Lessons from historical pandemics to help understand our own

From ancient Athens to medieval Italy, pandemics are anything but new

Unprecedented: never done or known before. This word has been used in every second sentence written or spoken in the last five months, and while it is true that most people alive have never experienced something like the COVID-19 pandemic, it does not quite fit the definition.

Throughout history, humanity has faced widespread disease time and time again. The stories we tell of those past pandemics are scary, but they have a formula: people get exposed, a lack of sanitation or technology allows it to spread, people die and then it ends just as suddenly as it began. 

This narrative paints history as a set of stairs, as we gradually learn how to better protect ourselves until we get to the present, where we know all there is to know about disease and how to keep it in check. But as COVID-19 has shown, that is wrong. 

Ancient Athens

At the beginning of the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens, the Spartan army invaded the land around Athens, forcing thousands of people out of their homes, most of whom fled to Athens. Thucydides, a Greek historian and Athenian general, explained in the "History of the Peloponnesian War" how a deadly disease, which would later be known as the Plague of Athens, was already in the city before the refugees arrived.

“Their general misery was aggravated by people crowding into the city from the fields, and the worst affected were the new arrivals,” Thucydides wrote. “There were no houses for them but they lived in huts … and they were visited by death in conditions of total disorder.” The lack of proper housing and support for these refugees created the ideal situation for the disease to grab hold of the city and kill one third of the population of Athens, including the Athenian general Pericles. 

As the disease raged, Thucydides wrote how the disease was affecting a specific part of the population particularly hard: physicians.

“The physicians were not able to help at its outset since they were treating it in ignorance, and indeed they themselves suffered the highest mortality since they were the ones most exposed to it,” Thucydides wrote. 

The desolation of health care workers did not stop with the physicians, it spread to those who, “would get infected as a result of caring for another,” likely the ancient equivalent of a nurse.

According to Thucydides, this danger caused people who could care for the dying to stay away, causing many to die alone. Only survivors of disease were willing to care for others, “both because they knew from experience what it was like and because they were now feeling more confident about themselves." 

The physicians and nurses died because of a lack of knowledge about the disease, which would include a lack of protective equipment and a lack of resources, most of which would be redirected to the war effort, he wrote. 

Ed Yong, a science writer for The Atlantic, wrote a piece called “How the Pandemic Defeated America," and in it, he explained how American inequality left the nation vulnerable to COVID-19. Yong highlighted an inefficient health care system, an underfunded public health system, a weakened social safety net and racist polices against Indigenous and Black Americans. 

“Water running along a pavement will readily seep into every crack; so, too, did the unchecked coronavirus seep into every fault line in the modern world,” Yong wrote. Like in Athens, social and economic inequalities did not cause the disease, but it worsened the effects beyond the virus’s or bacteria’s own ability. 

Bubonic Plague

Jumping forward to the 14th century, the Bubonic Plague killed an estimated 25 million people in Europe alone, a third of the continent’s population. 

Today we have many images of what the Black Death looked like, both literally and figuratively, in part thanks to writers such as Giovanni Boccaccio, known for his piece “The Decameron,” a collection of 100 stories told by 10 aristocrats in the midst of the plague. 

The aristocrats fled the city and hid out in the countryside to forget, but before they left, they described some of the devastation and how it began to change their way of life. 

“As a result of the abandonment of the sick by neighbors, friends, and family, and in light of the scarcity of servants, there arose a practice hardly ever heard of before, whereby when a woman fell ill … she did not object to having a man as one of her attendants,” Boccaccio wrote.

Because of the immense loss of life, the Italian elite were forced to adjust their practices and their values, indirectly allowing for a more open society, beginning with whom they allowed to care for them when sick. But the changes did not stop there. 

Focusing on Italy, the high mortality rate caused a large drop in the labor force, and with less people to work the land in the years following the plague, wages generally rose for agricultural workers and urban workers. 

According to a Brown University project called the Decameron Web, following the plague, “serfs were no longer tied to one master; if one left the land, another lord would instantly hire them.” 

This caused wages to outpace prices and raise the standard of living for workers. Due to the empowerment of the serfs throughout Italy, the nobility could not keep their land and were forced to sell it, allowing the merchant class to rise in prominence. 

This new elite wished to display their power, primarily by sponsoring artists to create great pieces of art, such as the powerful De Medici family in Florence. After a century, this focus on the arts would spur a movement: the Renaissance.

While it is tempting to draw a direct line between Black Death to the great achievements of the Renaissance and hope for a similar cultural revolution today, that is an oversimplification. 

Eleanor Janega, a medieval historian at the London School of Economics, wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post titled, “Don’t kid yourself. The Black Death’s aftermath isn’t cause for optimism about covid-19,” in which she raised two questions: “whether these changes would have come about without the Black Death, and whether the pandemic was a price worth paying to achieve them.” 

As mentioned before, wages did increase for workers following the plague, but Janega argued it is not certain if the increase was because the diminished workforce could negotiate for higher wages; it could be that the remaining laborers were working more land. 

“That’s not a raise; that’s another shift,” Janega said. 

Janega pointed to the wages that did not continue to increase, remaining the same from 1380 to 1479.

Janega concluded by pointing out that the Renaissance did not follow on the heels of the pandemic, and it likely will not happen in ours either. 

“Our current suffering might result in something better in the next century, not right after we emerge from lockdown,” she said. 

But she did have a final message on the lighter side, reminding us that, “the one honest insight we can take away from Black Death discourse is that humans have come through worse than this and kept going,” Janega said. 


Reach the reporter at rknappen@asu.edu and follow @RyanKnappenber3 on Twitter.

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