A wry view of life for the world-weary

Forty Days And Forty Nights – Part Five


The plague of Justinian

This plague which raged in the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire between 541 and 542 CE is considered to have been one of the greatest plagues ever and its impact on the future of the region and elsewhere was profound.

Claimed to have been the first recorded instance of the bubonic plague because of the identification of Yersinia pestis in the DNA of some of the victims, its principal symptoms were the swelling of lymph nodes and necrosis of the hands. Infected rats travelling in the ships carrying grain to the capital city of Constantinople were thought to have been the principal cause of the outbreak. There are no reliable figures of how many were killed by the plague. A contemporary witness, Procopius, in a passage modelled on Thucydides’ description of the Athenian plague during the Peloponnesian War claimed that around 10,000 a day died during the height of the plague. Modern scholars think that this was somewhat of an exaggeration positing the figure of 5,000 a day as the more likely figure.

What is clear is that the initial plague killed around 40% of the city’s population and accounted for the death of a quarter of the people living around the eastern Mediterranean. Procopius report that there was no room to bury the dead and the bodies were left stacked in the open. This strain of plague was virulent and there were a number of subsequent outbreaks during the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries, eventually dying out around 750CE. This was the last major plague until the Black Death in the 13th century.

The emperor Justinian after whom the plague was named contracted the disease but survived. The economic consequences were severe. The significant loss of life amongst the farming population meant severe food shortages which in turn meant that the price of the staff of life rose dramatically. Justinian’s response to the economic consequences of the plague were draconian, demanding tax not only from those who were left alive but also from the estates of those who had died, enacting legislation to deal more efficiently with the glut of inheritance claims caused by people dying intestate.

As well as economic consequences the plague had profound geo-political consequences. As the disease spread around the eastern Mediterranean ports it affected the Byzantines at the point when they were pursuing successfully a campaign against the Goths and had almost reclaimed the whole of Italy. Spotting an opportunity caused by the decline in Byzantine numbers the Lombards invaded northern Italy in 568 and established the kingdom of the Lombards, the first step in the fragmentation of Italy which was not reversed until Garibaldi appeared on the scene in the 19th century.

The plague may even have had a profound impact on Britain. The period around 550 sees more successful incursions by the Saxons, who had until then been successfully held at bay. The Romano-British would have had extensive trade links with Gaul and would therefore have been susceptible to the plague. Contemporary British sources talk of a plague whereas Saxon sources don’t.

And the enervated Byzantine forces were unable to resist the marauding Arab forces in the following century but that’s a whole different story.


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