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Epidemics, siege and nature in ancient Greece

by Roberto Medda, Postdoctoral researcher at the faculty of Storia della filosofia antica dell'Università di Cagliari

In the Greek world, the epidemic is deeply linked to the idea of siege. The archetypal image is offered by the plague narrated by Thucydides (The Peloponnesian War II 49-57). In 430 BC the Spartans raged in the countryside of Attica and the citizens of Athens locked themselves up inside the city walls, while the fleet counterattacked by sea. The balance, a tragic sign of a conflict that will mark the beginning of the end of a civilization, seems to be able to resist. The match, however, had already caught fire in Ethiopia, the fuse ran out in Egypt, then in Libya and Persia. The trigger was fired at the Piraeus - the port of Athens - and eventually the bomb exploded inside the walls of the polis. The plague spreads out unexpectedly in the overpopulated city. It is enough to change the names of places and diseases, enough to find the evils of all times.

The great Athenian historian describes the external signs of the plague as well as those of the soul. Those who are moved by pity or by profession approach the sick ones, but end up getting infected and succumbing like and more than others. Thucydides quotes them, but these brave individuals seem few and unrelated to the context. The subversion of peacetime, in fact, discovers dormant desires, never eradicated from the social contract. In the state of exception, when the corpses are buried in haste, or are piled up without grace and decency, and the living seem to be heading towards the same destiny, people who previously seemed fearful dedicate themselves to overpower the weakest, in a general climate of physical and spiritual decay, close to anarchy. Morality seems to exist only when the threat of repression can be feared. Thucydides - who suffered the plague firsthand – recollects it with lucidity and bitterness.

One of the most famous offshoots of this narrative - at times a thorough rewrite - is that of Lucretius (De rerum natura VI 1138-1286). The chronicle of the infection is projected into a dimension that involves the entire human nature. The poet stresses the description of the disease effects, he turns truculent. The sixth book, and probably the entire poem “On the nature of things” end in this way, with images of the burning of bodies and the struggle for the survival of men covered in blood. The intention is to impress the Roman public, unfamiliar with philosophy and more sensitive to dark-hued paintings. But, in addition to the emotional reaction, what reasoning is behind it? Lucretius is a follower of Epicurus, believes that the world is an aggregation of atoms without any intrinsic purpose. If this is so, why do human beings struggle with their arts and superstitions? What use is that of colonizing the space, building up relationships with others, imagining the future? As the plague of Athens shows, even during one of the highest moments of civilization, nothing was enough to cut the threads of our projections forward, and leave humanity alone with itself and with the present, ending up by finding a desolate and empty land. Philosophy, in particular that which starts from the Hellenistic schools, raises this question: is the world besieging us or are we vainly besieging the world?

If we go back in time, we discover that the plague among the besiegers is already present in the myth. The Iliad opens, in fact, with the wrath of Achilles and with the outrage of Agamemnon to Crise, priest of Apollo. The god decides to respond to the offense by vibrating his poisoned arrows against the Achaean camp. The actions of men have ruined a balance between the world of society and that of the gods, which represents the order of the cosmos. The first act to address the situation is to gather in an assembly, to establish a place for discussion, even harsh, a moment of speeches and reasoning. The doctors Podalirio and Macaone, sons of Asclepius himself, are silent, even if many are the men who are capable to draw arrows and apply remedies (XI 514-515). We would say today that Homer does not seek technical solutions, does not indicate the means in place of the end, does not suggest to cure the effect instead of identifying the cause.

But no, it's just about myths, they shouldn't be taken seriously. So let's read one last fairy tale. This is taken from the “Little Iliad”, a lost poem of the Trojan cycle, and from other late ancient sources, but it is known above all through a tragedy by Sophocles, the Philoctetes, represented in Athens in 409 BC. Philoctetes is a talented archer, thanks both to his skills and the arrows given to him by Heracles, which in turn were sold by Apollo himself. However, the hero does not even get to Troy. During a stopover in Tenedo, he is bitten by a snake during a sacrifice. The wound becomes infected and it is impossible for him to continue the journey. Odysseus does not have to make too much effort to convince others to abandon him in Lemnos. Here Philoctetes becomes one thing only with the rough nature of the deserted island. He chooses a cave as his refuge, uses the bow and arrows to hunt the animals that are used for his survival, learns about the medical herbs that soothe the excruciating pain caused by the wound.

After ten years the soothsayer Helen reveals to the Achaeans that the siege of Ilio would not be successful until Philoctetes were back among them. Odysseus himself and Achilles' son, Neoptolemus, are sent to convince him to embark and receive the care of Macaone. The embassy members are not chosen at random: on the one hand the shrewd and opportunistic adult, who only cares about the profit that can be drawn from the mission, on the other the idealistic and inexperienced young man, certainly closer to the values of the abandoned patient. Before reporting the victory, it seems implied, it is necessary to strengthen the pact between the generations and redeem the suffering. The place where this difficult mediation is resolved cannot be the city or the social assembly, with its mystifications, its interests, its selfishness; on the other hand, it is nature that strips humanity from these screens. Here the common commitment is born.

Perhaps it is good not to dwell too long on these tales, they have nothing to tell us about the present. Let’s resume the siege, without thinking about it.

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