. Pericles called instead for naval virtues: self-control, timing, and silence. As steersman of the ship of state, he would devote himself to the plotting of courses and balancing of odds. So long as the Athenians could resist the natural urge to defend their land, they might wage and win a war without risk, indeed almost without inconvenience. It was for this that they had built the Long Walls. Athens was now an island, fed by its fleet, and as long as it remained so it was unconquerable.

As for the Spartans, they had confidence in their army but were acutely conscious of their inferiority in naval matters. While their envoys were visiting Athens, they were sending other messages to their seafaring allies in Sicily and southern Italy. The Spartans appealed to these fellow Dorian Greeks for aid against the despised Ionians led by Athens. The wealthy westerners could surely spare some money for the cause. The Spartans also requested, with almost stupefying naïveté, that the Sicilian and Italian cities assemble a fleet of five hundred triremes for the coming war against Athens.

After two years of provocations and planning, neither great power was willing to initiate hostilities. The spark was finally touched off by one of Sparta’s hotheaded allies. The citizens of Thebes, a member of the Peloponnesian League, had long coveted the small but free city of Plataea, a loyal Athenian ally since before the Persian Wars. On a stormy night in early spring the Theban army launched a surprise attack. It failed to capture Plataea, but all parties recognized that the war had now begun. Just forty-nine years had passed since Xerxes’ invasion, when a common danger had brought Sparta and Athens together for the good of all Greeks. The war between these two former allies would prove far more destructive to Greece than any disasters inflicted by the Persians.

Following the strategy laid down by Pericles, the Athenians who lived in the villages and farms of Attica prepared for evacuation. Abandoning their own countryside, they shipped their livestock across the channel to Euboea, just as their ancestors had done almost fifty years before in the face of Xerxes’ invasion. This time, however, the people did not seek refuge across the water. At first they crowded into Athens itself, filling every available space except the sanctuaries. When that situation became intolerable, thousands of temporary dwellings were hastily constructed in the corridor between the Long Walls. These were allotted to the displaced population.

When the Peloponnesian army marched into Attica in early summer under the command of a Spartan king, Pericles prevented the Athenians from making any attempt to protect their farms and crops. Unopposed, the Peloponnesians fanned out across the deserted country, plundering and burning. Under the shock of seeing smoke rising from their fields, the people forgot all about the master plan. They turned on Pericles, blaming him for their losses. To keep their unreasoning anger from finding a vent, Pericles postponed all meetings of the Assembly. Democratic principles were thus sacrificed on the altars of two great gods: Expediency and Security.

In response to the Peloponnesian invasion by land, Pericles ordered the preparation of a large fleet to carry out reprisals on enemy territory. One hundred fast triremes were equipped, carrying a combined force of a thousand marines and four hundred archers. Leaving the scorched earth of Attica behind them, the fleet set out to capture enemy towns and raid enemy territory while the Peloponnesians were occupied in Attica, too far off to protect their own coasts.

Following the strategy that Tolmides had pursued with such success, the Athenians launched surprise attacks followed by speedy withdrawals, swooping down on undefended shores like birds of prey and departing almost as swiftly. When the fleet reached western waters, it was joined by fifty triremes from Corcyra, in accordance with the alliance. At the southwestern cape of the Peloponnese they attacked Methone and almost took the town. After squalls interrupted their assaults on Elis, the Athenians crossed over to northwestern Greece, capturing two cities and bringing the large wooded island of Cephallenia over to their alliance. Returning home, the expeditionary force found the Peloponnesian army gone and the Athenian army invading the territory of Megara in reprisal for the invasion of Attica.

During the war’s first year Athenian triremes were also operating in home waters. One hundred of them were patrolling the seas around Attica. Another fleet attacked Aegina. The Athenians landed, forced the Aeginetans into exile, and distributed the island’s territory among settlers from Athens. Thirty triremes were cruising the seas around Euboea to guard Athenian livestock and other property from privateers. Before the summer was over, they set up a small naval station on an islet called Atalante. From there the campaign against piracy could be kept up throughout the year.

Now that the war seemed certain to last for two or even three years, the Athenians took additional steps to secure their territory. Guard stations were created at strategic sites around the coast of Attica. One thousand talents were set aside on the Acropolis as a reserve, to be used only in the event of an enemy attack on the city by sea. Any proposal to expend these funds for a different purpose would be punishable by death. In addition to the reserve of silver, the Athenians voted to set aside one hundred of their best triremes every year and appoint one hundred trierarchs to keep them ready.



Over the winter Athenian shipwrights began work on a new project in the Navy Yard. They selected ten old triremes and converted each one into a hippagogos or horse carrier. To make the change, the interior of the trireme’s hull had to be altered. The carpenters dismantled the rowing seats of the lower two tiers of oarsmen and sealed up the oar ports, leaving an enclosed space some eighty feet long by sixteen feet wide. The empty hold, formerly the domain of 108 zygian and thalamian rowers, would now accommodate thirty horses.


Fifteen animals could be tethered along either side, spaced about five feet apart. Floor width was constricted at the waterline, but at head height the flaring sides of the trireme would provide additional room for the horses’ forequarters. Storage spaces were then created for fodder and fresh water, saddles and bridles, and for the lances, shields, and helmets of the horsemen. The shipwrights refitted the sterns of the vessels with removable sections and gangways so that when the ships came to shore, the horses could easily be led or even ridden out onto the beach.

