A Greek history of great plagues


“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”
Albert Camus: “The Plague”

A Melburnian friend tells the story of his grandmother’s eldest sister, who contracted Influenza during the deadly outbreak of 1918. Fearful of contagion, the family isolated their daughter in a shed and left food outside the door every day. One day, they found the food outside the door, uneaten…

Although our western bourgeois lifestyles of comfort tend to create cultural amnesia when it comes to all but a few carefully selected past experiences of privation, epidemics and contagious diseases form a significant part of the Greek historical experience. Greece was considered to have the highest prevalence of malaria among all European countries during the early twentieth century, with one of the largest epidemics, affecting 960,000 people, occurring in 1905. Indeed Malaria was endemic throughout the country up until the 1960s. Greek physician Hippocrates is considered the first to mention the term “Cholera” in his writings, and the last confirmed case of the disease was reported in 1993. Typhoid was also historically prevalent and it is considered that this was the plague (λοιμός) referred to in Thucydides histories.

Significantly, the Greeks were the first to consider the breakdown of social norms and sanctioned modes of behaviour as a result of epidemics. From selfishness, to apathy, to seeking scapegoats, the historian Thucydides, carefully recorded the fragmentation of Athenian society during the plague that afflicted Athens during the Peloponnesian War:

“Most appalling was the despondency which seized upon any one who felt himself sickening; for he instantly abandoned his mind to despair and, instead of holding out, absolutely threw away his chance of life. Appalling too was the rapidity with which men caught the infection; dying like sheep if they attended on one another;… When they were afraid to visit one another, the sufferers died in their solitude, so that many houses were empty because there had been no one left to take care of the sick…”

READ MORE: Plagues follow bad leadership in ancient Greek tales

Byzantine author Procopius, who lived through the Bubonic Plague that swept through Constantinople during the time of the Emperor Justinian, in his sophisticated and nuanced account, recorded the manner in which the City’s inhabitants either abandoned themselves to despondency, allowed the most bestial part of their nature to thrive unchecked, or cleaved together in solidarity:

“At that time all the customary rites of burial were overlooked. For the dead were not carried out escorted by a procession in the customary manner, nor were the usual chants sung over them, but it was sufficient if one carried on his shoulders the body of one of the dead to the parts of the city which bordered on the sea and flung him down;… At that time, too, those… formerly… members of the factions laid aside their mutual enmity and in common they attended to the burial rites of the dead… [T]hose who in times past… devot[ed] themselves to pursuits both shameful and base, shook off the unrighteousness of their daily lives and practised the duties of religion with diligence… being thoroughly terrified by the things which were happening, and supposing that they would die immediately, did, as was natural, learn respectability for a season by sheer necessity.”

The parallel with the recent heart-rendering story of the Neapolitan stuck at home with his dead sister because no one will come to bury her, is compelling.

READ MORE: Watch-from-home Greek theatre in the coronavirus era

We could draw from the accumulated experiences of those who have had to address similar problems before us, if it were not for the fact that we are still in thrall to a narrative that has humanity in a constant state of progress, continuously improving and thus rendering history as a guide, redundant. Yet the panic displayed in the acquisition of ordinary household items such as toilet paper, the abandonment of all civil decency as people attack each other in order to obtain hitherto unimportant resources, the manner in which the need for such resources is exploited by those who offer them at a premium, much as the black marketeers did in Greece during the Nazi occupation all suggest that civilisation, as it pertains to humanity, is constantly perched upon a knife edge. All that is required is unforeseen adversity for us to abandon any notions of civility and turn on each other. As Thucydides wrote: “…the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.”

The first victims of the paranoia accompanying such catastrophes are most often the outsiders. In ancient Athens, metics, traders and non-Athenians were blamed for introducing the plague from Ethiopia. In Australia, the manner in which Chinese Australians are accosted in streets, and portrayed as carriers of disease and vice, is disconcertingly reminiscent of portrayals of Chinese as “pests” during debates about the White Australia Policy at the time of Federation. It is remarkable and extremely disquieting to identify the endurance of the same racist discourses over the course of a century, and it is vital that, drawing on the past accumulation of experience, we come together to assist one another, avoiding the need for scapegoating.

READ MORE: Cancellation of 25 March Greek National Day parade due to coronavirus

Displaying initiative in social proactivity, the Greek community has cancelled its celebratory Independence Day march and the Greek Consulate General in Melbourne has cancelled its own National Day function. Greek society however, in seeking a scapegoating, is finding one in the Orthodox Church, centring its ire upon the act of Holy Communion and speculating that its dispensation will facilitate the spread of coronavirus. Considering that Greeks generally take communion only once or twice a year, the focus on Communion exemplifies broader, perennial fault lines within the global Greek narrative. It remains to be seen just to what extent if any, given the interest displayed in this issue by the mainstream media of late, the Church will in any way be held responsible for the spread of the disease, should the epidemic worsen.

In Albert Camus’ seminal novel, The Plague, it is an unacknowledged past or an unexpected future that returns in the form of disease to plague the present:

“So you haven’t understood yet?” Rambert shrugged his shoulders almost scornfully.
“Understood what?”
“The plague.”
“No, you haven’t understood that it means exactly that— the same thing over and over and over again.”

When they do periodically arise, epidemics highlight festering sores, dormant conflicts and simmering schisms within the body politic. Without recourse to history, we can neither plan to address these or the predictably similar reactions of the populace at large to them, over the centuries. That is why an understanding of the historical context is so vital. Because in times of crisis, when society turns in on itself, the private citizen becomes public and the individual becomes political. As Camus explains:
“Without memories, without hope, they lived for the moment only. Indeed the Here and Now had come to mean everything to them. For there is no denying that the plague had gradually killed off in all of us the faculty not of love only but even of friendship. Naturally enough, since love asks something of the future, and nothing was left us but a series of present moments.”

READ MORE: A survival guide to being quarantined with coronavirus and why self-isolation is imperative to prevent deaths

Already the cultural life of our specific and the broader community in Melbourne is becoming circumscribed with the economic toll already been felt upon Greek businesses. As a prominent ethnic community, we are placed in a unique position to advocate for priority access to medical assistance for vulnerable or underprivileged groups such as Indigenous communities and the homeless and to share our historical memories. We can be proud of the fact that a member of our community, Jenny Mikakos, as Victorian Health Minister, has shouldered the weighty obligation of seeing us through this crisis and we must do all we can to assist her. Religious controversies notwithstanding, our tradition provides ethical teachings in the form of advice by Saint Cyprian of Carthage, also a plague survivor:

“But nevertheless it disturbs some that the power of this Disease attacks our people equally with the heathens… It disturbs some that this mortality is common to us with others; and yet what is there in this world which is not common to us with others, so long as this flesh of ours still remains, according to the law of our first birth, common to us with them? So long as we are here in the world, we are associated with the human race in fleshly equality..”

No matter what happens in the future, one thing is certain. We must have the strength and resources to pull through with dignity, compassion and solidarity, for these are the hallmarks of a true community, knowing as Gabriel Garcia Marquez so eloquently put it in Love in the time of Cholera, that: “the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.”