Man in the Face of an Epidemic – Thucydides and Procopius of Caesarea


Abstract

There is almost one thousand years’ time span between two dramatic situations connected with an outbreak of an epidemic described by Thucydides and Procopius of Caesarea. Both authors were eye witnesses to the events they describe, what is more, Thucydides became infected himself, but managed to survive that mysterious disease, which fell on the inhabitants of Attica during the first years of the Peloponnesian War. Procopius, following Thucydides’ description, presents most probably the first case of the bubonic plague in Europe, which had a significantly greater impact on the lives of Constantinople’s inhabitants as well as of the entire Byzantine Empire not only in the 6th century A.D., but also in the centuries to follow. The description by Thucydides, which is concise and contains specialist medical terminology, provides not only a thorough picture of the very symptoms of that disease, but also depicts before the reader’s eyes a variety of human attitudes and behaviours in a situation of extreme threat, when individuals face a continuous risk of losing their own lives and loss of the loved ones in a situation when people do not have any control of the events affecting them. Facing the enormity of the disaster people get prone to reject religious rules and legal norms, which leads to pursuit of immediate profit and pleasure as well as to breaking social ties, abandoning the closest persons to  the disease. Thucydides, who remains a pessimist as regards the assessment of human nature, which, according to him, reveals its darkest sides in such extreme situations, does not forget, however, about the individuals who maintained a noble attitude imbued with empathy for those suffering. He stresses the tremendous devotion of the doctors and of those who rush to help not only their relatives, but also  friends abandoned while afflicted by misfortune, often sacrificing their own lives. Procopius, while copying Thucydides in the structure and even in some wordings of his description, does not give up by no means the thorough presentation of the reality of the situation in which he found himself. As his account concerns another disease, its symptoms are different, which he meticulously records. He devotes more attention to the actions that have been undertaken in order to get control over the chaos prevailing in the city and organise collecting bodies and burials of the dead; he also mentions the impact of the epidemic on the empire’s economy. The same as Thucydides, he focuses on the individual’s behaviour in a situation of extreme threat and presents the whole range of attitudes presented by the people beginning from those filled with devotion, risking their lives in order to save other people’s lives to those focussed in an egoistic way on pursuit of pleasure and indulgence, breaking the law and any religious rules. His comments sometimes show more bitterness or even malice when he says that the disease took away the noblest, most valuable members of society while leaving behind those extremely despicable and wicked.


Keywords

bubonic plague; epidemic; Thucydides; Procopius of Gaza; plague; Plague of Athens; Plague of Justinian

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Published : 2021-06-15


Siwicka, M. (2021). Man in the Face of an Epidemic – Thucydides and Procopius of Caesarea. Vox Patrum, 78, 25-64. https://doi.org/10.31743/vp.11846

Małgorzata Siwicka  msiwicka@kul.lublin.pl
The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland  Poland
https://orcid.org/0000-0001-7844-9703