Saturday, February 29, 2020
Plague in the Sixth Century
4 But that was not the end of their troubles. Not long after, they were decimated by a sudden outbreak of plague.Id. 5.10.1-7 (562 A.D.):
5 Some pronounced the air of the region to be contaminated and held it responsible for the disease. Others blamed he abrupt change in their mode of life, because after a routine of forced marches and frequent fighting they had fallen into habits of luxury and indolence. But they failed utterly to perceive what had really caused the disaster and in fact made it inevitable, to wit the ruthless wickedness with which they had flouted the laws of God and man.
6 In the person of their leader the marks of divine punishment were particularly manifest. His mind became unhinged and he began to rave like a madman. He was seized with a violent ague and let out a series of low-pitched groaning noises. One moment he would fall prostrate with his face to the ground, another time he would tumble over backwards foaming at the mouth and with his eyes horribly contorted.
7 In a paroxysm of insane fury the wretched man actually began to eat his own limbs, fastening on to his arms with his teeth and rending and devouring the flesh like a wild beast licking clean a putrifying wound. And so feasting on his own flesh he gradually wasted away and died a most pitiful death.
8 The others too were dying like flies and the pestilence continued to rage until the whole army was wiped out. Most of them, though racked with fever, remained lucid to the very end. Some were struck down by a violent seizure, others fell into a swoon, while others still succumbed to delirium. The malady, in fact, assumed a variety of forms, each one fatal. This then was the disastrous outcome of the expedition of Leutharis and his men.
1 During that year at the beginning of spring a second outbreak of plague swept the capital, destroying a vast number of people. From the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Justinian when the plague first spread to our part of the world it had never really stopped, but had simply moved on from one 2 place to another, giving in this way something of a respite to those who had survived its ravages. It now returned to Constantinople almost as though it had been cheated on the first occasion into a needlessly hasty departure.Averil Cameron, Agathias (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), p. 62:
3 People died in great numbers as though seized by a violent and sudden attack of apoplexy. Those who stood up to the disease longest barely lasted five days. The form the epidemic took was not unlike that of the earlier outbreak. A swelling in the glands of the groin was accompanied by a high non-intermittent fever which raged night and day with unabated intensity and never left its victim until the moment of death.
4 Some experienced no pain or fever or any of the initial symptoms but simply dropped dead while about dieir normal business at home or in the street or wherever they happened to be. People of all ages were struck down indiscriminately, but the heaviest toll was among the young and vigorous and especially among the men, women being on the whole much less affected.
5 According to the ancient oracles of the Egyptians and to the leading astrologers of present-day Persia there occurs in the course of endless time a succession of lucky and unlucky cycles. These luminaries would have us believe that we are at present passing through one of the most disastrous and inauspicious of such cycles: hence the universal prevalence of war and internal dissension and of frequent and persistent epidemics of plague.
6 Others hold the view that divine anger is responsible for the destruction, exacting just retribution from mankind for its sins and decimating whole populations.
7 It is not for me to set myself up as a judge in these matters or to undertake to demonstrate the truth of one theory rather than the other. Such a task would perhaps be beyond my comprehension, or even if it were not, it would be neither necessary nor relevant to the present narrative. An account, in fact even a summary of events, is all that the rules of historical composition require of me.
But it remains surprising that his plague accounts are free of Thucydidean imitation.7
7 ii.3 ff., v.9. In the first case he is describing rabies, a different disease altogether (B. von Hagen, Lyssa, eine medizingeschichtliche Interpretation (Jena, 1940). But there would be room for imitation in the second account.