The creation of these horse carriers marked the first major innovation in Athenian naval architecture since Cimon introduced the fully decked troop carrier thirty-five years earlier. New ships called for new names: Hippodromia, “Horse Race”; Hipparche, “Queen of Horses”; Hippocampe, a mythical monster that was half horse and half fish. There were still Athenians alive who could recall the sight of King Darius’ horse carriers and their equine cargoes landing on the beach at Marathon. For the first time the Athenian navy could transport cavalry to war zones overseas, just as the Persians had once done.

One year had passed since the Peloponnesian War began. As the signs of spring appeared, the Athenians seemed poised for success. They had survived a Spartan invasion, inflicted damage on the enemy’s coasts, and brought over new allies to their side. Waging war from the northern Aegean to the western isles, Athens had proved again, as in the days of the Egyptian expedition, that it could fight on many fronts at once. The monetary reserves on the Acropolis would sustain three years of such operations. By then Pericles predicted that the Peloponnesians would be glad to end the futile struggle. Even with winds of war blowing all around it, the ship of state seemed to be cruising forward on an even keel.

At the start of the war’s second summer, the Spartans led the Peloponnesian army into Attica to destroy crops and farms. And for the second year the invaders watched helplessly as an Athenian fleet rowed out of the Piraeus to attack their own coasts. The armada included ten of the new horse carriers and fifty ships from the Athenian allies on Lesbos and Chios.

To the Athenians, all seemed well, but there were in fact troubling signs at the Piraeus. Fatalities were reported from an unknown disease. In the heightened mood of suspicion brought on by the war, the Athenians blamed the enemy. The Peloponnesians, they said, must have somehow poisoned the water in the Piraeus reservoirs. When the fleet departed for that summer’s cruise, the mysterious malady was still unidentified.

Pericles himself commanded the naval expedition, but the itinerary was much less ambitious than that of the first year. Perhaps the horse carriers slowed the fleet, or perhaps Pericles was reluctant to voyage too far from Athens. After assaulting a few cities on the Saronic Gulf and the eastern coast of the Peloponnese, the fleet turned back. Pericles reported that they had almost taken the town of Epidaurus by storm, but the expedition had achieved no solid success. At the Piraeus they discovered that the sickness they had left behind them had become a plague, and had already claimed hundreds of lives.

After a short time in port some of the triremes were handed over to new generals for yet another expedition to Potidaea, where the siege was still dragging on. Wooden siege machinery was loaded onto the ships, and the crews embarked again, this time heading north. The plague went with them. Within the cramped hulls of the triremes the explosive disease could not be controlled. When the fleet arrived at Potidaea, the plague spread from the ships to the entire Athenian camp.

An aristocratic young Athenian named Thucydides caught the plague that year but survived to write an account of the disease, from the burning head and eyes at the start on through the bleeding mouth, the chest pains, the bilious vomiting, the eruption of pustules on the skin, and the restless insomnia. Most victims died after seven or eight days.

By the time the new generals at Potidaea abandoned their effort and led the fleet home, more than a thousand of the expedition’s hoplites had died of the plague. Arriving at the Piraeus, they found the plague everywhere. Starting around the harbors, it had spread through the crowded huts between the Long Walls and swiftly reached Athens itself. Corpses of rich and poor alike littered the temples and choked the water tanks. Pericles lost his two elder sons, Xanthippus and Paralos. As he was placing a wreath on Paralos’ body before the lighting of the pyre, Pericles finally broke down and wept in public. Only Aspasia and their illegitimate son, young Pericles, were spared. Responding to an emotional appeal, the Assembly agreed to rescind Pericles’ own citizenship law so that the boy could be recognized as an Athenian. One-third of the hoplites died of the plague—a number that could be determined exactly from the register of names kept by the generals and the tribal commanders. Other segments of the population probably perished in the same proportion.

The most famous of Sophocles’ plays, Oedipus Rex, or “Oedipus the King,” seemed to hold up a mirror to the tragic fates of Pericles and Athens. Like Pericles, the hero Oedipus insisted on the rule of reason and order, never suspecting that his own actions and destiny were bringing disaster on the city. Like the Athenians, the people in Sophocles’ drama had been struck by a devastating pestilence and called on their leader to save them: “Better for you to rule a land with men than an emptiness. Walls and ships are nothing without men living together inside them.” As events spiraled downward toward catastrophe, even Queen Jocasta admitted that the ship of state might be doomed: “Now we all feel fear, seeing the ship’s steersman fail.”

As for the real plague, the Athenians eventually learned that they could blame neither the Peloponnesians nor the water supply of the Piraeus. Ships, not Spartans, had brought the sickness to Athens. The epidemic had originated in Ethiopia and then spread down the Nile River to the ports of the delta. From there, a hidden cargo in holds and cabins, it crossed the sea to the Piraeus. When the Spartans and their allies destroyed the wheat harvest of Attica, they left the Athenians more dependent than ever on imported grain. The Peloponnesians grew much of their own wheat and were cut off from foreign supplies by the vigilance of the Athenian navy. The epidemic scarcely touched them.

The plague wrecked Pericles’ grand strategy. He could not have foreseen or prevented such a calamity, but the people laid the blame on him. Athens could no longer assemble great fleets for the amphibious campaigns that were to have countered the annual Spartan invasions of Attica. The danger of contagion made it too dangerous to pack the crews together inside the ships. The crowded conditions created by bringing all residents of Attica inside the walls had in the end cost thousands of lives. Pericles’ powers of reason seemed no match for the forces of nature. Not content with fining him, the angry Assembly voted to strip Pericles of his official powers as general. Athenian envoys traveled to Sparta seeking peace, but the Spartans rebuffed the offer. Instead they were negotiating with the Persians, hoping to bring the Great King into the war on their side. In that dark hour Athenians no longer thought of victory, only of survival.

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