A Brief History of the Plague II

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The meaning of the plague in Hippocrates, Thucydides, Cicero and Boccaccio


In the epistles that partake of the corpus hippocraticum and which, as a genre, take part in history, the plague still conforms to the divine will, as it is not generated from nature, but the divine gift of art replaces the divine sacrifice of religion in caring for it: “[The great king of kings Artaxerxes with Paito is ingratiated]”. “The disease they call pestilential has gripped our army, and however much we have done, it has not given us rest. Wherefore, by all means and by all the gifts I give thee, I beseech thee, or any of thy inventions of nature, or any of the practices of art, or any other man's interpretation that may heal us, send speedily; punish suffering, I beg you; for restlessness in the common people and much agitation makes breathing deep and frequent. Not warring, we are warred, having as an enemy the beast that loses the herds; in many it penetrated, it made them difficult to heal, it tied arrows upon arrows and fired; I can not stand; I no longer know how to take counsel with fruitful men. Solve it all, don't give up on the good news. OK!"

Resorting to the arts, advice, inventions taken from nature, man is unable to contain the pestilent onslaught, whose stings harm men and beasts, whose swarm is not seen coming. The plague hovers ghostly over the army, those who fight against it strike the shadow, an empty attraction that envelops, despairs, and loses. Here is the answer to the king: “[Paito with the great king of kings Artaxerxes is ingratiated]” “Natural aids do not solve the epidemic of the pestilent affliction; the illness that is generated from nature, nature itself, discerning it, heals; those that from epidemic, art, artificially discerning the way of bodies. The physician Hippocrates cures this affliction. He is of Dorian origin, from the city of Cos, his father, Heraclides, son of Hippocrates, son of Gnosidicus, son of Nebro, son of Sostratus, son of Theodorus, son of Cleomitides, son of Chrysamides. He enjoyed a divine nature, and promoted medicine from the small and rude to the great and artificial. Then the divine Hippocrates is generated, the ninth from King Chrysamides, the eighteenth from Asclepius[I], twentieth from Zeus; her mother, Praxitéa, daughter of Fenarete, of the house of the Heráclidas; so that from both trunks the divine Hippocrates is derived from the gods, being by his father Asclepiad, by his mother Heraclid. He learned the art from his father Heraclides and his grandfather Hippocrates. But with them, it seems, he began the principles of medicine, which it was likely they then knew; already the totality of art, he himself taught himself, he used the divine nature and so much surpassed his parents in good nature of soul, that he excelled from them in the virtue of art. He purges much land and sea, not of animal kind, but of animal and wild diseases, spreading far and wide, like Triptolemus the seeds of Demeter, the aids of Asclepius. Therefore, justly was he consecrated in many places on earth, he was dignified by the Athenians with the same gifts with Heracles and Asclepius. He sends for him, ordering him to give him as much silver and gold as he wants. For he knows not the only way to cure suffering; he, father of health; he the savior; he, the one who soothes pain; he, simply the ruler of the science of the gods. OK!" [ii].

Illnesses are generated or from nature, and are sporadic and sparse, as they are similar to previous and everyday ones, being familiar and known, as it is discerned what they are and it is known that with time they heal and pass; or from an epidemic, being continuous and frequent, as they do not stop communicating and the infection does not cease, being unknown and abnormal, as it arrives from far away and, different, one does not know how to proceed in the face of it, nor the time it will take. Against these, family practices cannot, but, because they are foreign, the arts brought from outside can perhaps deal with them. The genealogy of Hippocrates matters here, because by tracing it, the genealogy of art is traced. The divine origin of medical art explains why it is valid for what is not generated by nature: like the pestilential epidemic, the art that deals with it is also brought from outside: both descend from heaven. The transmission of artificial medicine or medical art, involves initiation into the secrets of the art, which are restricted to the male generations coming from the paternal branch that preserves it, thus having a due duty, towards the genesis and the name, to defend and conserve the transmitted divine gift, which involves the care of art in the preservation of the people themselves. The one who receives it takes principles already extended by his predecessors, fulfilling additions that enhance the principles to posterity; but what is added to practice is linked rather to the virtue of the practitioner, since it was the good nature of Hippocrates that made medicine greater. The divine gift thus serves virtue, for what the doctor can is subject to what the god wants.

