Background to the Dark Ages series
Justinian. He was the last great Roman emperor and the first Byzantine emperor. This is why he should be remembered.
Justinian was idealistic and his aim was to return the Roman Empire to its former glory. Part of that ambition was to claw back the territories lost to Barbarians in the west of Europe. Another part was to make the Empire superior in terms of reforming outdated laws, doing away with corrupt government and religious persecution. His vision was a better life for all citizens.
But this is not where the interest in him lies.
At the height of his reign, in 542, the Empire was hit with a devastating plague. It was known as the Sixth Century Plague, but it returned again and again over a period of two hundred years. Many refer to it as Justinian's Plague.
It was first recorded in Egypt the year before but quickly spread through the Empire, Persia and southern Europe around the Mediterranean. Recent studies claim that the origin was China and the disease was spread via ships carrying grain. The death toll was in excess of twenty-five million people in the first outbreak, with an estimated total of fifty million over the two-hundred year period. It was the first recorded bubonic plague in history and one of the most deadly. In Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, it is thought that between five and ten thousand people died every day.
A report published by the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America studied the DNA of the virus in various sites around Europe. The DNA samples were taken from twenty-one sixth century burials from Britain, France, Germany, Austria and Spain.
"This study shows the potential of palaeo genomic research for understanding historical and modern pandemics by comparing genomes across millennia," explains senior author Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. "With more extensive sampling of possible plague burials, we hope to contribute to the understanding of Y. pestis' microevolution and its impact on humans during the course of past and present pandemics."
Evidence found by modern scientists indicate that the plague bacteria, and those that followed like the Black Death of the fourteenth century, dated from evolutionary radiation. Extreme weather events have been documented during this time that suggest some kind of dust cloud covered the Earth and affected crops and other vegetation. So, on top of the plague risk there would have been famine and other illness.
But how did this affect Justinian?
He caught the plague. He, remarkably, recovered. However, he showed no sympathy towards anyone else. Procopius, a Byzantine historian, said:
There were other effects of the plague. The Byzantine Empire was weakened and this left them vulnerable to attacks from the Goths and Lombards and the fragmentation of Italy. Some historians suggest that it contributed to the Arab-Byzantine wars too.
Justinian's Plague affected Anglo-Saxons as well. Many Britons died from the plague, probably due to trading with the continent, and the Anglo-Saxon settlements increased at this time.
But there were no records of panic like those from the Black Death. People tended to accept their fate more readily back then. It was the will of God and not even the Emperor Justinian could do a thing about it.
I studied Justinian's Plague as part of my research for Crushed. Grim stuff. Check it out.
Related: The Health in Our Stars