Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Ancient Ebola Virus? Volume 49 Number 6, November/December 1996
by Allison Brugg

The plague of Athens, which wiped out one fourth of the city's population between 430 and 427 B.C., was the earliest known outbreak of ebola, according to a recent article in Emerging Infectious Diseases. Epidemiologists Patrick Olson and Charles Hames of the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, and Abram Bennenson and Nicholas Genovese of San Diego State University believe that Thucydides' description of the disease in his history of the Peloponnesian War matches the symptoms ebola, which killed more than 300 people in Zaire and Sudan last year.

Thucydides wrote that after the disease's "abrupt onset, persons in good health were seized first with strong fevers, redness and burning of the eyes, and the inside of the mouth, both the throat and tongue, immediately was bloody-looking and expelled an unusually foul breath. Following these came sneezing, hoarseness...a powerful cough...and every kind of bilious vomiting...and in most cases an empty heaving ensued that produced a strong spasm."

Scholars had thought that Athens suffered an outbreak of measles, smallpox, typhus, or bubonic plague. All these ailments, says Olson, would have been preceded by a cough producing blood or mucus. Thucydides wrote that the cough was "empty." Olson and his colleagues contend that the description of the dry cough in Thucydides' account matches that of ebola, basing their theory in part on a retranslation of Thucydides. They believe that the Greek word lugx, which Thucydides uses in his description of symptoms and which had previously been translated as "retching" or "dry heaving," may have been the word for hiccup. Fifteen percent of the victims of the 1995 Zaire outbreak of ebola complained of uncontrollable hiccuping.

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America