Desperate of himself and persuaded by Paito's opinion, Artaxerxes then sent an epistle to the cavalry commander of the Hellespont Histhanius, requesting the arrival of Hippocrates, proposing the said rewards together with honor equal to that of the best Persians. Histhanius conveys the request to Hippocrates. Here is the doctor's response:

“The physician Hippocrates and the Hiparch of the Hellespont Histhanius are united.

As for the epistle you sent saying it came from the king, send the king what I say in writing to him as soon as possible that we have provisions and clothing and housing and every substance sufficient for life. Of the wealth of the Persians, it was not easy for me to share, nor to stop the diseases of barbarians, who were enemies of the Hellenes. OK!"[iii]

And the opinion in which he justifies his conduct:

“Hippocrates to Demetrius salutes.

The king of the Persians sends for me, not knowing that with me the speech of wisdom is worth more than gold. OK!"[iv]

The duty to his name and that of his people prevents Hippocrates from using his art to intercede on behalf of the Persians, whose habit falls into lust, a vice that does not make them worthy of the virtue of art. The genealogical commitment linked to its practice imposes a certain way of proceeding; His use is limited by divine laws, which tell him that it is harmful to put an end to divine justice. Those initiated into it are responsible for preserving their people, not any and all, as the fault for suffering lies in deviations from religion and vices linked to manias of the mind.

“Hippocrates with the council and the demo of the Abderites is in agreement.

(…) Blessed are the demos who know that good men are their protectors, and not towers or walls, but the wise advice of wise men. As for me, I believe that the arts are graces of the gods, whereas men are works of nature, and do not be irritated, you abderite men, it seems to me, not you, but nature itself calls me to preserve your work, in danger of falling. by the disease. (…) Neither nature nor the god would promise me money for me to come, so that you, abderite men, do not violate me, but allow free art to be free also works. (...) Miserable is the life of men, because throughout it enters, like a winter wind, the intolerable avarice, against which, if only all doctors would join together, coming to medicate a disease more annoying than mania, because it is beatified, being disease and doing harm. As for me, I think all infirmities of the soul are vehement manias by inserting some opinions and fantasies into the reasoning, from which what is purged by virtue is cured.”[v]

The devil, like cities, consists more in the coexistence of men than in the buildings and places where they live, so that their protection comes from an articulation, according to reason and advice, in which everyone covers the needs of each one, in which the good are worth more, which manifests the aristocratic precept of the commoners' care for the better and installs an ethic of mutual preservation of existences linked by belonging to one and the same demo. The arts appear among men as gifts that amplify their nature and life, because the productions and practices of technique add the divine to the human. Like grace, the arts favor, cheer, seduce; as a divine gift, they demand use and conduct according to religion and the god, and it is ingratitude to take advantage of what it can, moving away from the custom transmitted by it. Such a price cannot be estimated for free, since the presence of silver erases the liberality of art and, irremediably subjecting it to the favor, joy, seduction, in short, the graces of works to the chains of business, violates the virtue that comes from good nature, involving her in the frenzy and fantasy of money. With medical art as a virtue of care in saving, when salvation through care touches many, as in the case of curing epidemic pestilence, the grace of art publicly distinguishes the craftsman:

Athenian dogma.

It was decreed by the council and demo of the Athenians. As Hippocrates of Cos, a physician belonging to the generation of Asclepius, showed the Hellenes great benevolence for salvation, when, when the plague of the barbarians came to Hellas, he sent his own apprentices to the places, prescribed what therapy they should use to safely escape impending plague, so that the medical art of Apollo, distributed to the Hellenes, safely saves them the afflicted; and he edited abundant writings about the medical art, wishing there were many physicians to save them; and, the king of the Persians demanding him with glory equal to his own, and with gifts which Hippocrates himself had chosen, spurned the promises of the barbarian, inasmuch as he was hostile and a common enemy of the Hellenes; In view of this, the demo of the Athenians manifests himself by extending the services he has always had in favor of the Hellenes, and, in order that he may repay adequate grace to Hippocrates for good works, it was decreed by the demo to initiate him at the expense of the treasury in the great mysteries, as well as Heracles. , son of Zeus, and crown him with a golden crown of a thousand golden drachms; and proclaim the crown in the great Panathenaics, in the gymnastics contest; and it may be lawful for the sons of Cos to exercise themselves in Athens as well as the sons of the Athenians, inasmuch as their country has begotten such a man; and to have Hippocrates both citizenship and food in the Pritaneo for life.[vi]

