COVID19- The Plague of Athens 430 BC


At this time of the year, usually, I would join J in Hebden Bridge. The walk from the station would take me up the hill towards Hardcastle Craggs winding upwards, skirting past the bowl of Hebden Bridge and then snaking towards Peckett Well, before turning to the slip road aiming for Midgehole. In late April or early May the sweep of my eyes would take in the ever upward slant of the valley and there the freshness of the newly  green leaves, the variety of hues from lemon and lime through to the deepest, densest green that is almost black, in the breeze would dance. If you know the sound of the Sekere, between a rasp and rales, feathery and metallic, you will recognise the rustle that I allude to. In the sun too, if one is lucky, the river, Crimsworth Water, would glint in between the wall of tree trunks, dark velvet or the oily black effluent of a dye work, coursing downhill.


This year, though, we are in lockdown and it is not the changing colours of the upward sweep of the valleys that preoccupy us, Rather, on our walks, the now habitual stretching of the limbs in exercise, taking in Cannon Hill Park, along River Rea, and sometimes through Highbury Park. The colours here, even over a trivial time exposure of 4 weeks, morph from the off white porcelain sheen of some magnolia, to the delicate, ever so pretty of thorn blossoms, either blackthorn or hawthorn, and then the fulsome cherry blossoms especially the ornate bronze sculpted cherry tree in Cannon Hill Park. As I am writing the wallflowers, exquisite and frilly, some with lace fringed hems in wine and blood, others speckled and freckled and of course, the rhododendrons making their appearance now and coming into their glory next week. Well not to forget the daffodils and camellias, well past their best now.

We are all making the best of this lockdown, an unprecedented singular event of our lives and staying the course by turning outwards rather than inwards, backing away from what can be fearful, terrifying and tragic in the extreme. Arundhati Roy has called it ‘a portal’, but another way of thinking of it is as a confluence of forces that might impede or impel. This time I have cast my mind to Thucydides’ description of the Plague of Athens (430 BC), a plague that killed an estimated 100,000 people. It started in the second year of the Peloponnesian War. And, Pericles, master orator and remarkable political leader was in charge at the time. His Funeral Oration, a great peroration underlined why the system of government that the Athens fashioned, democracy was worth defending and it is a speech that everyone ought to learn off by heart. My favourite excerpt is

Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands of not a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. And, just as our political life Is free and open, so is day-to-day life in our relations with each other. We do not get into a state with our next-door if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because it commands our deep respect […] The greatness of our city brings it about that all the good things from all over the world flow in to us, so that to us it seems just as natural to enjoy foreign goods as our own local products […] Our city is open to the world, and we have no periodical deportation in order to prevent people observing or finding out secrets which might be of military advantage to the enemy.”

I have quoted extensively from Pericles’ Funeral Oration because it is lodestone or cornerstone, whichever kind of stone you find most appropriate, to guide or anchor us as we emerge from this extraordinary time; the future is full of peril and is not assured.


To return to the Plague of Athens. Thucydides tells us that it emerged from Ethiopia in Upper Egypt, spreading through Libya and then through Persia before arriving in Athens. He wrote

People in perfect health suddenly began to have burning feelings in the head; their eyes became red and inflamed; inside their mouths there was bleeding from the throat and tongue, and the breath became unnatural and unpleasant. The next symptoms were sneezing and hoarseness of voice, and before long the pain settled on the chest and was accompanied by coughing. Next the stomach was affected with stomach-aches and vomitings of every kind of bile that has been given a name by the medical profession, all this being accompanied by great pain and difficulty. In most cases there were signs of ineffectual retching, producing violent spasms […] Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor was there any pallor: the skin was rather reddish and livid, breaking into small pustules and ulcers. But inside there was a feeling of burning, so that people could not bear the touch even of the lightest linen clothing [allodynia], but wanted to be completely naked, and indeed most of all would have liked a plunge into cold water […]”.


Thucydides tells us that “mortality among the doctors was the highest of all, since they came more frequently in contact with the sick”. And, “terrible too, was the sight of people dying like sheep through having caught the disease as a result of nursing others. This indeed caused more deaths than anything else. For when people were afraid to visit the sick, then they died with no one to look after them; indeed, there were many houses in which all the inhabitants perished through lack of attention”.


In our own time, we have been spared some of the horrors that Athenians experienced or just about spared them. It is impossible to ignore the refrigerated lorries serving as storage facility for corpses in New York, or nursing homes with corpses stored carelessly. But the worst is probably in other places: there are reports from Ecuador and some from Iran suggesting the experiences of Athenians two millennia ago may not be that different. And reports from my own native country, specifically the city Kano, hint at the same devastation as described by Thucydides:

The bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the other, and half-dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water […] The catastrophe was so overwhelming that men not knowing what would happen to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or of law. All the funeral ceremonies which used to be observed were now disorganized, and they buried the dead as best they could

And there was consequent and unprecedented lawlessness in Athens. The numerous dying and the unpredictability of who might be affected made people less inclined to obey the laws, induced them to live for the moment so that ‘what was both honourable and valuable was the pleasure of the moment […] No fear of god or law of man was a restraining influence’. Thucydides concludes ‘This, then, was the calamity which fell upon Athens, and the times were hard indeed, with men dying inside the city and the land outside being laid to waste’.


Finally, what COVID19 crisis has shown us is that the competence or otherwise of leaders is exposed for all to see in an existential crisis. Mendacity, political spin, lack of wisdom, that inability to know when to do what, is in plain sight. So, we can all see the tragedy of America, the embarrassing ineptitude of a leader whose capacity both for comprehending facts and for empathy are wanting. Pericles died in the Plague of Athens. Thucydides caught the plague but recovered. But, Pericles’ description of what good leadership is, in a crisis such as we are going through now, is worthy of our attention

A man who has knowledge but lacks the power clearly to express it is no better off than if he never had any ideas at all. A man who has both these qualities, but lacks patriotism, could hardly speak for his own people as he should. And even if he is patriotic as well, but not able to resist a bribe, then this one fault will expose everything to the risk of being bought and sold.


The post-COVID world will require great leadership as well as fresh ideas and the impetus to fundamentally alter the future. My fear is the leadership that is needed is probably not at hand. But, it is Spring and the earth is in rebirth and who knows, so might the times be too.

Photos by Jan Oyebode

2 thoughts on “COVID19- The Plague of Athens 430 BC

  1. Dear, dear Femi,
    I was gripped with dread on reading about your literal brush with death. I can breathe again, knowing that you and Jan are on the mend.
    Yes, ignorance and arrogance can be quite lethal.
    Warm regards,

    1. Lolu
      Good to hear from you. We are both much better and improving all the time.
      I saw something on the Internet about Akin Bolarinwa’s time on a ventilator, thankfully he too seems to have recovered.
      Keep safe and best wishes,

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