How Did the Plague of Athens Revolutionize Carthage?

Spreading out from the Greek polis, the Plague of Athens in 431 BCE would have far-reaching consequences on another Mediterranean power: Carthage.

May 28, 2024By Christopher Nelson, MSc Ancient History, BA Classical Archaeology, BA Anthropology

plague of athens revolutionize carthage


Pericles’ famous funeral oration marked the end of a tumultuous first year of open conflict with the Spartans. He commemorated the Athenian dead, yet few could have foreseen the full ramifications of what was about to take place. A plague, incubating in a war-torn Attica, would, years later, take hold of North Africa, where it eroded Carthaginian morale and caused the fall of a pantheon as well as a dynasty.


“And now that you have brought to a close your lamentations for your relatives, you may depart…”


The Plague in Athens

bust pericles
Bust of Pericles, 2nd Century BCE. Source: The British Museum


In the summer following his funeral oration, a Spartan force marched into Attica, forcing Pericles into a tough, strategic decision. He ordered the inhabitants of the polis and its hinterlands into the city proper, trusting the safety of his fellow Athenians to the famed Long Walls.


It was the perfect storm. The hot, Mediterranean sun. A mass of people herded into an already dense city. Pestilence soon broke out, engulfing an already strained populace.


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Thucydides speaks of the first outbreaks and its helpless victims, “a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered…neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often; nor did any human art succeed any better. Supplications in the temples, divinations, and so forth were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether.”


funeral oration pericles
Das Zeitalter des Perifles by Philipp Foltz, 1880. Source: The Rijksmuseum


Hearsay of the day placed the origin of the disease in Ethiopia before it spread to Athens through the port of Piraeus. Its victims were soon overcome with “violent heats in the head” before the inflammation consumed the entirety of the body. If one made it through this stage, spasms contorted the victim while retching strained every muscle and the bowels were overtaken by ulcers and frequent incontinence. Many expired within seven or eight days, leaving very few survivors.


The Testimony of Paleopathology

plague athens poussin
The Plague, after Nicolas Poussin, 1811. Source: the British Museum


Miraculously, Thucydides survived the pestilence, leaving us a firsthand account of its effects on the body. However, that is not sufficient to conclusively prove what the illness was. Since then, scholars have debated the cause of such a novel and acute outbreak. Bubonic plague, smallpox, and ebola are only some of the many theories. Given the persistence and lethality of smallpox over the centuries, many assumed this had to be the culprit.


However, in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, mass graves were discovered in Athens, which dated from the time of the plague. This is consistent with our account of the disease, as Thucydides tells us that normal burial rites were abandoned due to the impractically large number of corpses that had accumulated. Sacral places were soon filled with them as people, using their last bit of strength, traveled there, seeking anything that could provide relief. Large pyres were built to burn the bodies, but it is not inconceivable that, in desperation, many were hastily buried underground.


The team of archaeologists soon discovered that many of the sampled individuals contained traces of DNA from a strain of typhoid. As conclusive as this appears, others argued that this could not be the cause of this particular outbreak as Thucydides was clear that the pestilence they experienced was entirely novel, while Typhoid fever was already known and present in Ancient Greece.


The Second Sicilian War 

The Magonid Family Tree (with listed death dates), made by the author


In 413 BCE, Athens launched an ill-advised campaign into Sicily in an attempt to cut the Spartans’ source of grain. The campaign went disastrously for the Athenians, and, while the Syracusans were ultimately successful, the countryside was ravaged, leaving Syracuse unable to withstand yet another conflict.


After a dispute between the city-states of Selinus and Segestea, the Carthaginians were drawn back to Sicily seven decades after their disgrace at Himera in 480 BCE. They nominated Hannibal Mago to lead the expedition, the grandson of the very same man who had lost everything at the aforementioned battle.


After making the crossing from North Africa in 409 BCE, the Carthaginians set upon the town of Selinus. Victorious and bent on revenge, Hannibal moved on Himera with rapacious speed. In an attempt to exorcize the demons of his family’s past, Hannibal began a vicious campaign of bloodletting, executing 3,000 prisoners on the spot where his grandfather had died, according to Diodorus.


The Temple of Victory, the Syracusans’ great commemoration to their past victory at the first battle of Himera, was sought out and burned.


The town of Akragas (modern-day Agrigento), a member of the old alliance with Syracuse, was next. The grand burial of the town’s old tyrant Theron, was dug up and systematically desecrated for his role at the first battle of Himera.


The year was now 406 BCE. For the better part of three years, the Carthaginians had ravaged the Sicilian countryside and destroyed several whole cities with no concentrated opposition. A major endeavor, the Carthaginian invasion of Sicily thus far had pulled tens of thousands of men across the sea on a massive fleet to exact a specific type of revenge. The Magonid dynasty, previously humiliated by the Syracusans, was settling the score. At least that’s what the Greeks believed, and the invaders were soon to meet divine justice.


The Temples of Demeter and Kore

bust demeter
Bust of Demeter, 450-400 BCE. Source: the MFA Boston


A well-timed (for the Greeks) pestilence descended upon the rampaging Carthaginian army. Outside the walls of Akragas, Hannibal finally succumbed to the disease, leaving his admiral and second-in-command, Himilco, to finish the war.


Given the authority to re-take his command in 398 BCE, Himilco launched another expedition into Sicily where it quickly became apparent that he had failed to heed the shortcomings of his predecessor. Soon, Himilco was at the gates of Syracuse itself where he pitched camp and began preparations for a siege. It was here that he found the twin temples of Demeter and Kore, both very important agricultural deities in Sicily. He promptly burned them down.


