What did the Romans and Greeks teach Boris Johnson about the coronavirus?

  • March 30, 2020 10:18
  • Asa Bennett
This article was first published on 17th March 2020 in the Telegraph
In times of crisis, Boris Johnson has no doubt asked himself what his idol, Pericles, would do. While the iconic Greek statesman - whose bust adorns the Prime Minister's office - was a gifted orator and election-winner, he would not offer much guidance on how to tackle the coronavirus given that he died in an epidemic.

Then again, the plague of Athens was such a notorious outbreak - an early example in a line of diseases that blighted the Graeco-Roman world - that Mr Johnson will be painfully aware, as a classicist, about how people react to such events - and what can happen if they get out of control.

Of course, the wonders of modern medicine and health standards mean that while Covid-19 may be a pandemic - it comparatively milder than the pandemics of the past, which had much higher fatality rates as victims in the Classical era suffered from grisly symptoms reminiscent of Ebola, smallpox or a precursor to the Black Death.
These scourges were grappled with in ways that will seem somewhat familiar now. The disease which afflicted Athens in 429BC was chronicled harrowingly by Thucydides, who himself contracted and survived it. "People started spending money indiscriminately", he noted, as these Athenian panic-buyers lived each day like it could be their last. Social distancing was instinctive, so much so that many homes were left vacant after their owners were left to waste away alone. But those who hung together were no better off: "some died in neglect, others enjoying every attention".
Doctors struggled to work out how to handle the plague, with every attempted panacea in vain. At least their modern descendants know a coronavirus vaccine is only a matter of time. But in both instances, they put themselves at high risk of exposure by dint of being on the epidemiological frontline. As Thucydides writes: "There was the awful spectacle of men dying like sheep, through having caught the infection in nursing each other".
The plague thrived in the crowded city, with lots of potential carriers flooding into Athens and housed at the height of summer in tiny cabins, a decision which may now look as clever as those who joined the sweaty rampacked crowds to watch Stereophonics over the weekend. It became so overwhelming that law and order broke down, as citizens concluded that no God would save them, and they were suffering a greater sentence than any court could hand down. Shoppers may have come to blows over toilet paper, but we are thankfully nowhere near that anarchic.

Tens of thousands died, with the aftermath seeing city chiefs move to implement their answer to a travel ban by tightening the laws on who could become an Athenian citizen. But Athens was left drained of its geopolitical heft, no longer a regional superpower but a husk of its former self.
Rome, whose rise came just a few centuries later, was bedevilled by its fare share of diseases. Near the end of the second century AD, the Antonine Plague (so-called after the Emperor of the time, Marcus Aurelius Antonius) spread across the Empire - brought back by soldiers returning from a campaign out in the Far East.
Just as we see pandemic panic drive people to embrace false remedies peddled on the internet, so back then did scared citizens warm to quacks who passed off black magic and faith healing as solutions. Tax revenues declined from 165AD due to the flight of fearful survivors and upsurge in deaths, while civic building projects ground to a halt in Rome (as well as London) while the plague raged for over a decade.

No one was safe, with Marcus Aurelius forced to loosen the requirements to be on Athens' ruling council as too few citizens were alive who were up to scratch. His own co-emperor died from the plague as well. When it was his turn to meet his maker, he was said to have uttered on his deathbed: "Weep not for me; think rather of the pestilence and the deaths of so many others.”

Within a few decades, the Roman Empire was hit by another pandemic. The Cyprian Plague, named after the bishop of Carthage - St Cyprian - who wrote about what raged from 249AD as an eyewitness. He recorded how people were driven to a much greater panic than those rushing to the supermarket to stockpile, as they fought to save themselves - even if it meant leaving others to take the lead on developing herd immunity:
"All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if by leaving that person to die of the plague, they could escape death itself too."

A typical Roman was expected to be proudly stoic in the face of death, accepting their fate serenely, but that sangfroid did not hold up amid this outbreak. Some citizens rushed to blame this disease on the nascent religion of Christianity, spinning it as a divine punishment for such heretical beliefs. This attempted scapegoating backfired, as many of those fearing the plague warmed to the charitable Christians who cared for the sick rather than their pagan counterparts, who were happy for others to take it on the chin.
Around  the middle of the 6th century AD, another plague broke out which proved the already crumbling Roman Empire was on its way out. The grain price shot up in Constantinople, then centre of the Eastern Roman Empire, as stricken farmers could not tend to their crops. Poverty and starvation were rife as agriculture was wiped out. The state coffers, already running dry after spending splurges on big imperial wars and infrastructure projects, suffered a further blow due to the rise in deaths leaving them short on tax revenues.

