Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Odin, The All-Father Of Norse Mythology, Was Prophesied To Be Eaten Alive By His Own Pet

Many of the gods from the pantheon of Norse mythology were animal lovers. For instance, Hel had a hound named Garm. Frey had a golden boar, and his sister, Freyja, was often accompanied by a retinue of cats. Odin, the All-Father and chief deity of the Norse gods, was also an avid pet owner. He had two ravens, named Hugin and Munin, which served as Odin’s scouts, taking note of events happening in the world and reporting the news to their master. Two pet wolves, named Geri and Freki, also accompanied the All-Father. The ravens and wolves were free to enter and exit Odin’s hall of Valhalla at their leisure and could usually be found lounging with the All-Father, the crows perched on his shoulders, telling secrets, while the wolves snatch up scraps of food tossed to them by Odin. In addition to these animals, Odin had a treasured eight-legged horse named Sleipnir.

Yet, there was another animal, another wolf, that resided in Asgard, the home of the Norse gods. As surprising as it may sound, the wolf was the son of Loki, the Norse trickster who always annoyed and undermined Odin and the rest of the gods. The name of this particular wolf was Fenrir, and he was one of several animal offspring that Loki brought into the world. In fact, the horse, Sleipnir, was also one of Loki’s children, born after the trickster had shape-shifted into a mare and had an awkward affair with a stallion.

The Icelandic historian and saga author, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), wrote about the origin story of Fenrir in The Prose Edda. He wrote that Loki and an ogress named Angrboda had three monstrous children—the Midgard Serpent, Hel and Fenrir. When Odin heard of Loki’s new children, he summoned them for judgment. He tossed the Midgard Serpent into the ocean, and it eventually grew to encircle the world, biting its tail to form a ring around the earth. Hel, a gloomy and moody goddess with a body divided equally between light and dark skin, was sent down to the underworld of Niflheim, where she oversaw the souls of those who died of disease and old age. As for Fenrir, Odin decided to keep the wolf in Asgard to be raised by the gods.

Yet, there was a problem—Fenrir was not an ordinary wolf. The pup was extremely powerful and was constantly growing larger in size and stronger in strength. In addition, Fenrir was also intelligent and even had the ability to speak. Even though the special wolf was being raised in Asgard, almost every god residing there feared the beast. Only Tyr, regarded as the most courageous of the gods, was bold enough to give Fenrir food and water.

As Fenrir’s power became more and more palpable, the gods of Asgard unanimously decided that the wolf needed to be restrained for their own protection. The gods, themselves, made two separate fetters that they thought would surely hold the wolf. Now they only needed to convince the intelligent creature to put on the restraints. Therefore, the gods went to Fenrir, and, holding out the fetters, they proposed a test of strength. The wolf agreed to show off his prowess and let himself be harnessed. With a flex of his muscles, Fenrir was able to free himself from the first restraint. Next, the wolf agreed to allow the second fetter to be fastened. This time, Fenrir had to struggle and strain, but he eventually ripped free of his bonds, sending pieces flying in all directions. With these displays of strength, the gods became more determined than ever to find a way to chain the wolf.

When their own handmade fetters did not work, the gods turned to the best craftsmen they knew—the dwarves. From Thor’s mighty hammer (Mjollnir) to the gods’ foldable, self-propelling ship (Skidbladnir), all of the best weapons and tools featured in Norse mythology were crafted by the dwarves. So, in keeping with their reputation, the dwarves successfully created the ultimate dog leash. The forging of their fetter was so bizarre that it needs quoting: “It was constructed from six elements: the noise of a cat’s footsteps, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of a bird” (Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, chapter 34). When the dwarves had somehow combined those rare ideas and resources, they produced a restraint that felt smooth like silk, but was virtually unbreakable.

With this deceptive bond, the gods returned to Fenrir and asked the wolf to test his strength against another bond. As mentioned earlier, the wolf was an intelligent being, so he began to distrust the motives of the gods. Fenrir told them that he would not allow the restraints to be applied unless one of the gods stuck a hand in his mouth to serve as insurance that he would be released if the fetter did not break. Once again, only Tyr had enough courage to face the wolf—he put his hand in Fenrir’s mouth and the wolf was bound. No matter how hard he pulled, stretched and strained, the fetter would not budge. When the gods saw that the wolf was finally and truly restrained, they began laughing and refused to unbind the beast. Infuriated and betrayed, Fenrir bit off Tyr’s hand.

