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A Deeper Look into the Quarries at Syracuse: Thucydides 7.84-7 in Connection to the Plague

Holly Maggiore

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides connects the massacre at the river in Sicily (7.84) and the subsequent imprisonment of the Athenians in the quarry (7.87) to his description of the plague in Book II. Both linguistic ties and imagery link all three passages. Unifying threads of these episodes include the totality of suffering (where all of Athens is affected), overwhelming crowding, and a lack of basic necessities. Moreover, Thucydides links the passages with the imagery of descent, namely a καταβασις. Though many scholars have analyzed the unity of the History, few note that the massacre and the quarry together recall the description of plague.

In both Books II and VII, a universal suffering is experienced by those afflicted by the plague, those massacred at the river, and those in the quarries. Thucydides expresses the universality through his choice of words and the use of superlatives. Thucydides repeats ‘πάν’ (all), ‘πανταχόθεν’ (from everywhere), ‘μάλιστα’ (especially), ‘πολλοί’ (most or the many) throughout Book II. He also shows this at the end of account of the plague where Athens especially, was the hardest hit by the plague due to it being the most populated (Ἀθήνας μὲν μάλιστα, ἔπειτα…τὰ πολυανθρωπότατα. 2.54.5). In Book VII, such use of superlatives is used during the massacre and the quarry. Thucydides notes how the Athenian army is constantly harassed by the Syracusans from everywhere (πανταχόθεν ἔβαλλον, 7.83.3, πανταχόθεν βάλλοντές, 7.84.1). He calls the Sicilian Campaign in its entirety the greatest event of the Peloponnesian Wars (ξυνέβη τε ἔργον τοῦτο [Ἑλληνικὸν] τῶν κατὰ τὸν πόλεμον τόνδε μέγιστον γενέσθαι 7.87.5). This passage is full of superlatives and Thucydides makes a point to show that there was no greater suffering for the Athenians.

Closely tied with the universal suffering of the three episodes is the crowding of the men and what accompanies that crowding – the lack of supplies. The Athenians during the plague, were especially affected since they were exposed to the elements – they had no homes of their own within the city and had to stay in make-shift huts (2.52.2). This lack of a home is picked up in Book VII where the Athenians in the quarry are exposed to the elements due to there being no roof (7.87.1). The Athenians at the river are without supplies and necessities and are therefore susceptible to attack or a greater suffering – a disease much like the plague.

To describe the plague, Thucydides uses a top-down approach to show the aspect of descent and the ensuing lack of order that accompanies it. When the plague first breaks out, it is portrayed as descending upon the countries it affected - ἐς Αἴγυπτον καὶ Λιβύην κατέβη (2.48.1) but attacks the Acropolis of Athens (2.48.2). This ascension enables the plague to take its full effect on the city as it makes its descent. The plague’s symptoms follow this imagery as it attacks the head first before descending into the chest and moving down in the intestines (2.49). The plague also brought lawlessness when the Athenians saw that customs were not being observed. They saw the quick change of fortune (one could be alive one day and dead the next) which caused them to think more for their own interests and pleasures (2.52-3). In Book VII, the Athenian army is attacked from above by the Syracusans and are eventually led down into the quarries (κατεβίβασαν ἐς τὰς λιθοτομίας, 7.86.1). The Athenian army also shows lawlessness when they rush to the river out of desire for water with no order (7.84.2-3). Just like the plague, the desire for water and fear from the enemy caused the army to forget their station and think in the immediate present to fulfill their own pleasure.

Thucydides uses this idea of καταβασις to connect the events in Sicily with the account of the plague to show both a literal and figurative descent of the Athenians.

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Athenian Unity?

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