Hippocratic liberality and medical practice, in the face of the plague, involved: benevolence in relation to the care of all Hellenic life, which implied them in the deliberations involving common health; the shared learning of the art, which increases the reach of the practice and amplifies the favors of the art; therapeutic precepts, which guide safe conduct; the free publication of his institutes, which shows everyone the chance of salvation. The Apollonian genesis of medicine reveals the celestial origin of the shield that the Hellenes used to contain the barbaric disease that penetrated them. War subsists as a historical event that generates pestilence: the clash with the barbarian triggers the pestilential infestation that escapes from the hands and infests. On the one hand it invades the Persians, says Artaxerxes; from the other, from them, say the Hellenes; it is, however, an appearance generated by the peal of both fleets. The repercussions of the plague interrupt the madness of war and the excesses of war, which, by suspending borders, confuse the limits of things and degenerate the natural and divine orders. Common human evil, it exceeds conflict, as it increases distress and removes from man the reason for advice and the strength of decision; interposing herself between men, she begins to govern actions, reorienting the course of events. If, during the war, the management of actions contributed to the death of many, with the arrival of the plague, the set of actions turned to the preservation of the life of each one. The martial art is replaced by the Apollonian. The suffering of the collective soul that leads to the collective unreason that generates the plague, since it is mania and madness that are responsible for the spread of the disease, demands the sanity of souls for the sanitation of bodies. Medical art exists as restraint, but it is rather exemplary conduct in the practice of art, allied to mutual efforts by which men are reconciled, which promote salvation and link cities with bonds of gratitude.


In the stories, the appearance of the plague is generated from its previous poetic appearance. In the seventh book of Stories, it is thought that

“in the third generation, after Minos was dead, the Troikas were generated, in which the Cretans are not the worst at avenging Menelaus. After this, having returned from Troy, famine and pestilence arose, both themselves and the quadrupeds; thus, for the second time devastated Crete, together with those who are left, the Cretans who now inhabit it are the third”.[vii]

In history, famine and plague, together with war, decide the fortune and composition of peoples and their herds, and to some extent dictate the course of peoples' history: war, following the advice of men; famine and pestilence, exceeding their will. At History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides:

“Having fallen into such affliction, the Athenians were grieving, the men within dying, the earth being laid waste without. In the midst of evil, the following saying certainly came to mind, which the elders once said to sing:

The Dorian war will come, and with it the plague!

However, a dispute arose among men about not having been named in the carme by the ancient plague (loimoes), but hungry (lemons), and, for the time being, the verisimilitude of being called plague (loimoes), because men made memory according to what they suffered. But, if by chance another Doric war happens and famine happens after it (lemons), due to the verisimilitude, I think, so they will sing.”[viii]

Plague accompanies war, just as famine accompanies war. The encounter between strangers during the open fight coincides with the entry of the unknown disease that spreads and with the devastation of crops and livestock that brings hunger into the houses, so that, occurring externally, the warlike death leads to the effect of noisy politics among foreigners, while the pestilential and the famished are silent intestinal deaths belonging to homes, oikonomikaí.


No wonder, in the mouth of the Roman orator, the Latin name pestis becomes a frequent way of cursing and accusing, no longer the illness, but the very same defendant whose illness is machinations that contaminate the most, whose business attacks the homeland and the republic:

“I show that you have wandered through all parts of the province like some calamitous storm and plague”.[ix]

In Cicero, the plague becomes the man who affects the opids, one after another carrying the obscene audacity that condenses human clusters that spread calamity where vagrants pass.

“all withdrew, all dodged, all fled as from some immanent and pernicious beast and plague”.[X]

Everyone does everything to avoid the harmful beast, the human plague that infests men. But there are those who insist on staying.

“Have you called by name the plague of that year, the fury of the fatherland, the tempest of the republic, Clodius?”[xi]

Just as Clodius, once dressed as a woman, had impudently defiled the places of the most modest ceremonies of the Vestal Virgins, and for so much evil had been the plague of the republic that year; thus, now, it disguises itself in man, whose vice comes from the virulent mouth that with sudden force strikes the population. The popular storm arising from the iniquitous law that perverts the republic does not cease until the people themselves apply the just penalties that restore it inviolate.[xii].