(Tyr and the Fenriswolf by John Bauer  (1882–1918), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

Prophecy foretold that the dwarven-made fetter would successfully trap Fenrir until the doomsday of the Norse gods—Ragnarok. As the gods clashed in a final battle against their foes, Fenrir would break free and join the fray. The prophecies proclaimed that Fenrir would kill Odin, possibly eating him alive. Fenrir, too, would die during Ragnarok. He was predicted to be killed by Odin’s son, Vidar.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Odin fighting the Fenriswolf on Ragnarok, painted by Emil Doepler  (1855–1922), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Terrible Love Life And Incestuous Marriages Of Emperor Claudius

Claudius, born around 10 BCE and ruler of the Roman Empire from 41-54 CE, had an unlucky, scandalous and, eventually, deadly love life. Difficult relationships were just another burden faced by the ill-fated emperor. Almost every ancient source claimed that Claudius suffered from significant health ailments, causing noticeable symptoms such as limping, tremors and foaming at the mouth. While many quick-judging people thought that a dull mind was another result of his illness, Claudius actually exhibited an astute intellect, becoming an accomplished historian and a competent, even ruthless, administrator. Regardless of this, Claudius was undeniably luckless with women.

Claudius, according to the ancients, was unsuccessfully betrothed to at least two women and later married four times. Little is known about the two betrothals, yet one of these women supposedly died on the day of the wedding because of some form of illness. The wedding with his other bride-to-be was called off after her family was swept into disgrace by the tides of politics. Next, Claudius successfully married a woman named Urgulanilla, but that marriage ended after she was charged with adultery and, possibly, even murder. Claudius’ second bride was Aelia Paetina, but, as happened in the earlier betrothal, they divorced for political reasons.

The final two wives of Emperor Claudius were particularly scandalous. Before ascending to the throne in the year 41, Claudius had taken Valeria Messalina as his third wife. The two were technically cousins—Augustus’ sister, Octavia, was both Claudius’ grandmother and Messalina’s great-grandmother. Despite this, they had a fruitful marriage, producing two children, Britannicus and Octavia. Yet, Messalina was also prone to extramarital affairs. In the year 48, Messalina became so enthralled with a certain Gaius Silius (said to be the handsomest man in Rome) that she allegedly married him despite her preexisting marriage with the emperor. They were supposedly going to usurp power from Claudius and place Britannicus on the throne. Nevertheless, Emperor Claudius heard of the scandal and executed Messalina and Silius, along with anyone else who aided in the affair.

The next year he married Agrippina the Younger. This marriage was even more incestuous than the last—as the daughter of Claudius’ brother, Germanicus, Agrippina was the emperor’s niece. The idea of a man marrying his own niece was so uncommon in ancient Rome that Claudius allegedly had to have it legalized before he could legitimately marry Agrippina. Interestingly, this was not Agrippina’s first marriage; she was a widow with a son named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. Around the year 50, Emperor Claudius adopted Agrippina’s son into the immediate royal family and gave him the infamous name of Nero. After securing her son’s position as heir to the empire, Agrippina was said to have assassinated Emperor Claudius, in the year 54, by feeding him poisonous mushrooms, clearing the way for Nero’s ascension to power.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (left—Messalina holding Britannicus, Marble, ca. 45 AD, center— 1st-century portrait of Roman Emperor Claudius, right—1st-century bust said to be of Agrippina the Younger, all [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

China’s First Emperor Of The Qin Dynasty Was Said To Have Been Almost Assassinated By A Blind Musician

According to the Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), and the various sources he had access to, a truly great musician lived in the kingdom of Yan during the decades leading up to the creation of the Qin Dynasty, founded in 221 BCE by Qin Shihuangdi, the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty. The musician’s name was Gao Jianli and his instrument of choice was the lute. In the city of Ji, the capital of Yan, Gao Jianli could frequently be found in the city’s marketplace, drinking with his friends. Once the wine was flowing, the musician would take out his lute and strum whatever notes or tunes came to mind. One of Gao Jianli’s friends, a wandering swordsman named Jing Ke, would often join in by singing along with the music.

