Typhoid Fever Behind Fall of Athens

The Mutilation of Uranus by Cronus, by Vasari and Gherardi. Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.

Athens fell because a plague swept the empire. But scientists have debated what illness was responsible.

A new DNA analysis of teeth from an ancient Greek burial pit indicates typhoid fever caused the epidemic.

The plague began in Ethiopia and passed through Egypt and Libya to Greece in 430-426 B.C. It changed the balance of power between Athens and Sparta, ending the Golden Age of Pericles and Athenian dominance in the ancient world.

An estimated one-third of Athenians died, including Pericles, their leader.

Knowledge of the epidemic had come largely from an account by the Greek historian Thucydides, who was taken ill with the plague but recovered. Despite Thucydides’ description, researchers could only narrow the possibilities down to a range that included the bubonic plague, smallpox, anthrax and measles.

The new study, led by Manolis Papagrigorakis of the University of Athens, found DNA sequences similar to those of the modern day Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi, the organism that causes typhoid fever. The work is detailed online by the International Journal of Infectious Diseases.

Typhoid fever is transmitted by contaminated food or water. It is most common today in developing countries.

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Live Science Staff
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