A painting depicting a town square in a classical town. The foreground is littered with the bodies of sick and dying people.

Thucydides, Historical Solidarity, and Birth in the Pandemic

I never felt any particular fear for my safety, or my baby’s, during my first pregnancy in 2016. I felt even more confident as I prepared to give birth to my second child in the spring of 2020. This changed dramatically in mid March, when suddenly my due date at the end of April coincided with the first projected peak in local hospital resource use because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I found myself obsessing over descriptions of the nightmare conditions of Italian hospitals, what the triage system would look like in an American context, stories of birthing mothers in New York being forced to labor and deliver without their partners. This obsession fed a crippling anxiety spiral as I found myself largely unable to detach my thoughts from my worst fears.

At the same time, I also found myself repeatedly – and somewhat inexplicably – thinking about a passage in the ancient Greek historian Thucydides’s narrative of the plague of Athens of 430 BCE. It wasn’t immediately clear to me why, though I was sure it was at least in part because of the sudden flowering of bad hot takes comparing Thucydides and the plague of Athens to our modern “plague.”[1] In the upheaval of suddenly becoming a full-time homeschool teacher to my three year old, my mind found some comfort in continuing to do what Classical philologists do: analyze passages of ancient Greek literature.

Here’s a brief explanation of the passage, usually referred to by the number 2.48.3. After Thucydides described the initial outbreak of disease and asserted that medical science was utterly useless against it, he introduced his description of the symptoms with the following: “I will say how it happened, and whoever studies this, if the plague ever strikes again, because he knows something in advance, would be particularly able to not be ignorant; these things I will make clear, since I myself got sick and saw others suffering it.”[2]

The intriguing bit here, to me, is what Thucydides said about his motives for describing the symptoms. He of course had his future reader in mind and the possibility of this same plague happening to that future reader. The reader, having studied Thucydides’ description, will be armed with a measure of foreknowledge, which will make him capable of not being ignorant.

A white statue of an man sitting, wearing a toga.
A statue of Thucydides in front of the Austrian Parliament Building. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Since my grad student days of reading Thucydides, this particular passage has interested me deeply in ways I could never quite put my finger on. Anecdotally, I have seen my own students as well as professional Classicists appear to read passage 2.48.3 and unconsciously fill in the blank with the other side of the clichéd quote by George Santayana about not knowing history and being doomed to repeat it. That is to say, they assume that Thucydides was saying that if his reader studies his description of the symptoms of the plague, they’ll be able to recognize the disease and do something about it. Not only did Thucydides not say this, this interpretation contradicts his assertion earlier in the narrative at 2.47.4 that all human skill and all appeals to the gods did nothing: the doctors, said Thucydides, died at higher rates because they had more contact with the sick. So, for Thucydides, knowledge and skill not only don’t help against the disease, they may make you more vulnerable to it.

The idea that failing to know history means being condemned to repeat it is more an ideological commitment than a critical engagement with the value and purpose of historical knowledge. Historian Sarah Bond describes this absurdity succinctly in a Twitter thread from 2019:

Philosopher George Santayana (1905) coined the oft-misquoted “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” But the reason to study history is not so we don’t repeat or rhyme it (we will regardless), it is to translate the people, pain, & pleasure of the present.

There is absolute worth in remembering the past, but let us not cast it as something we do to keep us from repeating the mistakes in the historical record. This is rarely the case. Vonnegut noted: “We’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”

What we can do is use historical literacy to create perpetual empathy towards humanity & to instill in us a hunger to understand, to inquire, & to document. That is the worth of history. And it is empathy which we can & should repeat into the future.

When I have asked my own students to discuss Bond’s formulation, many of them have commented that it had never occurred to them that studying history might have any other purpose. The idea is so deeply ingrained that it’s hard for many readers to recognize that Thucydides said nothing of the sort. Again, Thucydides offered his reader only knowledge, and implied that it is not the actionable kind of knowledge. What has long intrigued me is that he said nothing about why he thought this knowledge is worth having.

Last spring, I found myself thinking of all the other mothers in the world who, like me, were going to give birth in conditions made more dangerous by the pandemic. And I thought about all of the mothers historically who have given birth in worse circumstances than I was ever likely to face. I never found these thoughts comforting. Being a scholar of ancient history means knowing perfectly well that a lot of these mothers did not survive those circumstances – and neither did their babies.

I learned this lesson most vividly when I spent a summer as a graduate student at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Dr. Maria Liston spoke to my group about human remains found in the Athenian agora. At one point, she produced a large clear plastic bag filled with what looked like chicken leg bones. She explained that these were the femurs of over 400 infants whose remains were found in an abandoned cistern. Liston’s work has determined that the majority of these infants died of natural causes such as bacterial meningitis (common in the absence of modern medical care even today), dispelling previous claims of mass infanticide or pandemic. There’s no need to cast ancient people as monstrous; it’s simply true that birth can be hazardous.

Within alternative birth circles, it’s a common refrain that women have been birthing for thousands of years without OB/GYNs and hospitals and cesarean sections and pitocin, etc. The implication is generally that they were ok. Obviously, many of them were. But Dr. Liston’s bag of infant femurs and the evidence of many other times and places before or without access to c-sections and pitocin and the rest tell us that very many were not ok.

The birth of my first child was pretty par for the course for a first-time mom: I had a long labor with minor complications that were resolved with some standard interventions. I needed an epidural, pitocin, and antibiotics, quotidian technologies in the modern delivery room. Yet the normalcy of my own experience obscures just how easily I and my daughter could have died if we had lived even just a century ago. I expect I owe my life to each of these technologies, and probably my daughter’s too. We were ok because I birthed in a time and place when such medicine was available.

Here’s the horrible truth about this pandemic, which my springtime reflections on Thucydides drove home for me: Even though it may be true that collectively we are going to make it through this, individually, not all of us are going to be ok. Somehow the knowledge that I was not the only one going through the experience of preparing to give birth during a crisis, neither right now nor historically, actually did help. But it wasn’t comforting. It was something more like solidarity, knowing that myriad mothers have gone through something like this before – even the ones who didn’t make it and the ones who still won’t. Sometimes studying history can give you the feeling that for a fleeting second you’ve locked eyes with a ghost, and you almost think that they appreciate being seen. In the moment, I almost feel seen by them, too.

Something about Thucydides 2.48.3 clicked for me in a new way last spring: an emotional, rather than a philological interpretation of the passage. When Thucydides said that reading his description of the plague will allow you to recognize what is happening to you, he was trying to help you, but not by giving you the knowledge to solve the problem. He was telling you that he’s been there, too, and you’re not the only one going through this.

Notes

    1. I particularly recommend the takedowns of such takes by Yung In Chae and Neville Morley, who clarify why Thucydides does not actually offer us any insight into the pandemic as a pandemic.
    2. My own translation of a notoriously convoluted sentence.

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