How Ancient Historians Constructed Dramatic Fiction: Thucydides and the Plague

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by Neil Godfrey

Plague of Athens by Neapolitan School

The plague of Athens is one of the most detailed, vivid and life-like accounts of any event from ancient times. The historian who penned it (Thucydides) assures all readers that he relied upon eyewitness reports and that he personally investigated what had happened in order to be sure of leaving a record that would be of use (as well as interest) to posterity.

But how historically true is it? Is it hyper-sceptical to even ask that question?

I ask because a few New Testament scholars who study Christian origins claim that those who raise doubts that the author of the two-part prologue to Luke and Acts was really relying upon eye-witness testimony as he appears to be claiming are “hyper-sceptical” and unreasonably biased against the Bible. This post is part of a series showing that such critical questions are indeed applied to works other than those in the Bible and that they are perfectly legitimate and gateways to deeper understanding of the texts.

Further, among ancient historians and classicists we find the rule that we can never be certain of the historicity of a narrative without external or independent corroboration. This, too, is another detail dismissed as “hyper-scepticism” among some New Testament scholars who have built “bedrock history” upon their biblical sources.

Before resuming with Woodman’s discussion of the way the historian Thucydides worked it’s worth pausing to consider an extract by Henry R. Immerwahr from the Cambridge History of Classical Literature:

The close association of history and literature produced a distinctive manner of presentation which creates difficulties for anyone who tries to use the ancient historical works as source materials. Especially through the influence of epic and drama Herodotus and Thucydides set a style followed by almost all ancient historians, which may be called mimetic, that is, they write as if they had been present at the events they describe. (An exception is the Oxyrhynchus historian who aims at a more dispassionate narrative.)

When Herodotus describes the conversations between Gyges and Candaules or the feelings of Xerxes after Salamis we can hardly believe that this is based on evidence; it is rather an imaginative, ‘poetic’, reconstruction aiming at authenticity in an idealized sense.

The same is true of Thucydides when he supplies motives for actions by delving, so to speak, into the minds of the participants (e.g. the feelings of Cleon and the assembly in the discussion of Pylos, 4.27*1″.) without mentioning his informants.

The use of speeches is only the most obvious device of the mimetic method; it reaches into the smallest narrative details and tends to destroy the distinction between ‘fact’ and interpretation. This factor, more than any other, gives ancient historiography its unique character. (CHCL – pp. 456-7)

It is often forgotten that Thucydides is our only evidence for the plague, as for so many other events of the war. It is not mentioned by Aristophanes or in any contemporary medical writing. It is mentioned by Plato (Symp. 201d), but many years later. (The contemporary Sophocles makes no mention of it.) Woodman, p. 66

This post does not argue that there was no plague in Athens during the Peloponnesian War — although see the side box for the status of the evidence for its historicity.

What this post examines is Professor of Classics A.J. Woodman’s case for Thucydides having constructed a fictional scene based upon that apparently historical event. We will see the way “historical” writing was conceived in the Hellenistic, Roman and Jewish worlds in the Classical-Hellenistic-Roman eras.

I am focusing on Thucydides because he is generally considered the historian to be most like the moderns, taking scrupulous care to establish the certainty of any fact he writes, avoiding any mythical or miraculous tales, striving for an almost modern form of “scientific accuracy”. If it can be shown that this image of Thucydides’ work is accurate then we may indeed read ancient historical works in hopes of finding that others, too, have at least to some degree written the same way, especially those for whom we have evidence that they aspired to be compared with Thucydides in some way. Thinking specifically here of Josephus and the author of Luke-Acts.

This continues from my previous post on A.J. Woodman’s argument.

So far we have seen that despite Thucydides’ claims to be constrained entirely by eyewitness evidence, his own personal investigations and his determination to avoid anything approaching the fabulous and mythical, his work is often not based on eyewitness reports at all — rather, it is often a creation of vivid and realistic imagery sourced from other literature — and he is just as interested in rivaling Homer and Herodotus in entertainment value. If this is what even the supposedly best “history” meant to the ancients it has major implications to how we read other works about the Jewish War and the origin of the Christian Church.

First, the context.

