The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Typhoid, scourge that felled Athens

London, Jan. 24: The plague of ancient Athens has been identified as typhoid, ending centuries of speculation about the identity of the disease that contributed to the end of its golden age.

The plague that wiped out one-third of the city’s population in 430-426 BC was a deciding factor in the outcome of the Peloponnesian Wars, ending the golden age of Pericles and Athens’s predominance in the Mediterranean.

The plague broke out during the siege of the city by the Spartans in the early summer of 430 BC. After a hiatus in 428 BC, the epidemic returned in the winter of 427 BC and lasted until the winter of the following year. One-quarter of its army and the charismatic leader, Pericles, also perished.

In his history of the Peloponnesian Wars, the fifth-century-BC Greek historian, Thucydides, who himself fell ill but recovered, gave detailed descriptions but researchers had never managed to agree on its identity, with candidates including bubonic plague, smallpox, anthrax and measles.

Now typhoid fever has been identified as the culprit after a study of dental pulp from teeth recovered from the ancient cemetery in Kerameikos. The teeth came from remains that had been piled in a manner that suggested a hasty burial, without the usual care that the ancient Greeks showed for the dead.

A group of Greek scientists co-ordinated by Manolis Papagrigorakis, of Athens University’s School of Dentistry, has reported in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases evidence that Salmonella enterica serovar typhi ' typhoid fever ' was responsible.

Papagrigorakis said: “Studying the historical aspects of infectious diseases can be a powerful tool for several disciplines to learn from. We believe this report to be of outstanding importance for many scientific fields, since it sheds light on one of the most debated enigmas in medical history.”

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