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Eastern Roman Empire against the plague – 1:1

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The Black Death (the second major European plague pandemic), which harvested from the 14th to the 19th centuries, killed, according to some estimates, up to 60% of Europe’s population during the Hundred Years War. And in the 6th century, the Eastern Roman Empire, which was rapidly developing after many decades of crisis, faced its predecessor. Byzantium survived, despite the death of tens of percent of the population. But the first plague dealt a terrible blow to her – not allowing her to regain her former power. Some speculate that the empire survived as the pandemic was “inconsequential.” Naked Science understands how true this statement is.

The Justinian plague is the first known bubonic plague pandemic in Western Eurasia. According to today’s views, the first infections then occurred in Pelusia (Egypt) in 541, during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, after whom the epidemic is named. Historians suggest that the plague came to Egypt from Ethiopia, and got there from the East.

Plague from the East

By the spring of 542, according to literary sources, the disease reached Constantinople and spread across Syria, Anatolia, Greece, Italy (Byzantium then controlled its southern part) and North Africa. By 543, the plague struck Armenia (both Roman and Persian-controlled areas), as well as Gaul. Over the next few years, the disease spread throughout Europe, North Africa, Arabia, Mesopotamia. Perhaps only East Asia (the source of the infection) was practically not affected by it.

The Justinian plague reigned in Europe and Asia Minor for over 200 years: we know of 20 outbreaks with an interval of 9-13 years. Previously, scientists believed that the main routes of the spread of the disease in Europe were trade routes from Constantinople. The hypothesis looked convincing, since it is known that there were a lot of victims of the pandemic in the capital of the empire. At the peak, about five thousand people died there every day (there are mentions of 10 thousand, but it is not clear how often such a death toll was noted).

We know that the deadly and virulent strain of the bubonic plague, from which the Justinian plague, and then the Black Death, originated in Central Asia in the Bronze Age and evolved there in antiquity. But this does not mean that Justinian’s plague hit the Mediterranean in one leap, as there are significant genetic differences between the sixth-century variants of the disease in Europe and earlier Central Asian variants. She probably traveled with merchants and armies, with food supplies and flea rats accompanying them in several stages, stretching over centuries, mutating as it passed through different climatic zones and different hosts.

For decades, scientists have debated the lethality of the disease and its social and economic consequences. In 2019-2020, several studies appeared, widely covered in the media, the authors of which argued that historians had previously greatly exaggerated both the scope and consequences of the Justinian plague. Such studies tried to present her as something “no worse than the flu.” That is, an event that could not in any way affect the history of Byzantium, preventing it from reviving the control of the emperors over the Mediterranean.

A new work by the historian Peter Sarris of the University of Cambridge (UK), published in Past & Present, says that was not quite the case. Professor Sarris believes that skeptics ignore both the evidence of ancient texts and many other details confirming the impact of the pandemic on the states of that time.

Between the accession of Justinian to the throne in 527 and 541 (when the plague came), the emperor issued about 530 laws. First of all, these are the laws included in the Code of Justinian (534 year of publication), the basis of the legal reform of the emperor. After her there was only one more outbreak of imperial lawmaking – from 542 to 545. In 546, the year the plague had already spread, this activity is declining and remains so until the very end of Justinian’s reign. What laws were adopted in Byzantium during the onset of the pandemic?

In March 542, in a law that Justinian said was written with the “surrounding presence of death” “spreading to all regions,” the emperor attempted to support the banking sector of the imperial economy by making it easier for bankers to pursue the heirs of deceased debtors. In the Act of 543, he resolved the problems caused by people dying without making wills. In a law issued the following year, the emperor clarified the inheritance rights of minors – in response to an incident that arose in Antioch after first a mother and then her daughter died within a short span of time.

In another law, dated 544, the emperor imposed price and wage controls as workers tried to take advantage of a shortage of a rapidly dwindling labor force. Justinian stated that “the punishment sent by God’s goodness” was supposed to make the workers “better people”, but instead “they turned to avarice.”

In other words, the administration of the empire adopted a series of anti-crisis measures to limit the damage caused by the plague and in view of the depopulation caused by it.

That the bubonic plague exacerbated the existing fiscal and administrative difficulties of the Eastern Roman Empire is evidenced by the change in coinage during this period, Sarris argues. The government issued a series of lightweight gold coins, the first such reduction in the value of a gold currency since its introduction in the 4th century. The weight of the heavy copper coin of Constantinople was also significantly reduced around the same time – that is, when the emperor passed emergency banking legislation.

Restless kingdom

Let us recall the time that preceded the appearance of the plague in Constantinople. In 527, 45-year-old Justinian took the Byzantine throne. Many historians consider his reign to be the heyday of Byzantium – and for good reason. The empire he accepted was, to put it mildly, not in the best condition. Neighbors from the west are the Germanic kingdoms that have appeared on the ruins of Rome, which are always not averse to fighting. Neighbors to the east are the Sassanid Persian Empire, with which Byzantium waged wars since the 3rd century (with short interruptions). With such neighbors, Justinian showed himself to be a brilliant commander even before he ascended the throne.

Inside the empire, too, did not have to get bored. The Roman model of government and taxation at that time had long ceased to function normally. But no one suggested anything new: officials worked somehow, information and taxes from distant provinces did not always come, and if they did, then they did it late. The judges administered justice on the basis of laws that were outdated by that time, but no one was in a hurry to change them. Add to this the rampant corruption and inter-ethnic conflict.

