Why didn't Procopius like Justinian so much

"Justinian Plague": Devastating plague or just a small wave of disease?

"During that time there was a plague that almost wiped out all of humanity. (...) It is impossible to express an explanation in words except to apply it to God The world was still limited to certain people, nor was it limited to any season of the year (...). It encompassed the entire world and destroyed the lives of all people, although they differed from one another, and took neither gender nor age into account. "

As an eyewitness, the historian Prokop describes the outbreak of an epidemic in the Eastern Roman capital of Constantinople (today's Istanbul) in 542 AD, which, according to him, killed half of the 500,000 inhabitants. Even the then Emperor Justinian I, after whom research has named the epidemic today, fell ill, but recovered again. The disease was brought in, as we know today, on the Bosphorus via the grain fleet arriving from Egypt. On the trade routes on land and sea, it then spread from the Mediterranean to Ireland. By the middle of the 8th century the epidemic returned in waves and killed countless sick people.

On the trail of the pathogen in the Danube region

The epidemic apparently also hit the Danube region. In 2013, the paleogenetic identification of the pathogen was achieved on skeletons in the cemetery of Aschheim, north of Munich. This confirmed what had previously been suspected: the pathogen causing the so-called "Justinian Plague" was a strain of the bacterium Yersinia pestis. This bacterium was also responsible for the great epidemics of the late Middle Ages in Europe - the so-called "Black Death" - and the pandemic in East Asia around 1900. If left untreated, the mortality rate in sick people was 50 to 60 percent; it was transmitted through the bite of infected fleas when they came into contact with flea-infested animals such as rats and humans.

Researchers were also able to prove that the pathogen from the 6th century is genetically related to plague bacteria that are still native to rodent populations in eastern Central Asia today.

A climatic cold period from 536/540 brought more precipitation to this region, which favored the multiplication of rodents, fleas and bacteria, which in turn increased the risk of jumping over to humans. The disease spread from Central Asia to India. From there, Roman Egypt imported exotic spices such as pepper and semi-precious stones such as garnet - and apparently also the plague.

Globalization and the effects of an epidemic then and now

The early "globalization" thus facilitated the worldwide spread of the epidemic. But how devastating was it actually? Can we believe the numbers quoted by Prokop and other historians of the time, or did they spread "fake news"? An article published shortly before Christmas 2019 by Lee Mordechai and his team, who describe the Justinian plague as an "inconsequential pandemic", has sparked a debate. On the basis of a statistical analysis of the frequency of papyri, inscriptions and coins, but also of pollen data, historians doubt that the plague of the 6th century and the "black death" of the late Middle Ages killed 30 or even 50 percent of the population cost.

Other researchers strongly oppose this scenario. Even if the mortality rate of the epidemic was lower than assumed, then the social, economic and psychological consequences of the insecurity of people and the disturbance of normal everyday life should also be taken into account. In view of the current situation with the coronavirus, the latter argument seems quite understandable if you also consider that people of the 6th century were completely unclear about the cause and spread of the disease. (Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, March 20, 2020)

Johannes Preiser-Kapeller is a historian at the Institute for Medieval Research of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) and researches the networking and environmental history of the medieval world. In 2018 his book "Beyond Rome and Charlemagne" was published.

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