A map of the Byzantine Empire in 550 (a decade after the Plague of Justinian) with Justinian’s conquests shown in green.
Alexandria was a great mercantile entrepôt in the sixth century. In its waterfront warehouses the produce of North Africa, ‘the granary of the Roman Empire’, was stored. It was the terminus of vital trade routes which avoided Persian territory and brought, by sea and overland caravan, African slaves, Chinese silks, Indian gems and Indonesian spices. Large fleets regularly plied across the eastern Mediterranean to Constantinople. By 541 they were carrying a new and unwelcome cargo.
Today, we can describe clinically the symptoms of bubonic plague and how it spreads. The rat flea carries a bacterium, Y. pestis. As the rat moves through unsanitary and crowded towns and villages, the flea ‘jumps ship’, seeking a new host – animal or human. When the flea bites its latest victim, the bacterium, which does not harm the rat, is transferred to its new body, with disastrous results. Once in the bloodstream, Y. pestis makes its way to the lymph glands, which swell and rupture, appearing on the surface as painful, dark-coloured ‘buboes’ in the groin or armpits. The victim falls prey to shivering, fever and stiffening of the joints. He/she may experience delirium or fall into a coma. Once the lungs are infected, the plague takes on a new form – pneumonic. Miniscule droplets of sputum are exhaled with every breath, carrying the plague to new victims. The original sufferer has become a machine gun of highly infectious bullets. For several days the newly infected victims display no symptoms. The plague is, therefore, hidden; its real impact concealed. Half of the people catching bubonic plague, if they were reasonably fit and healthy beforehand, survive. Pneumonic plague is virtually one hundred per cent fatal.
It was not only the disease itself that killed people. Some, in delirium or sheer desperation, took their own lives. Some starved to death because there was no one to bring them food. Understandably, neighbours avoided houses where plague victims were lying. More compassionate people faced hardship caring for the afflicted, even if they did not contract the disease:
…when patients fell from their beds and lay rolling on the floor, they kept putting them back in place, and when they were struggling to rush headlong out of their houses, they would force them back by shoving and pulling against them. And when water chance to be near [the sufferers] wished to fall into it… because of… the diseased state of their minds.
People took to wearing name tags, so that they could be identified in the event of sudden death. The forums and public places were deserted.
At that time it was scarcely possible to meet anyone going about the streets of Byzantium; all who had the good fortune to be in health were sitting in their houses, either attending the sick or mourning the dead. If one did succeed in encountering a man going out, he was carrying one of the dead. And work of every description ceased, and all the trades were abandoned by the artisans… Indeed in a city which was simply abounding in all good things widespread starvation was running riot… so that with some of the sick it appeared that the end of life came about sooner than it should have because they lacked the necessities of life.
Fifteen hundred years ago, observers lacked the knowledge of human anatomy and epidemiology that would have enabled them to describe the pestilence objectively. Such medical science as they possessed was freely mixed with religious belief and superstition. Chroniclers, appalled by what they saw and fearful of what it might mean, prophesied the utter destruction of the empire, or even of the entire human race. They readily reported portents in the heavens warning of imminent disaster. They passed on stories of visions and mystical experiences:
…many people saw shapes of bronze boats carrying passengers with their heads cut off… These figures were seen everywhere as frightening manifestations, especially at night. They appeared like gleaming bronze and fire, black and without heads they sat in their glistening boats, travelling rapidly across the water – a sight which made those who saw it almost drop dead.
Both the Byzantine and Persian empires possessed physicians and philosopher/astrologers whose understanding of the human condition was advanced by the standards of the day, but they were powerless to cope with this new and terrible visitation. The second-century physician, Galen, whose thinking had dominated medical theory and practice for centuries, made important discoveries about the nervous system and the ‘flow’ (not circulation) of blood, but his assertion that health was determined by the balance of four ‘humours’ which had their bases in blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile was of no value in combating plague. His disciples sought to achieve ‘balance’ in their patients by a combination of simple drugs, incantations, the application of saints’ bones and other magical charms, diet and exercise. The only result of such clinical methods was that many doctors succumbed to plague as a result of close contact with their patients. Small wonder that Procopius was sceptical about the medical services available:
…the most illustrious physicians predicted that many would die, who unexpectedly escaped entirely from suffering… and declared that many would be saved, who were destined to be carried off almost immediately.
