In the second year of the Peloponnesian War, the great tussle between Greece’s two pre-eminent city-states that led to the eventual downfall of Athenian hegemony in the Mediterranean, Athens was laid waste by a deadly plague. Of this disease, wrote Attic historian Thucydides in his eyewitness account of that conflict, “there is no record of any such pestilence occurring anywhere, or of so great a destruction of human life”.

By modern estimations, the plague, which has been identified variously as a form of the Bubonic plague or Ebola, carried off between 75,000 and 100,000 of the Athenian population, out of a wartime total of 400,000. The devastation was near total: “No human art was of any avail, and at last man was overpowered by the calamity and gave them all up”, Thucydides writes. The consequences were long-lasting; as to how much Athens’ eventual defeat thirty years later had its roots in the devastation of 429 BC has been much debated, but that it left the city radically altered is unequivocal

Thucydides’ account of the plague follows directly from one of his history’s most referenced moments: the funeral oration of Athenian leader Pericles over the dead of the war’s first year, a speech beloved by political leaders throughout history, including our own Prime Minister. It is one of the great rhetorical self conceptions of a people that we have from antiquity, a paean to the greatness of Athens and its citizens, culminating in the famous image of the city as the School of Hellas.

In Thucydides’ vision, Athens is a liberal, cosmopolitan city “open to the world”: “We never expel a foreigner or prevent him from seeing or learning anything”. It is the classical period’s equivalent to the modern globalised state, with an immigrant population of at least 25,000 foreign metics, roughly a third of the total normal count of citizens. These resident aliens counted among them both poor artisans and traders as well as wealthy individuals among their number. They were in many ways, a full part of the ancient state’s civic make-up.

Apart from in one all important way. Metics could not except in the rarest of circumstances become citizens, the crucial designation making an individual central to the state. For the Athenians, citizenship was a prize guarded with extreme jealousy. Indeed, some 20 years before the plague Pericles himself tightened the restrictions on citizenship, so that only someone descended from two citizen parents could qualify for the honour.

This obsession with the purity of that citizenship body is a deeply distinctive element of the Attic psyche, a mark of the uniqueness and preeminence that recurs throughout its literature and culture. More than any other Greek state they prided themselves on their “autocthonous” origins: They had literally sprung from the very ground upon which they lived. “We alone of all the Hellenes have the right to call our city at once nurse and fatherland and mother”. It is exactly this principle that stands behind Pericles’ assertion of Athens’ preeminence in his great speech.

One of the reasons that Thucydides is is held in such high regard is his excellence as a stylist, and chief among his tools is irony. It’s no coincidence that the funeral oration is followed directly by the account of the plague, an event so catastrophic that it upends the qualities of piety, lawfulness and brotherhood, which Pericles has just ascribed to his people

Under the threat of total devastation, the “school of Greece” doubles down on its nativist obsession. Despite the eradication of nearly a quarter of the city’s swollen population, the plague did not convince the Athenian leadership to relax the laws surrounding citizenship to restock the city. Instead, there is evidence that in the following years, the status of the city’s metics became more and more tenuous with further enforcement to its already stringent laws brought in.

When faced with existential crisis, Athens opted not for the cosmopolitan and the outward facing, but instead for a form of protectionism, retreating back into its central conception of itself as it waited within the city’s walls. Crisis then as the adage goes, did not build the Athenian character; instead, it unveiled it.

That the modern world is now undergoing a crisis as severe as it has faced since the end of the Second World War is unequivocal. What the current catastrophe will reveal about the underlying nature of the present epoch remains to be seen. In all likelihood, what will be exposed and accelerated are trends and divergences that have become increasingly stark in recent years, be that the weakness of supranational bodies like the European Union, or the divide between national populism on one side and liberal democracy on the other.

In the former case, there is no joined up international response to the current situation. Even the European Commission’s decision to shut the borders of the Schengen zone for the first time in its 25 year history came after individual nations had begun to announce plans to unilaterally shut their own borders. Thus, each nation in turn is wholly responsible for its own response. And that, by extension, has revealed both the true nature of governments around the world and the deepening weakness of liberal democracy globally.

Hungary is a case in point with last week’s implementation of a sweeping and open ended state of emergency powers accelerating President Orban’s assault on the European state’s democratic freedoms. Orban a confessed proponent of so called illiberal democracy has already stuffed courts with Fidescz – the ruling party – sympathisers as well as clamping down on media freedom and imposing reform of the country’s education system. He has said these new powers, which require a two thirds majority in parliament to be revoked will be in place only as long as the coronavirus emergency continues, a statement that one could charitably label as open to interpretation.

Hungary is an extreme case of a trait manifesting itself over the whole world with new strictures and additional powers being put in place in countries from Israel to the Philippines. On the one hand, countries point to the positive effect extreme measures like surveillance have had on slowing the transmission of coronavirus in countries such as South Korea. On the other democratic institutions such as courts are perhaps irreparably weakened.

The coronavirus has shown just how interdependent the world is. In the age of global supply chains and international trade, no country is an island as much as they might profess their independence. So there is an irony in the fact that the international community has limited means to respond to the virus in a way that comprehensively makes the case for multilateralism. The EU’s hands are tied in the case of Hungary, which it is unable to take to court without unanimous support, which will be withheld by Orban’s allies in Poland. Trump is taken to apportioning blame to the WHO for the worsening scenario in the US,  desperate not to be seen as in any way responsible for the disaster.

If Athens’ high watermark was contained within Pericles’ vision of the state as the original shining city on a hill, the plague perhaps represents the turning of the tide. Within 30 years, a Spartan  government sat in the Acropolis, the sacred temple of the city’s patron goddess Athena. We’ve already moved far beyond the high watermark of liberal democracy; as the tide of coronavirus recedes, as it will, what will be revealed is just how far we’ve left to fall.