For Diodorus, the Carthaginians’ persistent disrespect and destruction of sacral spaces was assuredly the cause of yet another outbreak. We know that it pre-existed the destruction of the temples in 396 BCE amongst the Carthaginians, but it seems to have now gotten worse.


Aside from divine retribution or what we would anachronistically call “karma,” Diodorus does provide clues to a more practical explanation. He says that the Carthaginians camped on the same ground as the Athenians did during their failed siege of Syracuse.


Continued outbreaks of disease in the same region were commonplace, often re-occurring across seasons, years, decades, or even millennia in the case of the Bubonic plague. Brought to Sicily by the Athenians, the high population density and lack of hygiene in the Carthaginian army camp was the perfect host.


Himilco was forced to flee, leaving many of his men on the beach to fend for themselves as he sailed back to Carthage. Diodorus (14.76) concludes the episode by saying, “they who overthrew the tombs of the Syracusans gazed upon one hundred and fifty thousand dead lying in heaps and unburied because of the plague.”


The Rise of Healer Cults in Carthage

cathedral louis byrsa
The Cathedral of St. Louis in 1899, Site of the ancient Temple of Eshmoun. Source: Library of Congress


Himilco was disgraced and exiled. He locked himself away, refusing to eat. Not only had he brought great shame to the Carthaginian people, but he had unwittingly been the vessel by which the same plague that had ravaged Athens and his own army outside the walls of Syracuse would make it to the shores of his homeland. There are no Carthaginian sources that can tell us what their experience was like, but if Athens was to provide any clue, the disease must have spread quickly in a city that relied so heavily on maritime commerce.


The connection between the plague and Himilco’s shameful deeds was not lost on the Carthaginians. Feeling his death was not yet enough penance, they set up cult centers for Demeter and Kore in Carthage, replacing those destroyed in Sicily. Maintained and attended to by ethnic Greeks, the gesture was meant to ward off the ire of the goddesses and, hopefully, the disease with it. The old gods were not enough. The cults became hugely popular in Cape Bon, an area outside of the city dominated by aristocratic villas.


The Carthaginians tried anything they could to break the grip that the disease had on the city. A statue of Apollo, a god famously associated with plagues, which was captured by Himilco in Sicily was donated to a temple in Tyre. A new temple was built on the main hill in the city (modern-day site of the Cathedral of St. Louis) dedicated to Eshmoun, a healer deity the Romans referred to as Aesculapius.


The goddess Tanit, the patron deity of Carthage, also rose to prominence during this time. Her iconography bears a striking resemblance to that of Demeter and Kore on Greek coins that the Carthaginians would have likely seen during their campaign in Sicily.


The Rise of the Aristocracy

head goddess sicily
Fourth Century Tetradrachm with the Head of Goddess, minted in Sicily. Source: Altes Museum Berlin


Despite these measures, outbreaks of the plague continued sporadically through the subsequent decades, forcing the Carthaginians to address the problems politically rather than just theologically.


The dynasty that had produced Hamilcar and Hannibal, both of whom had died in Sicily, as well as Himilco, now began to fall out of favor. The new aristocratic class, who had accumulated their wealth through military campaigns and land grabs in North Africa as well as trading, seized their opportunity. At some point after Himilco’s death in 396 BCE, a new governmental body was founded called the Court of One Hundred and Four. Their prime function was to audit the conduct and competency of Carthage’s field generals. Surely the shadow of Himilco and his transgressions hung heavily on the minds of the “judges” that made up the new body.


By the mid-4th century, all the trappings and titles of monarchy that had been used in reference to the Magonids were gone. Monarchical skepticism had taken such a deep root within society that a man we know as “Hanno the Great” was accused of an attempted coup d’etat and summarily crucified by the Court of 104 and its leader Eshmuniaton, the first such reported penalty levied by the Court. His bears an eerie resemblance to their god of healing, perhaps a further connection to the continued presence of the plague in Carthage.


Over the next five decades, we know of at least a half dozen prominent Carthaginian generals who were executed on the Court’s orders. The body had effectively taken over as the dominant power in Carthaginian society. It was only through the actions of the famed Hannibal Barca that the Court’s grip on power was broken in 196 BCE.



head tanit coin
Silver coin with the head of Tanit, 3rd Century BCE, minted in Sicily. Source: the British Museum


The events of the Archidamian War, the failed Sicilian expedition by the Athenians, Carthage’s Second and Third Sicilian Wars, the adoption of a new pantheon in Carthage, and the rise of the 104 seem to be distinct and contained. However, if one scratches the surface, a thread can be seen tying all these events, which are spread over three geographic locations and half a century, together.


The Carthage that we come to know from the Roman sources in the Punic Wars would not have existed. Previously built on the template of its mother city of Tyre, Carthage looked like a Near Eastern kingdom that had been transplanted to North Africa. After the events of the Sicilian Wars, countless outbreaks of plague, a new pantheon, and a government dominated by an aristocracy, it looked more Hellenized. Whether this suited them better for their upcoming showdown with the upstart Romans is impossible to say. However, an argument can certainly be made that this societal change was largely driven by a plague that had first ravaged Athens and claimed the life of her greatest statesman.

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By Christopher NelsonMSc Ancient History, BA Classical Archaeology, BA AnthropologyChristopher holds a degree in Classical Archaeology from the University of Missouri and a Master’s degree in Ancient History from the University of Edinburgh. He is a Kansas City native where both of his parents worked as schoolteachers. They instilled in him a love of history that has manifested itself in countless travel excursions, stacks of books, and questions. He currently resides in New York City.