Typhoid May Have Caused Fall of Athens, Study Finds

Nicholas Bakalar
for National Geographic News
February 27, 2006
An ancient medical mystery—the cause of a plague that wracked Athens from 426 to 430 B.C. and eventually led to the city's fall—has been solved by DNA analysis, researchers say.

The ancient Athenians died from typhoid fever, according to a new study.

Scientists from the University of Athens drew this conclusion after studying dental pulp extracted from the teeth of three people found in a mass grave in Athens' Kerameikos cemetery.

The mass grave was first discovered in 1994 and was dated to about 430 B.C., the time of the plague.

At least 150 bodies had been thrown into the pit, the corpses piled in five layers with no soil between them.

"It was evident that they were buried irregularly, hastily, and without the death rituals of the time, almost in a state of panic," said Manolis Papagrigorakis, a professor at the University of Athens' School of Dentistry who lead the study.

The study appears in the current online version of the International Journal of Infectious Diseases.

Plague Result of War?

The mysterious disease struck during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta that lasted from 431 to 404 B.C. (map)

Researchers believe the plague may have been the result of a military strategy devised by the Athenians' leader, Pericles.

To counter an offensive by the Spartans, Pericles evacuated parts of the Athenian territory and sheltered its citizens behind Athens' fortifications.

Gathering tens of thousands of people in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions created the perfect atmosphere in which infectious disease could spread, researchers say.

The disease struck three times during the war, in 430, 429, and 427-6 B.C. By some estimates 100,000 people—almost one-third of the Athenian population—died.

Thucydides, an ancient Greek historian who chronicled the war, contracted the disease and lived to write about it. His is the only known description of the outbreak.

The symptoms of the disease began, Thucydides wrote, with a sudden attack of "violent heats in the head," along with inflammation of the eyes, throat, and tongue, and the emission of fetid breath.

Sneezing, hoarseness, and painful coughing followed. Then came dry retching, spasms, fever, reddish pustules, and ulcers all over the skin.

DNA Clues

The University of Athens researchers randomly collected three intact teeth from bodies found in the mass grave at Kerameikos.

The scientists extracted pulp from the teeth and used a technique called polymerase chain reaction to amplify its DNA so that they had enough to work with.

The researchers were then able to match the genetic material to that of Salmonella enterica, the bacteria that causes typhoid fever.

Although his team found that typhoid fever was a cause of the Athens plague, Papagrigorakis acknowledged that it may not have been the only one.

"We have not excluded the possibility of the concurrent existence of another pathogen as well," he said.

Further investigations of the DNA material will be needed to confirm the finding, he said.

Some symptoms mentioned by Thucydides do not coincide with the symptoms of typhoid fever—the acute and sudden onset, for example.

The authors speculate that differences between ancient and present-day Salmonella enterica may partly account for this.

Inaccuracies in Thucydides' description, he said, are also possible. "This is the subject of further investigations, which are already underway," Papagrigorakis said.

The Course of History

In addition to claiming the lives of 100,000 people, the plague caused a great loss of confidence in Pericles.

"A lot of people started to blame Pericles for the plague," said Richard A. Billows, professor of history at Columbia University in New York City.

"'It was your idea that we refuse to submit, it was your idea that we fight the war this way by evacuating people, and now look, we're all dying of the plague,'" he said, imagining what the Athenians may have thought.

After 30 years of war, the Athenians surrendered, and their empire dissolved.

Would the course of history have been altered if there had been no plague?

Pericles himself caught the disease, and although he survived it, he died a year later, probably due to its lingering effects.

"It's likely that if there had been no plague, Pericles would have lived longer," Billows said.

"A lot of upper-class Athenians lived into their 70s and 80s. And [Pericles] was a charismatic and persuasive leader, so with his leadership, the Athenians very likely would have conducted the war differently than they in fact did.

"Whether that would have changed the outcome, it's hard to say."

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