What Was The Plague of Justinian?


Have you heard of Plague of Justinian?

Pandemics have been the primary enemy of humankind since our beginning. There are countless microbes capable of doing anything from causing the common cold to devastating entire civilizations. The modern coronavirus pandemic is a reminder of all the terrible diseases we have suffered throughout our history. One of the most destructive pandemics in human history, besides the Spanish Flu in the early 20th century, was the bubonic plague, also commonly known as the Black Death.

When people first think of the Black Death, the medieval period comes to mind, particularly the pandemic of 1349 which killed a huge percentage of Europe. However, while this may be one of the more famous iterations of the bubonic plague, it was not the first. In fact, it is believed that the first plague pandemic occurred nearly a thousand years before that between 541 and 549 AD. This pandemic became known as the Plague of Justinian.

Plague of Justinian
The plague bacteria can be seen as the black mass in the rat flea, the plague’s primary carrier.

During this time period, the Roman Empire’s capital was not Rome but Constantinople (now known as Istanbul) in Turkey. The plague was named after the emperor at the time, Emperor Justinian, who actually contracted the plague himself and survived. One-fifth of his subjects in Constantinople would not be so lucky. The plague is caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis which can cause flu-like symptoms, swollen lymph nodes, vomiting, and fever. A little known fact is that there is not just one kind of plague. There are in fact three types: the bubonic plague, the pneumonic plague, and the septicemic plague. The type of plague that one contracts depends on how the individual was infected.

Plague of Justinian

The most well known type is the bubonic plague which causes the lymph nodes to become hard and swollen across the body, known as buboes. It is primarily an infection of the lymphatic system. The pneumonic plague occurs when the bacteria replicates in the lungs. This type also shows flu-like symptoms in its beginning stages, but as it worsens it includes shortness of breath, coughing, and bloody sputum.

The septicemic plague is harder to contract since the bacteria needs to come in contact with the individual’s blood stream where it can reproduce. It is also an extremely deadly form and causes clotting problems, gangrene which causes extremities to blacken and die, bleeding from various bodily orifices, organ failure, vomiting blood, and shock due to blood loss.

Isolated samples of Yersinia pestis.

The details we know of the Plague of Justinian are due to the writings of the Byzantine historian Procopius. His reports describe that 10,000 people died every day of the plague in Constantinople, and since there were no places to bury the dead, they were piled up outdoors, creating a foul odor of death throughout the city. The plague especially devastated the farming community in the countryside. However, this did not stop Emperor Justinian from demanding taxes from the destitute farmers, and even from farmers who had died. It is believed that the plague, much like the plague in 1349, originated in Asia and found its way to Europe through trading ships which carried diseased rats.

In contrast to Procopius’s writings, modern scholars believe that around 5,000 people per day died in Constantinople during the plague’s peak, still a considerable amount for the population at the time. Ever since the Plague of Justinian, Europe and Asia had suffered repeated plague pandemics throughout history until the invention of antibiotics in the early 20th century. Without antibiotics, the death rate of the plague ranges from 30% to 90%, usually averaging around 75%. Thanks to antibiotics and proper sanitation, there are only rare cases of the plague reported in developed countries. However, the plague can still be found more commonly in less developed countries such as Peru, Madagascar, and the Congo.

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