Please note: These papers were prepared for the Greek Science course taught at Tufts University by Prof. Gregory Crane in the spring of 1995. The Perseus Project does not and has not edited these student papers. We assume no responsibility over the content of these papers: we present them as is as a part of the course, not as documents in the Perseus Digital Library. We do not have contact information for the authors. Please keep that in mind while reading these papers.


  1. I. Background
    1. I. General Information
    2. II. Disease Symptoms
  2. II. Thucydides and Greek Science
    1. I. Separate Natural from Supernatural
    2. II. Create Tools of Logical thought
    3. III. Logical and Empirical Research
  3. III. Connections to Hippocratic Medicine
    1. I. Hippocratic Medicine
Look at the comments on this paper.

I. Background

The purpose of this paper is to evaluate the extent to which Thucydides is representative of Greek science and of the prevailing medical theory of his day, the Hippocratic theory of medicine. Greek science will be defined according to the three-part definition discussed in class:

  1. separating the natural from the supernatural
  2. creating tools of logical thought
  3. employing logical and empirical research

I. General Information

Thucydides was an eyewitness to the plague which struck Athens in 431/0 BC. The effects of the plague upon the city were exacerbated by Perikles' military strategy. As leader of the Athenian state, Perikles wanted to wait behind the city's walls until the Athenian military superiority at sea forced the Spartans, who were the superior by land, to retreat. Unfortunately such a strategy also resulted in the crowding of many people from the countryside together in a confined area. As a result, Athens became a breeding ground for the plague.

II. Disease Symptoms

To this day the exact diagnosis of the plague which descended upon Athens remains a mystery. However, Thucydides did record the symptoms of the disease in his account of the plague of Athens:

- high fever

- vomiting of bile

- extreme thirst

- swollen lymph nodes/buboes

- petachiae - black spots on the skin that are actually hemorrhages under the skin

Holladay and Poole evaluate the various plague diagnoses that have been offered in their article "Thucydides and the Plague of Athens"(Classics Quarterly. 1977 p. 282-300) They emphasize that we may never know the nature of the plague, because the symptoms of the disease may have mutated over time, or because the disease may not currently exist.

II. Thucydides and Greek Science

I. Separate Natural from Supernatural

In the following examples Thucydides does not attribute the disease to divine causality:

- by describing how the moral standards of the community, based upon a belief in the gods, fell into decay

- by describing how the disease attacked even those who had supplicated the gods asking to be spared from the disease

  1. (2.52.3)
  2. (2.52.4)
  3. (2.53.4)

II. Create Tools of Logical thought

Here Thucydides has evidence, derived from direct observation, which he uses to support his conclusion that birds and animals eating plague-infested carcasses died as a result.



III. Logical and Empirical Research

The following examples illustrate the type of research Thucydides preferred: simple, direct observation that was based upon either his own personal experience or what he could see. Notice the emphasis upon collecting facts and data and the contrast between this approach and Herodotus' entertaining historical accounts.



(2.2.3-5) Herodotus

III. Connections to Hippocratic Medicine

I. Hippocratic Medicine

In his account of the plague Thucydides relies upon the prevailing medical theory of the day, Hippocratic theory, in order to describe the course of the disease. Followers of this theory believed that disease was influenced by several factors, such as the time of year when the disease struck. For example, the very same symptoms of illness would be seen by a Hippocratic physician as a different disease depending upon the season of the year in which you became ill. Notice that Thucydides also records the prognosis of the plague, ie, the course of the disease (what to expect by a certain date); this is also typical of the Hippocratic tradition.