Online Open House | Disease and Social Order: The Plague Narratives of Thucydides and Lucretius, with Robert Cioffi

We are excited to welcome Robert Cioffi of Bard College for an Online Open House. The title of the discussion is “Disease and Social Order: The Plague Narratives of Thucydides and Lucretius”. The discussion will take place on Thursday, April 2 at 11:00 a.m. EDT, and will be live-streamed on the Center for Hellenic Studies YouTube channel and recorded.

Robert introduces these narratives as follows:

Thucydides wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War about the conflict between Athens and Sparta, because he believed that it was the greatest conflict in human history and that his account would serve as a “possession for ever” for future readers. It was published sometime near the end of the fifth century (it’s hard to be precise when although it should be sometime after 404 BCE). The selection that you have is from the early years of the war, and focuses on the rise and fall of the Athenian leader Pericles. It begins with his funeral oration for the first who died in the war and it ends with his obituary (2.65). I chose this passage because of its narrative of the plague of 430 BCE. I, at least, find myself thinking often of this passage in these days of emergency and I hope that you will find something of value here. You might think of other texts you’ve encountered where disease and plague is important.

Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things is a Latin poem that tries to convey the philosophy of Epicurus—a Greek philosopher who lived in the fourth century BCE—in verse. Lucretius’ poem was published sometime in the 50s BCE. (Cicero knows about it in 54 BCE.) You have here the final section, which ends with a description of the same plague in Athens as in Thucydides’ History and clearly seems to be engaging with his text. Some of the key claims of Lucretius’ work are that the entire world—from your pen to the gods—are composed of indivisible bits of matter (atoms), that (almost) every observable phenomenon in the world can be explained by the movement of those atoms, and that, therefore, “death is nothing to us” (since there is no afterlife). The plague forms an understandably jarring conclusion to such a poem, so jarring that some scholars have wondered whether Lucretius’ work is unfinished. If you’re interested in Lucretius and his philosophy, I recommend the work of Stephen Greenblatt (reviewed here:

In preparation for the discussion, you might like to read:

Thucydides 2.34–65. The selection should start here:

Lucretius On the Nature of the Universe Book 6, line 1100–END
The selection starts at p. 272 according to the book’s page numbering:

Robert Cioffi is Assistant Professor of Classics at Bard College. His research interests and recent publications center on Greek prose fiction of the Roman imperial period and travel, ethnography, and identity in the ancient world. He is currently completing a monograph on the ethnographic discourse of the Greek novels, entitled Narrating the Marvelous: The Greek Novel and the Ancient Ethnographic Imagination. Recent publications include articles on epiphany in the Greek novels, the relationship between Greek and Roman novels, and travel in the Roman world. In addition to his scholarly publications, he is a contributor to the London Review of Books. He is also developing two new areas of research. The first is focused on the Renaissance reception of the Greek novels. The second is about the representation of ghosts and the supernatural in Greek literature.