A moment is all it takes for the world to change and the way we see it. The first plague of written history had caused the Byzantine Empire to fall. The Black Death of the 14th century on the other hand, ended the practice of serfdom in Europe. In India, the Bubonic plague of the 19th century came as a God-given opportunity for colonial officials to suppress the resident population, while the Spanish flu of the 20th century led to a nationalist awakening. The pages of history are replete with instances when major disease outbreaks have altered and overturned the ways in which societies and political structures functioned.
Many would say the Covid-19 outbreak may change forever the world as we have known it till now. Power structures may be shifted, economic systems remodeled, along with significant changes in the way we touch, behave, and breathe. With the number of cases continuing to surge and the prospect of a vaccine still distant, we are yet to see the impact that the virus will play out in times ahead. Lessons from the past though can provide some insight into what lies ahead.
In this six-part series, Indianexpress.com will chart out how major epidemics of the past have altered the course of history in the world. Each of these began as a biological phenomenon, but soon turned into economic, social, or political ones. Loss of lives and livelihoods had followed, distress and despair experienced, and yet despite the scale of devastation, the human race made peace with its surroundings and came out victorious. The message was, and still remains the same- there is hope!
In the year 540 CE, a fleet of ships left the port of Alexandria for some of the greatest trading cities in the Mediterranean region including those in Turkey, Italy and Spain. The Byzantine empire for which it was headed, had for centuries depended on North Africa to meet its requirements of food grain. This time though, along with the food grains, came a disease that would wreak havoc across the empire, and alter the course of its history.
The Plague of Justinian, as it came to be known after Emperor Justinian I who held the throne of Byzantium, is found to have transmitted through black rats that traveled on the grain ships and carts sent to Constantinople. Having conquered large parts of North Africa, and the Italian peninsula, the Byzantine Empire under Justinian I was at its peak when the plague broke out. As historian William Rosen wrote in his book ‘Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe’, the plague “would mark the end of one world, and the beginning of another. Along the way, it would consume at least 25 million human lives.”
A disastrous act of God
The Justinian plague is known to have originated at Pelusium at the Eastern edge of the Nile delta in Egypt, even though the roots of the bacterium causing it was first found at Qinghai in China. From Egypt it spread through trade routes and by 544 CE had spread through Central Asia, Europe, and the Mediterannean.
The plague was caused by Yersinia pestis, the same bacterium that caused the disastrous Black Death in Europe, in the 14th century, and later the third plague pandemic of the 19th century. The Justinian plague itself is recorded to have recurred multiple times in the course of the next two hundred years. While some accounts of it suggest the plague recurred 14 times, others say 18 or 21.
The plague resulting from the bacterium took different forms. The Justinian plague was a Bubonic plague that is transmitted by the bite of an infected flea or rodent. In the world of antiquity, however, it was understood as nothing more than a catastrophic act of God.
“To the people of the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, only the act of an angry God could explain the colossal disaster of the plague,” writes historian J N Hays in his book ‘Epidemics and pandemics: Their impacts on human history’. Contemporary descriptions of the disease noted that it struck suddenly with a high fever; the buboes, or swellings, appeared in the groin, the armpits, behind the ears or in the thigh. Further black spots might appear in the skin and the victim would slip into a coma and would die soon after.
People traumatised and unsure about the situation, soon resorted to irrational acts hoping the disease would disappear. “There was a deliberate smashing of pots; people making a clamour. This may be an illustration of a population experiencing traumatic shock. It might have been done in panic but also might have been done to somehow disturb and clear the atmosphere,” writes Hays.
While it is difficult to ascertain the precise number of casualties left behind in the wake of the Justinian plague, some details put forth by contemporary witnesses might be useful to gauge its magnitude. The Byzantine Greek scholar Procopius in his elaborate eight-volume work, ‘The history of wars’ noted how the epidemic claimed 5000 or sometimes 10,000 lives daily only in the Byzatine capital city of Constantinople. Emperor Justinian himself was struck by the plague but managed to recover from it.
The contemporary historian John of Ephesus, on the other hand, claims to have witnessed “villages whose inhabitants perished altogether’. He described the scene of destruction at Constantinople in the following words — “noble and chaste women, dignified with honour, who sat in bed chambers, now with their mouths swollen, wide open and gaping, who were piled up in horrible heaps, all ages lying prostrate, all staturers bowed down and overthrown, all ranks pressed on upon another, in a single wine-press of God’s wrath, like beasts, not like human beings.”
Ushering the end of the Byzantine empire
The plague of Justinian had a far-reaching impact on the fiscal, administrative and military framework of the empire. The population of the empire was dramatically reduced. While some scholars have noted that 40 per cent of Constantinople’s population had disappeared, others believe that the plague caused the death of a quarter of the human population in the Eastern Mediterannean. For an empire that was primarily agrarian, it meant a shortage of food, as well as a sharp drop in the amount of taxes being paid to the state. The immediate result was famines that occurred in 542, and then again in 545 and 546.
Before the plague arrived, the empire of Byzantium under Justinian had expanded far across North Africa, southern France, Italy and Spain, and was well on its way to re-establish much of the golden era of the Roman Empire. The decrease in the population of the empire also significantly weakened the military. The Empire’s capacity to resist its enemies had weakened.
By 568 CE, Northern Italy was invaded and conquered by the Germanic tribes called Lombards. “Within decades, Rome and Persia were so plague-weakened that the armies of Islam, formed in one of the only parts of either empire to remain plague free, could conquer Mesopotamia, the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, and most of Asia Minor,” writes Rosen.
While historians have noted several other factors that aided in the weakening of the Byzantine empire, including the administrative weaknesses of its monarch, they agree that the plague of Justinian did play a crucial role. While the Byzantine Empire did revive briefly in the 10th-11th centuries under the Macedonians, it could never again reach the same heights. The plague in many ways marked the end of the era of Classical antiquity and marked the beginning of the Middle Ages.
Extra reading: The Burdens of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History, by J N Hays | Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe, by William Rosen | Economy and Society in the age of Justinian, by Peter Sarris
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