The Plague of Justinian (541-542)
Estimated deaths: 25 million
The Byzantine Empire, under the reign of Emperor Justinian, was reaching the height of its power and reach when this plague struck. The empire’s borders encompassed all Italy in the West to modern-day Turkey and all of the Holy Lands in the East. It also possessed most of the coastal lands that bordered the southern Mediterranean in north Africa. But for all its power and might, it could not defend itself from the tiniest – and deadliest – enemy it would ever face.
The outbreak was first recorded by the Byzantine historian, Procopius, when the disease first appeared in the port town of Pelusium near modern day city of Suez in Egypt. From there, the plague spread from port to port until it reached Constantinople, the capital of the empire. How exactly did it spread? Looking back, it is believed that the plague bacterium was spread through infected rats that had stowed away on grain transport ships. Grain was needed to feed the growing population of Constantinople and Emperor Justinian’s armies.
Once in Constantinople, the disease wreaked havoc on the large and tightly packed population of the city. It was recorded that an estimated 10,000 people died there daily, but this figure is difficult to verify. This was at a time when the city’s population was about 500,000. The plague was so bad and had spread so fast that there was no place left to bury the dead and so bodies were often left out in the open. Ultimately, it was estimated that 40% of the city’s population had perished. When the plague finally petered out, it was estimated that 25% of the human population of the Eastern Mediterranean was wiped out. The loss of so many people put a strain on Emperor Justinian who, at the time, was conducting military campaigns and paying to build the great Hagia Sophia Church. Procopius recorded Justinian’s ruthless response:
“When pestilence swept through the whole known world and notably the Roman Empire, wiping out most of the farming community and of necessity leaving a trail of desolation in its wake, Justinian showed no mercy towards the ruined freeholders. Even then, he did not refrain from demanding the annual tax, not only the amount at which he assessed each individual, but also the amount for which his deceased neighbors were liable.”
So what was this plague? Well, the mystery would remain until researchers in 2013 examined human remains from the plague and detected the bacteria Yersinia pestis – the same bacteria responsible for the bubonic plague which would strike Europe again six centuries later. Historians consider this the first recorded occurrence of bubonic plague. We will discuss this later outbreak of bubonic plague (better known as the Black Death) in the next section.