China Should Fear the Coronavirus. Look What Plague Did to Ancient Athens.

February 9, 2020 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaMilitaryTechnologyCoronavirus

China Should Fear the Coronavirus. Look What Plague Did to Ancient Athens.

As moral and ethical strictures collapsed, Athenians gave vent to their basest impulses and excesses. All manner of riotous living ensued. Why not indulge today if tomorrow you die? Would China do the same? 


On the upside from Xi’s standpoint, the president controls a state apparatus with the physical might to regulate factional discord. Pericles may have been the first citizen of Athens; he could never have imagined enjoying as tight a grip on power as Xi Jinping’s. Historical analogies, in short, are inexact.

And yet. There is a reason students of strategy regard Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War as the Good Book. Seldom are there precise parallels between antiquity and today’s modern world. But there are almost always parallels acute enough to compel posterity to think about the right topics—if we will do so. Let’s dust off that old copy of Thucydides’ History alongside learned medical treatises to help puzzle out what comes next in the coronavirus outbreak—and how to handle it.


We can never defeat the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. We might just corral them by learning from the ancients.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and the author of A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy, released last December. The views voiced here are his alone.