Sometime around 227 BCE, Jing Ke no longer showed up in the market to sing along with the sounds of the lute. Unfortunately, Crown Prince Dan, the heir to the Kingdom of Yan, had sent the swordsman on an ill-fated mission. Armed with the sharpest blade in the realm, and poison to coat its deadly edge, Jing Ke left Yan in order to assassinate King Zheng of Qin, the future First Emperor. Gao Jianli may have had an inkling of what had been put in motion. He was a loyal man of the kingdom of Yan, and he was even said to have been at the city’s gate, playing encouraging music on his lute, as Jing Ke departed the capital.

As King Zheng would eventually become the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty, Jing Ke’s mission obviously failed. After supposedly chasing the king for a few laps around his throne room, Jing Ke was eventually disarmed and executed. When King Zheng found out that the Crown Prince of Yan had organized the attack, Qin retaliated and, by 226 BCE, captured the Yan capital of Ji. In the next few years, Yan and all of the other rival kingdoms of ancient China were systematically subjugated by King Zheng, who ended his conquests in 221 BCE, marking the beginning of the Qin Dynasty.

After his homeland was defeated, Gao Jianli went into hiding. He was a known associate of Jing Ke and rightly suspected that the emperor would show little mercy to an assassin’s acquaintance. Therefore, Gao Jianli stopped playing the lute and became a laborer and a servant in the city of Songzi. Though he strictly did not play his lute in public, the musician could not stop from openly critiquing the music played by other people. Impressed by the knowledgeable criticisms, many of Gao Jiangli’s coworkers began to suspect that he had a background in music.

The mumblings of the workers eventually reached the owner of the house in which Gao Jianli was employed. One day, when the master of the house was entertaining guests, he summoned the musician to where everyone had congregated. Handing the man a spare lute, he asked Gao Jianli to play for the crowd. Unable to resist the temptation of strumming a few chords, Gao Jianli hesitantly plucked at the strings. Even though it was his first public performance in years, the musician impressed the audience. Praising Gao Jianli’s ability, the crowd cheered and poured him rounds of wine. The musician, touched by their applause, went back to his trunk, took out his personal lute and donned garments left over from his heyday in the kingdom of Yan. When he returned to the guests in his fashionable clothes and his well-used lute, he put on a masterful encore, which was moving enough to leave tears in eyes of every listener.

After that performance, Gao Jianli’s fame grew exponentially. He toured from house to house in Songzi, playing concerts for wealthy patrons who wanted to hear his music. Each successful recital increased the musician’s renown, causing Gao Jiangli’s popularity to overflow out of the city and into the surrounding provinces. Eventually, word of the musician’s skill even reached Xianyang, the capital city of the Qin Dynasty.

Impressed by the rumors, the First Emperor summoned the mysterious musician to play before the imperial court. Instead of withdrawing back into hiding, Gao Jianli decided to try his luck, hoping that his past life was either forgotten or forgiven. There is also the possibility that he was tired after years of living in the shadows and decided to stop running. Whatever the motivation, Gao Jianli packed his belongings and traveled to meet with the emperor. Unfortunately, the musician was immediately recognized by one of the emperor’s courtiers. When the First Emperor heard that the man was an associate of the assassin, Jing Ke, he ordered that Gao Jianli’s eyes be removed as punishment. The musician’s life, however, was spared because the emperor still wanted to hear the man perform.

The emperor was apparently very fond of Gao Jianli’s music and was said to have let the musician come remarkably close when he played. Although Gao Jianli had been blinded, he still could sense how near the emperor let him approach. Still bitter about the downfall of his homeland—not to mention the loss of his eyes—the blind lutist began planning his revenge. The musician was able to scavenge a heavy piece of lead and secretly attached it to the inside of his lute. With the cumbersome instrument in hand, Gao Jianli approached the emperor and, listening intently, tried to pinpoint the monarch’s exact location. When he thought the emperor was near, the blind musician swung the heavy lute with all of his might, hoping to bludgeon the tyrant to death. Unfortunately, Gao Jainli misjudged the distance and hit nothing but air. Outraged by the incident, the First Emperor had the bold musician immediately executed.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Musician statue from a Matsuoka Museum of Art in front of a 3rd-century depiction of Jing Ke's attack on King Zheng, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.  