How did the Emperor respond? Justinian rushed through emergency legislation to deal with the flood of inheritance disputes arising from the plague-induced deaths, and he decided to plug the funding gap by squeezing more taxes out of those who had survived. While Rishi Sunak rightly offered generous support to help businesspeople through the coronavirus and stands ready to shell out even more, Emperor Justinian insisted that his citizens not only cough up what was expected of them, but cover the payments owed by their dead neighbours — while making room for soldiers who had come back from war and needed accommodation.
Given the desperation the Romans were reduced to in response to such pandemics, it's little surprise that the their Empire soon crumbled into dust.
Romans and Greeks tended to read supernatural significance into these outbreaks, regarding them as a sign that their gods were angry. As naive as that belief may be, officials recognise coronavirus' similarly extraordinary nature in declaring that it is "effectively an act of God".

The grim tales of Classical pestilence must be seared into the Prime Minister's mind, reminding him of how fearful and helpless people can feel in response to a pandemic. Hence he is not messing about in leading the Government's response to the coronavirus, deferring to scientists and taking whatever steps they deem best to save lives.

Mr Johnson may not be at risk of suffering the same fate as his hero Pericles, but his knowledge of how devastating such pandemics have proved to be in the past has clearly hardened his resolve to handle the coronavirus as firmly as possible.

Asa Bennett's Romanifesto: Modern Lessons from Classical Politics is available here.


The Biteback News Update

  • March 25, 2020 15:44
  • Vicky Jessop

As you might have noticed, the world has changed dramatically in the past few weeks. Don’t worry, though: that doesn’t mean that you can’t carry on reading your favourite new releases!

We’ve made the switch to working from home, like so many of you will have done, but we’re still taking orders on our website: both for eBook and physical copies (though these may take a little longer to arrive). Good thing, too: we’ve just discounted our brand new books, Mark Pack’s Bad News and Sebastian Whale’s John Bercow: Call to Order to £10 each!

In more exciting news, we’re holding an eBook sale: for one week, starting from today, we’re discounting all of our eBooks published before February to 99p each. Stock up, fill your virtual bookshelves and keep yourself occupied from home.

If you’re looking for more content, then we suggest a trip to the Biteback podcast, where we’ll be releasing new content weekly, and where you can already find interviews with Mark Pack, Kenny MacAskill and exclusive extracts from Seb Whale’s new book…


Treat your mum to a book this Mother’s Day

  • March 21, 2020 14:00

We might be working from home, but that’s no excuse not to recognise mums around the world for the amazing work they do for us. And what better way to do that than with the gift of a good book? From soldiers to political icons, let’s celebrate strong women this Mother’s Day.


Exceeding my Brief, by Barbara Hosking

Between working on a copper mine in the African bush, serving as a press officer to Harold Wilson and Edward Heath, and pioneering British breakfast television, hers is a tale of breadth and bravery. At the age of ninety-two, Barbara Hosking reflects on her life and gives a compelling account of the innermost workings of politics and the media amid the turbulence of twentieth-century Britain.

Read more about it here.





What Your Mother Should Have Told You And Nobody Else Will, by Natalie Reilly

With everything from homespun wisdoms and invaluable life lessons to navigating the minefield of 21st-century dilemmas and manners, here are all those things your mother should have taught you, but you weren’t ready to hear at the time. 

Read more about it here.


Why Women Need Quotes, by Vicky Pryce

Vicky Pryce’s motorbike-riding mother wanted to study physics at university, but her family told her it was impossible for a woman. She was determined that her daughter would have the opportunities she hadn’t – and the young Vicky went on to forge a glittering career as an economist, with high-profile posts spanning business, academia and government. But despite her own success, Pryce is still frustrated by the obstacles littering the paths of women in the workplace.

We have an abysmal record on gender parity. How do we fix it? Vicky Pryce has the answer: quotas.

Read more about it here.


People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me, by Caroline Slocock

The first ever female private secretary to any British Prime Minister, Caroline Slocock had a front-row seat for the final eighteen months of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. A left-wing feminist, Slocock was no natural ally – and yet she became fascinated by the woman behind the ‘Iron Lady’ façade and by how she dealt with a world dominated by men.

A remarkable political and personal memoir, People Like Us charts the dying days of Thatcher’s No. 10 and reflects on women and power, then and now.

Read more about it here.


Worlds Apart, by Azi Ahmed

By the age of twelve, Azi Ahmed had been fully trained in all the skills her mother thought necessary to become the perfect housewife: knitting, sewing and sitting pretty. Little did she know that a rather different sort of training lay in her future.

