12 September 2010

Myrtis and the End of the Golden Age

The Long War
By any reckoning, the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) was a great war -- a war to be compared with World War I -- not only a world-shattering conflict in itself but in its bitter consequences.  As a struggle between imperial democratic Athens and its autocratic enemies (Sparta & allies), it opposed two irreconcilable ways of life.  It lasted off and on for 27 years and caused terrible suffering to the innocent and guilty alike.  With vast swathes of countryside devastated and whole cities destroyed, the war marked a dramatic end to the golden age of Greece.


The unintended consequences of war were as devilish then as they are  now. 
Pericles, the renowned Athenian general, saw the fight between Athens and Sparta as an inevitable clash of imperial ambitions. Convinced that his city was militarily stronger, he incited the populace with a sort of arrogance and a love of strife. Later writers, rightly or wrongly, blamed him for being the sole instigator of the disaster (Plutarch, Pericles xxix.5-xxx).  

His strategy was to wear out Sparta by evacuating the Attic countryside before the Spartans invaded.  The displaced inhabitants would then retreat behind the city's unassailable walls while the superior Athenian navy harassed Spartan troop transports and cut off enemy supply lines.  They would thus be able to 'Starve the beast'.  The Athenians took his advice and brought in from the country their wives and children and all their household goods, including slaves.  They sent their sheep and cattle across to the islands off the coast.

What Pericles didn't foresee were the consequences of adding so many people from the countryside to an already well-populated city. 

The Spartan offensive

During the second year of the war, in the early days of summer, the Spartans and their allies invaded Attica and put Athens under siege.  Almost immediately, in the heat and the dirt of the overcrowded city, an epidemic broke out,
a pestilence of such extent and mortality as was nowhere remembered.  The plague wiped out tens of thousands of Athenians.  

The Greek historian Thucydides,* writing from personal experience, tells us about its horrors:
Words fail one when one tries to give a general picture of this disease; and as for the sufferings of the individuals, they seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure....  Nor was any human art or science of any help at all. Equally useless were prayers made in the temples, consultation of oracles, and so forth; indeed, in the end people were so overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things.
Even the vultures abandoned the city.
Here in particular is a point where this plague showed itself to be something quite different from ordinary diseases: though there were many dead bodies lying about unburied, the birds and animals that eat human flesh either did not come near them or, if they did taste the flesh, died of it afterwards.  Evidence for this may be found in the fact that there was a complete disappearance of all birds of prey: they were not to be seen either round the bodies or anywhere else.
People died like flies.

The bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the other, and half-dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water.  The temples in which they took up their quarters were full of the dead bodies of people who had died inside them....  All the funeral ceremonies which used to be observed were now disorganized, and they buried the dead as best they could.

Fast forward 2,500 years 

In 1994, while excavating for the new Metro (underground/subway), workmen uncovered the skeletons of about 150 men, women and children, all hastily buried in a 'plague grave' (above, left) at Kerameikos, the ancient  cemetery of the city.

According to its excavator, E. Baziotopoulou-Valavani, the mass grave did not have the slightest monumental character.  The offerings were of common, even cheap, burial vessels; black-finished ones, some small red-figured, as well as white lekythoi (oil flasks) .... The bodies were [randomly] placed in the pit within a day or two ... with no layers of soil between them. 

Among the bones was an almost intact cranium of a young girl, her sex defined by the anatomy of the skull, complete with her jaw and a mixture of 28 milk and adult teeth preserved.  She was about 11 years old when she died.  The Greek archaeologists gave her the name of 'Myrtis'.

