In 430BC, during the Peloponnesian war against their great rival Sparta, the people of Athens were hit by a deadly disease that has defied diagnosis to this day.
The Greek historian Thucydides survived a bout of this unknown killer and left a vivid account of its symptoms, which make for frightening reading.
"People in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath," Thucydides starts by saying.
But that was just the beginning - sneezing and coughing were next, then diarrhoea, vomiting and violent spasms.
Next came livid skin, covered in pustules and ulcers, and a burning, unquenchable thirst.
Most died around the seventh or eight day, but if not the disease moved to the bowels, where violent ulceration and worsening diarrhoea, combined with exhaustion, was usually enough to prove fatal.
A handful did survive, but the disease left its mark - toes, fingers, genitals and sight were often lost.
For others the legacy was an entire loss of memory, so that, as Thucydides says, they "did not know either themselves or their friends".
The world's first recorded pandemic had arrived.
Thucydides says the disease began in Ethiopia, spreading through Egypt and Libya, then into the Greek world.
Over the next four years it killed almost a third of the Athenian population and its armed forces, along with the city's leader and mastermind of Athenian glory, Pericles.
It is unsurprising perhaps that the word pandemic is derived from Greek - "pan" meaning all, and "demos" meaning people.
By the 2nd Century AD, the mantle of European power had passed to Rome, largely thanks to the might of its army.
But this army almost proved the civilisation's downfall, when in AD165, troops returning from campaigns in the east of the empire brought back a disease which killed an estimated five million people.
Known as the Antonine Plague, after Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, one of two Roman emperors who died from the disease, it killed a quarter of those who caught it.
In AD166, the Greek physician and writer Galen travelled from Rome to his home in present-day Turkey and recorded some of the disease's symptoms.
In his treatise Methodus Medendi, he describes fever, diarrhoea, and inflammation of the pharynx, along with dry or pustular eruptions of the skin after nine days, symptoms which has led scholars to conclude the disease was most likely smallpox.
A second outbreak occurred between AD251 and 266, and at its height some 5,000 people were said to be dying in Rome every day.
... more. [I just noticed that JM also sent this link to me ... thanks!]