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Ancient Plagues and Covid-19: Is History Repeating Itself?

Published 1920

"Plague in an Ancient City" by Michael Sweerts
Plague in an Ancient City by Michael Sweerts (1618–1664)

Angelos Chaniotis is Professor of Ancient History and Classics in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute of Advanced Study. His research encompasses the social, cultural, religious, and economic history of the Hellenic world and the Roman East. Most recently, he has focused on the role of emotion, memory, and identity in history. He spoke with Joanne Lipman, IAS Distinguished Journalism Fellow, about the parallels between ancient plagues and today’s Covid pandemic. This conversation was conducted on April 14, 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity.


Joanne Lipman: What kind of historical research are you doing at IAS, and how might that apply to the world today?

Angelos Chaniotis: Both issues are actually connected, because as an ancient historian I am always trying to discover some ways to create a dialogue between what I do—research of the past—and what happens today. What I do in my research has a lot of similarities with the current world.

JL: You recently wrote a piece comparing ancient plagues to the current coronavirus pandemic. Can you elaborate?

AC: The first detailed account about a major epidemic is by Thucydides, who was writing around 400 B.C.E., narrating events that occurred in 430 B.C.E. The disease came from Egypt to Athens. It was devastating, but it didn’t spread throughout the Mediterranean. It affected some other places, but it was limited to a relatively small area.

JL: And Thucydides caught the plague as well?

AC: He had it. And this is very valuable, because he describes the symptoms; in this way modern doctors try to identify what kind of a disease it was. Most probably, typhoid fever, but there are scholars who suspect that it might have been a form of what we today would call Ebola, a viral disease.

What is interesting in the case of Thucydides is the fact that he is the first human being, as far as we know, who does not only describe a disease but also the massive impact it has on behavior. He describes, for instance, how people stopped paying attention to burial practices. They were just disposing of the corpses, because there were so many. And this of course reminds us of images that we have seen in Italy or Spain, with all those convoys transporting corpses, with people not having the ability to say the last goodbye to their loved ones.

What Thucydides does not describe, but it is something that we notice a few years after the ‘plague,’ is a return to religion. The cult of Asclepius, the god of medicine, was introduced to Athens as a result precisely of this disease, approximately ten years after the epidemic. The hope was that the god is going to cure people and will avert further disease.

And it is interesting that even intellectuals can be influenced by this trend, because the person who was responsible for the introduction of this cult is no other than the tragic poet Sophocles. Sophocles is the one who took the statue of Asclepius in his house and offered hospitality, so to say, to the new god until the god’s sanctuary was built.

I think that these are striking examples of how, in our case, a pandemic may influence our behavior. I am not a prophet—and the pandemic is not over yet—so I cannot tell you what impact it will have, but there is certainly going to be an influence.

JL: People turned more toward religion after the plague. Do you see that happening now?

AC: The interesting thing about these diseases is that you can observe very contrasting, conflicting behaviors. Some people turn to religion because they think a disease is punishment for sins. It is the gods’ divine punishment, so to say. Others think that if both just and unjust die alike because of the disease, then gods do not exist, because if gods existed, they would have made a distinction.

Some people show solidarity and care. Thucydides describes such cases. The people who first died were the people who were actually caring for others and were trying to offer help. And then, you have the opposite response, which is egoism: “I’m going to die, so why shouldn’t I just enjoy life as long as I live and spend all my fortune on luxurious parties, dancing girls, and so on, because how long am I going to last?”

This is exactly what we also find in terms of responses today. On the one hand, the egoistic, hamster mentality: “Let me buy as much toilet paper as I can.” But on the other hand, you also find a lot of cases of solidarity: “How can I make a difference in this time? How can I help others?”

JL: You’ve also talked about the importance of globalization—and the dangers of isolationism—in a time of plague.

AC: I work on Greek history from the time of Alexander the Great, who conquered part of the then-known world, to late antiquity. That is a time that in many ways is very similar to globalization. We speak about six degrees of separation: Everyone is separated by six degrees from the president of the United States. And the first time in ancient history that we can claim that something similar existed is the time after Alexander the Great.

What irritates me is the fact that sometimes people treat globalization not as a historical phenomenon but as a disease that can be cured. And this creates the idea of isolation—for instance, that one can build walls that separate one country from the rest of the world.

This is absolutely ahistorical and wrong. A virus doesn’t have a passport, couldn’t care less whether you have a travel ban or whatever. I am devoted to the idea of a European Union. And I was extremely disappointed by the fact that the countries that are members of the European Union refuse to cooperate in the crisis.

There’s a lack of coordination and lack of solidarity. For instance, some countries have closed the borders; others have not. In some countries people are supposed to wear masks; in other countries they are not. And this is a patchwork of measures that do not add up to a coordinated, coherent response to a problem that all of these countries face alike.

JL: Where do you see the strongest parallels between the ancient world and today in terms of response to a pandemic?