Plagues were a popular topic of Middle Eastern and Greek literature> They featured in the introduction to the Iliad and were elaborated upon (often in legendary tales) more extensively in other poetry, as well as in the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Recall also the Biblical narratives with their frequent plagues. Hesiod in Works and Days listed plagues, along with famines and defeat in war, as punishments upon cities that were notorious for hubris (ὕβρις). The same theme is found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Thus by Thucydides’ time there was an established connection between war, plague and ὕβρις, and it was conventional for writers to juxtapose blessings and sufferings including war and plague. (p. 33)

Woodman sees Thucydides’ account of the plague effectively being constructed (like plays) into a series of Acts.

Act One

1. In 431 BCE the Spartans were poised to invade Attica. Pericles advised the Athenians to come in from the countryside to shelter behind the city walls (2.13.2).

2. The Athenians followed his advice but they found the change of pace in the city hard to bear. Like the Israelites in the converse situation they complained (2.14.1-2).

3. Thucydides then digresses to give us a mini-narrative of past experiences and customs of these people who had now left their homes and fields for the safety of the city (2.15 and 2.16).

Why does he digress like this? What has this to do with the theme of the Peloponnesian War? It is not part of the “history” of the war’s causes or course. Woodman’s explanation makes sense. Thucydides is portraying the long traditions, struggles and aspirations of these people and their deep attachments to their traditional way of life. This all serves to heighten the pathos of their transfer to Athens. The audience feels the pain of their loss. Thucydides’ purpose is to “heighten the emotion of the upheaval.”

Woodman does not spell it out, at least not at this point, but what he is reminding us of is that Thucydides is writing a drama. He is composing a work of entertainment (and lessons — we will come to these) for his own and future audiences. He sees himself in rivalry with not only Herodotus but also Homer.

This is not “history” as we know it. (Okay, I know a postmodernist might say that many historians, including modern ones, effectively are writing a drama of some kind, whether comedy or tragedy, every time they write any historical narrative. One might say in response that ancient historians were far more conscious that this is what they were doing, but also that they were deploying the creative literary techniques in such a way as to blur the genres. Modern historians are more conscious of the need to limit their creativity within the bounds the verifiable data will allow. Thucydides takes us back to the mythical Theseus to serve his literary intent.)

4. Thucydides now returns to the chaotic scene in the overcrowded Athens (2.17). A few could be accommodated by relatives and friends. Most, though, were required to find any space that was available. That included the sacred places, the temples and shrines for past heroes, as well as along the walls to the sea, at Piraeus.

Woodman does not mention it here, but Thucydides includes an ominous reminder of a prophecy inspired by Apollo. The sacred areas were forbidden to normal human habitation. Blessings would continue as long as that rule was respected. It’s an aside worthy of Homer or Shakespeare.

Though the reader is as yet unaware of it, these chapters 13-17 constitute Act One of a remarkable drama. (p. 33)

Act Two

1. The remainder of events for the year 431 BCE are recounted.

2. At the year’s end Thucydides digresses again to tell readers about the annual custom of a public burial for all those who had died in the way. At this event Thucydides makes Pericles give a funeral oration in which he reminds Athenians of their outstanding character as a state. This is what those they bury have died for:

  • Athenians are a model for and teacher of other states; other states learn from Athens, Athens does not learn from them (2:37)
  • Athenians choose their leaders for their virtue, not their worldly status (2:37)
  • Athenians greatly respect law, especially the unwritten law (2.37:3)
  • Athenians are very pious regularly sacrificing to the gods (2.38:1)
  • Athenians enjoy the all goods from all other parts of the world as they are imported to Athens from all other nations (2.38:2)
  • Athens is an open society unafraid of what any stranger might see and report even to enemy states, even in wartime; Athenians rely on their courage to meet any dangers and do not betray their ideals of an open-society; (2.39)
  • Other countries must form alliances to attack Athens; but Athens attack their enemies with their own strength alone (2.39)
  • Unlike other states Athenians do not need to be constantly training for war (2.39)
  • Athenians are wise and generous in their proper use of the wealth they have acquired, doing only good with pure motives (2.40:1; 2.42:4)
  • Athens is the school of Greece; (2.41)
  • Athens does not need poets to preserve her fame; the deeds of Athens are memorialized throughout the world for all to see (2.41)
  • Athenians are self-sufficient, no matter what the activity individuals practice dignified self-reliance (2.41:1)
  • Athenians believe in a sense of decency (2.43:1)
  • Athenians love honour more than material gain (2.44:4)

