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Plague of Justinian

This article concerns the worldwide pandemic starting in 541, with a focus on material available from European records and accounts. For detailed information on the most commonly accepted cause of the disease, see bubonic plague.

The Plague of Justinian was a pandemic that afflicted the Byzantine Empire, including its capital Constantinople, in the years 541–542 AD. It has been speculated that this pandemic marked an early recorded incidence of bubonic plague, which centuries later became infamous for either causing or contributing to the Black Death. Its social and cultural impact is comparable to that of the Black Death of the 14th century. In the views of 6th century Western historians, it was nearly worldwide in scope, striking central and south Asia, North Africa and Arabia, and Europe as far north as Denmark and as far west as Ireland. The plague would return with each generation throughout the Mediterranean basin until about 750. The plague would also have a major impact on the future course of European history. Modern historians named it after the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I, who was in power at the time.

Additional recommended knowledge

The outbreak may have originated in Ethiopia or Egypt and moved northward until it reached metropolitan Constantinople. The city imported massive amounts of grain to feed its citizens—mostly from Egypt—and grain ships may have been the original source of contagion, with the massive public granaries nurturing the rat and flea population.

The Byzantine historian Procopius records that, at its peak, the plague was killing 10,000 people in Constantinople every day, although the accuracy of this figure is in question and the true number will probably never be known for sure; what is known is that there was no room to bury the dead, and bodies were being left stacked in the open. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian I ensured that new legislation was swiftly enacted so as to deal more efficiently with the glut of inheritance suits being brought as a result of the plague deaths (Moorhead, J., 1994).

Justinian had expended huge amounts of money for wars against the Vandals in the Carthage region and the Ostrogoth Kingdom of Italy. He had also dedicated significant funds to the construction of great churches like the Hagia Sophia. Amidst these great expenditures, the plague's effects on tax revenue were disastrous. As the plague spread to port cities around the Mediterranean, it gave the struggling Goths new opportunities in their conflict with Constantinople. The plague weakened the Byzantine Empire at the critical point at which Justinian's armies had nearly wholly invaded Italy and could have credibly reformed the Western Roman Empire. It also may have contributed to the success of the Arabs a few generations later. The long term effects on European and Christian history were enormous. Justinian's gambit backfired and the overextended troops could not hold on. Italy was decimated by war and fragmented for centuries as the Lombard tribes invaded the north.

Ancient historians did not hold to modern standards of fact-checking or numerical accuracy. The actual number of deaths will always be uncertain. Modern scholars believe that the plague killed up to 5,000 people per day in Constantinople at the peak of the pandemic. It ultimately killed perhaps 40 percent of the city's inhabitants. The initial plague went on to destroy up to a quarter of the human population of the eastern Mediterranean. New, frequent waves of the plague continued to strike throughout the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries AD, often more localized and less virulent. A maximum figure of 25 million dead for the Plague of Justinian is considered a fairly reasonable estimate. Some historians such as Josiah C. Russell (1958) have suggested a total European population loss of 50 to 60 percent between 541 and 700.

After 750, major epidemic diseases would not appear again in Europe until the Black Death of the 14th century.

See also


  • Lester K. Little, ed., Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750, Cambridge, 2006. ISBN 0-521-84639-0
  • McNeill, William H. "Plagues and Peoples." Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., New York, NY, 1976, ISBN 0-385-12122-9.
  • Moorhead, J., "Justinian", London 1994.
  • Orent, Wendy. "Plague, The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World's Most Dangerous Disease.", Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, NY, 2004, ISBN 0-7432-3685-8.
  • Rosen, William. Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe, Viking Adult, 2007. ISBN 978-0670038558.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Plague_of_Justinian". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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