The Plague of Thebes… 2,505 years on

SophoclesAround 5 years ago, I started researching the science behind Oedipus Rex, Sophocles’ monumental play and arguably one of the most well known literary stories globally. In his tragedy, Sophocles masterfully deals with themes like fate, free will, blindness, and incest. The renowned Greek tragedian in fact includes in his verses the first clear description and interpretation of what was later to be called ‘Oedipal Complex’. Many readers forget though, that this rich in themes and metaphors play is nested in the context of an epidemic disease.

In the early 2010s, at the height of my medico-sociohistorical interest, when I first looked at the play from a medical perspective, little did I know that no other researcher in the past had systematically analysed it in this context nor that there is indeed a classical mass grave along the shores of river Kifissos of Boeotia perhaps waiting for paleopathologists to explore and research further. I was, however, fortunate enough to be joined in my research by some brilliant colleagues (top billed of course by my friend Konstantinos Economopoulos). Together we published our analysis as a scientific paper. We adopted a critical approach to the tragedy, analysing the literary description of the disease, unraveling its clinical features and even defining a possible underlying microbiological cause: brucellosis transmitted from crops through cattle to humans. Our study revealed that we had every scientific backing to argue that this epidemic (for which we used the name “The Plague of Thebes”) was indeed a historical event. Looking back at this research 5 years on, I am now attempting to trace its impact.

Our study was published in 2012 in the prestigious journal ‘Emerging Infectious Diseases’, the journal of the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It generated such interest that it inspired the Editorial of that issue going at length at how pathogenic agents, like art, survive the ravages of time, persisting through the ages.

The first and foremost of the journalistic media to pick up our narrative was the leading French newspaper, ‘Le Monde’, which, in fact, featured the story on the front page of its website with the title: “Which disease ravaged Oedipus’ city?”. The article included many literary references and analysed the findings of our study and concluded by wondering whether skeletal findings could be unearthed to further add evidence to this fascinating story.

In 2013, and while I had already moved to London, I returned to the annual International Symposium on Poetry and Medicine, held in London each year, invited to open the day with a presentation about the play and the epidemic. I talked about how poetry and medicine might be connected, and in this case how the poem was a vehicle for the transmission of information. Analysing the famous storyline set against this dramatic backdrop, I admitted that I had fallen in love with this play because I felt that this text offered one of the most lyrical descriptions of plague in existence in the literary canon.

Our publication has since been cited 14 times, and is now regularly used as a background reference to argue where the origins of brucellosis as a zoonosis lie, from colleagues ranging from Archaeologists (Journal of Archaeological Science, 2016;73:138-144) to the American Society for Microbiology (mBio, 2014;5(5): e01676-14). It has been used, both by myself and Konstantinos when endorsing the global One Health Initiative, as well as by colleagues at the United States Department of Agriculture (International Office of Epizootics, 2013;32(1):271-278), as a clear case study for the ‘One Health’ paradigm: i.e. how the collaborative efforts of multiple disciplines working locally, nationally, and globally, to attain optimal health for people, animals, and our environment, are one of the critical challenges currently facing humankind.

Lastly, and perhaps most intriguingly, our publication features as a suggested reading – and is in fact part of the syllabus – in courses as diverse as “Ecology and Human Health” offered by the major University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (discussion paper on the Introduction and Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases course), and “English Literature” offered by the Taipei Wego Senior High Schools International Program (companion to support students writing their essay). This recognition of the educational value of our research serves perhaps as the utmost reward for us as researchers.

Now working directly in applied population health, I cannot help but think that public health is heavily influenced by the evolution of diseases as well as the public’s attitude to them. Attempting a retrospective diagnosis can be an extremely helpful exercise indeed. On the one hand, through this we can try to derive the meaning of certain terms in historical documents which have to do with specific diseases, and therefore support our understanding of the biases, fears, and values of a society and how we interact both with particular pathogens and with wider health risks. On the other hand, it is important to understand how the risk for specific people to develop a specific disease has evolved over time, as this evolution may point to critical state interventions, common behavioural change patterns and structural societal adaptations that can help us control diseases better today. The more we understand about our past, the better future we can carve in such a challenging time.


PS. The key readings for this:

  • Kousoulis AA, Economopoulos KP et al. The plague of Thebes, a historical epidemic in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Emerg Infect Dis. 2012;18(1):153-7.
  • Potter P. Tough art and microbial drama. Emerg Infect Dis. 2012;18(1):196-7.
  • Barthélémy P. Quelle maladie a ravagé la ville d’Œdipe? Le Monde, 5 janvier 2012.