The passages in black font are my own additions to Woodman’s summaries. The passages in blue (Woodman’s selection) will be contrasted in “Act Three” as being the qualities explicitly undone by the plague. (The remaining points, mine, are undone by implication — or perhaps even explicitly, too, if I were to take the time to study the Greek.)

One might here ask if we are witnessing hubris in Pericles’ speech. Woodman will argue that Thucydides is conscious that this is what some readers may be led to suspect, but he will argue that Thucydides structures the ensuing narrative to show this was not the case at all. I am by no means familiar with the available range of studies of Thucydides, so my own opinion here may well soon be shown to be nothing by anyone who is more knowledgeable. But what I wonder and what I have not yet seen in the literature is the possibility that Thucydides (as some scholars say of Herodotus) was using a narrative voice that was distinct from his own real views. If so, is it not possible that, like Herodotus (according to some scholars) Thucydides was writing in a voice that was ironically unaware of the hubris he was show-casing here? His readers are meant to see the hubris for themselves and “pity” the narrator for failing to recognize the evidence before his eyes. But that’s just an amateur’s speculation inspired by what has been written about Herodotus. I am quite willing to defer to Woodman’s opinion.

Act Three

1. Once Pericles concludes his speech the plague strikes Athens (2.47.3).

This conflation of the two events — the end of the funeral oration (epitaphios) and the onset of the plague, is a kind of poetic artifice. Firstly, notice that such a speech was delivered every year yet this is the only one Thucydides chooses to mention. Secondly, in fact he plague likely broke out in July, four months after the speech. In those intervening four months we may assume that other historical events took place: debates in the Assembly, dealings with allies and neutrals, financial and administrative developments. What options faced the historian of this period? As Woodman points out, another historian might well have described the Epitaphios here (and any number of twenty others during the War), then detailed a list of other events and finally then brought in the plague. Thucydides has structured and selected from his material to create a special dramatic effect.

2. The plague (symptoms, effects) is described in detail (2.48 – 2.53)

  • The plague was imported from abroad (2.48.1)
  • It first appeared among those living in Piraeus (2.48.2)
  • People who had been living in the Temples were struck down by the plague (2.51.2)
  • In the face of the plague no-one proved self-sufficient (2.51.3)
  • The plague made men indifferent to both written law and its unwritten equivalent (2.53.1,4)
  • Athenians abandoned religious practices and all sense of decency (2.52 – 2.53)
  • They resorted to self-indulgence in their use of wealth (2.53.1-2)
  • They disregarded honour (2.53.3)

The people who were brought in to the safety of the city by Pericles’ command and who had found space in Piraeus and the temples were among the first to be afflicted.

Thus the plague in Act Three dramatically and ironically overturns everything of which Thucydides made Pericles boast in the funeral speech in Act Two. (p. 35)

Act Four

1. As the people saw their fields outside the city being ravaged and as the plague was taking its toll inside the walls, they began to blame Pericles for their sufferings. After all, he had been the one responsible for bringing the country people into the city. He was also advising them to avoid a major land-battle. (2.59)

2. Pericles chose to address the crowd with another long speech. (2.60 – 2.64) His message . . .

  • Events that happen unexpectedly, suddenly, easily shake our resolve and dominate our thinking.
  • Athenians should, rather, be willing to endure the greatest accidents — things against which humans can never plan.

3. The people were won over and even re-elected Pericles as general (2.65.1-4)

4. Thucydides then immediately tells us of Pericles’ death (even though he did not die till the following year) and writes an obituary notice. (2.65.6-13)

If in fact Pericles did not die until the following year so why has Thucydides written about his death here? Elsewhere Thucydides appears to be interested in giving readers a chronological account of events as they happen year by year. So why the change?

