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EpidemicsHate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS$
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Samuel K. Cohn, Jr.

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780198819660

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198819660.001.0001

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Epidemics in Antiquity

Epidemics in Antiquity

The Moral Universe and Natural Causes

(p.7) 1 Epidemics in Antiquity

Samuel K. Cohn, Jr.

Oxford University Press

This chapter refutes present claims that epidemics in antiquity led to blame of the ‘other’. By assembling contemporary descriptions, explanations, and consequences of ancient epidemics, this chapter overturns a second commonplace about ancient epidemics: that contemporaries understood them within a moral universe, in which plagues arose from the evil deeds of individuals usually within the political sphere, such as betrayals, unjust wars, violations of peace, and breaches of justice, and as a consequence, the gods punished communities with epidemic disease. Such explanations, however, clustered in undatable, mythological time. Instead, classical authors explained the majority of epidemics solely by natural phenomenon—climate, famine, bad food and unaccustomed diets, vapours from unburied corpses, polluted rivers, etc. These explanations did not cast blame on anyone, including the enemies of the afflicted, who may have created the preconditions that brought about these plagues.

Keywords:   pestilence, moral universe, climate, famine, gods, Minotaur story, Oedipus, Livy, Thucydides, Hippocratic constitutions

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