Potentially more valuable was the practice of isolating plague victims. Hospitals were the invention of early Christians in Palestine and, by the fifth century, they were to be found in many towns and cities of the Roman Empire. There were several in Constantinople, and Justinian provided state aid to them to cope with the new emergency, but these institutions were soon overwhelmed by the sheer size of the problem. Procopius and other chroniclers have left us a vivid and horrifying picture of life in the Byzantine capital during these dreadful months, and the scenes they recorded must have been replicated in other towns and cities.
The most urgent problem was disposal of the dead. The city’s cemeteries were soon filled, even when people were being buried three or more to a grave. Justinian commandeered waste or unused land to provide more burial grounds but these, too, were overflowing within weeks. The next location found for cadavers was along the city walls. At regular intervals there were watchtowers, designed to house soldiers to man the walls when Constantinople came under attack. These empty buildings were now used for a more gruesome purpose. Their roofs were removed and bodies were thrown inside and stamped on in order to get as many as possible into the space available. The stench drifting over the city was appalling. The terrible reality presents a real challenge to the imagination, as another contemporary writer bewailed:
How can anyone speak of or recount such a hideous sight, and who can watch this burial, even though his soul remain in his body and not waste away from bitter lamentations over so much iniquity which would suffice to destroy the children of Adam? How and with what utterances and what hymns, with what funeral laments and groanings should somebody mourn who has survived and witnessed the wine-press of the fury of the wrath of God?
There is no way of knowing exactly how many people died in the East Roman capital during this terrible visitation, but contemporaries claimed that between a third and a half of Constantinople’s citizens succumbed and that this degree of mortality was replicated throughout the Eastern Roman Empire. The plague had no respect; it claimed victims at all levels of society. The emperor himself caught the disease. He was one of the lucky ones not to die but he was ill for several weeks. Had it not been for the vigorous efforts of the Empress Theodora and a small team of palace officials, the running of the empire might well have collapsed in chaos. While the emperor remained incapacitated, officials looked to Theodora for instructions, and it was she who masterminded the provision of aid to sufferers and maintained some semblance of law and order. John the Cappadocian was no longer there to apply his considerable administrative skills to overcoming the crisis. He had survived the mounting tide of criticism, but he could not surmount the opposition of Theodora. The empress was increasingly jealous of John’s influence with her husband and eventually she had him stripped of office and sent into exile. Almost at once the Byzantine bureaucracy began to slip back into corruption and was quite unable to handle the effects of plague.
Death brought other grave problems in its wake. Because of the threat of invasion, Justinian had made sure that Constantinople’s grain stores were full. But there were soon few bakers left to make bread, and those that were still in business charged inflated prices. There was famine in the midst of plenty and malnutrition kept pestilence company on the streets. The economic effects were no less disastrous than the loss of life. Slavery was the basis of Byzantine society and when the stock of slaves was drastically cut, all human activities were affected. Farm animals went untended. Shops remained closed. Businesses went out of production. Ships rotted in harbour for want of mariners to sail them and chandlers to equip them. Aristocratic households could not function without indoor and outdoor servants. The army was severely depleted. Government business came to a standstill. Inevitably, the costs of labour and goods rocketed, resulting in rapid inflation. In a desperate attempt to stabilise the currency, the coinage was debased. This made matters worse since those who could afford to do so hoarded gold and silver, which drove down the value of coin, forcing producers to charge more for their goods and workers to demand higher wages. The government tried to halt the wage-price spiral by forbidding workers to raise the price of their labour. In March 544, Justinian issued the following edict:
Pursuant to the chastening that we have received in the benevolence of our Lord God, some people… have abandoned themselves to avarice and demand double and triple prices and wages that are contrary to the custom prevalent from antiquity, although such people ought rather to have been chastened by this calamity. It is therefore our decision to forbid such covetous greed… In the future no businessman, workman or artisan in any occupation, trade, or agricultural pursuit shall dare to charge a higher price or wage than that of the custom prevalent from antiquity.
