You are here

Routes of the Plague in Homer’s Iliad, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War

Pantelis Michelakis

University of Bristol

This paper focuses on how the plague moves through the spatial coordinates of three of the earliest and most canonical narratives of epidemic disease in Western literature: Homer’s Iliad (1-487), Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (1-215) and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (2.47.3-2.54). The paper undertakes an examination of some of the key strategies the three narratives employ for their representation of the movement of the plague through space with two aims. First, it argues that the movement of the plague is disruptive for narrative as a static structure of physically and symbolically distinct and autonomous spaces but also formative for narrative as a dynamic network of spaces that are porous and interconnected. Second, it argues that we cannot fully account for the transformative power of plague narratives without focusing on spatial operations which, rather than protecting the boundaries of the narrative, bridge the divide between the world of the narrative and the world of its readers, listeners or spectators.

Since Siegfried’s seminal Routes of Contagion (1965), the role of geography and topography in the spread of epidemic disease has been firmly established in a range of areas from biopolitics to big data modeling and social network analysis (Sampson, Mitchell, Wald). Although the relationship between an environment and the spread of disease in the Greco-Roman world was debated among medical writers and has consequently received scholarly attention (e.g., Nutton 1983, Baker, Nijdam, & van 't Land 2012), the role of space in representations of the plague in other types of narrative has been largely neglected. Bringing into contact recent work on space in Greek literature (de Jong 2012, Purves 2010, Montiglio 2005, Tsagalis 2012, Strauss Clay 2011, Gilhuly & Worman 2014) and work on the epidemic logic of networks and storytelling (Sampson 2012, Ingold 2011), this paper argues that semiotic and narratological approaches to space need to be recontextualized and better understood as part of a broader inquiry into narrative ways of building story worlds.

A selective comparison of archaic and classical Greek accounts of the plague shows that, for all their differences, epic, tragedy and historiography associate disease with superhuman forms of agency that travel through geographical spaces which double as social networks. They travel along the vertical routes followed by gods, prayers, smoke, and smells, and along the horizontal networks followed by sharp arrows, the traffic in prizes of war, and information. The plague exposes and hijacks the porosity of spaces whose physical boundaries and symbolic identities are conventionally perceived to be stable and autonomous. What is more, it exposes and exploits their connectivity, drawing attention to the channels or routes that relate them to one another: the space between mortals and gods, sea routes of trade and the military, the material infrastructure of the city (ports, walls, wells, fountains, temples, open spaces accommodating temporary housing), and human resources consisting of assemblages of people (leaders and ordinary soldiers, citizens, physicians, friends, relatives) and body organs.

If engaging with narrative is conventionally conceptualized as a journey (Mikkonen 2007), plague narratives revisit and rework representational strategies for the depiction of space in motion. The listener, reader or spectator becomes a proxy-witness of the devastation brought about by the plague by retracing two types of movement: a horizontal one, associated with the victims of the plague, but also a vertical one, based on aerial paths or paths within the human body, associated with the plague itself. The theme of the plague mediates between perceptual reality and linguistic imagination as well as between meaningful signals and noise; in doing so it gives shape to story worlds in which embodied and disembodied ways of obtaining knowledge coexist and interconnect. Plague narratives foreground connectivity and relationality not only as the physical and social conditions for the outbreak of epidemic disease but also as narrative conditions for how a story comes together as an event.

Session/Panel Title

Contagious Narrative

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy