The Fall of Athens

Painting of Acropolis of Athens, 2011 | Courtesy of Pantelis D. Zografos

When one pictures a Greek city-state, one pictures a beautiful city with a great leader to guide it, to give it courage in battle, and most importantly, to give its people hope. This Greek city-state was Athens, and this great leader was Pericles. Born in Athens in 495 B.C.E., Pericles was a prominent and influential statesman, orator, and general of the very powerful Athens.1 Pericles was a strong believer in the arts, literature, and philosophy. He was responsible for the full development of the Athenian democracy that shaped Athens’ politics and culture.2 Although Athens was enjoying a golden age while led by Pericles, this soon came to an end and thus began the fall of Athens.

Map of the Peloponnesian War alliances in 431 B.C. including Athens and Sparta | Courtesy of a U.S. Army Cartographer

That fall began in 431 B.C.E. when the 27 year long Peloponnesian War began. This long and bloody war was between the two most dominant Greek city-states, Athens and Sparta, along with each side’s allies. The war began when conflicts arose after the Greco-Persian Wars. Both Athens and Sparta longed for dominance, and in May of 431 B.C.E., war broke out between them. Pericles knew Athens’ strength was in their navy, so his strategy was to avoid Sparta on land, because he knew that on land, Athens would be no match for Sparta. What he failed to realize, however, is that crowding the population of Athens behind its Long Walls would be deadly if disease ever broke out in Athens while Sparta had it besieged.

Pericles’ Funeral Oration | Courtesy of AthenianVoice

In an attempt to please his people and praise those who had fallen in the war, Pericles gave a funeral oration in which he spoke highly of those who had given their lives for the democracy. In his speech, he tried to regain the peoples’ trust and remind them of the many victories they had had that were led by him. Pericles’ praised the Athenian people and spoke of how proud he was of them and how far they had gotten thus far. He gave Athens the title of being a model for the other surrounding Greek city-states because Athens showed its dominance. He also went on to compare Athens to Sparta. Sparta focused only on their strong and strict military whereas Athens focused on its city and the helping of each other as one in times of need, which only makes them stronger because they are “just as brave” as Pericles states.3

After cruising around Peloponnese as Pericles had ordered, he arrived in Attica where the plague began to appear among the Athenians. Sickness spread fast and there was nothing the Athenians could do to stop it. Physicians became infected and died much faster than other people because they were exposed to the sick more often. Not many survived this plague, but Thucydides, a general and historian of Athens, lived after having contracted the plague and lived to tell the tale of the Peloponnesian War. His history of this war is contained in The History of the Peloponnesian War. In this book, he writes of the chronological order of the war and the downfall of Athens due to the plague. Thucydides writes that while the Peloponnesians invaded Attica, the Athenians left and fled to their ships. Countless Athenian people were dying in battle and from the plague. The Peloponnesians feared the disease and watched as burials went on, but remained about forty days in Attica ravaging through the town.4

The Athenian Plague, 17th Century | Courtesy of Michael Sweerts

After the second invasion of Athens by the Peloponnesians, the Athenians began putting more blame on Pericles for declaring and leading a war that brought great suffering to the people of Athens. They began blaming Pericles for the death of one-quarter of its population. After about two years, the great general and leader of Athens was no longer wanted and was not selected to continue being their general the following year.5 What no one knew, however, and what is still a debate to this day, is what the plague really was. No one knows what disease or diseases were responsible for this plague. There have been ongoing studies to find what diseases could have possibly been the cause of the numerous deaths. Although some results have been discovered, there is no clear answer to the ongoing question: what was the infamous death that killed a third of the population of Athenians? The most common and most discussed diseases among scholars for the most reasonable explanations for the plague include: bubonic plague, influenza, typhoid fever, smallpox, epidemic typhus, and measles.6 Any of these diseases could be the cause of the plague, but there is not enough microbiologic evidence to pinpoint which disease or diseases specifically were the cause of the Athenian plague. This lack of evidence is the reason for the constant disagreement between scholars.

The plague, along with the battles fought during the war, killed a great portion of the people of Athens, and as the Athenians became weaker and weaker, they received even worse news. Pericles contracted the plague, and unlike Thucydides, he did not recover and in fact died in 429 B.C.E. leaving Athens without a general, and to fend for themselves. After his death, the government of Athens became unstable and was not able to get organized in order to continue fighting the war. With the constant invasions, people still dying from the plague, and the death of Pericles, the Athenians continued fighting until a decade and a half later, they surrendered. By the time the Peloponnesian War ended in 404 B.C.E., Athens had fallen leaving Greece weak and fractured. The fall of Athens set off chain reaction for the fall of Sparta, then eventually, the end of Classical Greece.

  1.  New World Encyclopedia, April 2015, s.v. “Pericles.”
  2. Encyclopædia Britannica , April 2017, s.v. “Pericles,” by David Malcolm Lewis.
  3. Salem Press Encyclopedia, January 2017, s.v. “Analysis: Pericles’ Funeral Oration,” by Charles Forster Smith.
  4. Thucydides, and Richard Crawley, The History of the Peloponnesian War (Auckland, N.Z.: The Floating Press, 2008), 64.
  5. Salem Press Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v. “Peloponnesian War,” by Jeffrey Buller.
  6. Burke A. Cunha M.D., The Cause of the Plague of Athens: plague, typhoid, typhus, smallpox, or measles? (Infectious Disease Clinics of North America, 2004), 30.
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43 Comments

  • The word ‘plague’ is an umbrella term used in historical times to explain the rapid death of a population, in many examples what disease is truly wiping out the Athenians is not known. Unfortunately it was not medically common knowledge that confining a great population within a space was a recipe for disaster. I believe Pericles did the best he could, given the knowledge of his times and the standard of siege warfare.

  • Sometimes we forget that humans aren’t the only ones that play in the game of history. The other player in it is nature itself. Without the plague, the war between Athens and Sparta would have turned out differently, and it is possible that Athens might have had a chance to win the war. Let’s not forget to mention other times of disaster, such as the Black Death or even the outbreak of smallpox that eliminated most of the Native Americans. While man certainly does mold history, the one who determines how the mold is finished is nature.

  • It is always interesting to see how a great civilization crashes. It seems like it is always an extremely quick fall, conquered by an outside force over the course of many years, or self inflicted. The fall of Athens seems like it could fall into all three categories. Even though the Peloponnesian War lasted 27 years, the fall did not last long after that. There were many outside forces that set the ball in motion that led to their fall. With the constant invasions and sieges, Athens got weaker. Then the plague was killing off a great deal of people, including Pericles. The self inflicted wound would have been their desire to continue the unwinnable war for so long.

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