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Multi-Generational Journey Of A Sword From A 6th-Century King Of Denmark

According to Scandinavian oral history, a man named King Hrolf Kraki lived during the 6th century and ruled the Kingdom of the Skjoldungs in Denmark. From his seat of power in Hleidargard, thought to be located in modern Lejre, King Hrolf made a name for himself in both strength and honor, attracting a host of powerful champions that served in his court. Eventually, the spoken tales of King Hrolf were preserved by the quills of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian writers. He was given the name Hrothulf in the epic poem of Beowulf (c. 8th-11th century), was mentioned in the Gesta Danorum of the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus (c. 12th-13th century), was referred to in The Book of Settlements (12th-13th century) from Iceland, and finally received his own saga, The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, sometime during the 14th century.

According to the folklore-shrouded tales about Hrolf Kraki’s life, the king was eventually killed by the forces of his own brother-in-law. Even so, relatives and allies were said to have avenged Hrolf’s death and built burial mounds for the king and his champions near Hleidargard. In these tombs, the powerful weapons of the fallen were also sealed away. Skofnung, the sword of King Hrolf could be found there, as well as a magical sword named Laufi, which had belonged to the king’s greatest champion, Bodvar Bjarki. When unsheathed, Laufi was said to always kill its target. Yet, the weapon also supposedly had a limited number of uses. After an owner wielded the magical blade three times, the sword would allegedly stay locked in its sheath until it was claimed by another person.

According to The Book of Settlements, one of Iceland’s first settlers broke into the resting places of Hrolf and his champions, centuries after their deaths. The tomb raider’s name was Skeggi of Midfjord, and, around the year 900, he was said to have stolen King Hrolf’s sword, Skofnung, as well as other weapons and valuables from the tomb. He was also keeping his eye out for the magical blade, Laufi, but he was unable to obtain it. In the most embellished versions of this tale, as Skeggi attempted to take Laufi for himself, the blade’s long-dead owner, Bodvar, reanimated and began to fight off the thief. Thankfully for the tomb raider, the bones of King Hrolf allegedly came back to life and restrained his former companion, allowing Skeggi to flee the tomb.

Whatever the case, when Skeggi of Midfjord arrived in Iceland, he claimed to have in his possession the sword of King Hrolf—Skofnung. Once in Iceland, Skofnung began its own interesting saga, spanning over multiple generations of Icelanders. In one tale, Skeggi let a poet named Kormak borrow the blade for a duel. After the poet used the weapon to win the bout, he returned it to Skeggi, and the blade became a family heirloom. After the sword was passed down to Skeggi’s son, the famous Skofnung eventually found its way into the possession of another relative named Thorkel, who is mentioned in the Laxdæla Saga (c. 13th century). Thorkel then gave the blade to his son, Gellir, who took Skofnung with him on a pilgrimage to Rome. After that, the blade never returned to Iceland—Gellir died in Denmark during his trip home. He was buried with the sword in Roskilde, ironically located a short distance from where King Hrolf’s tomb was said to be located in Lejre.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (The Thurmuth Rune Sword, sketched by George Stephens (1813-1895), edited and modified, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, written by an anonymous Icelander in the 14th century, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 1998. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Scandalous Plummet Of The Extremely Wealthy Roman, Sextus Marius

For most of Emperor Tiberius’ reign (r. 14-37), a man named Sextus Marius was the richest man in the Roman-controlled Iberian Peninsula. His enormous wealth came from several productive copper and gold mines, which supplied an enviable stream of income. Around the year 33, however, Sextus Marius’ fortune was about to dramatically turn.

During the reign of Tiberius, trials of misconduct, corruption and treason seemed to constantly occur. For about half of his reign, Tiberius was fairly lenient in the endless court cases and many of the people charged with crimes by the Senate were released on Tiberius’ command during this early period. Most of the high-profile judicial deaths that did occur in Tiberius’ opening years happened because of defendants who committed suicide before the trial was concluded. Yet, several events occurred in the middle of Tiberius’ reign that made the emperor noticeably more bitter and tyrannical. The three most significant incidents included the assassination of the emperor’s son, Drusus (d. 23), the death of Tiberius’ mother, Livia (d. 29), and the execution of the emperor’s chief advisor, Sejanus (d. 31), after he was allegedly discovered to have organized the earlier assassination of Tiberius’ son. By the year 27, Tiberius had already retreated from Rome to the Island of Capri, and after the death of his mother and the execution of Sejanus, the emperor seemingly lost interest in caring for his empire, allowing corruption and oppression to flourish.

