A new article out in the January 2012 edition of the CDC's Emerging Infectious Diseases is called "The Plague of Thebes, a Historical Epidemic, in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex" (Kousoulis et al. 2012). The authors' goal was to try to tease out whether the plague described in the play was an actual historical event, whether it was the same kind of plague known in historical records as the 5th century Plague of Athens, and which pathogen was the cause of this plague.
|Plague of Thebes|
by C.F. Jalabeat
Following a close reading of the ancient text, the authors conclude that the most likely causative agent was Brucella abortus, which causes brucellosis, a zoonosis that is easily passed to humans. It has low mortality rates - as evidenced by the fact that brucellosis can show up on the skeleton - so the authors suggest that perhaps this strain of Brucella was more virulent than previously known, or perhaps the plague referenced was actually multiple diseases affecting the Thebans in Oedipus Rex (and the Athenians in history) at once (leptospirosis, listeriosis, and salmonella, e.g.).
Since Sophocles is known as a realistic tragedian and since Greek tragedies were often placed within real historical frameworks, the authors believe that the plagues referenced in Oedipus Rex in Thebes and in historical Athens are one and the same. Their conclusion reads (p. 156):
The critical reading of Oedipus Rex, its comparison with Thucydides’ history, as well as the systematic review of the existing historical data, lead us to strongly suggest that this epidemic, for which the name Plague of Thebes may be used, was an actual historical fact, likely caused by B. abortus. With the deadly plague, which struck one of the most historic Greek cities, on the one hand and the tragic fate of a character who has become among the most recognizable in world theater on the other, Sophocles masterminded a dramatic frame and offered a lyrical, literary description of a lethal disease. As the protagonist approached his tragic catharsis, the moral order much desired by the ancient Greeks was restored with the end of the epidemic.I'm not big on ancient-historical epidemiology, particularly in cases where there's not likely to be any skeletal data, since it means there's no good way to further an argument based on a close reading of a text. This is one of those cases. Brucellosis can cause bony changes, but it can take years. People who died quickly of brucellosis in a plague situation would not have had time to develop skeletal lesions.
The other line of evidence that can back up an historical-epidemiological hypothesis is pathogenic DNA. In 2006, a group of researchers did a DNA analysis of dental pulp from skeletons found in what is thought to be a mass plague grave dating to the 5th century in the Athenian Kerameikos cemetery (Papagrigoriakis et al. 2006). They isolated Salmonella enterica from the skeletons, concluding that the Plague of Athens was likely typhoid fever or a related disease. Some have questioned this research (Shapiro et al. 2006) and the study may need to be redone, but as the recent sequencing of the Y. pestis genome has shown, clearly DNA/skeletal analysis is the way forward in ancient epidemiology.
It's unclear to me why Kousoulis et al. don't discuss the DNA study at all. They simply mention "historical medical literature" when citing it. There is an interesting Technical Appendix to the article (which I just found), which does mention typhoid fever. Was the Papagrigoriakis et al. article really so flawed that it shouldn't be engaged with and that typhoid fever shouldn't be considered a possibility for the Plague of Athens? Kousoulis et al. talk about the need for "historical verification" but don't mention the need for scientific verification - there are skeletons, and bioarchaeologists can look for pathogenic DNA in them. Close reading of Sophocles won't give us the answers we're looking for, although it could give us a way to start developing new hypotheses.
Update (1/2/11) - Fixed my initial conflation of typhus and typhoid fever.
Kousoulis AA, Economopoulos EP, Poulakou-Rebelakou E, Androutsos G, & Tsiodras S (2012). The Plague of Thebes, a Historical Epidemic, in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 18 (1), 153-157.
Papagrigorakis MJ, Yapijakis C, Synodinos PN, & Baziotopoulou-Valavani E (2006). DNA examination of ancient dental pulp incriminates typhoid fever as a probable cause of the Plague of Athens. International Journal of Infectious Diseases, 10 (3), 206-214, PMID: 16412683.
Shapiro B, Rambaut A, & Gilbert MT (2006). No proof that typhoid caused the Plague of Athens (a reply to Papagrigorakis et al.). International Journal of Infectious Diseases, 10 (4), PMID: 16730469.