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The Plague of Athens was a devastating epidemic which hit the city-state of Athens in ancient Greece during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC), when an Athenian victory still seemed within reach. It is believed to have entered Athens through Piraeus, the city's port and sole source of food and supplies. Much of the eastern Mediterranean also saw outbreak of the disease, albeit with less impact The plague returned twice more, in 429 BC and in the winter of 427/426 BC.
Accounts of the Athenian plague graphically describe the social consequences of an epidemic. Thucydides' account clearly details the complete disappearance of social morals during the time of the plague. The impact of disease on social and religious behavior was also documented during the worldwide pandemic best known as the Black Death.
Fear of the law
Thucydides states that people ceased fearing the law since they felt they were already living under a death sentence. Likewise, people started spending money indiscriminately. Many felt they would not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of wise investment, while some of the poor unexpectedly became wealthy by inheriting the property of their relatives. It is also recorded that people refused to behave honorably because most did not expect to live long enough to enjoy a good reputation for it.
As the disease progressed in those afflicted, Thucydides noted that people became so dehydrated that some plunged themselves into wells in futile attempts to quench their unceasing thirst. The disease often ended in death, typically by day seven to nine of the illness. Medical treatment was useless against the disease's severity and bleak outcome.
"Thucydides' vivid description allows present-day historians and clinicians to speculate about the cause of prior epidemics and the historical roots of our epidemics we know about today," Kazanjian said.
The Athenian disease began south of Egypt in a region Thucydides called "Aethiopia," a term that ancient Greeks used to refer to regions in sub-Saharan Africa, where modern Ebola outbreaks have occurred, Kazanjian said. In the ancient world, sub-Saharan Africans migrated to Greece to work as farmers or servants, thereby providing a potential human vector for Ebola.
Kazanjian argued that the symptoms, mortality rate and origin in sub-Saharan Africa that characterize the Plague of Athens are consistent with what is known about Ebola. He added that physicians were among the first victims of the Athenian disease in Thucydides' account, just as modern health care workers have proven especially vulnerable to Ebola, with nearly 500 dying from the virus in the current outbreak as of January, according to the World Health Organization.
In 2001, Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan, respectively a demographer and zoologist from Liverpool University, proposed the theory that the Black Death might have been caused by an Ebola-like virus, not a bacterium. Their rationale was that this plague spread much faster and the incubation period was much longer than other confirmed Y. pestis–caused plagues. A longer period of incubation will allow carriers of the infection to travel farther and infect more people than a shorter one. When the primary vector is humans, as opposed to birds, this is of great importance. Epidemiological studies suggest the disease was transferred between humans (which happens rarely with Yersinia pestis and very rarely for Bacillus anthracis), and some genes that determine immunity to Ebola-like viruses are much more widespread in Europe than in other parts of the world. Their research and findings are thoroughly documented in Biology of Plagues. More recently the researchers have published computer modeling demonstrating how the Black Death has made around 10% of Europeans resistant to HIV.
Now two researchers from the University of Liverpool are presenting a new theory. In ''Biology of Plagues: Evidence from Historic Populations,'' published in March, the authors argue that a hemorrhagic virus, like Ebola, probably caused the Black Death and most of the smaller epidemics that struck Europe for the next three centuries, not bubonic plague.
The authors, Dr. Susan Scott, a demographer, and Dr. Christopher J. Duncan, a zoologist, say their theory answers many lingering questions about the rapid spread and virulence of the Black Death. Their argument is based in part on reports that the disease was transmitted from person to person.
They also observe that bubonic plague is a disease of rodents but that Europe had no rodent species that could harbor the disease between outbreaks.
The rats that passed the plague through fleas to humans during epidemics all died, so the plague would have perished with them, Dr. Scott and Dr. Duncan say.
Dr. Samuel K. Cohn, a professor of medieval history at the University of Glasgow, maintains that many other diseases are better candidates for the Black Death and its subsequent outbreaks through the early modern period than Yersinia pestis.
But Dr. Cohn, the author of ''The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Renaissance Europe,'' due out next year, added that he did not accept Dr. Scott and Dr. Duncan's suggestion that a tropical Ebola-like virus had caused those epidemics. Such a virus would burn out too quickly to produce the widespread mortality of the Black Death, he said, proposing instead that the Black Death was caused by a highly contagious virus or bacterium that might not exist now.