A Review of William Rosen’s Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire (by Bethany)

justinian's flea cover image

This is the sort of history book I love – multidisciplinary, oriented around synthesis rather than analysis, and not afraid to go into detail about a sex act that a certain former empress of the Eastern Roman Empire liked to perform with a goose (I’m not telling, but it’s on pp. 74-75 if you have a library card). The stated purpose of this book is to explore the effects of the massive outbreak of bubonic plague beginning in 542 C.E. in the Mediterranean and surrounding areas – in particular in the area of ending what we think of as the “ancient” way of life and ushering in what is usually called the medieval world. To give you a sense of what Rosen is like as a storyteller, with the exception of a few paragraphs in the introduction, the bubonic plague makes its appearance in the book on page 162. This is a historian who believes in using a wide-angle lens. Prior to the arrival of Y. pestis. Rosen covers the events that caused the Roman empire to split into its eastern and western halves, the barbarian invasions and other events that caused the western empire to fall in 479 C.E., and the rise of Justinian. Another section is devoted to Justinian’s courtship and lifelong love affair with Theodora-of-the-aforementioned-sex-act (actually, her name up until she married him was Theodora-from-the-brothel – seriously), his fascination with the more arcane elements of Christian dogma, his law code and the refinements he made to the fine arts of bureaucracy, and his exhaustive but unsuccessful attempts to reconquer the western empire. We learn about his best general, Belisarius; his Quaestor (sort of like a chief of staff), Tribonium, his Praetorian Prefect, John the Cappadocian; and his oversight of the rebuilding of the Hagia Sophia. All this swooping around, shifting between wide and zoom lenses, make for a certain “Alice’s Restaurant” quality in the narrative (Remember the Bubonic Plague? This is a book about the Bubonic Plague.) that I imagine would annoy some readers – but I liked it quite a lot.

Finally the narrative shifts back to the book’s stated focus, although Rosen still waits a while to tell us what happened when the people of the eastern Roman empire started contracting the plague. Part III of the book is called “Bacterium,” and its protagonist is Y. pestis. In this section, the bacterium is given the same close attention Rosen gave to Diocletian, Constantine, Theodora, Belisarius, John the Cappadocian, and the others in Parts I and II – and I loved that. This section also covers the complicated population dynamics among four organisms – Y. pestis, a flea called X. cheopsis, the Mediterranean black rat (Rattus rattus!), and a certain H. sapiens – that indicate when outbreaks of plague are likely to happen. Again, I love it when historians integrate science into their work, though others may not.

Without trying to reproduce the book’s argument in detail, I’ll sketch out a few of the long-term effects of the arrival of the bubonic plague in the Mediterranean in 542. First, of course, it thinned the population. Plagues of all kinds always do that – but apparently this outbreak eradicated even more of the population than the one in 1348-9, which famously wiped out 50% of the population from the British Isles all the way to India. Because the plague hit Constantinople first, that city was the first to see its population slashed. With so many people dead – including lots of young people in the prime of life – Belisarius and the other generals in Justinian’s army found it impossible to fill the army’s ranks. One result of the shortage of soldiers is that several tenuously-held cities in Italy and other parts of the former western empire were retaken by the “barbarians” – and by barbarians I mean my own ancestors and those of everyone else of Western European descent: the Franks, the Gauls, the Huns, the Slavs, and so forth. The barbarians got the plague too, but they didn’t get it until later. The plague tended to travel from the seaports (where it arrived on ships from Africa) to higher ground; Constantinople was right on a major seaport, while some of the barbarian strongholds like Tours and Ravenna – and Rome itself – were a bit inland. Not much, but enough to make a difference. By the time these cities started feeling the effects of population loss, Justinian’s army had already been defeated and gone home. Similarly, Justinian lost some of his empire’s most prized cities in the east – most notably Antioch – because his opponents, the Persians, didn’t get the plague until several years after it hit Constantinople.

Also notable were the regions the plague did not affect. In order to travel and not die out, the plague needs a relatively high concentration of human beings, so it never managed to travel across the Arabian desert to infect the civilizations in Yemen and the cities of Mecca and Medina. This is notable, of course, because 100-ish years after 542, while the eastern empire was still suffering the long-term consequences of its population loss, Muhammad and his followers – and, later, his descendants – were surging northward to conquer in the name of Allah in the very earliest years of Islam. By this time, the Persians – who had taken Antioch and other cities while Justinian’s army was hobbled – had themselves been decimated by plague, so the Muslims were able to take these same cities from the Persians. Soon the Muslims developed a reputation as some of the fiercest fighters in the world – a reputation that continued though the Crusades and continues to affect east-west relations today.

In Europe, especially in France, where the plague came late but was no less destructive than it was in Constantinople, the plague led to some interesting agricultural changes. With so many able-bodied people no longer able-bodied (or no longer bodied at all), farmers were forced to innovate. They modified their manual plows so they could be pulled by horses. Even centuries after the plague, of course, this innovation freed up human workers to do other tasks and was exported to nearly every other farming society. Furthermore, the need to rely on horses forced farmers to plant more oats in their fields – to feed the horses – and the resulting three-field crop rotation system ended up being a much more efficient land-use strategy than the two-field system that had been in use before. These and other innovations helped to create the agrarian society of medieval Europe, in which the economy was based not on money or trade but on the land and the goods the land produces.

There’s much more in this book – it truly is a work of interdisciplinary history. If this era of history is new to you, you might want to read a more comprehensive study of the late Roman empire first to get your bearings, but if you are comfortable with history I highly recommend it. With the possible exception of the chapter on Tribonium and his bureaucratic innovations, this book is never boring. I learned a lot and will be seeking out more of Rosen’s work soon.

P.S. I did mostly manage to participate in Read-All-Day Friday today. Here’s a photo of me reading Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (photobombed by my toe). Look at all that yarn sitting unused in the background!

RAD Friday photo 1.29

P.P.S. Rattus rattus!


This entry was posted in Authors, Glimpses into Real Life, Non-fiction - History, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Science, Read-All-Day Friday, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized, William Rosen. Bookmark the permalink.

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