It is time for the third and final installment of Past Pandemics! Today we’re talking about the most devastating pandemic to hit the Byzantine Empire, one of the deadliest plagues in history, a pestilence that one ancient writer claims: “the whole human race came near to being annihilated”- the Plague of Justinian!!
Emperor Justinian. Image: Petar Milošević
Let’s travel back in time to the year 541. Emperor Justinian, otherwise known as Justinian the Great because he was, well, great, was ruling the Eastern Roman Empire and wishing to recover the Roman Empire’s past glory by reconquering the now defunct Western half of the Roman Empire. Military campaigns were underway in the Sassanian Empire and Italy. But something more sinister than war was on its way to the capital, Constantinople, and it would affect nearly half the population of Europe.
You guessed it: The Plague! The plague made its way to Africa via trading ships and land cargo from China and northeast India. Then it traveled from Egypt, east into Palestine and then north to the Roman world. Yes my friends, this is the first confirmed evidence of Yersinia Pestis in Europe. But you might know it as The Black Plague. Yup, it was the same strain.
Now how did it even get from all the way over in China, to Constantinople and beyond? Flea-carrying rats. Rats, while they’ll eat anything, particularly love to eat grain. That means grain stores became perfect breeding grounds to the Rattus Rattus, and it also meant lots and lots of fleas. These rats would make their way onto cargo ships and land carts headed for Africa, bringing the plague along for the ride.
Egypt and the rest of North Africa were considered the breadbasket for the Roman Empire. They would regularly send shipments of trading goods over various routes, so it was a quick hop, step and a jump for the plague to spread towards Constantinople and then further throughout the empire and the rest of Europe via military supply lines and other trading routes. Let’s remember that at the time Justinian is waging various military campaigns, and Italy is seeing a rather dramatic climate shift, with regular cold snaps that negatively affecting crops and creating food shortages that are forcing people to migrate. So we’ve got wars, hungry people on the move, and an increased population of rats coming along for the adventure… this is the perfect storm for spreading a plague.
The writer Procopius, who was living in Italy during the time of the plague, and who suffered and luckily recovered from it, left us a super detailed account of the goings on and the symptoms (sound familiar? Thucydides anyone?). He describes some people as becoming delusional and having visions and nightmares of demons who would then give them said plague. Infecting people in their dreams sounds like the prequel to Nightmare on Elm Street doesn’t it?
Procopius also gives what I think is some excellent advice about social distancing, because the people who were seeing demons and infected creatures tried to exorcise them.
But later on they were unwilling even to give heed to their friends when they called to them, and they shut themselves up in their rooms and pretended that they did not hear, although their doors were being beaten down, fearing, obviously, that he who was calling was one of those demons.
Pro – tip from Procopius during these self-isolating times. Pretend your friends who aren’t listening to social distancing rules are demons. When they come a-knocking, shut yourself up in your house, turn your phone on mute and pretend you don’t hear them!
But let’s talk real symptoms of the plague now, shall we? Those affected suffered from fevers and had swelling in places like the groin, under the armpit, and behind the ears. People were even going falling into comas, and were suffering for days before they died.
Procopius claims the plague came from Pelusium in Egypt, first appearing along the coasts of Europe, then spreading inwards, which makes sense as a bunch of these rats came over by sea. Justinian had created sort of the perfect environment for the spread of a plague. Many of his campaigns had been successful and he almost succeeded in reclaiming the Roman Empire. But peace, along with its increased connectivity and trade meant that people were traveling more, and commerce was widespread. With Constantinople being the new capital, it served as the perfect trading post between east, west, and North Africa…so the plague spread like wildfire. I said it once, I’ll say it again: no one was safe from the plague… even Justinian himself got it! Told you in the Antonine plague video…. But unlike the Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus who may have died during the Antonine Plague, Justinian recovered. It was actually extremely lucky of Justinian to survive because the percentage of people who died from the plague was something like 60%.
People were dropping in the streets left, right and center. So many people were dying, that they had no room to bury them. Bodies were being stacked up on the streets, loaded onto ships to be burned at sea, dumped in buildings, and mass graves and pits. The military had to be called in to handle the amount of dead piling up. At its peak, some historians estimate the plague was killing upwards of 5,000 people a day in Constantinople.
The outbreak lasted for about 4 months within Constantinople, but it never fully went away, and there were between 15 to 17 outbreaks between the years 541 and 750. After that, we didn’t see a full widespread outbreak of the Yersinia Pestis until the whole Black Death in the 14th century.
As a result of this plague, many military campaigns and building projects had to be halted or suspended. The massive number of deaths caused a decline in tax revenue- which Justinian was still charging by the way! (really gives us more perspective on current events now doesn’t it?). Procopius even called Justinian the devil for continuing to charge it.
Socially speaking, everything stopped. Sound familiar? There weren’t people to till the fields, shops closed, the whole shebang. Complete economic standstill. Not to mention the food shortage that came with all these deaths. With farmers being wiped out, crops and animals went uncared for, and people who sold said food and crops also died, etc etc. Everything is connected. Such a domino effect. The plague weakened the Byzantine Empire just at the point where it was about to take over the world! Poor Justinian was so close to reuniting the core of the Western Roman Empire with his…. But it was not fated to be.
Some historians say the damage of the plague was so great to both the Persian and Byzantine empires that it made them extremely vulnerable to the Muslim conquests. The devastation the plague wrought may even have helped to usher in what we now call the Dark Ages in Europe. And we all know what happened in the Dark Ages, don’t we? Skills were lost, population was low, and people feared the wrath of God more than ever.
I did read somewhere though that it’s believed The Plague of Justinian, as it killed everyone from all walks of life including government officials, nobles, peasants, priests- you get my drift- brought an end to serfdom in some parts of Europe. Not much research has been done on this yet, but it’s interesting to think about. Because the population would have been so depleted, the need for regular workers and such would have been high.
Overall, some historians believe the Plague of Justinian to be one of the deadliest pandemics in history. Even though we’ve talked about two other plagues in previous episodes, people have called the Plague of Justinian the first true pandemic recorded in history because it swept across three different continents. The estimated death toll is anywhere between 25-100 million over the two centuries it lasted! If it did indeed kill upwards of 100 million, that would have bee half the population of Europe! I think Procopius said it best:
During these times there was a pestilence, by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated
That being said, recently, as in super recently like in 2019, some new research has been published saying that the death toll and the social after effects have been exaggerated. Scholars looked at datasets such as pollen evidence to track this decline in agriculture and have not found any, they also looked for data in changes in burial practices, again, not so much. Either way, the Plague of Justinian, just like all pandemics, did leave its mark on society, no matter how you measure it.
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Looking to find out more?
Mordechai, L., & Eisenberg, M. (2019). Rejecting Catastrophe: the case of the Justinianic Plague*. Past & Present. doi:10.1093/pastj/gtz009
John Horgan, Ancient History Encyclopedia
Ker Than, National Geographic
Maybe the first plague wasn’t that bad, say researchers