It is no surprise that this clumsy attempt to frustrate the laws of simple economics had little effect.
Inevitably, fear and grief drove people to ask the question: ‘Why?’ Procopius confessed himself baffled:
Now in the case of all other scourges sent from heaven some explanation of a cause might be given by daring men, such as the many theories propounded by those who are clever in these matters, for they love to conjure up causes which are absolutely incomprehensible to man… but for this calamity, it is quite impossible either to express in words or to conceive in thought any explanation, except indeed to refer it to God.
Later moralists, who saw the events of the 540s as precursors to the collapse of the Sassanian and Western Roman empires, had less hesitation. A seventh-century monastic chronicler interpreted the catastrophe in terms of divine judgement. God had sent his agents to punish the arrogant presumption and cruelties of the ancient empires:
The land of the Persian was given to Devastation for him to devastate it, sending its inhabitants to captivity and to slaughter: Syria was given to the sword of Devastation, its inhabitants to captivity and to slaughter; the Roman empire was given to Devastation and its inhabitants to captivity and to slaughter.
By the time this writer recorded his view of history, he was able to see the plague as part of the long-term decline of Sassanian Persia and of Rome’s empire in the West. To those who lived through these terrible times, matters were more complex.
The enemies of the Byzantine Empire were not slow to take advantage of its weakness. The Persians attempted to press home their advantage in the region between the Black Sea and Mesopotamia and laid siege to Edessa. The inconclusive war went on for months and ended in a truce under whose terms Khusro undertook to remove his troops from the area for five years, in return for a payment of 2,000 pounds in gold. It was a heavy price, but Justinian needed to buy time. Affairs were going badly in Italy. Under a new king, the Ostrogoths were mounting a fresh offensive, steadily reclaiming territory which the Byzantines had gained. Justinian had to send Belisarius back to the West in a desperate attempt to cling onto his conquests there. But the great general was woefully short of resources. The plague had decimated the Byzantine army and economic difficulties created shortages of equipment. Belisarius found himself bogged down in a long and, eventually, unsuccessful series of campaigns. The grand vision of recreating the glories of the Roman Empire had to be abandoned.
The debilitating effects of the plague cannot be described only in terms of economic and political decline. There was a widespread sense of fatalism. When Bulgars and other tribes displaced by the Huns raided into the Balkans and northern Greece, they encountered little resistance. The garrisons that should have defended the inhabitants were seriously undermanned and the people had no confidence in the government to protect them. They had to suffer the barbarian incursions, watch their homes being pillaged and their womenfolk raped. There was only one way to put an end to their ordeal: they had to pay the invaders to go away. Some wealthy citizens hid their treasures – and many never returned to reclaim them. Numerous hoards of buried coins, silver plate and gold ornaments have been found throughout this region – graphic testimony to the turbulence of the times. Administration broke down and much of Justinian’s reforming work was undone.
Yet, ironically, the pestilence thaht devastated the Eastern Roman Empire also saved it from more severe depredations. The plague took no account of territorial boundaries, as Procopius recorded:
…this calamity… did not come in one part of the world or upon certain men, nor did it confine itself to any season of the year, so that from such circumstances it might be possible to find subtle explanations of a cause, but it embraced the entire world, and blighted the lives of all men, though differing from one another in the most marked degree, respecting neither sex nor age.
When he described this catastrophe as one that ‘embraced the entire world’, Procopius was, of course, referring to the world he knew: Europe, the Middle East, northern Africa and the nearer parts of Asia. However, this outbreak reached well beyond the fringes of the known Mediterranean world and resulted in human mortality on an unimaginable and incalculable scale. It galloped over mountains, deserts and seas, striking down men, women and children as far away as Ireland, China and the African interior.
