Josse Lieferinxe’s ‘Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken’ (c. 1498). Wikimedia Commons
The Conversation (4/16/20)
The coronavirus can infect anyone, but recent reporting has shown your socioeconomic status can play a big role, with a combination of job security, access to health care and mobility widening the gap in infection and mortality rates between rich and poor.
The wealthy work remotely and flee to resorts or pastoral second homes, while the urban poor are packed into small apartments and compelled to keep showing up to work.
As a medievalist, I’ve seen a version of this story before.
Following the 1348 Black Death in Italy, the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a collection of 100 novellas titled, “The Decameron.” These stories, though fictional, give us a window into medieval life during the Black Death – and how some of the same fissures opened up between the rich and the poor. Cultural historians today see “The Decameron” as an invaluable source of information on everyday life in 14th-century Italy.
In our own pandemic – with some of the most well-off now clamoring for the economy to re-open, despite the ongoing spread of the disease – these issues are strikingly relevant.
Boccaccio was born in 1313 as the illegitimate son of a Florentine banker. A product of the middle class, he wrote, in “The Decameron,” stories about merchants and servants. This was unusual for his time, as medieval literature tended to focus on the lives of the nobility.
“The Decameron” begins with a gripping, graphic description of the Black Death, which was so virulent that a person who contracted it would die within four to seven days. Between 1347 and 1351, it killed between 40% and 50% of Europe’s population. Some of Boccaccio’s own family members died.
The ruthless wealthy
In this opening section, Boccaccio describes the rich secluding themselves at home, where they enjoy quality wines and provisions, music and other entertainment. The very wealthiest – whom Boccaccio describes as “ruthless” – deserted their neighborhoods altogether, retreating to comfortable estates in the countryside, “as though the plague was meant to harry only those remaining within their city walls.”
Meanwhile, the middle class or poor, forced to stay at home, “caught the plague by the thousand right there in their own neighborhood, day after day” and swiftly passed away. Servants dutifully attended to the sick in wealthy households, often succumbing to the illness themselves. Many, unable to leave Florence and convinced of their imminent death, decided to simply drink and party away their final days in nihilistic revelries, while in rural areas, laborers died “like brute beasts rather than human beings; night and day, with never a doctor to attend them.” …
Massive Crisis Spending Brought Corruption & Bloody Consequences In Ancient Athens
Everything began with enormous spending in response to an urgent crisis. Actions that seemed necessary at the peak of the emergency ended up as cover for misappropriations of public money.
By Mark Munn
The Conversation (4/17/20)
The jump in federal spending in response to the crisis of the coronavirus pandemic is not a new idea. Nearly 2,500 years ago, the people of ancient Athens had a similar plan – which succeeded in meeting the major threat they faced, but then tore Athenian society apart in a tangle of political recriminations after the crisis had passed.
As a historian of ancient Greece, the most telling parallel I see between current events and that long-ago past is not the plague that broke out in Athens in 430 B.C. I’m more worried by the example of extreme partisan politics that befell Athens a couple of decades later, which I detail in one of my books, “The School of History: Athens in the Age of Socrates.”
A massive mobilization
In 406 B.C., Athens, a mega-power of the ancient Mediterranean that had built its economy on maritime trade, faced a crisis. Despite recent successes in battle, deep partisan divisions over military leadership had left Athenian forces momentarily vulnerable to attack. Meanwhile, rival city-state Sparta had gained the backing of Persia and was building a navy that could challenge Athens’ control of the sea.
When the Spartans struck, they put the weakened Athenian fleet on the defensive, threatening to crush it and bring Athens to its knees.
In the face of near-certain disaster, the Athenians rallied to respond, accelerating a shipbuilding program already underway by mobilizing all the resources of their Aegean empire. A new tax was passed on personal wealth, and additional money was raised by melting down the golden statues of Victory that had been dedicated on the Acropolis. The resulting coins were spent buying Macedonian pine to make oars to power the triremes, the most advanced naval fighting ships the world had yet seen.
To pull the oars, all able-bodied Athenian men, including knights who normally did not serve in the navy, were called up. Even that was not enough. The Athenians offered citizenship to all resident foreigners and slaves who were willing to serve.
In a little more than a month, the Athenians had assembled a fleet of triremes powerful enough to challenge the Spartan fleet and regain control of the sea.
In midsummer, 406 B.C., the Athenian and Spartan fleets met in battle in the waters between the island of Lesbos and the coast of Asia Minor. It’s known as the battle of Arginusae, after the small islands off the Asian coast that served as a base for the Athenian fleet; today they are the Turkish islands of Garip and Kalem near the city of Dikili.
Athens won decisively, killing the Spartan commander and destroying nearly half his fleet. The victory was costly …