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Athenian and Roman Plagues Part 3

April 27, 2013

Whilst exploring the societal affects of plague today I found it particularly interesting that there may be a link between the decline of traditional religious practice in Athens and a rise in interest in eastern cults.

Nutton (2004: 281-2) observes that during times of great suffering from plague or pestilence, cities and their people tend to turn to gods. However, when the entreaties for assistance appear to go unheard it is likely that traditional religious observance will seem irrelevant to some and cease. Such an observation is made by Thucydides (The Peloponnesian War 53.4);

‘Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them. As for the first, they judged it to be just the same whether they worshiped them or not, as they saw all alike perishing’.

Lucretius (De Rerum Natura 1280-2) makes a similar observation  ‘For now no longer men did mightily esteem the old Divine, The worship of the gods’. Regardless of religious observance undertaken by the people of Athens  ‘supplications in the temples, divination’s  and so forth were found equally futile’ (Thucydides The Peloponnesian War 2.47.4). Thucydides (The Peloponnesian War 2.47.4) concludes that once the plague had taken grip of Athens all religious observance stopped. I believe that Thucydides is referring to traditional religious practice in this section as there is evidence of a rise in alternative religions during the period of the plague.

It is likely that the disenfranchisement with traditional religious practice, as a result of the ongoing plague, may have led to an increase in observance of other foreign religious practices. Particularly as there does not appear to be any evidence for them before the plague. Aristophanes provides evidence of these deities through references to them in his plays; deities such as Cybele in Brids (877) and Sabazius  in Wasps (9). The general population would need to be a familiar with the religious practices in order for any reference or joke to work within the play. Furthermore, Cicero (De legibus 2.37) informs us that Aristophanes wrote a play about the incursion of foreign deities into Athens; the plot focused on their trial and subsequent ejection from Athens. It is difficult to determine the exact date that a cult established itself within Athens (Longrigg 1992:37). However, I believe it can be safely inferred from the evidence of Aristophanes and Cicero that such religions arose as a result of people looking for alternatives to traditional religious practice. Sections of Athens population were disenfranchised with the traditional gods, in all likelihood believing that they either did not exist or had abandoned them; the void created by this and the imminent fear of death from the plague provided the necessary space for the rise of these alternative religions.


Aristophanes. Birds. The Complete Greek Drama, vol. 2. Eugene O’Neill, Jr. New York. Random House. 1938. Perseus Digital Library [Accessed 27th April 2013]

Aristophanes. Wasps. The Complete Greek Drama, vol. 2. Eugene O’Neill, Jr. New York. Random House. 1938. Perseus Digital Library [Accessed 27th April 2013]

Lucretius. De Rerum Natura. William Ellery Leonard. E. P. Dutton. 1916. Perseus Digital Library [Accessed 27th April 2013]

Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. London, J. M. Dent; New York, E. P. Dutton. 1910. Perseus Digital Library [Accessed 27th April 2013]

Longrigg, J. “Death and epidemic disease in classical Athens”, in V. Hope & E. Marshall (eds.), Death and Disease in the Ancient City London: Routledge, 2000.

Nutton, V. Ancient Medicine London: Routledge, 2004.


From → Ancient Medicine

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