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Emerg Infect Dis. 2012 Jan;18(1):153-7. doi: 10.3201/eid1801.AD1801.

The plague of Thebes, a historical epidemic in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex.

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History of Medicine Department, School of Medicine, University of Athens, 131 Lambrou Katsoni Str., Athens, 18344 Greece.


Sophocles, one of the most noted playwrights of the ancient world, wrote the tragedy Oedipus Rex in the first half of the decade 430-420 bc. A lethal plague is described in this drama. We adopted a critical approach to Oedipus Rex in analyzing the literary description of the disease, unraveling its clinical features, and defining a possible underlying cause. Our goals were to clarify whether the plague described in Oedipus Rex reflects an actual historical event; to compare it with the plague of Athens, which was described by Thucydides as occurring around the same time Sophocles wrote; and to propose a likely causative pathogen. A critical reading of Oedipus Rex and a comparison with Thucydides' history, as well as a systematic review of historical data, strongly suggests that this epidemic was an actual event, possibly caused by Brucella abortus.

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