In the summer of 430 B.C., a mass outbreak of disease hit the city of Athens, ravaging the city’s population over the next five years. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, the historian Thucydides, who witnessed the epidemic, described victims’ “violent heats in the head,” “redness and inflammation in the eyes,” and tongues and throats “becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath.” Patients would experience hot flashes so extreme, he wrote, that they “could not bear to have on [them] clothing or linen even of the very lightest description.” In the later stages of infection, the disease would end with “violent ulceration” and diarrhea that left most too weak to survive.
More than 2,000 years later, the Plague of Athens remains a scientific mystery. Thucydides’ account—the only surviving description of the epidemic—has been the basis for dozens of modern-day theories about its cause, including bubonic plague, cholera, typhoid fever, influenza, and measles. And in June, an article in the journal Clinical Infectious Disease suggested another answer: Ebola.
The article, written by the infectious-disease specialist Powel Kazanjian, is the latest in a string of papers arguing that Athens was once the site of an Ebola outbreak. The surgeon Gayle Scarrow first raised the suggestion in The Ancient History Bulletin in 1988. Eight years later, the epidemiologist Patrick Olson published a letter in Emerging Infectious Diseases, a journal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, comparing the symptoms of the Athens plague to those of Ebola, which had broken out in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) and Sudan in 1976. “The profile of the ancient disease,” he concluded, “is remarkably similar.”