AC: I think that the strongest similarity is in conspiracy theories. That is, the effort to attribute this to something that is beyond your control and you could have never foreseen, and therefore you should not be held responsible for. In a sense, it is an escape from reality, because actually, the signs about the disease came out relatively early and they were ignored. They were ignored in China. They were ignored in Europe. They were ignored in the United States.

So, the easy way to escape responsibility is to say, “The Chinese let it out from a laboratory. This is an effort to ruin the American economy and restart again,” and so on. Can I prove that this is wrong? Of course I can’t. But the fact remains that there were warnings that were ignored.

This response can also be psychologically explained, because the reactions of human beings to such a crisis are very similar to the reactions that we have towards death. First, it’s denial: you refuse to believe that this is happening. Then, it is anger: you want to find who is responsible. Indignation: someone must be to blame. Then, it’s becoming passive. This is the typical situation. “What am I to do?” and so on. And then, you just roll up your sleeves and you get to work in order to face the problem.

And I think that we are actually experiencing all of these responses through the pandemic.

JL: What can we learn from the ancient world that would help us solve today’s problems?

AC: What we learned from the ancient world is more about how to avoid mistakes than how to find the correct solutions. The ancient world does not provide solutions. What it provides is food for thought. It triggers questions.

For instance, the fact that I as an ancient historian am looking at the problem of federalism, the problem of the discrepancy between science and government, or science and superstition, the different responses to this situation, is because I am looking at this phenomenon of one or perhaps two years from the perspective of a history of thousands of years. And this usually gives you a different perspective.

So, what ancient history provides is not answers, is not prophecies, is not remedies, but it provides an approach, a point of view towards modern problems.

This does not only apply to the epidemic; it applies to populism, for instance. There is not an exact equivalent of populism in antiquity, but demagogy is a word that was created in ancient Athens precisely because of the existence of populists. We cannot find exact parallels, but we can observe a phenomenon and be more prepared to detect similar phenomena in our world.

JL: What do you mean by demagogy?

AC: It’s from demos, which means “the people,” and ago, which means “to lead.” The word was created in the fifth century B.C.E. It’s not “to lead” in the sense of being a leader. It is used more in the sense you lead a mule, it is “to drive.” Not to lead the people as an elected leader, but to drive the people by creating enemies that do not exist, by manipulating emotions, by using fear in some cases, hope in some others, indignation against imaginary culprits, and so on and so forth. These are typical features of demagogy.

The demagogue uses means of persuasion which seem to be logical but are not necessarily based on truth. Another feature of the demagogue is to try to create a balance between affability and distance. Trump is a very good example of that. He is a multimillionaire but he claims that he cares for the mine workers. He has never served in the army but he puts America first. I can go on and on.

So, this is the desired balance: on the one hand, to show to the people “I am one of you, I understand your concerns, I am the one who cares,” and at the same time be distant enough in order to provoke respect.

JL: Do demagogues historically gain strength during a plague?

AC: In times of crisis people are more likely to follow a populist leader, but populism and demagogy exist in all times. For instance, in Athens, it was thriving during the greatest war that the Athenians had to face, and a war that they lost: the Peloponnesian War.

Everything works fine as long as the populist leader or the demagogue is able to fulfill the promises that he gives. The moment this doesn’t happen—media in Turkey supporting Erdoğan claimed for instance that the Turks are immune to the coronavirus because of their DNA, Trump in the United States called the virus a hoax—if they cannot deliver, if people see that their relatives, the people that they know die, if they see that the economy is not working, if they see with their own eyes that there is a problem, then the demagogue may lose his mask and may collapse.

Of course, the inherent problem of demagogy is it trains people to think in terms of adversaries and enemies. The last weapon of the demagogue in all these cases, is to say, “It’s actually not my fault. It is the fault of the others. It is the fault of the medical doctors who didn’t give me the proper advice. It is the fault of the Chinese. It is the fault of the rest of the world. I actually was telling the truth, but everybody else is to blame.”

This is one of the few predictions that I can make. This is precisely what we are going to see in the future with all statesmen that did not behave in a responsible way. They will try to find the scapegoats for their own failures.

JL: What are your expectations as we go forward?

AC: The pessimist in me tells me that all this is going to be forgotten in a few years from now, and we will be back in business as usual. We are not going to take the necessary lessons that we ought to take, which is strengthening intergovernmental organizations.

One day after my article was published on the Institute website, Trump threatened to stop funding the World Health Organization. I think this tells it all. I was pleading for more support and less suspicion and not undermining this organization. And we have exactly the opposite. We can only change this, if we take the necessary measures now, while this is still fresh, while this still affects us, and do not wait until the cure is found and the vaccine is found, because then no one will think of strengthening the World Health Organization. People will forget what happened.

The modern world reminds me of one of these disaster movies of Hollywood, where scientists predict that something horrible is going to happen—either a volcano or a meteorite falling on the Earth—and they are ignored. In the Hollywood movies, there is always a happy ending. People realize that and there is international cooperation to face the extraterrestrials or whatever. In history, happy endings are not guaranteed.