China confirmed its first official Covid-19 fatality on January 11, 2020. Today, the global death toll is slowly nearing five million, and the urge to compare Covid-19 to historical pandemics becomes more pressing as frightening milestone after frightening milestone is reached. Global mortality has already eclipsed those of the 1950s and late 1960s pandemic influenzas, MERS, SARS, and the 2009 Swine Flu. While we can now confirm that Covid-19 is one of the 10 deadliest plagues in the world’s history, it is hardly a blip on the radar when compared to the Plague of Justinian.
The Plague of Justinian spread through Europe beginning around AD 541, killing up to a quarter of the Eastern Mediterranean population and likely as much as 10% of the world’s population.
10. The first pandemic in human history
The Plague of Justinian, which emerged in AD 541, is regarded as the first pandemic in recorded human history since it ravaged three continents. The scourge may have begun in Egypt and been distributed to other continents mostly through merchant ships afflicted with disease-carrying rodents. When the plague arrived in Constantinople, it killed approximately 300,000 people in the first year alone.
The plague was named after Justinian, the Byzantine emperor who ruled from AD 527 to 565. The plague struck just as Emperor Justinian was attempting to restructure his empire to reflect the splendor of ancient Rome. Both his military forces and the empire’s economy were ultimately destroyed by the plague. Emperor Justinian also contracted the plague and yet, unlike many others, survived.
9. The same microorganism also caused the Black Death
A tiny microorganism known as Yersinia pestis caused not only Justinian’s Plague also later caused the Black Death. Despite the fact that each epidemic’s strains were markedly different, they both had disastrous consequences. Between 1347 and 1351, the Black Death killed between 50 and 200 million Europeans. The Justinian Plague, on the other hand, killed over 100 million people in North Africa, Asia, Arabia, and Europe in just 50 years.
Despite taking place hundreds of years apart, both plagues are acknowledged to have been spread by rodents and their fleas, which transmitted the deadly bacteria to humans. In fact, rodents still carry strains of the original microbes today and have been blamed for spreading the plague throughout Europe in the 1400s. But more specifically, most historians agreed that the fleas on rats were responsible for the millions of plague deaths. However, according to more recent research, humans were in fact the primary carriers of fleas and lice that spread the plague, not rats.
8. It destroyed the empire’s economy
The epidemic struck Justinian’s empire, killing not only people but also destroying the empire’s economy. When looking at radiocarbon dates of seeds and other organic material from ancient rubbish heaps, even the collapse of the Negev wine industry coincided with the Plague of Justinian’s aftermath. The plague’s first wave killed 20% of Constantinople’s population. Infection also wreaked havoc on the trade port of Alexandria. Wave after wave eventually wiped out up to half of the Byzantine Empire’s population during the next 160 years. As thousands of farmers died, once fertile fields were left to become overgrown with weeds.
The economy as a whole took massive hits. Bakers began to die out, and the availability of bread became scant. The marketplace traders either died of the plague or grew too afraid to venture outside for fear of contracting it. Trade came to a halt as a result of the daily deaths of so many people. People went hungry, and those who might have survived the epidemic had no food or caregivers to assist them to get through it. It was a never-ending spiral of death and misery.
7. Its symptoms were terrifying
The Justinian Plague would begin with a low-grade fever. It didn’t seem like anything to be concerned about until a few days later when pustules began to form. The terrible pus-filled boils were an instantly recognizable indication that someone was infected. Around this point, the victims would typically fall into a coma and die. Those less fortunate would become delirious and deranged. They were frequently psychotic and nearly impossible to care for. All of this would take place in the space of a few days. It was a fast-acting scourge that began as a mild infection and left too many corpses in its wake for the living to bury.
The late antique Byzantine scholar Procopius characterized the victims’ pain and misery and stated that some died almost immediately after the onset of the first symptoms. However, his reporting may not be 100% accurate. According to Procopius, the plague killed up to 10,000 people every day, but historians today believe the daily death toll was closer to 5,000.
6. Christians believed that the plague was demonic of nature
Considering that medical science as we know it did not exist at the time of the Justinian Plague, people got extremely creative as they dreamed up their own explanations for its occurrence. According to historian Procopius, many people actually believed the disease was caused by a malicious spirit or demon. The demon was believed to appear to people either in their dreams or just as they were having to wake up. Those who saw the demon would contract the plague.
