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Unnamed Victims and Named Survivors in Greek Plague Narratives

Jennifer B. Clarke Kosak

Bowdoin College

Plague, as represented in archaic and classical Greek sources, is an extreme test of social strength and cohesion, but despite its unrelenting viciousness, it kills, apparently, only the nameless. So in Greek literary plague narratives, heroes respond to the plague that they see around them through intercessions of the gods, but they themselves are not subject to the disease. Such literary narratives often implicate the elite in the cause of the disease, emphasizing their responsibility for the wellbeing of others rather than their susceptibility to illness; thereafter, however, the remediation of the disease often becomes subordinated to the interests of the elite. Thus, Agamemnon’s refusal to return Chryseis to her father in Iliad 1 causes Apollo to smite the Greek army with plague-causing arrows until Agamemnon is finally forced to give Chryseis back and orders the army to purify itself (1.312); the poem implies that these actions remedy the plague, but the plague itself becomes secondary to the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon (1.318-19). The plague in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus is clearly connected to Oedipus’ polluted presence in the land; at the same time, while he claims in the opening scene to “know well...that there is no one of you as sick as I am” (59-61), he does not seem to be physically sick from the plague nor to recognize his role in causing it, and, as the play shifts focus increasingly to Oedipus’ own horrific actions and passions, the suffering of the anonymous citizens fades from view as Oedipus’ unique dysfunction takes center stage. Scholars (e.g., Girard 1974, Blickman 1987, Meinel 2015) have explored the intense social disruption and the role of the elite in fictional plague narratives, but the question of individual survival in contrast to mass dying deserves more attention.

This paper argues that the dynamic of elite survival in the midst of mass death influenced historical and technical accounts of plague in the Greek classical period. Thucydides, who establishes his credentials in providing an accurate description of the disease by pointing out that he had personal experience of it (2.48.3), nevertheless does not detail his own symptoms, but gives a third-person account of the general characteristics and effects of the disease as suffered by the nameless masses (moreover, the nameless survivors often act in ways that Thucydides surely would not admit to doing himself). Furthermore, although the structure of this section of book II (funeral oration—plague narrative—last speech and ‘obituary’) clearly connects both Pericles’ death and his policies to the plague, Thucydides, pointedly, states only the time and not the specific cause of Pericles’ demise (2.65.6; by contrast, Plutarch, writing much later, maintains that Pericles did die of the plague, although the disease described is most un-plague-like in its symptoms [Vit. Per. 38]). For Thucydides, the scientific imperative of accuracy and personal experience may conflict with the narrative imperative of anonymous suffering vs. heroic survival. The medical writers in the Hippocratic Corpus never describe plague in detail, nor do they attribute individual deaths to the plague in any case histories; in the rare instances where they discuss the plague, they focus on its proliferation and transmission through large swathes of air, along with its widespread and indiscriminate attacks (cf. Flat. 6; Reg. Acut. 2; Nat. Hom. 9). The promiscuous nature of the plague offered little scope for intervention to these medical practitioners, who operated under a model that located disease causation in the interaction of a specific individual with particular factors in the environment. Thus, even if healers did attempt to cure patients suffering from the plague (as Thucydides claims), their understanding of plague as a disease of the many may have arguably kept it out of serious consideration in their writings. Hellenistic and Roman-era accounts that Hippocrates tried to prevent, and actually cured, plague (cf. Jouanna 1999; Pinault 1986) continue the tradition regarding select individuals who survive what kills the unnamed masses.

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Contagious Narrative

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