The Plague of Justinian the Great

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A map of the Byzantine Empire in 550 (a decade after the Plague of Justinian) with Justinian's conquests shown in green

The Plague of Justinian the Great was a plague of Europe – bubonic and devastating, resulting in the last attempt to restore Rome to its former glory.

The Plague of Justinian was named after Justinian the Great, the Byzantine emperor of Rome from 527 to 565 AD, for the plague that devastated his capital city of Constantinople in 542. Justinian lived and reigned during a distinct and history-changing era that marked the end of the ancient world and the beginning of the medieval world, specifically the Dark Ages. His citizens were the last remnants of Roman civilization.

In 284 the Roman Empire had been split between east and west by the powerful Roman General Diocletian who’d seized power in Rome and declared himself emperor. Eastern Rome became known as the Byzantine Empire and continued to flourish, but by 410 AD, Western Rome had been overrun by a group of barbarian kingdoms. Attila the Hun was among the barbarians and when he died in 453, the Huns went back to central Asia. But the Germans stayed and in 476, a German general removed the last western Roman emperor from the throne.

Constantinople (now Istanbul) became the capital of the Empire when Constantine the Great moved it from the city of Rome to Byzantium. Renamed Constantinople, the city’s social life gathered around the U-shaped Hippodrome. Horse and chariot races were popular and huge amounts were won and lost in bets. These were also rare instances when man and emperor came together in a common interest. The public bathhouses were also popular places of social and political gatherings.

Justinian the Great

Justinian the Great was born Petrus Sabbatius in 483 AD to a peasant family in Yugoslavia. His uncle Justin, a powerful commander of the imperial guard, took him to Constantinople and formally adopted him. There, Justinian married a courtesan, Theodora, who afterward was known for her piety, and she remained Justinian’s close adviser until her death in 548. His uncle became emperor in 518 and upon his death in 527, Justinian assumed the throne.

Justinian the Great was the last emperor to speak Latin as his first language and made it his mission to take back the lost western half of the former Roman Empire. With the help of Flavius Belisarius – one of the greatest generals of the Byzantine Empire, Justinian was able to partially recover the territories, including the city of Rome itself; something the previous Byzantine emperors had been unable to do.

By Justinian’s command, a commission of lawyers produced a revised code of Roman law in 529, the Corpus Juris Civilis, which is still the basis of civil law in many modern states. Though only achieving partial restoration of the former empire’s western territories, Justinian’s reign marked a re-flourishing of Roman culture. Insisting that God had chosen him alone to restore the Empire to its greatness, he built great masterpieces such as the church of Hagia Sophia, still standing today. Justinian never swayed from his unyielding attempt at religious unity.

The Plague of Justinian

But in the year 542, the Plague of Justinian (now know as bubonic plague, caused by the Y. pestis bacterium) arrived by ship, presumably from Ethiopia via a new Egyptian trade route, at the Egyptian port of Pelusium. From Egypt it made its way down the Nile to Alexandria and then to Constantinople transported by fleas on the bodies of black rats. The Plague of Justinian is a misleading term as it is estimated to have killed as many as 100 million people worldwide and decimated the European population by 50-60 percent.

The estimated population of Constantinople during Justinian’s reign was about 500,000. Of this, two thirds of the population was poor, subsisting on government handouts and living in small, tightly packed rooms in multilevel wood dwellings that often caught fire. With no plumbing, human waste was collected in pots and often tossed out the windows along with other trash. Consequently, the street level rose as newer buildings were constructed on top of rubbish. Wealthy and poor were in close proximity as a result of overpopulation.

It was in this environment that the Plague of Justinian was introduced in Constantinople. Without warning, the first victims became ill very suddenly with glandular swellings in the groin, armpits and throat. Often within minutes or hours, those infected vomited blood, became delirious and developed black blisters. The disease was unprecedented in the Empire and the onslaught violent. It quickly became clear these were not isolated instances.

In some cases, the effects were almost immediate and the victim died within hours. In other cases the affected hung on for many days. Procopius, a scholar of the time and chief historian of the sixth century, wrote that those under the spell of coma would eat without waking if there was someone to feed them. The blisters caused terrible pain as the skin literally decomposed. Many tried to kill themselves, others lapsed into comas.

As time passed, the death count rose till at one point it is estimated that 10,000 people a week were dying. The customary rites of burial were, by necessity, ignored. Large pits replaced graves but the diggers couldn’t keep up with the death tolls. Survivors began taking their dead to the shore where they were piled on the beaches causing a stench that permeated the entire city. Bodies lined the streets and lay rotting in homes. People wore name badges for identification in case they died on the street. After a while it became nearly impossible to track the identities of the deceased.

Justinian himself contracted the disease and managed to survive with extensive medical treatment.

By the time the plague ran its course in Constantinople in 542 AD, 300,000 people were dead and the Empire’s military, political and economic structure had been devastated. In a single year, the minute flea had brought the Roman Empire to its knees, something no army had ever been able to do. Rome would never recover. Justinian the Great died in 565.

References:

  1. Marcus Louis Daily Life in the Byzantine Era
  2. Michael Maas The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian
  3. John Kelly The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death