“this is not medicine, when a healthy and intact part of the body is resorted to a scalpel, this is carnage and cruelty: those who extract some plague such as a parotid from the city cure the republic”.[xiii]

The salivary gland, infected, enrages others; for the cessation of rage, it is extraction the source of sanity. They heal the republic, not those who appeal to the fatherland's fury, but those who surgically extract the diseased and flaccid part of the city, so that the rest of the body may live.

“Great gratitude is due to the immortal gods and to this very Jove Stator, ancient guardian of this city, for so many times we have fled from this so dark, so horrible and so infesting plague of the republic”.[xiv]

The divine provenance of the plague remains among the Latins, and its celestial relevance links it to the storm, heaven serving the meaning of the coming of both, the one by the signs of nature, the other by the signs of divination. And since the principles of the gods are heaven and earth, the gods being partly celestial and masculine, partly terrestrial and feminine, Jupiter, who precedes in manhood in heaven, is responsible above all for the power of the causes with which something is done in the world. world, being more frequently the god of human justice and, thus, emissary of the evil celestial influx.

The oratorical plague is linked to the mythical genealogy of the plague as a resource of the celestial gods to correct earthly bad customs: the first, through the civil condemnation of the plague-bearing criminal, the second, through the religious condemnation of impious ways.


In the fourteenth century, in his Genealogy of Gentile Gods, Giovanni Boccaccio will teach Ser Labor (labor)[xv], the fear (years)[xvi], the poor (egestas)[xvii], Misery (misery)[xviii], the hunger (famous)[xx], the disease (disease)[xx] sons of Erebus, who he believes to be the same Tartarus, also called Orcus, and the ninth son of Demogorgon. Earth conceived him, since he hid in her womb, which was considered not without reason to be the place of souls that suffer, since there was no place in heaven more remote where the feathers of the wicked could be washed than the center of the earth. It is called Erebus, because, as Ugucius says, he clings too closely to the one he captures; Tartarus, from torture, because he twists those he swallows; Orco, because it's dark[xxx]. Disease and Famine are sisters daughters of Erebus and Night. Hunger is public or private, the public being the one caused by the universal shortage of grain, the cause of which is divine wrath, or daytime war, or underground worms that gnaw at seeds, plagues. Thus, the Famine that is combined with the mythical plague is a public famine provided by the god, the deity that causes it being, due to its earthly, earthly and feminine genealogy. As for the disease:

“It is Disease, daughter of Erebus and Night, as Tullius and Chrysippus pleased. But it may be a defect of mind and body, and as it is caused in the body by discordance of humours, so in the mind by the inconvenience of customs, and then, deservedly from such parents, that is, from intrinsic blindness, the daughter takes the name, and, as it seems to tend to the death of health, disease, as it pleases many, was called”.[xxiii]

The disease that is called plague is caused in the mind by deviations from good custom, since the causing gods dictate those of men, so that it becomes the morbidity of the city's mind, as it spreads through it. Its infestation is not manifested, its arrival is not seen, but the effect it passes through, as it is silent. Because it is caused by a blind and reproachable way of acting that is repeated, the plague is linked to one of the brothers of Disease and Hunger, Labor, which today we call work:

“It is written by Cicero that Labor is the son of Night and Erebus, whose quiddity is designated by himself as follows: Labor is some function, of the soul or body, of a more serious work or task. Observing it, with merit one can say he is the son of Night and Erebus, he is truly harmful and with merit he must be reproved. For just as in Erebus and Night the restlessness of criminals is perpetual, so also in the secrets penetrable in the hearts of those who, driven by blind greed for the superfluous and minimally opportune, are agitated with continual cogitation, and, since such cogitations in the dark chest if they cause, with merit Labor such is said son of Night and of Erebus”.[xxiii]

The harmful function, which is reproved and exercised, involves actions that participate in the deviant customs that the plague corrects, so that blind labor action, driven by the vice of greed for what is superfluous, by the inopportune action that agitates the body and mind of those who work in a continuous machination, whether it is the mode of work that the plague interrupts. This is the mythical explanation of the causes of the plague, whose historical effects were then considered the moral correction of men aimed at by the heavenly gods, and achieved by the cult of religion by the survivors.


