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Mike Pope on Plagues in Classical Literature

Associate Professor Mike Pope (Comparative Arts and Letters) discusses plagues in Classical literature and how epidemics were used as a literary convention. 

Classical literature as we know it begins with plague. In the opening verses of Homer’s Iliad we encounter an epidemic visited upon the Greek warriors. Agamemnon, the leader of the invading forces, had wronged a priest of Apollo by refusing to release the priest’s captive daughter for ransom. Apollo takes vengeance by sending contagion upon the soldiery, who then suffer and die. The literal plague in the camp mirrors the other disease eating away at the Greeks: intractable vanity. The great heroes of the Achaeans, Agamemnon and Achilles, cannot resolve their long-standing rivalry and personal grievances.

Both sicknesses will abate, but not before intimately described violence and horror infects nearly every section of the poem, grinding down the common soldiers most of all. Fate and the gods eventually machinate a resolution between the Greek warlords, though the poem ends with the invaders still far from home and the war stretching now into its tenth year.

Over a thousand years later, another poet, this time in Rome, will end his epic poem in plague. Lucretius, the great evangelist of Epicurean philosophy, set out to compose a poem to convince his fellow Romans of the elite, ruling class that there was a sickness poisoning them all. A plague of unchecked desire, irrational superstition, and obsessive fear of death was rotting away the morals of the Roman commonwealth. Romans were sick, and the elite class did not comprehend that they were the cause.

Because they fear the imaginary supernatural powers of Greco-Roman tradition, and consequently the inevitability of a wraithlike existence in Hades with its endless state of dissatisfaction and punishments, they pursue domination, wealth, and fleeting honor to distract themselves from reality. They become Agamemnon and Achilles in real life, destroying themselves, and those around them, in pursuit of vanity.

In his poem De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things), Lucretius offers a medicine, a bitter one, he concedes, though he promises to sweeten it with the honey of his poetry: abandon these futile pursuits, live modestly, observe natural boundaries, accept that death comes for all, and live in peace with yourself and your neighbor. Bitter remedy indeed for those at the crest of a sprawling domain sustained by conquest and all the ills of colonization.

Lucretius ends the poem in a scene of apocalyptic plague. Bodies are heaped in the grand buildings financed by empire and in the sanctuaries of gods who proved impotent or indifferent; law and social convention are shattered, and people fight over scarce resources. But in all of the horror, Lucretius reminds us that Achilles and Agamemnon, Sulla and Caesar, these are not the heroes we call out to in troubled times. Lucretius reminds us that noble souls yet prevail: they tend to the stricken and dying, knowing the risk, and in turn grow sick and die.

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