Although she was buried in the Kerameikos cemetery, it is not known if she was an Athenian, a resident immigrant (that is, a Metic) or a slave.  My guess is that she was not from a citizen family.  Despite the death rate, Thucydides shows that people did try to maintain proper funeral rites, which at this time meant cremation and burial of ashes, not interring of bodies.  Even those who could barely cope burnt the corpses somehow:

Because so many deaths had already occurred in their households, [many people] adopted the most shameless methods.  They would arrive first at a funeral pyre that had been made by others, put their own dead upon it and set it alight; or, finding another pyre burning, they would throw the corpse that they were carrying on top of the other one and go away.
Of course, Thucydides was not interested in the disposal of dead Metics or slaves, so I think it likely that such lower-class victims would be dumped, uncremated, into mass graves.   

What killed Myrtis?

Historians have long tried to identify the disease behind the Athenian plague -- an infectious disease virulent enough to carry off one-third of the population (and a quarter of the army) in just four years.  Was it bubonic plague, smallpox, typhus, measles, ebola fever, or some deadly disease that no longer exists? 

We now have the answer.

A group of Greek scientists (led by Dr M. Papagrigorakis of Athens University’s School of Dentistry) examined the dental pulp of teeth recovered in remains from the grave.  They discovered microbial DNA sequences very similar to Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi, that is, typhoid fever.  Typhoid's clinical characteristics, too, are in close accord with the agonizing symptoms described by Thucydides -- who himself fell ill with the plague and was among the lucky few to recover. Overcrowding and poor standards of hygiene in the besieged city would have allowed the disease to appear and then develop into a deadly epidemic.

Now Meet Myrtis

Scientists have been able to reconstruct her face almost down to the last detail (top of the post, left, and below).  This kind of facial reconstruction requires the expertise of a physical or forensic anthropologist and extensive experience of the anatomy of the face as well as good artistic abilities.

Oscar Nilsson, a Swedish sculptor and model-maker, carried out the recreation.
By combining knowledge of the tissue-depth of the human face with the technique of building up the face muscle-by-muscle, an individual appearance is achieved.  The shape and size of eyes and nose are calculated from the size of the ocular and nasal cavities.  Myrtis evidently had a straight nose and slightly protruding teeth.  On the assumption that she was Greek, she was given reddish-brown hair and brown eyes (although if a resident alien or slave, her ancestry is unknown; further DNA studies will be needed to confirm hair and eye colour). 
Myrtis: Face to Face With the Past

Tomorrow, 13 September, Myrtis will move to the National Archaeological Museum of Athens for temporary display (until 30 November).  It is an ideal setting for her to be placed among so many Classical burial sculptures and funerary reliefs.  

Through the face of little Myrtis, sepulchral monuments and memorials of the 5th century BC come back to life and talk with us.  They remind us of the common human fate, death, but also of its defeat by means of memory.  It is no coincidence that Myrtis was declared “Friend of the Goals of the Millennium” by the United Nations.

Her picture has been posted on a website supporting the UN Millennium Goals
on disease prevention and the campaign, "We Can End Poverty". And, needless to say, the 21st-century Myrtis has her own website The 11-year from Athens has posted a letter to the leaders of the world:

My death was inevitable. In the 5th century BC we had neither the knowledge nor the means to fight deadly illnesses. However, you, the people of the 21st century, have no excuse. You possess all the necessary means and resources to save the lives of millions of ... children like me who are dying of preventable and curable diseases.
Even today, typhoid fever is a major health problem in the developing world where overpopulation, inadequate water supplies and hygiene, as well as poor access to health services, allow epidemics to spread. Every year there are about 20 million new cases that lead to 600,000 deaths.  With only five years left until the Millennium deadline, the achievement of the goal of prevention looks doubtful. 

Well, reborn Myrtis is doing her bit.

But, why in the world was she called Myrtis?    

I assume that the archaeologists named her after the ancient woman poet.**  This 5th-century Myrtis, remembered as 'Sweet-voiced', was said to have been the teacher of two of the best Greek lyric poets, Corinna (another woman) and Pindar.  It is a pity that all of her verse is lost; not a single word survives.  So I borrow a fragment from Corinna, appropriately composed, I think, for public performance by a choir of young girls:

Enjoying the gifts of the Muses
I tell my story in song...
If you are in Athens this autumn, do visit Myrtis at the National Archaeological Museum. She may not sing but she's otherwise brought to life rather well.  

*Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 2.47-55, translated by Rex Warner, Penguin, 1954.

 ** I assumed this, really, because I have named one of my Siamese cats 'Myrtis' and, yes, I had the Boeotian poet in mind.  The truth is sadly more mundane.  Prof. Papagrigorakis asked the archaeologists to come up with a list of girl's names from the classical era.  He chose a two-syllable sonorous name that is still in use today (Myrto in modern Greek).My thanks to Prad Patel on Heritage Key (1 September) for alerting me to the temporary exhibition of Myrtis in Athens.


Above left: from the press release of the National Archaeological Museum

Middle left: Mass grave containing the remains of 150 plague victims.  Photograph Ta Nea Online 10/04/10 (via Archaeology News Network 

Insert left: Image of Myrtis' skull.  Photograph Ta Nea Online 10/04/10 (via Archaeology News Network)

Lower left: Close-up of Myrtis (via dimos-nestoros.gr

Lowest left:  Myrtis (via the WHBC-gr website)


  1. Powerfully written, moving piece. I have posted the link on my facebook page. Coming across articles like this make surfing the web seem actually worthwhile!

  2. Excellent article -- well written. The topic selection is most intriguing.

    Once again I am reminded of just how much I do not know about the ancients and how much more I need to study, read and learn.

    (You should consider submitting this to Ancient Warfare Magazine.)

    Thank you for an informative and fascinating article.


  3. Anonymous15/9/10 13:03

    One thing seems clear (to judge by the reports of Thucydides and Defoe): the Athens plague and the Great Plague of London were caused by different diseases. Thucydides doesn't mention those painful swellings called buboes. Typhoid fever sounds feasible.

    I enjoyed your article but not the stuffed girl business. Hasn't taxidermy come a long way!
    Who financed this project? The Greek Tourist Ministry? Do the dead really have to be dug up and displayed for people to be "reminded of the common human fate"? Myrtis' little message to the "people of the 21st century" looks like a weak justification for the whole business.

  4. @ 100swallows,
    Good Heavens, Myrtos wasn't stuffed. And they didn't even touch her skull: it was scanned by a CT scanner TEI (64 slices per second) and recreated in digital form -- from which an exact replica could be made. This replica was sent to Sweden for forensic reconstruction. There was no disrespect shown to her actual remains.

    You're right that bubonic plague (although it had been proposed) was unlikely given that the characteristic lymphatic buboes were absent. However, Thucydides does say that the victim's skin was "rather reddish and livid, breaking out into small pustules and ulcers" -- which might, at a stretch, be taken for the necrotic stage of the buboes.

  5. I also posted this to FB and sent the link to my history professor. It's items like this that make the ancient world live again. I hope that Myrtis can help eradicate typhus and help with preventing other preventable diseases. Modern science is simply amazing, isn't it?

  6. I included this piece in the October history carnival here http://katrinagulliver.posterous.com/29434368

  7. Thanks Katrina, but if readers want to read the whole of your October 2010 History Carnival (and not just my post) they should click on Notes from the Field

  8. As the author of the
    'other' book on Zenobia reviwed by JW, may I thank JW for a very thoughtful review, and say that my main disagreement with her lies in my belief that the Roman had themselves a profound sense of their own history, and also of the grand theatricality of public events. Therefore, I tend to believe those versions of Zenobia's fate that make her a grand star of the Triumph held in Rome by the Roman emperor Aurelian.

  9. I agree, anonymous (whom I take to be Rex Winsbury), so if she reached Rome alive, she would have been paraded -- as you say. But I don't think she ever got to Rome.

    Why have you posted your comment on the Myrtis post? If you repeat it on the page with the review (http://judithweingarten.blogspot.com/2010/10/zenobia-on-zenobia-of-palmyra.html), we can carry on the discussion. That could be very interesting!


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