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EpidemicsHate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS$
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Samuel K. Cohn, Jr.

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780198819660

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198819660.001.0001

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Ancient Epidemics

Ancient Epidemics

What the Oracles Had to Say

Chapter:
(p.31) 2 Ancient Epidemics
Source:
Epidemics
Author(s):

Samuel K. Cohn, Jr.

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/oso/9780198819660.003.0003

This chapter begins with human and animal sacrifices to appease the gods during pestilence, but shows that such acts were extremely rare and, when they occurred, quickly disappeared or changed form often to animal sacrifice. It investigates the scapegoat in ancient epidemics, showing the concept as far removed from present-day notions. The ancient one was often a volunteer, exemplary of self-sacrifice for the greater good of the community. Instead of being outcasts, foreigners, or despised minorities (for whom we reserve the term today), in antiquity, almost without exception, they were the elites. More emphatically, from literary and historical descriptions of the fifth century BCE to the sixth CE Justinianic Plague, the chapter charts societal reactions to epidemics, finding that they spawned acts of altruism, public holidays, and self-sacrifice. Instead of blaming or inflicting violence on ‘others’, epidemics were forces for unity, healing rifts between classes, factions, and regions at war.

Keywords:   human and animal sacrifice, scapegoat, Livy, oracles, Augustine, Pestilence of Cyprian, Paulus Orosius, Justinianic Plague, Procopius, leprosy

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