It is the plague treated, historically, by the very same Boccaccio, because on the first day of the Decameron, there is a demonstration of the occasion in which the author says of the the deadly pestilence which in 1348 came upon Florence, insisting, like the ancient heathens, on bubonic being the correction sent to mortals by operazion de' corpi superiori and giusta wrath of God; he teaches, however, that, having begun in the eastern parts, continuing without rest, after a few years the plague spreads miserably to the west. Its course, made wider and more continuous, already crossed the parts of the world, but remained attached to the rhythm of the sail, the horse and its animated vectors, not being the same at the same time, because it was not done as in the East, where nosebleeds were the inevitable sign of death. Then, officials were ordered to purge the city of filth, the entry of any and all sick people into the circuit of the walls of Florence was forbidden, in addition to many other advice for the preservation of health, which, however, did not prevent that between March and June of that year 100.000 their lives were cut short.

“In the county, leaving the castles alone, which were similar in their smallness to the city, through isolated farms and fields, the wretched and poor farmers and their families, without any effort from a doctor or help from a servant, along the roads and their crops and through the houses, day and night indifferently, not as men, but as if beasts died; thing for which, they, having become in their customs as lascivious as the citizens of the city, took care of nothing of their own or business: so, all, as if waiting for that day when they saw death coming upon them, strove with all ingenuity, not in helping the future fruits of beasts and earth and their past toils, but in consuming what was present. Therefore, it happened that the oxen, the donkeys, the sheep, the goats, the pigs, the chickens and even the dogs, the most loyal to men, were driven out of their own houses; through the fields, where the hay was still abandoned, without having anyone to gather it, but someone to mow it, they walked as they pleased; and many, almost like the rational ones, since they had grazed well during the day, returned to their homes at night without any embarrassment from the shepherd, satisfied.”[xxv]

The corrective plague falls hardest on the poor and farmers, it interrupts their daily life, altering their customs, their daily relationship with time, then linked to the time of the seasons and work cycles, breaks down, the present dilates through the shortening of the future, the frequentation of houses changes with the absence of animals, the only ones that with the advent of the plague go out to graze.

*Yuri Ulbricht Master in Philosophy from USP

To read the first part go to https://aterraeredonda.com.br/uma-breve-historia-da-peste-i/


[I] Latinly said Aesculapius.






[vii] Herod. VII, 171.

[viii] Th. II, 54.

[ix] cycle Lock. II, 1, 97.

[X] cycle Cluent 42.

[xi] cycle VAT 33.

[xii] cycle Friday. LXVII.

[xiii] cycle six 135.

[xiv] cycle Cat. I, 11.

[xv] Boccaccio, G. January. I, XVII.

[xvi] Boccaccio, G. January. I, XIX.

[xvii] Boccaccio, G. January. I, XXIII.

[xviii] Boccaccio, G. Gen. I, XXIV.

[xx] Boccaccio, G. January. I, XXV.

[xx] Boccaccio, G. January. I, XXVII.

[xxx] Boccaccio, G. January. I, XXIV.

[xxiii] Boccaccio, G. January. I, XXVII.

[xxiii] Boccaccio, G. January. I, XVII.

[xxv] Boccaccio. G. Decameron. Prima giornata: “lasciando star le castella, che simili erano nella loro piccolezza alla città, per le sparte ville e per li campi i lavoratori miseri e poveri e le loro famiglie, senza alcuna fatica di medico o aiuto di servere, per le vie e per li loro colti e per le case, di dì e di notte indifferently, non come uomini ma quasi come bestie morieno; per la qual cosa essi, così nelli loro costumi come i cittadini divenuti lascivi, di niuna lor cosa or faccenda curavano: anzi tutti, quasi quel giorno nel quale si vedevano esser venuti la morte aspettassero, non d'aiutare i futuri frutti delle bestie e delle terre e delle loro passate fatiche ma di consumere quegli che si trovavano presenti si sforzavano con ogni ingegno. Per che adivenne i buoi, gli asini, le pecore, le capre, i porci, i polli ei cani medesimi fedelissimi agli uomini, fuori delle proprie case cacciati, per li campi, dove ancora le biade abbandonate erano, senza essere non che raccolte ma pur segate, come meglio piaceva loro se n'andavano; e molti, quasi come razionali, poi che pasciuti erano bene il giorno, la notte alle lor case senza alcuno correggimento di pastore si Tornavano satolli”.

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