Texts in Context:
The Visitation of the Furies

By Gabriel Blanchard

"Pride goeth"; and what pride Athens had had.


We left Athens in the year 431 BC, at the height of her literary glory, architectural and artistic accomplishment, and political prestige; Pericles had just persuaded the city to declare war on Sparta. This was facilitated by the Long Walls: a little under four miles long, these reached from Athens proper all the way down to the Athenian port-city, Piræus.* In this way, the city became (as they thought) virtually invincible. The only real way to conquer a city with sound walls was to starve it out via siege,** but the Athenian navy—the best navy possessed by any nation known to the peoples of Hellas—now had a way to supply the city, even if all Attica were penned in. Small wonder that Pericles’ most celebrated speech, the Funeral Oration, dwells more on the greatness of Athens than upon her dead.

Ironically, Athens’ excellent navy was part of the problem. Most city-states that had a military worth speaking of were land-based, but ships are not well-suited for traversing land; conversely, hoplites, especially once armed and armored for battle, show a distinct tendency to sink to the bottom of the ocean, even when placed on its very top and told to fight a trireme. In other words, the two fighting forces couldn’t really get near each other.

Something else, however, could: a parasite. It may have been a virus, e.g. a form of viral hemorrhagic fever (the family of diseases that includes Ebola); typhus, caused by a bacterium, is a candidate; no one knows for certain what caused the infamous Plague of Athens. It was against its background that Thucydides was shaped; he remains our chief source for the course of the war, and describes the disease in Book II of his history in ghastly detail. We relate only a little here.

People in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody … after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. … Internally it burned so that the patient could not bear to have on him clothing … What they would have liked best would have been to throw themselves into cold water; as indeed was done by some … who plunged into the rain-tanks in their agonies of unquenchable thirst; though it made no difference whether they drank little or much. Besides this, the miserable feeling of not being able to rest or sleep never ceased to torment them. … Some died in neglect, others in the midst of every attention. No remedy was found … for what did good in one case, did harm in another. Strong and weak constitutions proved equally incapable of resistance …

Whatever it was, it first struck in 430 BC. Pericles himself and his sons died of it. It returned in 429, and again in 427. The low estimates place casualties at a quarter of the populace; the highest, as far as two thirds. And after 426, it vanished.


With the plague had gone, the Athenians—now deprived of some of their most experienced leaders—became more aggressive against the Spartans; shockingly, this paid off. In fact, at the Battle of Sphacteria in 425, the unheard-of happened: a force of Spartans (and as if for poetry’s sake, three hundred of them) surrendered. A truce of sorts was called in 421—though somehow, the largest land battle of the war was fought right in the middle of this “truce.” Perhaps they forgot. In any case, it was not that which introduced the second phase of the Peloponnesian War, but a fresh and this time military disaster: the Sicilian Expedition.

The last scion of the Alcmæonids—on the distaff side, like Pericles—was then in his middle thirties, named Alcibiades. He was a man of immense good looks and charm; unfortunately, he knew it, and was as notorious for his conceit and unruliness as he was for his handsomeness and, to do him justice, bravery. Socrates was one of his tutors in youth (Xenophon† claimed the philosopher had hoped, in vain, to turn him to the path of virtue), and saved his life in battle; Alcibiades was not only grateful but returned the favor, saving Socrates in battle in turn eight years later.

When a plea for aid arrived from a city in Sicily in 415 BC, Alcibiades was all in favor. He believed this expedition could be made the beginning of a full-blown conquest of Sicily, vastly increasing Athens’ wealth and resources. The city assented, putting him and two others in charge. And then, the very night before the expedition was meant to leave, all over the city, a massive number of herms (shrines to the god Hermes) were defaced—and Alcibiades was promptly accused of instigating it. He asked to stand trial immediately so the expedition could proceed as smoothly as possible; his enemies, however, persuaded the assembly to send out the force as planned, and recall him later “if necessary” to stand trial.

Blindly confident in the future, and full of hopes beyond their powers (though not beyond their ambition), they declared war, deciding to prefer might to right; their attack was determined not by outside provocation, but by what moment seemed to serve their advantage.

