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The Plague of Justinian was a pandemic that afflicted the Eastern Roman Empire , including its capital Constantinoplemarker, in the years 541–542 AD. The most commonly accepted cause of the pandemic is bubonic plague, which later became infamous for either causing or contributing to the Black Death of the 14th century. Its social and cultural impact is comparable to that of the Black Death. 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 and himself contracted the disease.

Origins and spread

The outbreak may have originated in Ethiopiamarker or Egyptmarker and moved northward until it reached metropolitan Constantinoplemarker. The city imported massive amounts of grain—mostly from Egypt—to feed its citizens 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 Carthagemarker region and the Ostrogoth Kingdom of Italy. He had also dedicated significant funds to the construction of great churches like the Hagia Sophiamarker. Amidst these great expenditures, the plague's effects on tax revenue were disastrous. As the plague spread to port cities around the Mediterraneanmarker, 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 retaken Italymarker and the western Mediterranean coast; this could have credibly reformed the Western Roman Empire and united it with the Eastern under a single emperor for the first time since 395 AD. It also may have contributed to the success of the Arabs a few generations later in the Byzantine-Arab Wars.

The long term effects on European and Christian history were enormous. Justinian's gambit was ultimately unsuccessful. The overextended troops could not hold on. When the plague subsided, they were able to retake Italy but not to move further north. They held it for the remainder of Justinian's life, but the empire quickly lost all of Italy but the southern part after he died. Italymarker was decimated by war and fragmented for centuries as the Lombard tribes invaded the north.

Virulence and mortality rate

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% 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. It is estimated that the Plague of Justinian killed as many as 100 million people across the world. Some historians such as Josiah C. Russell (1958) have suggested a total European population loss of 50% to 60% 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



Notes, references

  1. Rosen, William. Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe. Viking Adult, 2007. ISBN 978-0670038558.
  2. Scientists Identify Genes Critical to Transmission of Bubonic Plague.
  3. The History of the Bubonic Plague.
  4. An Empire's Epidemic.


  • Drancourt M, Roux V, Dang LV, Tran-Hung L, Castex D, Chenal-Francisque V, et al. Orientalis-like Yersinia pestis, and plague pandemics". Emerging Infectious Diseases.
  • Little, Lester K., 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.


Primary sources

  • Edward Walford, translator, The Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius: A History of the Church from AD 431 to AD 594, 1846. Reprinted 2008. Evolution Publishing, ISBN 978-1-889758-88-6. [60649]—The author, Evagrius, was himself stricken by the plague as a child and lost several family members to it.
  • Procopius. History of the Wars, Books I and II (The Persian War). Trans. H. B. Dewing. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Loeb-Harvard UP, 1954.—Chapters XXII and XXIII of Book II (pages 451–473) are Procopius's famous description of the Plague of Justinian. This includes the famous statistic of 10,000 people per day dying in Constantinople (page 465).



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