Epidemics in world cultures | Funeral symphony of screams and suffering – Liviu Franga

Epidemics in world cultures | Funeral symphony of screams and suffering – Liviu Franga

Epidemics in world cultures | Funeral symphony of screams and suffering – Liviu Franga
  1. We are 431 years before the Christian era.

Peace had, for more than twelve years, settled in the whole world of the Greek cities, in which the spirit of dichonia had never ceased to haunt, however feebly. Because Athens and Sparta never saw each other in a good light, even when they had offered each other olive branches in feigned friendship. For at least thirty years, they reckoned.

Under the leadership of Pericles (Perikles), elected, year after year, twelve times, strategist of the city, Athens had flourished as never before. Demos, the people, listened to him with admiration. There was no orator who could surpass him in the power of persuasion, on the wings of words. Then Piraeus became the largest port not only of the Greek world, in the Aegean, but also of the entire sea between the three continents, Europe, Asia and Africa, the sea in the huge middle of the earth, the great mediterraneum (as they will call it, over some half a millennium, the other rivals of the Athenians and the last of ancient Hellenism, the Romans). But history had to wait until then. The citadel of the redoubtable city named after the goddess Pericles dressed it in marble in those years, under the supervision of Phidias (Pheidias), his brilliant architect and sculptor. He too, perhaps at the urging of the strategist, raises the Parthenon and opens the construction site of the Propylaea. One by one, two other emblems of classical Athens, the Odeon and the Theseion, are rising, the latter very close to the famous Agora. The Periclean citadel becomes a city (polis). In fact, more than that: a symbol. Of the Greek genius, of his glory. For in the most open city of the Greek world of Antiquity, the elite of the intellectual and spiritual life of Hellenism arrives and will settle down, for centuries and millennia.

Unannounced in any way and unexpectedly, after twelve years of long patience (a god’s patience should never be tested), Ares suddenly begins to wave the banner. The dream of hegemony stirs again, in 431, after years of oblivion, the minds of the Greek rivals, stirred, no doubt, by the astonishing prosperity, for most defiant, of Athens. Alliances regroup, city leagues quickly rebuild. Sparta’s friend and ally, Thebes, Oedipus’ former city, suddenly attacks Plataea, Athens’ ally. The war, the toy of the god whose name begins with the first letter of the Greek alphabet, had already begun. Peloponnesian War, Peloponnesian War. It will last almost as many years as the peace of the olive branches between Athens and Sparta was thought to have been concluded in 445.

The attack itself is accompanied by destruction and desolation. Thebes is joined by Athens’ great rival, Sparta. Its king, Archidamos II, in full spring (May 431), scorches the entire region around Athens, forcing the inhabitants of Attica to take refuge, in large numbers and in great haste, behind the walls of the fortress. Overcrowded, it resists. The Spartan king resumes his incursion and once again desolates the entire Attic area after a year. The fortress named after the goddess is stormed again by other refugees. This time, it can’t resist. Overcrowding becomes fatal. The plague begins to reap. It erupts in the same year 430.

It will last no less than four years, during which the Spartans periodically cause destruction in Attica (428-427). Because the power of Athens had already weakened. Demos, confused, listened, in the Agora, among several voices, all thunderous. Two had appeared as if sent by the gods. Of Cleon (Kleon), the democratic leader (with extremist tendencies), and of General Nicias (Nikias), the leader of the moderate center wing. In time sent, for Pericles’ voice could no longer be heard. Torn by the plague, the Strategist of a century of Athenian glory had ingloriously left Greek history, just at the moment when it had caught fire, one of the greatest intensities. For four years, in turn, the plague will wreak unimaginable havoc. It will end, by 426, over a third of the population of Athens and Attica combined. From a local epidemic, of the city, the disease quickly becomes a pandemic, an all-encompassing and totalitarian encroachment of the souls then deprived of any defense, fleeing everywhere and thus transmitting, from near to infinity, the scourge.

The Athenian general Thucydides (Thoukydides), strategist of Athens and fleet commander after the death of Pericles, sent, however, into relentless exile by his fellow citizens, after the disastrous defeat in 424, at Amphipolis (the battle that decided the fate of the first part of the war Peloponnesian in favor of Sparta and its allies), retired from political and military life, will write the first (and most valuable) Greek work of contemporary history, precisely titled “The Peloponnesian War” (Peloponnesiakos Polemos). Book II will describe, at length, in 11 chapters (47-57), the ravages of the plague. The eye of the narrator is that of a former general. But of one who, following an unpredictable accident that ended his public career, discovered his true vocation, that of a brilliant analyst and interpreter of the historical phenomenon.

