Coronavirus: What Boris Johnson’s Greek hero teaches us about epidemics

  • 3 hours ago
Boris Johnson at the Parthenon in
Pericles, giving one of his orations
Bust of Pericles

Image copyrightGETTY IMAGESImage captionBoris Johnson at the Parthenon in May 2012, shortly before the London Olympics

As Boris Johnson recovers from Covid-19, he will undoubtedly be thinking of an earlier epidemic, says Oxford classicist Armand D’Angour – the plague that hit Athens in 430 BC, and killed the prime minister’s hero, Pericles. It’s an episode, D’Angour argues, that holds many lessons for today.

Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is well versed the history and culture of ancient Greece. He knows that Western literature begins with a plague, the epidemic described in the opening book of Homer’s Iliad – of which Boris can happily declaim scores of verses from memory. And his political hero has long been the ancient Athenian leader, Pericles, whose bust sits in his office in 10 Downing Street.

The prime minister has often quoted admiringly the stirring oration given by Pericles to honour the dead after the first year of a destructive war against Sparta. And he will be well aware that Pericles gave a second famous speech a year later, after a devastating plague, probably a form of typhus, had killed around one third of Athens’ citizens.Image copyrightGETTY IMAGESImage captionPericles, giving one of his orations

Both orations were reported by the contemporary historian Thucydides, whose searing description of the Great Plague is worth reading for its literary virtuosity alone. Commentators today have drawn parallels between the responses of Athenians – ranging from the heroic to the contemptible – and those of valiant NHS staff and scared panic-buyers today. 

But surprisingly, none has drawn attention to the lesson Thucydides himself intended. What doesn’t change, wrote the historian, is human nature; you can expect people to react in similar ways when they encounter events like those that have occurred in the past. He embarked on his work, he says, because a clear grasp of the events he was living through could guide responses to similar events in future.Image copyrightGETTY IMAGESImage captionA bust of Pericles

He modelled his method on that of the most innovative medical practitioner of the day, the physician Hippocrates. Rather than prescribing prayers and religious rituals, spells and incantations, or exotic herbs and quack remedies, Hippocrates and his contemporaries were visiting sick patients, meticulously noting their symptoms, and keeping track of how they responded to prescribed treatments such as sleep, exercise, and the regulation of diet. Boris Johnson was a patient at St Thomas’ hospital, and is likely to have been participating in a medical trial that compares treatments for Covid-19 – so it may be that Hippocrates will come to his mind, as well as Pericles and Thucydides.

“One of the worst aspects of the plague was the despair into which people fell on finding they had the disease. Those who were convinced they had no hope were much quicker to give up and die,” observed Thucydides. “Another was the rate of infection among those who flocked to care for and doctor to others: they died in droves, and had the highest incidence of mortality… In addition, the plague led to greater crime, since criminals calculated on escaping detection and penalties.”