[H]e places it here because it provided the ideal opportunity to demonstrate that in his opinion Pericles could not be blamed for the events of 430. (p. 36)

The question of hubris arises. Clearly Pericles’ policy of bringing the citizens from the countryside into Athens exacerbated the sufferings from the plague. Readers may well ask if his funeral speech glorifying the Athenians was an act of hubris. Was the plague the divine punishment?

Woodman believes Act Four answers this question. Thucydides uses the occasion of Pericles’ death to flesh out the outstanding qualities of character that allowed this general to lead Athens so wisely in both peace and war. He so exalts the character of Pericles (2.65) that there is no room for doubt that in Thucydides’ mind Pericles could in no way be blamed for the events of 430.

Pericles is the man of foresight. He is the virtuous one who warns the Athenians themselves against hubris when he sees them losing self-control. No, as Pericles pointed out in his last speech, there are some things that simply can never be foreseen. It is a mark of character that people accept these events courageously.

The sufferings of Athens under Pericles are then contrasted with the suffering to come when they will be defeated in the Syracusan expedition. Then the Athenians will be led by a man who indeed lacks foresight and believes, rather, in chance. He will be at the mercy of the miscalculations of others. So Pericles’ superiority and virtue stands out as genuine by means of Thucydides’ literary constructions.


To grasp the significance of all of this, imagine a modern historian writing about a modern conflict and publishing it in a format that read like a novel, and on the blurb we read that the work was written especially to rival and surpass Tolkein’s War of the Ring.

And keep in mind that Thucydides was a model for subsequent historians in the ancient world.


Scientific/Eyewitness History or Fiction?

Thucydides tells us that he himself suffered the plague. You can hardly read a stronger reassurance that this account of the plague is direct first-hand eyewitness evidence than this:

All speculation as to its origin and its causes, if causes can be found adequate to produce so great a disturbance, I leave to other writers, whether lay or professional; for myself, I shall simply set down its nature, and explain the symptoms by which perhaps it may be recognized by the student, if it should ever break out again. This I can the better do, as I had the disease myself, and watched its operation in the case of others. (2.48.3)

Yet, yet. . .

When Thucydides begins his account he sets a tone that is “anything but ‘scientific'”. I use Woodman’s translation of 2.47.3-4:

No pestilence of such extent nor any scourge so destructive of human life is on record anywhere. For neither were doctors able to cope with the disease. . .not did any other human art avail. The supplications made at sanctuaries, or appeals to oracles and the like, were all futile, and at last men desisted from them, overcome by the disaster [τοῦκακοῦ]. (p. 37)

Here we read the same kind of “disaster statements” as we discussed in a previous post. Once again we have the dramatic comparison: nothing greater than this . . ; this was the ultimate . . . . Once again we see the familiar antithesis of human and divine.

Another point: we know that eyewitness reports from participants in a battle can be almost impossible to shape into a coherent bird’s eye narrative, and so goes for reports of those who themselves victims of a plague. It would not have been easy to reconstruct a comprehensive and all-knowing narrative perspective from disparate eyewitness experiences.

And one more: this account is notorious for the inability of modern scholars to identify the plague despite the very detailed description supplied by Thucydides. That makes sense if Thucydides took a range of symptoms from medical books instead of describing what he or anyone really saw in a particular plague.

Can Thucydides’ description therefore be called ‘scientific’ or not? (p. 37)

To answer this Woodman draws our attention to the important paragraph, 2.50.1 to 2.51.1 (I have exchanged some of the Perseus translation for that of Woodman to highlight the significance of the meanings of certain Greek words, e.g. for “evidence”):

But while the character of the disease was such as to baffle all description [too powerful to describe], and its attacks almost too grievous for human nature to endure, it was still in the following circumstance that its difference from all ordinary disorders was most clearly shown. All the birds and beasts that prey upon human bodies, either abstained from touching them (though there were many lying unburied), or died after tasting them. As evidence of this, it was noticed that birds of this kind actually disappeared; they were not about the bodies, or indeed to be seen at all. But of course the effects which I have mentioned could best be studied in a domestic animal like the dog. Such then, if we pass over the varieties of particular cases, which were many and peculiar, were its general character.