Thucydides’ description undoubtedly impressed contemporaries and increased the fame of the work. This fame crossed the borders of Antiquity not only because the description of the plague in Athens and Attica was astonishing in truthfulness and historical accuracy, but also because it had the chance to inspire a poet. One of a different language than Thucydides. That poet processed it, in Latin, and gave it what the historical account lacks, naturally we would say: the dramatic, emotional, penetrating force of the poetic word. The Latin is called Titus Lucretius Carus, and his work, De rerum natura (“On the nature of things”), has remained, until today, the most impressive testimony, which we know and has been handed down to us from Antiquity, on human suffering, caused by a disease as unknown, then, in its causes, as shocking in its forms of manifestation. 

2. Like a symphonic poem, of unimaginable pain and death that follows the endless series of sufferings, the text of Lucretius’ description appears organized in several sections, identifiable by the fundamental cores of meaning. We will also follow them together, in the unfolding of the poetic verb. More precisely, it is about four sections-parts, like a classical symphonic composition.

Part one. The onset of the epidemic, the unseen attack, through the air

From somewhere, from an unknown depth of the world, “evil came/Cutting its way through the cloudless air and floating plains” (Murarasu, 1933; 2nd ed., 1981).

The second part. Anatomy of the disease

At first, the plague patient is gripped by a high fever: his eyes burn, his throat, blackened, fills with blood clots and pustules; he can no longer speak, his tongue is clamped and wet with drops of blood mixed with phlegm, which drains from his throat into his chest; the mouth exhales carrion odors; breathing, rushed at the beginning, becomes “large and rare later”. The “irrational” look of the sick person turns to his own body: he sees how, from the neck, the colds, burning “like in an oven in the stomach […] the unquenchable turmoil”, cause “shiny drops of sweat” to flow, how the hacking cough throws up “dry and small spits, yellow as saffron, salty”, how the hands and feet, filled with boils, tremble, as if tossed. Chills shake the patient’s entire stiff body.Then, after days and nights of immobility, the plague victims leave themselves to the full will of death: their faces, disfigured, have nothing human anymore: “Sunken eyes, cold, rough skin/The mouth left in a grin, and the forehead stretched out, puffed up […]”.Some still happen to survive for a while. A little. A terrible headache soon wears out their whole being; new “stinky bumps” appear on the body; the womb can no longer hold “[a] black discharge”; from the “swollen-nostrils” gushes “a blood/Thick and rotten”. And everything, quickly, ends.

The third part. The Anatomy of Suffering

Struck by the terrible disease, “deprived of peaceful sleep for a long time”, the plague victims all lose their minds. Not wearing any kind of clothing, no matter how light, some throw themselves “naked […] from the banks into the waves”. Others, red with thirst, “as if the abundance of water had been a trickle for them”, rush in, “with their mouths open”, “with their heads down, collapsing into the bottoms of wells”. Sufferings unimaginable assail the minds not only of herds of men, but of individuals as well. Unable to endure the pain, in order to get rid of it, one by one cuts off a hand or a leg, even “the very organs that give birth to the creature”, desperately believing that they can still save something from their body: “Without so many hands or legs they were clinging to life/some even being deprived of the sight of sweet light!”. The city, once alive, is increasingly filled with corpses: “Bodies lay unburied, piled up on top of bodies.”The end of the disease is still far away, it cannot even be imagined. As if that weren’t enough, the disease is sweeping across the animal world. The birds and other creatures in the city leave it, “to escape the terrible stench”. And if any bird or any beast tastes it, nevertheless, from a thief, they also fall down, slain. In the surrounding forests, the “bloody races of beasts” are “closed in dens”. You don’t see a bird in the sky anymore. Hungry and exhausted, on the streets of the city, “The dogs full of faith gave their souls in pain”. Even dying, they do not leave people.

The fourth part. The expansion and peak of the pandemic

The funeral symphony of death now reaches its climax. The transmission of the disease is the ominous prelude to this last part. The infection takes place instantly, in a gloomy, apocalyptic crescendo avant la lettre, because medicine is seen to be powerless, no kind of cure being able to bring salvation: “Mute with horror now the medicine stammered incessantly”. Relatives want to see their patients at least in the last hour, and then they also catch the disease. The dying still want to see, at least for the last time, their loved ones: abandoned, they beg them not to leave them prey to the terrible death. There is nothing else to do. Huge pits are dug to fit as many corpses as possible, thrown in a heap. Piles are raised everywhere. But some have no other option and then, in order not to stay with the dead in the house or throw them on the street, they place them “on foreign pyres”: from here, beatings to the point of blood between the surviving relatives, each for his dead, so that they don’t mix with each other, like in the pit.

