From Guinea to the Peloponnesian War: tracing the devastation of the Ebola virus

Panic has hit the Guinean capital of Conakry after fears grew that the lethal Ebola virus may have spread from the remote rainforest region in the south of the country, where at least 59 people have died. Whilst tests on suspected case victims in the capital have come back negative for Ebola, citizens are on high hygiene alert in a bid to stave off the advance of the disease.

A little-understood virus with no definitive cure, Ebola has only really been documented since the 1970s, with nearly all suspected cases occurring in sub-Saharan Africa. Whilst bats are thought to be the carriers of the virus, further research awaits.

Some Fruit Bats at are thought to be a reservoir species of the Ebola virus
Some Fruit Bats at are thought to be a reservoir species of the Ebola virus

Surprisingly, a suggestion for an historic incidence of the Ebola virus is the Plague of Athens, which killed approximately one-third of the Greek capital’s population during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC).

Thucydides describes the plague in detail in his remarkable The History of the Peloponnesian War:

A plague so great as this, and so dreadful a calamity, in human memory could not be parallelled. The physicians at first could administer no relief, through utter ignorance; nay, they died the fastest, the closer their attendance on the sick, and all human art was totally unavailing. Whatever supplications were offered in the temples, whatever recourse to oracles and religious rites, all were insignificant; at last, expedients of this nature they totally relinquished, overpowered by calamity. (Thucydides, 1818, p.153)

The Plague of Athens led many to question their belief in the Gods
The Plague of Athens led many to question their belief in the Gods

The disease clearly spread quickly to those working in close proximity of the infected (a not unusual occurrence with highly-contagious viruses) and doctors were completely baffled. More interestingly:

It broke out first, as it is said, in that part of Ethiopia which borders upon Egypt; it afterwards spread into Egypt and Libya, and from thence it on a sudden fell on the city of the Athenians. (Ibid, p.153)

Even in an age of restricted international movement the plague had been traced as far south as Ethiopia. It is certainly possible that its origin was even further south. Additionally, the description of the symptoms are strikingly similar to those exhibited by people suffering from the Ebola virus:

But those who enjoyed the most perfect health were suddenly, without any apparent cause, seized at first with headaches extremely violent, with inflammations, and fiery redness in the eyes. Within – the throat and tongue began instantly to be as red as blood; the breath was drawn with difficulty and had a noisome smell…When once settled in the stomach, it excited vomitings, in which was thrown up all that matter physicians call discharges of bile, attended with excessive torture. (Ibid, p. 154)

It is easy to why some people have postulated the idea that the Plague of Athens was actually a case of Ebola virus (or at least something remarkably similar). The high fatality rate quickly devastated the city, descriptions of the symptoms are consistent with internal hemorrhaging and the swift transmission of the disease to caregivers is typical of a Viral Hemorrhagic Fever (VHF) such as Ebola.

That the plague spread from Athens to ravage much of the Eastern Mediterranean shows its potency. In a globalised world with rapid transit routes, the grave fear remains that such a virus can spread internationally in a matter of days.

In densely-packed capital cities, the Ebola virus could spread rapidly
In densely-packed capital cities, the Ebola virus could spread rapidly

The Plague of Athens may have been critical in contributing to the defeat of the Delian League during the Peloponnesian War. Whilst no such political stakes are at play in Guinea, for the people of Conakry and neighbouring settlements, their fears are unlikely to be alleviated quickly.


Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War (Philadelphia, 1818)

Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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