The Plague of Justinian
The reign of the Emperor Justinian signaled the peak of Byzantine power. Trade and commerce thrived while a number of conquests ordered by Justinian reconquered territories such as North Africa, Italy, and parts of Spain. Under Justinian’s leadership, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire came very close re-uniting the ancient Roman Empire. But then, out of nowhere a deadly plague arrived from the east which would devastate the empire, and become the fourth deadliest pandemic in history.
Based upon genetic testing, it is believed that the Justinian Plague originated from Central Asia. The disease itself was a strain of the bacteria Yersinia pestis, the same bacterium responsible for the Black Death in the late Middle Ages. The Plague first shows up in the historical record in 540 AD in Egypt, mostly likely carried by traders, merchants, and travelers. By 542 the plague had spread across the Mediterranean, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths as it traveled. Entire towns and villages were wiped out. Crops were left to rot in the fields. The army was often used to dig mass graves for the thousands upon thousands of bodies who needed buried. According to the historian Procopius, ten thousand people a day were dying in Constantinople, until the city’s popular was reduced by half. People died so fast that bodies were simply stacked in the streets and left to rot. Even the emperor himself was affected as he too fell ill, and although he survived his health was never the same afterwards.
The timing of the plague was extremely unfortunate as well. By then the Imperial treasury was nearly empty due to a number of Justinian’s building projects and wars. As result, there was little left to fund relief efforts to aid the sick and the dying. Altogether the Justinian Plague resulted in the deaths of 30-50 million people, reducing the population of Europe by 1/3rd to ½. The Eastern Roman Empire itself was devastated and left extremely weakened after Justinian’s reign, leaving the empire vulnerable to a series of invasions by the Arabs, Turks, Persians, and Slavic peoples. The empire would remain in a state of decline (with some periodic renewals) until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The plague itself would periodically return until the 8th century.