Thucydides and the plague

King, Helen and Brown, Jo (2014). Thucydides and the plague. In: Morley, Neville and Lee, Christine eds. A Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides. Chichester: Wiley, pp. 447–473.



This chapter examines a range of responses to Thucydides’ narrative of the plague, focusing on its reception in the English-speaking world from the seventeenth century to the present day. While for medical writers Thucydides could be “one of us,” with the structure of his account providing a model for the personal experience of encountering, observing, and describing a new disease, the actual content of these sections produced a range of responses. Often it provoked retrodiagnoses, but these have varied widely. While in recent years Thucydides has sometimes been praised for his prescience, some earlier physician-readers found his picture simply impossible to believe. The final sections of this chapter present two case studies of the reception of the plague narrative: the first, Thomas Sprat's 1659 poetic version which uses it to reflect on the English Civil War; and the second, the connection between Benjamin Jowett's translation and debates about disease causation in the late nineteenth century.

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