The Plague of Athens: dying like sheep?

By Helen King

I like sheep. When I was staying in the Netherlands some years ago, I was very excited because we were invited on a trip to what I heard as the ‘Sheep Museum’. Puzzled as to how there could be enough material to fill such a place, I went along enthusiastically, but was a little disappointed to find this was in fact a ‘Ship Museum’ (in Dutch it’s Het Scheepvaartmuseum). Oh well…

Wikimedia commons: modern Greek sheep

Wikimedia commons: modern Greek sheep

But how does a sheep die? In the Greek historian Thucydides’ famous/infamous description of the symptoms of the ‘Plague of Athens’, a hideous disease that struck the city during its war with Sparta in the fifth century BC and which killed its greatest general, Pericles, one phrase in particular acts as a useful warning about how difficult it is to translate original languages when studying history. At one point, Thucydides wrote ‘Appalling too was the rapidity with which men caught the infection; dying like sheep if they attended on one another; and this was the principle cause of mortality’ (Thuc. 2.51.4).

Explanations for this phrase have been very varied. Some regard this as an image – based on the point that sheep are flock animals, ready to follow a leader, it could mean simply that a lot of people died. This interpretation is reflected in a recent translation by Steven Lattimore, which has ‘from tending one another they died like a flock of sheep’. Another recent translator, Jeremy Mynott, makes this interpretation more explicit, with ‘they died in their droves like sheep’. It’s not a new suggestion; a mid-nineteenth century translation, by John South Phillips, had ‘they … kept dying like a flock of sheep’. Or the phrase could suggest that they died passively, unable to resist the disease. However, some have seen it as suggesting that the sheep were dying too, and thus as evidence that the mysterious condition that affected Athens was a zoonosis, a condition that can be passed from animals to humans.

The translation with which I started this discussion was that of Benjamin Jowett, first published in 1881. An even earlier one, by William Smith in 1753, included ‘that mutual tenderness in taking care of one another, which communicated the infection, and made them drop like sheep. This latter case caused the mortality to be so great’. ‘Dropping like sheep’ is not exactly an idiomatic expression today, although we do talk about ‘dropping like flies’.

So, you rightly ask, what’s the original Greek here? Transliterated, it comes out as ‘hôsper ta probata’, literally ‘just like the sheep’. Some scholars have found the use of the definite article very exciting here – not ‘just like sheep’ but ‘like THE sheep’. Does that make it more likely that actual sheep were dying? No: Greek uses of the definite article are not the same as ours.

The range of interpretations of this apparently simple phrase remind us once again of the much-repeated claim that every translation is already an interpretation. If we don’t have competence in the original language, we can at least think about the range of translations offered, and – for ancient Greek or Latin at least – consult a modern commentary on the text which talks us through the options. In this case, translations depend on the knowledge of medicine of the person who is doing the translating (and of the period in which he or she is writing), and on what that person wants to propose as the diagnosis of this most undiagnosable of afflictions!

  • vdorta

    As the Italians say, traduttore, traditore.