Victor Davis Hanson // City Journal
There are two well-known themes, or topoi, in classical literature. One concerns the graphic descriptions in Thucydides, Sophocles, and Procopius of plagues—especially the human misery and despair that accompanies outbreaks that killed large numbers. The unknown plague at Athens (430–429 BC) killed one-quarter of the Athenian population during the Peloponnesian War, wrecking the social structure of the city. In 542 AD, during a virulent bubonic plague epidemic, millions perished throughout the Byzantine Empire, crippling and ultimately curtailing the emperor Justinian’s grandiose efforts to restore the Roman Empire by reclaiming its lost provinces in the West.
But just as frequently, we read of groundless mass panics that caused deadly harm. Thucydides’s description of the preparations of the Athenian armada on the eve of the ill-fated expedition to Sicily is a sort of fantastical bookend to the panic he previously described about the real plague. In 415 BC, a sudden public frenzy swept the Athenian demos to rule all of distant Sicily and get rich from promises of wealthy allies. Sicily was billed as a prequel to a Mediterranean-wide Athenian empire—at least until the money and the allies proved almost nonexistent and the scheme unworkable. Eventually, some 40,0000 Athenian and allied lives were lost in utter defeat.
In the United States, the collapse of the stock market and banks in 1893 and 1929 altered American life for generations, in part driven by panicked selling. One of cinema’s most dramatic scenes is the run on the Bailey Building and Loan in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life that threatens to turn idyllic Bedford Falls into a Potterville slum. I remember as a boy stomping on June bugs all summer long in 1962 to prevent their supposedly deadly contagion that was supposedly sweeping the nation—aping the behavior of those delusional at Athens who drew maps in the sand of Sicily, hooked on the fantasy of the riches to come from the extravagant 415 BC expedition.