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The Plague at Ashdod by Nicolas Poussin

Professor reveals evidence that Athenian epidemic of 430 BC was first recorded Ebola outbreak

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In 430 BC, an outbreak of plague in the Ancient Greek city of Athens that killed its victims in seven to nine days may have been Ebola, some scientists studying the subject believe.

The first recorded outbreak of Ebola is thought by many researchers to have occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976. The deadly disease currently affects three countries in particular – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Thus far, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has reported around 27,000 cases resulting in more than 11,000 deaths. The threat from Ebola outside West Africa is exceedingly low but the symptoms of the disease include fever, headache and joint and muscle pain. The disease is spread by contact with the blood, body fluids or internal organs of someone already infected.

Map from a government publication on the spread of Ebola in Guinea Sierra Leone as of July 2014

Map from a government publication on the spread of Ebola in Guinea Sierra Leone as of July 2014 ( Wikimedia Commons )

Some experts believe bats may be the likely source of the disease. This is because bats actually host more than 60 viruses capable of also infecting humans. In 2005, more than 1,000 animals were investigated by researchers in Gabon and The Republic of Congo. Of these, the only species found to host the Ebola viruses were bats. Two bat species in particular, both of them fruit bats, are found in Guinea where bat soup is a delicacy. Officials in the country quickly acted to ban the consumption of bats following the outbreak of the disease.

One of the reasons why there is no cure as yet is because the disease is so dangerous, making it difficult to study. Not only that, but viral diseases are renowned for being harder to treat than bacterial diseases.

Researchers have now discovered remnants of Ebola DNA in different species of rodents, such as the Norway rat and mice. This means that Ebola could have infected those species around 20 million years ago.   

Scanning electron micrograph of Ebola virus budding from the surface of a Vero cell (African green monkey kidney epithelial cell line.

Scanning electron micrograph of Ebola virus budding from the surface of a Vero cell (African green monkey kidney epithelial cell line. Credit: NIAID / Flickr

Study author Powel Kazanjian, a professor of history and infectious diseases at the University of Michigan, told Live Science that this “raises the question of whether Ebola may have spilled over from its animal reservoir to humans well before scientists first identified it in 1976”. Kazanjian believes that an Ebola virus may have caused the Plague of Athens that struck Ancient Greece in 430 BC and lasted for five years.

“The Athenian epidemic in 430 BC has had a fascinating attraction for researchers of communicable diseases for a long period of time” added William Schaffner, who is a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

At the time of the Athenian plague, the city of Athens was being besieged by Sparta during the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 BC). The disease infected most of the inhabitants of the city over the course of three years and around 25 percent of the population died. The outbreak was documented by the Greek historian Thucydides, who was an eye-witness. He wrote a detailed description of it in order to inform others, but historians have debated the plague’s exact cause ever since. Many of them have suggested smallpox and typhus but further research has identified its origins in Ethiopia, reaching Greece by way of the Mediterranean. The statesman Pericles was one of its more well-known victims and Thucydides himself suffered an attack but managed to recover.

Α reconstructed appearance of Myrtis, an 11 year old girl who died during the plague of Athens and whose skeleton was found in the Kerameikos mass grave, National Archaeological Museum of Athens

Α reconstructed appearance of Myrtis, an 11 year old girl who died during the plague of Athens and whose skeleton was found in the Kerameikos mass grave, National Archaeological Museum of Athens ( Wikimedia Commons )

The symptoms of the Athenian plague included fever, bloodshot eyes, vomiting and bleeding and then skin lesions and diarrhoea. The suggestion that the disease was perhaps Ebola first appeared in 1996 when Dr. Patrick Olson, an epidemiologist at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, proposed the idea in a paper published by the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases . Olson and his colleagues noted that, like modern Ebola outbreaks, victims of the Plague of Athens died in seven to nine days.

Thucydides also noted a maddening thirst that was so ferocious that sufferers tended to throw themselves into wells in a futile attempt to quench it.

Kazanjian believes that sub-Saharan Africans from Ethiopia may have carried the disease to Ancient Greece on their travels there to find work as farmers or servants. His paper on the subject has now been published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases .

Featured image: The Plague at Ashdod by Nicolas Poussin ( Wikimedia Commons )

By Robin Whitlock

Comments

IronicLyricist's picture

conqueror,  pestilence, famine, death… the four horsemen rode then, and they will ride again… ever notice a new “plague” usually appears after the end to a war of conquest?!

infinitesimal waveparticles comprise what we call home the earth
manipulatable by thought ability supressed in humans since birth

When folks dig up skeletons of dead people from many, many hundreds of years ago, they are digging up diseases along with the bones.

spreads the = spreads TO the

I mean: what you see today is that ebola always spreads the neighbouring house, or the neighbouring village, or the neighbouring region, or the neighbouring country....
In that case you would expect a much larger area that is contaminated in the whole of the middle east.
And remember, there was no Suez-canal by then. An Ethiopian had to travel over land and would have infected many other people so...
I agree with prof. Agelarakis that it is 'rather unlikely'...

Was it even possible to get from Ethiopia to Athens in 'seven to nine' days in ancient times?

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