Thus, for example, raiders across the borders of the weakened Byzantine Empire often took back with them more than sackfuls of loot. When the Alemanni (a Germanic tribe) leader, Leutharis, led a raid into northern Italy, he was able to plunder at will but, when he turned for home with his laden wagons of loot,
He became deranged and started raving like a madman. [He] was seized with a violent ague and would fall over backwards, foaming at the mouth, his eyes glaring dreadfully… The plague continued to rage until his whole army was destroyed.
Unfortunately, no Persian records describing events in the 540s have survived, but Byzantine writers recorded, in brief, the spread of contagion into the territory of the invader. John of Ephesus referred to this period in Persia’s history as years of ‘famine, plague, madness and fury’. Khusro had to give up the siege of Edessa when many of his troops succumbed to disease. Y. pestis travelled with Khusro’s armies and along his trade routes. Antioch, Nisibis and other important centres were virtually depopulated. Khusro, victorious over his human enemies and confident of further military successes, had encountered a foe he could not beat. It was Persian weakness, not Byzantine strength, that prevented Persia advancing irresistibly westwards. Militarily, the mid-540s were years of stagnation. Two mighty empires stood like punch-drunk boxers, eyeing each other blearily, swaying from side to side and unable to land any telling blows.
Matters were little different in Europe, beyond the farthest Byzantine borders. The plague is recorded as reaching Frankish territory in 543. Familiar, dreadful scenes were soon to be witnessed throughout Gaul (the land of the Franks):
…so many people were killed throughout the whole region and the dead bodies were so numerous that it was not even possible to count them. There was such a shortage of coffins and tombstones that ten or more bodies were buried in the same grave. In St Peter’s church [in Clermont-Ferrand] alone on a single Sunday three hundred dead bodies were counted. Death came very quickly. An open sore like a snake’s bite appeared in the groin or the armpit, and the man who had it soon died of its poison, breathing his last on the second or third day.
In terms of the long haul of history, the real impact of plague and war in the years 541–2 was on the size of populations. In the twenty-first century we face the problem of overpopulation. Fifteen hundred years ago societies that felt themselves just as secure as we do fell into the abyss of drastic population collapse. In the first two years of the pandemic it has been suggested that four million of the East Roman Empire’s twenty-six million inhabitants disappeared and the decline continued as Y. pestis sought out more victims. Whole villages and towns vanished. Cities shrank. Crumbling walls left their citizens vulnerable to marauders. Farmland fell into disuse. Governments faced declining revenue and could no longer provide their people with the benefits of advanced civilisation. The same phenomena were to be observed in Persia and the other nations fringing the Mediterranean world.
These ancient societies were not allowed time to recover. Long before population levels, stable government and a measure of prosperity had returned, the Persians and Byzantines faced another foe. Within a century, the great civilisations that had shared the world of the Mediterranean basin found themselves facing a new, vigorous, expanding empire, bursting out of its Arabian heartland. Less than thirty years after the plague visitation of Constantinople, a boy was born in Mecca whose impact upon the lands where Christianity and Zoroastrianism flourished would, in its way, be as devastating as the earlier rat-borne invasion. His name was Mohammed. When the armies of Islam marched out of Arabia carrying their new faith, at swordpoint, to all points of the compass, the older civilisations had been so weakened that they had no effective answer.
The circumstances under which the ancient Mediterranean civilisations collapsed present us with several ‘what ifs’. What if court rivalries had not forced John the Cappadocian from office? What if Theodora had lived longer (she died in 548)? What if Justinian and Khusro had managed to agree a lasting peace? What if the bubonic plague had not struck when it did? These lead us to bigger questions. Could the empire of Rome have been recreated in the sixth century? Could the Sassanian and Roman empires have survived barbarian incursions? Impressive ancient ruins litter the lands from Spain’s Atlantic coast to the River Indus. Valley-spanning viaducts, soaring pillars that once graced temples, wide amphitheatres scooped from the earth, the crumbling walls of beautiful palaces, javelin-straight highways along which the legions once marched – all such examples of vanished grandeur stir us to wonder and to reflect on the reasons why empires rise and fall.