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)

France Eschews Tradition: clampdown on African elite’s ill-gotten Paris gains

Teodorin Nguema Obiang Mangue, the son of Equatorial Guinea’s leaders and one of the country’s vice-presidents, is under formal investigation in France for massive money-laundering. Obiang has used money plundered from his state’s oil-bolstered coffers, it is argued, to invest in Parisian property worth more than $100m, in addition to other luxuries.

Some of Obiang's luxury cars have already been impounded
Some of Obiang’s luxury cars have already been impounded

Such practice is common amongst the kleptocratic political elite of Françafrique. (Whilst Equatorial Guinea was formerly a Spanish colony, it is a member of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) and has strong post-independence ties with Paris). Perhaps the best example from recent history is Omar Bongo, the long-serving President of Gabon.

Omar Bongo was only the second president of an independent Gabon, a former French colony. He ruled from 1967 until his death in 2009, during which time he accrued an enormous personal fortune through the embezzlement of government funds, particularly benefiting from oil revenues and profits from mineral extraction. He built-up an impressive property portfolio in Paris through his ill-gotten gains, owning at least 33 properties throughout France, in addition to a fleet of cars and luxury jets.

Throughout his rule, Bongo was unequivocally supported by the French authorities who found him a complicit accomplice in their goal to retain influence in West Africa, where most of their former colonies on the continent lie. Through showering patronage on a new generation of African leaders, turning a blind eye to their excesses (both at home and in France), and undermining opposition forces to their chosen leaders’ rules, the French managed to avoid accusations over the more distasteful elements of their colonisation, something they failed to achieve in North Africa.

Bongo (second from left) enjoyed the patronage of Jacques Chirac and other French leaders
Bongo (second from left) enjoyed the patronage of Jacques Chirac and other French leaders

Only in 2009, shortly before his death, was Bongo investigated for the questionable acquisition of his French wealth. By that time, after several spells in hospital away from Gabon, he was of little use to French politicians. Since his death, Franco-Gabonese relations have deteriorated.

Why then the change for France now? Both Obiang’s father and the President of Congo-Brazzaville face inquiries into their French estates. Perhaps the French have tired of their chosen dictators’ unpredictability. Maybe they wish to follow the American path of creating a grateful liberal democratic order, whose inclusiveness will provoke a debt of gratitude. Are they seeking to inspire a new generation of ‘honest’ West African politicians who will not be tempted by the promising advances of Chinese wealth?

Either way, Françafrique has not run its course but the stakes have changed. Ordinary Parisians have tired of living side-by-side with criminal African leaders. The presence of the likes of Obiang and Bongo is an embarrassment to a French government desperately trying to retain a sense of moral authority in the EU.

Whether their investigations amount to anything, and whether a new generation of West African leaders emerges, will have a bearing on the future of French neocolonialism.