Justinian's Flea

by William Rosen

I enjoyed this book. It addresses a portion of history of which I was only dimly aware: the terrible plague that swept through the Roman Empire in 542 CE. This was bubonic plague, the same disease that killed roughly one-third of the European population in 1348. It’s harder to estimate the casualties of Justinian’s plague, because historical records from that time are much poorer. Most likely, the cities were clobbered at least as badly as they were 800 years later, but lower rural population densities probably limited casualties outside the cities. Even so, the destruction was terrible. It wasn’t just the body count that was so destructive: it was the destruction of important components of the economy. Physicians were almost wiped out as a class; more important, merchants were hard hit because they came in contact with so many other people. Trade withered, and the economy plunged. The price of labor skyrocketed; Justinian tried to counter by issuing an emergency edict freezing all wages and prices, but this served only to dry up supplies of everything.

All this came at the worst possible time: various barbarian nations were on the move, either driven out of their homelands by others, or seeking new lands. Justinian’s army was also hard hit by the plague, so there just weren’t enough soldiers to hold back the tide. Various Gothic tribes had already seized most of the Western Roman Empire, but they had, for the most part, preserved the institutions that held things together. But in the years before and after the plague, military systems everywhere broke down and war became endemic. Italy, once the core of the Roman Empire, was ravaged. Its population collapsed; farms were abandoned, livestock stolen, and cities crumbled. When a Gothic army laid siege to Rome, there were only 500 civilians left inside the city.

The plague was preceded by other catastrophes. An insurrection in Constantinople very nearly toppled Justinian. An angry crowd estimated at 35,000 to 50,000 had gathered on the floor of the Hippodrome, a huge stadium rather like the Roman Coliseum, not far from Justinian’s palace. Justinian had only a few hundred soldiers to defend himself. He sent the soldiers to the Hippodrome. They blocked the exits and formed two lines on either side of the crowd, and then proceeded to chop their way through the crowd. The people were so crowded together that they could not run or bring forward any arms; they stood helplessly as the soldiers mowed them down. Few survived the massacre.

Justinian had embarked on a grand campaign to reconquer the Western Roman Empire, and his initial attacks were fabulously successful -- he regained most of the lost territories around the Mediterranean. However, conquest is not the same thing as control. In those fissiparous times, revolts and mutinies undermined every effort at consolidation, and the Western Roman Empire descended into anarchy. Meanwhile, Justinian had the Sassanid Persian Empire on his eastern front to deal with. The on-again, off-again war with the Sassanids had its successes and its failures, but in the end didn’t accomplish anything for either side. The plague also shattered the Sassanid Empire.

The situation continued to deteriorate. An army of Slavs invaded and headed for Constantinople; Justinian had only a few hundred professional soldiers to defend the entire city against tens of thousands of Slavic warriors. He turned to his old general, Belisarius, who had won many victories for him. Belisarius impressed thousands of civilians and had them dig extensive trench works at the mouth of the peninsula on which the city stood. Then he armed them with sticks -- there being nothing else to give them -- and posted them behind a thin line of professional soldiers. When the Slavs attacked, the trenches forced them to concentrate on the strongest part of Belisarius’s line, where Belisarius had placed all his archers. Meanwhile, the stick-armed civilians partly concealed behind the professionals shouted and moved around to give the impression of a big bustling army. The ruse worked; the Slavs fell back after the first short round of fighting and retreated.

But the Roman Empire as well as the Sassanid empire were devastated by the plague and its attendant disasters. 80 years later, the Islamic armies burst out of Arabia and swept through the depopulated lands of both empires. They easily defeated the skeletal armies that opposed them and built their own empire in short order. They were checked in only three places: in southern France by Charles Martel and his Franks; in eastern Anatolia by the forces of the Eastern Roman Empire; and east of Persia by the vast expanses of desert and mountain ranges of Central Asia.

Thus, the lasting result of the bubonic plague of 542 was the shift of European civilization northward, away from the Mediterranean. Italy, Spain, and Greece never recovered their former dominating economic positions in the world.