Three times the plague gripped the Old World, killing untold millions and devastating social and economic networks. Or so the story goes. Yet precious little evidence of profound devastation has been found for the first of these bouts — the so-called Justinian Plague, which began in Egypt in about 541, spread throughout Europe and to Western Asia, and would finally peter out only two centuries later, in about 750.
During that time, between a quarter to half of the population around the Mediterranean basin was believed to have died. That assumption has been based mainly on various texts from antiquity.
Caused by a bacteria called Yersinia pestis and assumed to be carried by the fleas on rodents to people, the Justinian Plague, named for the Emperor Justinian, was believed to have put the final kibosh on the Roman Empire. It has been blamed for the winding down of the Classical Antiquity period and start of the Dark Ages.
However, the evidence does not fit the paradigm, write Dr. Lee Mordechai of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an international team in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, following a paper on the topic published in August in the Oxford journal Past & Present.
The thing is, if that many people die of disaster in the space of a couple of years (the first bout was 541 to 544), one should be able to find evidence of it: mass graves in place of loving interment; changes in land use because of lessened ability and lessened need to grow food; changes in the coinage, and so on. But one doesn’t.
When Black Death strikes
To be clear, the Justinian Plague happened, Mordechai tells Haaretz. “There were three global plague pandemics: the Justinian Plague in Antiquity; the Black Death in the Middle Ages; and the third pandemic that killed about 12 million people in the early 20th century, mainly in China and India.”
The belief has been that like the Black Death, the Justinian Plague – named for the Emperor Justinian - was enormously deadly, though the postulated figures vary just as enormously: often from around 25% of the population to around 60%.
Ergo, somewhere between 15 million to 100 million people were thought to have died from this pestilence, which famously features blackish buboes – painful swellings in the lymph nodes.
"We claim that if so many people had died, we would have seen evidence of that in the different sources we examined," Mordechai observes.
Indeed, logically, such massive mortality would have far-reaching economic and social impacts. The team examined a slew of independent quantitative and qualitative data — from written sources to coinage, from pollen analysis to mortuary archaeological evidence, to texts. None indicated outbreaks of plague and none support the “maximalist reconstruction” of large-scale, disruptive mortality. The evidence for a massive late-Antiquity plague just isn’t there, they write.
Verily, the period from the 6th century to 8th century C.E. was a time of flux, but not necessarily bloody flux. There were political, demographic and climatic events, including an extremely bitter cold snap that froze Europe in the years 535 and 536 and again in 542 (which some think was caused by volcanic winter, a theory that has not been proven). In any case, crops failed and food shortages ensued. The theories for this literally dark time are many and legion and unproven.
" Our evidence doesn’t show a drop in the proxies we examined for this period as well, so perhaps it wasn’t as catastrophic as has been recently proposed," Mordechai tells Haaretz.
Taken together, though, the different sets of data checked suggest continuity throughout that supposed 200-year-plus Justinianic Plague period, Mordechai and the team say. The data do not indicate a sixth century population collapse. The economy seems to have rocked on, and Egyptian papyri indicate that if anything, the administration and much of the local population trekked on; none among tens of thousands of these ancient documents so much as mention a disease wracking and ruining the Mediterranean region.
The scientists cite the example of the records of the Egyptian family Apion, “the best documented economic entity in the Roman Empire between the fifth and seventh century.” Nada. There is nothing to indicate economic stress in the family’s affairs during that time.
Bad history and horror stories
So where and how did the narrative of mass death leading to the Dark Ages arise? Bad history and cherry-picking horror stories, the team suggests.
In short, the population around the Mediterranean and in Europe in the sixth century was supposed to have effectively collapsed, but no signs of that leap to the investigative eye. Yersinia pestis was there; the bacteria has recently been identified in human remains from the sixth to the eighth centuries.
The question, Mordechai explains, is what was the effect: Does the discovery of bacteria in some 45 human bodies mean mass death and the fall of the Roman Empire?
“We say no,” he says. “We claim that linking the Justinian Plague to the weakening and collapse of the Roman Empire cannot be demonstrated. Based on what we found — written and unwritten — it is hard to claim that. There is no evidence of it,” Mordechai spells out to Haaretz.
Yes, the plague began in Pelusiuma, Egypt, in 541 and spread east and west, up the Nile Delta and across the Mediterranean. “What that means is another question,” he sums up.
Late-Antiquity plague texts did not aspire to absolute accuracy. Their authors did not perceive history the way we do — as an unbiased, objective description of events. Catastrophic accounts could be “gross exaggeration” driven by an agenda or to underscore a particular point such as “divine disapproval,” the team explains.
How do we know the ancient texts were a pack of porkies? Well, take the historian Procopius’ claim that Justinian (aka the demon) was a murderer of unparalleled scope during his reign.
“That Justinian was not a man, but a demon, as I have said, in human form, one might prove by considering the enormity of the evils he brought upon mankind. ... Sooner could one number, I fancy, the sands of the sea than the men this Emperor murdered. Examining the countries that he made desolate of inhabitants, I would say he slew a trillion people.” (Translation by Richard Atwater, 1927.)
Procopius was attacking the emperor and other elites of the period, Mordechai explains. The reference to a trillion deaths was, from his perspective, a rhetorical device to show how bad matters were, with no intention for it to be taken as literal truth.
Meanwhile, we modern people with our fancy internet are obsessed by infectious disease, mass mortality and its opposite — zombies. We tend to view historic hyperbole as fact, and it’s easy to throw numbers around (a third died; half died).
But science and history want facts and substantiating the touted numbers with mass graves and other indicators is difficult.
“We don’t know what happened. If you ask me, it isn’t that there wasn’t a plague. People died,” he tells Haaretz. “The question is what it meant. Did it change history, the Roman Empire, did it cause the end of Antiquity and start of the Middle Ages?” Is it, in other words, correct to isolate the plague as a vast incident that changed history?
Not based on the evidence. The conclusion: “I think what we are saying is to call on historians to go back to work,” says Mordechai, himself a historian. “We think the next stage isn’t to move away from the big story, which doesn’t hold up, but to focus on specific events. For instance, Constantinople in the year 542. Work from the bottom up, study specific places and don’t make assumptions.”
It bears adding that just before the advent of the Justinian Plague, the northern hemisphere was slammed by a horrible cold snap. It’s easy to surmise that the “mini-Ice Age” weakened the people, and the resumption of normal climatic conditions was beneficial to rodents and their parasites, resulting in a plague pandemic. Sounds sensible. But go prove it.
So if it wasn’t Yersinia, what ended the Roman Empire? Was it lead poisoning, greed, excessive government, corrupt government, inertia, inevitability, rampant parasitic infections? “I don’t know,” Mordechai laughs. “Apparently not the plague.”
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