So, when the wealthy Sextus Marius was called before the Senate to stand trial in the year 33, Emperor Tiberius was no longer his old, more forgiving, self. The charges that Sextus Marius had been called forth to answer were those of committing incest with his daughter, a claim of unknown validity. The 1st-2nd century historian and statesman, Tacitus (c. 56-117), for his part, believed that the charges were false, but he was also an obsessive critic of Tiberius, suspicious of everything that happened during the emperor’s reign. Whatever the truth, the Senate found Sextus Marius guilty of the crime and condemned him to death. He was executed by being thrown off the steep Tarpeian Rock, in Rome. Tacitus theorized that the death had been a conspiracy led by Tiberius, for, after the execution, the emperor seized all of the man’s numerous copper and gold mines.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (“Punishment of Cassius”, by Augustyn Mirys (c. 1700-1790)-Public Domain).

  • The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.  

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Medieval Scandinavians Apparently Liked To Throw Bones At Each Other

All cultures and civilizations have curious quirks and hobbies. In medieval Scandinavia, most notably Denmark, there seemed to have been an odd tradition of people throwing leftover bones at others. In historical records and Icelandic sagas, this interesting practice usually occurred in the halls of the Scandinavian nobility, where feasts were held and discarded bones were prevalent.

The intensity of these bone-throwing incidents could vary greatly. People sometimes threw bones as a light-hearted game during a feast—basically a food fight. Alternatively, facing volleys of thrown bones could be used as a punishment for breaking the law, disobeying the nobility, or simply behaving in an unmanly fashion. For instance, in The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki (written around the 14th century), the semi-mythical 6th-century Swedish warrior, Svipdag, saved a man named Hott, who was literally buried under a pile of bones. The greasy leftovers had been thrown at him by the courtiers of King Hrolf, a king of Denmark from the Skjoldung Dynasty. In the story, Svipdag pulled Hott out of the pile of bones, cleaned him off, and sat with him on a bench in the hall. When one of the courtiers present in the room threw a knucklebone in Hott’s direction, Svipdag caught it mid-air and launched it back with enough force to kill the assailant—after that, no one threw bones at Hott again. Hott was rebranded with the name, Hjalti, and eventually became a renowned champion for King Hrolf. On a more grounded historical basis, King Cnut I of Denmark (r. 1016-1035) was said to have punished guards that broke the law by having them sit down while members of the king’s household and other guests pelted them with bones.

As happened in the story of Hott from Hrolf’s Saga, the practice of bone throwing could become deadly. In some instances, the bones were thrown with such violence that it resembled stoning. As the term “boning” sounds either extremely risqué or like a culinary bone-removal technique, we will just continue to say “throwing bones.” Nevertheless, enough deaths eventually occurred from people being fatally pelted with bones that numerous law codes throughout the Scandinavian world specifically listed the act of killing a person with a thrown bone as a punishable crime.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Odin entertaining guests in Valhalla, by Emil Doepler (1855–1922), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, written by an anonymous Icelander in the 14th century, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 1998.  

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Terrible Plague Suffered By Athens In 430 BCE, Amidst The Peloponnesian War

Athens and Sparta, the two most prominent powers in Greece, were already struggling to coexist years before the Greco-Persian Wars ended around 449-448 BCE. After the Greek forces delivered a significant defeat to the Persian Navy at Salamis in 480 BCE, followed quickly by an impressive victory over the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BCE, the cities of Athens and Sparta were cemented as proud and prestigious leaders of the Hellenistic world. Gravitating to the powerful states, the cities of Greece divided themselves between leagues led by the two rival powers. Most cities encircling the Aegean Sea aligned themselves with the sea power of Athens, eventually becoming subordinated into an Athenian empire. Similarly, the city-states in the Peloponnesus (with the exception of Argos) banded together under the leadership of mighty Sparta in the Peloponnesian League.