With no military experience, physically slight and, before entering Chelsea Barracks, socially isolated, Azi suddenly finds herself in selection training with eleven other girls and 200 men, all hoping to become part of the British Army’s most elite fighting force – the SAS.

Worlds Apart is the incredible true story of the most violent of culture clashes, of one woman’s fight not only to be ‘the best of the best’, but to remain true to herself in the process.

Read more about it here.


The Madness of Modern Parenting, by Zoe Williams

Combining laugh-out-loud tales of parenthood with myth-busting facts and figures, Zoe provides the antithesis of all parenting discussions to date. After all, parents managed perfectly well for centuries before this modern madness, so why do today’s mothers and fathers make such an almighty fuss about everything?



Any of these books tickling your fancy? Order your copy now, or why not invest in an eBook? From Wednesday, they're only 99p...



A perspective on lockdown (and some tips) from Biteback’s man in Hong Kong, Professor Phil Cowley.

  • March 18, 2020 15:00
  • Phil Cowley

Just over a year ago, shortly after we moved here for my wife’s job, the authorities closed all the schools in Hong Kong for a week. The cause? Some students had got the flu. Cue bafflement from annoyed ‘gweilo’ parents – including me – who thought this a hysterical overreaction.

Maybe it was then. But that same approach seems to have come good this time. Despite dealing with it for months longer than countries like the UK, and without wanting to belittle the tally, Hong Kong is currently on 167 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with four deaths. Concern here is now about the risk of an imported second wave, along with worries about family and friends elsewhere.

In Hong Kong, all schools and kindergartens were closed straight away; we are now in week seven of home schooling, with no end in sight. At the start I foolishly pledged not to shave again until the kids went back; I now run the risk of looking like Lord Salisbury. All major events were postponed and venues were shut; travel restrictions were introduced and have since hardened; temperature checks on entering buildings became routine; increased cleaning regimes were seen everywhere; the lift in our tower block has a plastic screen across the buttons that is sanitised hourly; and the masks … well, the masks were everywhere overnight.

This isn’t an argument for any of these measures in and of themselves – I’m aware of the arguments for and against school closures and mask-wearing. The point I'm making is more about the cultural nature of the response.

Much of this is a result of SARS, which killed almost 300 here and infected thousands. The mindset that this could be serious – that it’s not just like a cold – ran deep. When this is all over, there will be plenty of inquests into what could have been different and whether governments should have reacted quicker. Yet the political scientist in me wonders whether governments in countries that had not experienced SARS would have been able to act much more decisively than they did without being told they were over-reacting. And even if they tried, would people have taken any notice? Or would everyone have been like the outraged parents, furious that their kids’ school was closed?

If I have any advice – apart from ensuring you have enough gin in the cupboard – it is to resign yourself to the fact that life has changed. That holiday you had planned; it’s not going to happen. Go through the stages of grief about things like that quickly, not least so you have real grief to spare in case you are unfortunate enough to need it. Don't rail against it. Accept it and adapt, as best you can. Take time with your immediate family. Watch some films. Read some books. Especially ones not about viruses.


Philip Cowley is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and one of the editors of Sex, Lies and Politics, published by Biteback last year. It contains nothing about viruses, but you can pick up a copy of it here.


Biteback Chats Books Podcast

  • February 27, 2020 11:00
  • Vicky Jessop

Though the Christmas period has been quiet, we’ve been hard at work over at Biteback Towers getting to work on a very special new project.

That’s right, we’re branching out into the world of podcasting! Once a week, we’ll be sitting down with the authors of some of our most exciting upcoming books and chatting to them about their lives, as well as doing a deep dive into the content of their new release.

Though we’re primarily a political publishing house, our (excellent) publication schedule contains books from all walks of life, from French football (who knew it was so different to English football?) to World War Two. Basically, whatever you’re interested in, we’ve got it, and we're planning to bring that same variety over to podcasting.

That said, kicking off things in spectacular fashion is new MP and former MSP Kenny MacAskill, who popped into the office last week to talk about Scotland’s hidden radical movement, his life in Scottish politics and why he’s not a fan of Irvine Walsh’s iconic Trainspotting.

If that’s not enough to get you excited, we’ve also got football journalist Matt Spiro, Lib Dem co-leader Mark Pack and the man behind John Bercow’s authoritative new biography, Seb Whale, joining us for a catch up in the coming weeks.

Stay tuned and enjoy!

Can’t wait to get started? Listen to the first Biteback podcast here.