“They had a high fever, and their eyes were red. They coughed, spat blood out of their throat and tongue and lost their voice. The pain went down to their chest with severe coughs.” These are the symptoms of an infectious disease that broke out in 430 BC during the Peloponnesian War. The outbreak changed the destiny of Athens, for which a defeat seemed impossible, taking even the life of great leader Pericles.
The fickle nature of destiny has always fascinated people. The disease that swept Athens is often quoted as an example of an accident that changed the course of history. However, the mischievous god of history did not let the virus bring Athens down. Recovering from the damages of the outbreak and the defeat, Athens miraculously turned the tables in the war. However, due to the greed of its leaders and the public, Athens blew the two chances given to them to win the war. After the death of Pericles, Athens’ politics fell prey to populism and demagogism, and a series of wrong decisions it made, blinded by greed, ruined its glory for good.
To be granted, infectious diseases are devastating. As Thucydides rightly pointed out, if Pericles was not killed by the virus, Athens might have won the war. In this sense, the plague was a deciding factor. However, no war is without coincidences, disasters and misfortunes, just like no farmer is safe from droughts or typhoons. The lesson from Athens’ defeat is that mature citizenship and capable leaders are required to overcome disasters. The global economy is showing signs of instability hit by COVID-19, which makes people worry more about subsequent economic shocks than the damages of the outbreak themselves. These concerns are heightened especially in vulnerable economies, and politicians in these nations are already busy thinking about how to shift the responsibilities, which begs the question – Was the virus really responsible for the collapse of Athens?