As early as 460 BCE, while the Greco-Persian War was still ongoing, Athens and Sparta began to fight in skirmishes and battles. A peace treaty technically halted the open conflict, but Athens and Sparta continued to undermine each other’s interests in proxy wars between neutral states and league allies. Nevertheless, a full open war between Athens and Sparta was successfully delayed for decades, until 431 BCE, the year in which the Great Peloponnesian War began.

Sparta and its allies declared war on Athens in 431 BCE, claiming that the Athenians had broken the peace treaty by attacking Spartan allies and affiliates. Thebes (on the Spartan side) opened up the conflict by launching a failed attack on Plataea, an ally of Athens. During the first few years of the Peloponnesian War, both sides were sizing each other up, not knowing how to best employ their resources and manpower. In the year 431, the militaries on both sides of the conflict performed relatively poorly. King Archidamus II of Sparta led a Peloponnesian coalition into Athenian-controlled Attica to raid the countryside, while their enemies took shelter behind the walls of Athens. The Peloponnesians stayed in Attica for as long as their supplies could support their army (less than a year), then they simply marched home. In a similar move, the Athenians sent a fleet to raid the Peloponnesian coast. The fleet made gains in some locations, but was repelled in others. Eventually, the ships rerouted to meet up with a huge Athenian army that was raiding near the city of Megara. After reuniting and pillaging the countryside for a time, the Athenians withdrew home to Athens before the year’s end.

In 430 BCE, both sides of the war again prepared for more pillaging and raiding. King Archidamus II led a second army of Peloponnesians into Attica to ravage the countryside, and the Athenians released another fleet to prowl the Peloponnesian coastline. This time, however, the Peloponnesians would have an unexpected biological ally—a plague. According to the Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE), the plague originated somewhere in Ethiopia and traveled first through Egypt and then through Persia to wreck havoc on the city of Athens. Thucydides, an Athenian military leader and historian, had the displeasure of personally experiencing the deadly plague. He even caught the illness, himself, but thankfully he survived to write his famous text, the History of the Peloponnesian War.

The city of Athens in 430 BCE was exceptionally susceptible to disease. Refugees from vulnerable regions of Attica had poured into Athens, quickly overpopulating the city. The newcomers had to live in huts and shanties that were poorly ventilated and generally unclean. Those who could not live in simple huts found shelter in local temples, but even those sacred spaces would eventually be filled with the dead and dying.

Thucydides described the symptoms of the plague in great detail—to the extent that critics call his account overly dramatic. Nevertheless, his words paint a decent picture of what the Athenian population faced. He wrote that symptoms of the plague first affected the head and, over the course of seven-to-eight days, the effects spread downward through the rest of the body, usually resulting in death. The first signs were red, irritated eyes and a foul-smelling, bleeding mouth and throat. This was combined with sneezing and a rough voice, which could lead to an inability to speak. As the plague spread down into the torso, the patient also suffered from persistent fits of coughing and abdominal pain. The stomach and intestines were also affected, causing vomiting and diarrhea. Other miscellaneous symptoms mentioned by Thucydides included the onset of an insatiable thirst, restless anxiety, insomnia, the appearance of pustules and a painful sensitivity to touch. The plague led to a staggering death toll in Athens—anywhere from 25%-66% of the Athenian population lost their lives to the sickness.

In Thucydides’ opinion, the most tragic observation that he made during the plague was the breakdown of law, order and morality. He wrote that a palpable gloom of morbid and fatalistic emotion descended on Athens. As more and more people thought their death was nigh, they began to take whatever pleasure, wealth or revenge they wanted, regardless of the consequences.

Even though the plague did enormous damage to Athens, the Athenians recovered with enough strength to keep the war going for nearly three decades, and they often appeared to be on the winning side. Nevertheless, after the war had expanded all the way to Sicily, the Athenian navy was finally defeated in several key sea battles, the last being the Battle of Aegospotami in 405 BCE, in which the Spartans captured most of the Athenian fleet. The next year, Athens surrendered to the Peloponnesians.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (The Plague at Ashdod, by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

  • History of the Peloponnesian War (Book II) by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.