As mentioned above, Justinian carried out a serious legal reform: a special commission worked on the creation of his Code, which took into account all aspects of the life of individuals, professional or religious communities, various institutions of the empire – and on this basis worked out new laws. In addition, he changed the system of provincial and municipal government: the Byzantine model came to replace the Roman model, which was based on the all-round strengthening of the Christian Church and the power of the emperor. He increased the content of officials – at that time it was a rather innovative method of fighting corruption – and also introduced a number of economic innovations, changing tax legislation.

At the same time, the legions, who had restored their former power and glory, conquered the lands that once belonged to Rome in Europe, Africa and Asia and were lost in the 5th century. In 534 the Vandal state fell with its capital in Carthage. The south of Italy was conquered, as well as Ravenna, the capital of the later Roman emperors in Central Italy. The famous military leaders Belisarius and Narses defeated the enemies of Byzantium. It seemed that the Eastern Roman Empire would soon regain greatness. But instead the plague came.

I must say that the first anti-crisis laws, which we mentioned above, were adopted by the emperor in Constantinople, free from a pandemic, on the basis of information received from the provinces. And he was right, as in the next month of 542 the disease appeared in the capital.

Professor Sarris says: “The significance of a historic pandemic should never be judged primarily by whether it led to the collapse of the societies concerned. Equally, the resilience of the East Roman state in the face of the plague does not mean that the plague’s challenge was not real … What is most striking about the government’s response to the Justinian plague in the Byzantine or Roman world is how rational and elaborate it is. was, despite the discouragingly unfamiliar circumstances in which the authorities found themselves. “

It is difficult to disagree with this. The first blow of the plague struck Byzantium not only when it was growing in power, but also when it was ruled by an extremely capable, intelligent and not afraid to make decisions. If we remember that Justinian was not a king by blood and took the throne according to the will of his uncle Justin, who, in turn, was simply elected emperor, it becomes clear that the factor of the ruler is a lottery. Byzantium was lucky in it.

Who brought the plague to Britain

Until the early 2000s, the identification of Justinian’s plague as “bubonic” was based solely on ancient texts, the authors of which described the appearance of buboes or swelling in the groin or armpits of victims. But then the rapid development of science allowed archaeologists and geneticists to find traces of the ancient DNA of the bacteria Yersinia pestis in the skeletal remains of people of the early Middle Ages. Such finds have been made in Germany, Spain, France and England.

In 2019, a group of scientists led by Marcel Keller from the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Human History (Jena, Germany) published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a work with the results of the analysis of DNA traces found. One of the samples was taken from an early Anglo-Saxon burial site now called Edix Hill (Cambridgeshire, UK). It turned out that the found strain of Y. pestis is the earliest identified line of bacteria that participated in the 6th century pandemic. Obviously earlier than the one that appeared in Constantinople in 542.

This discovery changed our understanding of the pathways of the pandemic. Previously, scientists assumed that it was Constantinople that became the main carrier of the infection – through trade and military routes, through southern Europe, towards the north. Britain, then, should have been among the last to receive the plague. The finds at Edix Hill tell a different story. It turns out that the disease spread along different routes – and, thus, passed through more lands, where it gathered its deadly harvest. The authors of the study suggest that the plague entered the Mediterranean through the Red Sea, and into England, possibly through the Baltic and Scandinavia. It turns out that continental Europe could get the plague from two sides at once – from the Mediterranean from the south and from Britain from the north.

Professor Sarris notes on this: “The increasing volume of genetic data will lead in directions that we cannot yet foresee, and historians should be able to respond positively and imaginatively to them, rather than shrug their shoulders.”

Proponents of the idea of ​​”insignificance” of Justinian’s plague justify their conclusions as follows. First, they say, the scope and consequences of the pandemic are known to us only from ancient texts. And contemporaries described her colorfully, but little. If Procopius of Caesarea devoted less than one percent of all his very voluminous works to the plague, it means that he did not consider it important enough in the life of contemporary society.

This argument is akin to the assertion that the large-scale wars between Byzantium and Persia, characteristic of most of the sixth century, did not matter, since John of Ephesus hardly discussed them in his “Book of the Plague” (which he later included in the “Church History” ). The fact is that Procopius was the secretary of the commander Belisarius. Therefore, his works are works on military history. Rather, the very fact that he left a personal (and very vivid) testimony about the arrival of the plague in Constantinople speaks of the importance he attached to these events, which were not part of the circle of his usual interests. Here’s what he wrote:

“There was no salvation for a man from the plague, wherever he lived – not on an island, not in a cave, not on the top of a mountain … Many houses were empty, and it happened that many of the dead, in the absence of relatives or servants, lay for several days unburned. At this time, few people could be found at work. Most of the people that could be met on the street were those who carried the corpses. All trade stopped, all artisans abandoned their craft … “

The second argument in favor of a “minor pandemic” is that the Eastern Roman Empire did not fall, its public and private institutions continued to work, even military campaigns did not stop. But above we showed that Byzantium was just lucky in this sense: it won the lottery of emperors. But her opponents – the Lombards, Persians and other peoples – did not always react optimally to what was happening. It is not surprising that Byzantium won victories over them, albeit with great exertion.

Of course, densely populated cities suffered more from the plague. But the fact that on the far northern outskirts of Europe, in a sparsely populated rural area, many people died from it (in the Edix Hill necropolis, mostly victims of the disease are buried), tells us that the Justinian plague cannot be called “insignificant”. If she were like that, it would hardly have stopped the revival of the Byzantine Empire.

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