From the Plague of Justinian to the Black Death, history shows epidemics don't just change our lives. They can fundamentally change the way the world worksby Jonn Elledge / April 17, 2020 / Leave a comment
In the year 527, the man who would be known to history as Justinian the Great set out to rebuild the Roman Empire. By the time he came to the imperial throne in Constantinople, the western empire had been gone for half a century, and the territory he inherited extended no further west than Greece. Justinian wanted to change all that—to roll back to the clock to a time when the empire which still thought of itself as “Roman” actually included Rome.
And so, he sent his armies to conquer Dalmatia and North Africa, before turning towards the cradle of the empire itself. It worked: in May 540, Justinian’s general Belisarius entered the Ostrogoths’ capital at Ravenna, and reclaimed Italy for Constantinople. For a moment, it seemed possible, the Roman Empire was truly back.
The following year, large chunks of the imperial population started swelling up, turning black and dropping dead. Which rather put paid to that idea.
Exactly how many people died in the Plague of Justinian—the words which history links to one’s name are not always flattering—is a matter of some debate. Some more excitable estimates put the death toll as high as 100 million; but that’s over the course of the two centuries or so that the plague recurred. Other estimates have it as low as 25 million. Either way, considering there were only about 200 million people on the entire planet when it started, this was clearly A Big Deal.
It was almost certainly a factor, too, in stymieing Justinian’s restoration. There’s a plausible universe in which Belisarius’ arrival in Ravenna is just the beginning, and what we call “the fall of the western empire” was merely the latest in a line of crises in which bits of imperial territory break away before being forcibly re-attached once again. In this universe, however, the disease-ravaged empire lacked the financial or military resources to hold onto what it had conquered, and within a century the rise of Islam would reshape the Mediterranean completely. And so, even though we generally date the fall of Rome to the year 476, a plague which came 70 years later may be partly responsible for it.
The Plague of Justinian is…