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COVID-19 impact: Insights from ancient 'plague lit'

Classics professor studies plague narratives in Western literature

As the coronavirus threatens health and upends daily life throughout the world, UofSC Today is turning to our faculty to help us make sense of it all. While no one can predict exactly what will happen in the coming weeks and months, our faculty can help us ask the right questions and put important context around emerging events.

Hunter H. Gardner is a professor of classics in the languages, literatures and cultures department in the College of Arts and Sciences. Gardner’s latest research explores the development of plague narratives in the Western tradition and, in particular, looks to Roman epic poets as significant contributors to depictions of contagion. 

You've studied ancient literature about plagues from hundreds of years ago. What are some of the more notable examples of ‘plague lit’?

Western literature starts with a plague, one sent by Apollo in Homer’s Iliad, resulting in a crisis that sows discord between Achilles and Agamemnon and paralyzes the Greek war effort. From there, Thucydides’ account of the disease that struck Athens during the Peloponnesian War was highly influential; among the Romans, Lucretius revisits the Athenian plague at the end of his De Rerum Natura. Accounts of bubonic plague are perhaps even more well-known: e.g., the outbreak in Florence that opens Boccaccio’s Decameron; Defoe’s fictionalized account of plague in late 17th-century London in Journal of the Plague Year; Mary Shelley’s apocalyptic The Last Man. Camus’ La Peste, often viewed as a metaphor for the Holocaust during World War II, is one of the greatest examples of plague writing from the 20th century. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy is a remarkable recent example of plague literature, and one that addresses latent concerns about how our own scientific ingenuity can, intentionally or unintentionally, unleash a plague of apocalyptic proportions.

Ancient writers narrate the spread of disease using language that evaluates which bonds were considered the strongest within the social order, usually familial bonds.

Hunter H. Gardner, classics professor

Was there a common theme to how ancient writers and poets talked about plague?

Roman poets used plague as a way of reflecting on war — civil war in particular. Internal discord was thought to spread (like a disease) through a population, until all discord was resolved in death. Pestilence, like war, was frequently a great status leveler: Rich and poor, pauper and aristocrat are equally susceptible to illness and death from the virus’ (or, in the case of bubonic plague, the bacterium’s) point of view; thus “plague” or any epidemic disease has a homogenizing impact. This is made morbidly clear in the tendencies of ancient and early modern writers to dwell on death pits and mass burials, where bodies are heaped upon bodies with no distinguishing characteristics. We’re seeing a lot of this now as media coverage of COVID-19 makes frequent references to ‘mass graves’ and ‘makeshift morgues,’ especially in nursing homes.

How does the current discourse about the coronavirus compare with what those writers and poets were saying centuries ago about their own troubles?

Contagious disease over the past two centuries has continued to level status to a certain extent. However, the more we learn about how to track the origins of a disease, as we frantically try to isolate Patient Zero, the more we risk generating (participating in?) a stigmatizing and isolating discourse. This risk was made tragically clear during the height of the HIV epidemic in the 1980s when the disease was seen as virtually exclusive to gay men and intravenous drug users. Discussion of coronavirus is different in that, while we may all be equally susceptible, certain populations (elderly, immune compromised) are more likely to die from the disease. And it’s become clear that charting the origins of the disease from China, as with the recent Ebola crisis in the “Hot Zone” of central Africa, has exacerbated xenophobic responses to a dangerous extent.

What perspective might we gain from the 'plague' poets and writers of the past?

Contagion was not well understood in antiquity: Ancient writers viewed pestilence as a sign of divine displeasure while also explaining disease through miasma theory, the notion that corrupt atmospheres were a source of epidemic disease. At the same time, the Latin word for “contagion,” derived from contingo, “touch” (contactus, contagio, etc.) indicates awareness that disease could be spread through social proximity. By making evident our physical contact with others, contagion makes visible those social interactions that are most dear and familiar even as it destroys them. Ancient writers narrate the spread of disease using language that evaluates which bonds were considered the strongest within the social order, usually familial bonds. We’re hearing a lot now, under the threat of COVID-19, about measures we can take to protect ourselves, our families, our communities. But Roman writers were well aware as we should be that there may be occasions when those goals of protection are in conflict with each other.

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