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date: 17 April 2021


  • Robert Sallares

Plague (λοιμός‎‎ Lat. pestis), a term confusingly employed by ancient historians to designate epidemics of infectious diseases. Epidemics in antiquity were not necessarily caused by the disease now called plague (Yersinia pestis), although Rufus of Ephesus cites some evidence for true plague in Hellenistic Egypt and Syria. True plague was also the cause of the plague of Justinian in the 6th cent. ce. The major epidemic diseases are density-dependent. The ‘plague of Athens’ (see below) was an isolated event in Greek history, but there is more evidence for great epidemics during the Roman Empire. This increase in frequency was a consequence of population growth in antiquity. Most of the epidemics described by Roman historians, e.g. Livy who relied on the annalistic tradition, are described so briefly that there is no hope of identifying the diseases in question. Epidemics are neglected in the major theoretical works of ancient medicine (the Hippocratic corpus (see hippocrates(2)) and Galen) because doctors had no knowledge of the existence of micro-organisms and had difficulty applying the types of explanation they favoured (in terms of the diet and lifestyle of individuals; also, later, the theory of the four humours) to mass outbreaks of disease.

Thucydides (2) (2. 47–58, 3. 87) described the so-called ‘plague of Athens’ (430–426 bce), the most famous epidemic in antiquity. Unfortunately there is no agreement regarding the identification of the disease. Around 30 different diseases have been suggested as the cause. Most of these are highly implausible, either because they do not correspond to Thucydides' description, or because they cannot be transmitted in such a way as to cause large epidemics. Epidemic typhus and smallpox are the strongest candidates, but true plague has also attracted a considerable number of advocates, along with the hypothesis that the disease organism is now extinct. Thucydides recognized the role of contagion in transmitting the infection.

The second famous plague in antiquity was the ‘Antonine plague’, which attacked the Roman empire in the 2nd cent. ce. Galen, the main source, does not provide a comprehensive description, but gives details which permit a more definite resolution of the problem than in the case of the ‘plague of Athens’: this evidence indicates smallpox. Subsequently there were other great epidemics, e.g. the ‘plague of Cyprian’ in the 3rd cent. ce. However, the descriptions are so inadequate that it is impossible to identify them. Typhus and smallpox were probably the most important causes of epidemics in antiquity.


  • J. R. Sallares, The Ecology of the Ancient Greek World (1991).
  • M. D. Grmek, Diseases in the Ancient Greek World (1989. Fr. orig. 1983).
  • D. F. Rijkels, Agnosis en Diagnosis (2005).
  • L. K. Little (ed.), Plague and the End of Antiquity (2007).
  • R. Mitchell-Boyask, Plague and the Athenian Imagination (2008).