Greece in the News: Was the Athenian plague ebola?

TLDR version: who knows?

The Atlantic asked the question earlier this week, sort of provocatively. They’re aware that ebola has been suggested before, along with several other diseases. They’re aware that there’s basically no chance of discovering viral pathogens in ancient evidence, so we’ve only got Thucydides to go on. And they even seem to be aware that there are some reasons we shouldn’t trust Thucydides. But why spoil the fun when you can make history seem relevant?

I do think they do classics a disservice by only interviewing scientists for this article. There are more reasons to be suspicious of Thucydides’ description of the plague than just the fact that he wasn’t a physician (because, really, staff at The Atlantic: do you think the guys who invented geographic determinism and talked about wandering wombs were capable of diagnosing ebola?). What about the connection between the plague and the moral downfall of Athens? The detail that the Athenians are vomiting blood can be moralizing, not factual. Do doctors also go looking for specifics of the Black Death in the Decameron?

In a way, I get what The Atlantic is doing: there was a trendy study, they picked up on it, they did some due diligence in what seemed to be its field, and they have deadlines and content quotas to fill. But I’m still left nonplussed by the failure to interview an expert on the only thing all of the men (and incidentally, why were all of the experts men?) interviewed claimed was essential: Thucydides’ History. To me, this oversight is a pretty clear sign of how undervalued the humanities disciplines are by traditional media, even though I suspect that the author and his editors have humanities degrees.

But that’s probably speculation for another day. In the meantime, I’m sticking with my firm belief that the plague was some form of dysentery, caused by overcrowding in Athens when the farmers moved inside the walls to escape Spartan raids. And the best part? I have just as much evidence as the scientists.

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