People of the time reasoned that preventing the demon from entering their homes would keep the demon away from them while they slept. People started boarding up their doorways and windows and would not allow any visitors entry. No one was allowed in, including friends and family. It was the only way they knew how to prevent the disease from infecting them, and from what we know today, to them their beliefs appeared to be justified.
5. Their beliefs led to a rise in exorcisms
Unlike the well-known influenza pandemic that ravaged the world in 1918, the Justinian plague did not simply kill people quickly and painlessly. As previously stated, newly infected individuals would first develop a fever, followed by the formation of black, pus-filled blisters. Bacteria spread through the lymphatic system caused massive grapefruit-sized bulges to erupt from the victim’s genitals, armpits, and behind-the-ear areas. It psychologically harmed both infected and uninfected people.
As previously stated, many Christian believers assumed that the plague was prompted by demons infecting humans as God’s divine wrath. As a result, priests started performing exorcisms on those who were infected. Regrettably, the exorcisms were about as effective as the medication available at the time. They failed to stop the contagion from killing its victims, and the exorcisms would frequently only hasten the poor victim’s death.
4. People literally wore their names on their clothing
Today, many of us despise having to walk around with name tags on display, but it became a necessary requirement during the Justinian Plague, particularly if you had a family. Because the plague spread so quickly, people began wearing name tags when they left their homes. The tags, which were usually worn on the wrist or upper arm, were the only way to guarantee proper identification if they were infected with the plague and died away from home.
To put the sheer number of deaths into perspective, during the peak of the pandemic (which lasted over three months), between 5,000 and 10,000 people died from the plague in Constantinople alone – every single day. Naturally, it became increasingly difficult for families to bury their loved ones and Justinian was eventually forced to appoint state officials to deal with the dead.
3. Body disposal became almost impossible
In the writings of both Procopius and John of Ephesus, the plague is described in graphic detail. Thanks to their endeavors, we’ve come to learn that the disease’s death toll quickly outpaced families’ ability to bury their loved ones. Interestingly, both witness accounts also reveal that conditions in Constantinople deteriorated to the point where the government was forced to intervene, which was unheard of at the time.
Despite all efforts, the epidemic killed so many people that the city was unable to keep up with the burials. As the capital’s streets became littered with bodies, the emperor Justinian dispatched his army to help with the burial of the dead. Burial pits and ditches were eventually dug to accommodate the overflow as the graveyards and tombs filled up. Eventually, bodies were thrown into buildings, tossed into the sea, and even taken out to sea and thrown overboard.
2. Justinian’s aspirations led to the plague
As soon as Justinian assumed power in AD 527, he set out to re-establish the Roman Empire to its original grandeur and revive the empire’s enormous trade networks and territory. With this ambition came an intensification in his army and supply movements, which was utilized to reclaim regions that had been lost or weakened when the empire was divided. Justinian also didn’t shy away from demanding high taxes on his subjects in order to fund his expansion plans.
So, what was Justinian’s role in causing the plague? Well, it is probably more accurate to argue that he was responsible for the ideal circumstances that in fact, fuelled the pandemic around the plague. For one, he imported massive amounts of grain from Africa to feed his armies. As previously stated, these ships also carried rats (and their fleas), which are thought to be the cause of the plague. Whatever the origins, Justinian’s designs produced a climate in which the disease spread to people that were already debilitated by harsh taxes, food scarcity, and warfare.
1. The microbe has been recovered and revived
In the 1960s, two sets of remains, one female and the other male, were excavated near Munich, Germany. They were thought to have died as a result of the Justinian Plague. Scientists examined samples from both skeletons in 2016 and discovered Yersinia pestis inside the female skeleton’s molar. Although the bacterium had degraded over time, scientists were nevertheless able to reconstruct the Justinian Plague and discovered commonalities to the Black Death.
Scientists also discovered that similar to the Black Death (and Covid), the plague originated in China. While any attempt to resurrect “dead” diseases is normally met with fear, the successful attempt to resurrect the Justinian Plague hardly raised an eyebrow. This could be due to the bacterium that causes the plague being regarded as an evolutionary dead end, or possibly because the majority of people have never heard of Justinian’s Plague. However, it is believed that today’s antibiotics would be able to stop plague outbreaks in their tracks.