First, we have the typical “ring” description of Thucydides. We often see this in the Gospels where it is commonly labelled “inclusio”, “book-end”, “chiastic”, “bracketing” structure. The “character” of the disease is attached to the beginning and end.

More significantly here are the two common forms of magnifying devices:

  1. It was beyond the power to describe;
    • “But how can this be, since he has just produced a most vivid and detailed description of the plague which has compelled universal admiration?” (p. 38)
  2. There are many other details that could be mentioned but that the author will “pass over”.

The reference to “beasts” and “dogs” may even remind audiences of Homer’s plague in which mules and dogs were affected.

Notice here Thucydides uses the word “evidence”. He does not speak of evidence for the plague itself. Evidence in Thucydides’ mind is what can be expected of human behaviour or natural events in general (p. 62). That is the evidence upon which he builds and expands his narrative. He does not think of evidence as “data” to which he must strictly adhere and confine his narrative as a modern historian would do.

Literary sources

Just like all other pre-modern historians, whenever confronted with events as difficult to report as the plague, Thucydides turned for assistance to pre-existing accounts. (p. 38)

The most natural source to turn to for help in writing about a plague was medical literature,

and it is indeed well established, both from his vocabulary and from his general method of describing the plague, that [Thucydides] was familiar with the medical writers. (p. 38)

It is useful to know that 6th century Byzantine historian Procopius copied passages of Thucydides’ description of the Athens plague to help him with his description of the plague that fell upon Byzantium in 540 CE. In the same way it appears that Thucydides turned to the work Epidemics to describe the disease and its critical period (49.6) and to Prognosticon to narrate its prognosis. If so, we can understand why modern scholars have been unable to identify “the plague” he is describing.

Why did he write this way?

Recall what Thucydides said about his aims and method in writing this historical work:

  • He intended to write a narrative as life-like and vividly as possible.
  • He wanted to impress his audience with the greatness of his subject matter.
  • He wanted to provide future generations with useful information that would hold true for future plagues.

Hence he wrote a hyperbolic, minutely and graphically detailed, account of “the general character” of the disease.

Where does this leave us with the event as history? Woodman suggests . . .

Despite the impression created by Thucydides of an unprecedented and major disaster, the plague has (perhaps surprisingly) left no trace at all on any independent piece of evidence or inscription. Is this the result of mere chance? Or has Thucydides magnified the plague out of all proportion to its real significance? Whatever the reason, modern scholars are thereby presented, in an acute form, with the question of the extent to which his narrative reflects reality. (p. 39)

Would not contemporaries have cried foul?

Among New Testament scholars one hears claims that such a such an event would not have been fabricated because contemporaries would have been there to object and expose any fabrication. Could the same objection be raised here? Woodman answers:

It might be objected that Th.’s contemporary readers, some of whom no doubt caught the plague, would have recognised any ‘false symptoms’; but this is to impute modern preconceptions to them, and in any case they were in no position to query the matter since Th. says that the plague affected each person differently (51.1). (p. 66)

What is (historical) truth?

It is often said history can only be about probabilities, not certainties. I think that’s an overstatement. Historians also put a lot of effort into explaining what happened. I don’t know how one can say that World War 2 “probably” happened or that Rome “probably” once ruled the Mediterranean lands.

Nonetheless, there are indeed some historical “facts” that can be no more than probability statements and surely the plague of Athens is one of them. It is very hard to find reliable core eyewitness data in Thucydides’ account of it. We can see many signs that his account is fabricated. And we can understand his motives.

What’s more, Herodotus and Thucydides set the pattern for Greek, Roman and other historians to follow. They all wrote history more or less the way Thucydides and/or Herodotus did.

They all wrote about past events as if they were really there. They drew upon other accomplished literature to create dramatic and vivid images of events for their audiences. “Evidence” could mean whatever might be considered true to expectations given human nature or the nature of the world. That leads one to wonder if a theologian wanting to write about Christian origins would write what he would think was a plausible story for anyone who knew the Jewish Scriptures and expected God to be involved with a few miracles.

So we come to the question of “what is truth” in history.

In the next post in this series we will see how an ancient historian could believe he was writing “a true” record even though he was creating it himself.

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Neil Godfrey

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