The city becomes a vast necropolis. Cohorts of dead in houses. Cohorts of dead also in the settlements around him, suburban, closer and further, from the countryside, where “the shepherd, the cowherd, the hardy plowman […]/All languished and lay crouched in some corner of the shack”. Cohorts of the dead on all the streets, alleys and roads, in a pestilential, unbreathable air: “Thus through places beaten by the world, on the road, languishing/Bodies you saw, exhausted by life, terribly dirty/Wrapped in rags, only remained skin and bones/breathing their last in the filthy impurities/as if buried in the pus of bubs and creaky things”. Unimaginable, cohorts of the dead also fill the temples and altars of the gods, where the sick had taken refuge, not long ago, attracted by the “divine majesty” or, perhaps, by the “fear of the gods”: but even the holy places were “laden with rotting corpses”. 3. The most funeral symphony of universal literature, the poetic description of a real pandemic, under the pen of Titus Lucretius Carus, concludes and closes the last canto, the sixth of the poem “On the nature of things” (De rerum natura), a title that can be understood (Grimal, 1994: 252) in a broader sense: “about the way things exist” or even “about existing”. Does the end of the poem signify a symbolic foreseen end of the existing world and of hope, in the face of the universal disease, which, with the greatest cruelty, attacks all people, fragile creatures without any defense, regardless of their position and status in society, in the world?

If the entire poem talks about existence and what exists, down to the smallest fiber of matter, visible as well as invisible (“atoms”), the last canto is no exception. Narrowing the perspective, a cosmic one in the previous canto, Lucretius reviews, in this last canto, the “phenomena” (in the etymological sense: “that which appears [to sight]”): astronomical, on the one hand, geographical, on the other, without omitting to speak precisely about their causes. The end of the poem and, with it, of the poem speaks about the “phenomena”, so visible, of life: those related to the biological, physiological nature of man, namely diseases, through their sudden appearance and epi-, then pandemic, soldier spread with the end of life relentlessly attacked, with death as the final act of the biological. Just as the cosmos, then the earth, are traversed by phenomena that shake their very existence, bringing them to the brink of destruction (lightning, devastating storms, earthquakes, the devastating flow of the sea, volcanic eruptions, etc.), and man, through his body, is, for reasons unknown, so sensitive to deadly substances, which cannot be seen, cannot be touched, have no smell, do not make noise: they are the seeds of deadly diseases, transmissible from one individual to another under conditions of apparently perfect normality of life.

Did the gods send them? The meaning of the entire poem, of purely Epicurean inspiration, is diametrically opposed. The gods exist, but they live somewhere, happily, in their cosmic empire (intermundia), unconcerned with either the phenomenal upheaval of nature or the human harvest. The gods neither produce, nor stop, nor reduce, nor increase the disorder of nature or the sufferings that, behold, can take the minds of people: nature produces them all (Murarașu, 1933: XI), because “the gods do not interfere” (ibid.). Nature is its own cause and end, the only cause and the only end. It has fixed, immutable “laws” (otherwise, it would have disappeared long ago by itself), “laws” of self-destruction, respectively of self-regeneration. By itself, through itself, for itself. “Lucrèce a été le premier à appresier comme il le mérite ce principe, foundation de la science moderne: Rien ne se perd, rien ne se cree”. (Bergson, apud Murărașu, 1933, XVI).

A poem admiring the power of reason, part of the force and eternity of nature, ends tragically. The breath of death covers his last dozens of lines, of a rarely seen violence of expression, with a gloomy, grave, sarcastic tonality at the end of the finale, like a supreme rictus. A medical-sanitary cataclysm can cause, like the ancient plague of Athens, an even greater one, twofold: psychological and social (Cizek, 2003: 142). The desperate crowd, greedily clinging to life in a last effort, brings before the eyes of the mind the identical picture of the despair of those condemned to eternal hell, from the famous fresco of Michelangelo, Giudizio Universale, “The Last Judgment” (Serafini, 1981: 127).Basically, the poem ends logically. It is the logic of nature. After the joy of love and the happy amazement brought by the birth, the coming of creatures into the world (the prologue of the first canto), life ends in an equally natural way (the end of the last canto). So, even death, no matter how painful, is part of life. “Appunto il nascere ed il mire are sono la vita, sono la natura, de rerum natura” (id., ibid: 129).

Article signed by Prof. Liviu Franga, PhD, teaching staff at the Department of Romance, Classical and Neo-Greek Languages ​​and Literatures of the Faculty of Foreign Languages ​​and Literatures of the University of Bucharest.


Cizek, 2003: History of Latin literature. Vol. 1. Second Edition, Revised and Added. Bucharest, Corinth Publishing Group, 2003

Grimal, 1994: Pierre Grimal, La littérature latine. Paris, Fayard, 1994

Murărașu, 1933: Lucretiu, Poemul naturii. Translation in original meter with an introductory study by D. Murărașu. Bucharest, Romanian Society of Philosophy, Collection of Great Philosophers, edited by N. Bagdasar, 1933; Titus Lucretius Carus, The Poem of Nature. Translation, preface and notes by D. Murărașu. Bucharest, Minerva Publishing House, Library for all, 1981

Serafini, 1981: Storia della letteratura latina dalle origini al VI secolo d. C. Nuova edizione. Turin, Società Editrice Internazionale, 1981


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