To no one’s surprise, Alcibiades was recalled; a little surprisingly, it was as soon as he reached Sicily. He told the ship waiting to take him that he would return in his own, left the Athenian invasion under the command of the other generals, and set sail—for Sparta, to which he promptly betrayed Athens and its plans.

The Sicilian Expedition, meanwhile, was an unprecedented disaster. Counting reinforcements sent in 414 and 413, the Athenians sent something close to twelve thousand men out to conquer Sicily. None returned.


Thanks to Alcibiades’ advice, the Spartans built an outpost at Decelea, a village north of Athens, with two effects. First, its people had to live permanently within the Long Walls, dependent solely on trade by sea for food (which was more expensive than overland shipping and far less efficient than agriculture). Second, they were now cut off from the silver mines they had hitherto relied on. To stay solvent, Athens needed to ramp up the tribute it collected from its imperial subje-that is, allies in the Delian League. Revolts soon broke out, both in the empire and at home. In 411 BC, a group of aristocrats overthrew the democracy, appointing a government by their own new Council of Four Hundred; racked‡ by internal divisions, it lasted less than two years before being overthrown itself.

Following a shocking Athenian victory the next year—led by Alcibiades of all people! (long story)—the democracy was restored. Under the continued leadership of Alcibiades, the war continued seeming like it had been a good idea for years, until a defeat provoked the city to withdraw Alcibiades’ authority. He exiled himself, never to return. In 406, the Spartans even sued for peace, and were refused. Perhaps in the long run they were grateful for that: at the Battle of Ægospotami the next year, Sparta, aided by Corinth and several other Peloponnesian cities, destroyed the Athenian fleet. The entire Athenian fleet. Athens could no longer make war, communicate, or even feed herself.

Death, And Hell With Him

At long, long last, in the year 404 BC, the Athenians surrendered to Sparta. Thebes and Corinth, cities with old, bitter rivalries with Athens, proposed that the city be razed to the ground and its populace enslaved; Sparta nobly refused, on the grounds that they would not thus disgrace a state which had served the Hellene cause so courageously in the war against Persia. Nevertheless, the city’s walls were destroyed, and she was required thenceforth to limit her navy to a mere twelve ships and to align herself with Sparta in foreign affairs.

Oh, and one more thing. No more of this hysterically Ionian “democracy” stuff what got us into this mess in the first place, understood? You’ll be an oligarchy and like it, just like every other Hellene city-state. So before they left, the Spartans installed another aristocratic government, this time a group of thirty. It is hard to say; but the Athenians may have preferred for themselves and their descendants to be enslaved rather than condemned to live, even briefly, under rule of the men who would be known to history as the Thirty Tyrants.

*It was not uncommon for large cities in the ancient world to have one or more “satellite” cities, especially port cities; these were often referred to as part of the metropolis, but might be technically distinct and referred to as such. Besides Athens and Piræus, Rome and Ostia serve as an example.
**Siege engines were not unknown at this time, but most Greeks were familiar with few and possessed fewer—hardly anything more sophisticated than the battering ram.
†Xenophon (c. 430-354 BC) was a soldier, philosopher, and political theorist. He is our only source about the life and person of Socrates who had actually met the man aside from Plato (and possibly Aristophanes, though as The Clouds was comedy rather than history, he isn’t usually counted).
‡As in the phrase “to place upon the rack” (one of the few medieval torture devices that really existed, albeit originating long before the Middle Ages). This is often confused with the verb to wrack and its noun wrack, both of which mean “torment” or “destroy/destruction,” as in the phrase “wrack and ruin.” Given the similar meanings and identical pronunciations of rack and wrack, even style manuals seem to have given up on the distinction; but, for those to whom there is no cause higher than inquisition into purposeless minutia, there is a technically-correct answer to be racked out of this.

A Classicist by training and a proud uncle to seven nephews, Gabriel Blanchard hardly ever declares war on his former Spartan allies. He has worked for CLT since 2019, serving as its editor at large; he lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, check out some of our other content here at the Journal, like these introductions to the lives and works of Origen, Dante, Herman Melville, and Toni Morrison, or this post on studying smarter, not harder. Thank you for reading the Journal and supporting the Classic Learning Test.

Published on 8th July, 2024. Page image of Plague in an Ancient City by Michiel Sweerts (painted ca. 1652), thought to have reference to the plague of Athens particularly.

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