Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Justinian Plague: The Declined of the Byzantines

Emperor Justinian
Two major civilization declined and fell in the hands of vicious plagues. Athens, the center of learning and culture of the ancient world, fell in the hands of the Great Athenian Plague. It led to the eventual collapse of the most powerful city-state in the region. Then in the 2nd century CE, the glorious and peaceful period of Rome, dubbed as Pax Romana, ended with the deaths caused by another plague, the Antonine Plague. Almost four centuries after the spread of the Antonine Plague, another Empire was on the brink of either glory or the abyss, the Byzantine Empire. And with an ambitious Emperor in the throne, the Justinian Plague would decide the destiny of a revival of the glory that was Rome.

The Justinian Plague stroked the Byzantine Empire in its moment of glory. In 527, a new Emperor was crowned, Justinian. Along with his influential and beautiful wife, Theodora, they presided over the daunting task of retaking the lost territories of the Western Roman Empire and rule it once again from his capital, Constantinople. With his great generals and brilliant and clever wife, Byzantine re-conquest of old Roman territories resulted to the capturing of Egypt and the whole North Africa, the Balkans, and then the northern part of the Italian Peninsula. He was determine to expel barbarians from the sacred grounds where Rome once flourished. He presided over the establishing of an efficient bureaucracy alongside with strong state religion, under the form of Eastern Orthodox Church. It seemed that the glories of Rome was once again revived under Emperor Justinian until suddenly disaster stroked.  

In the summer of 542, a deadly disease outbreak was reported in Constantinople. Victims of the disease waked up in a feverish state. After few days, buboes appeared in their skin. Later on, they succumb to either a deadly coma or became delirious. And just days later, it led to paranoia and then death. Named after the emperor, the Justinian Plague, was the first recorded spread of bubonic plague.

People died by their thousands. The mortality rate was worse than the rate during the Antonine Plague. Within just four months after the outbreak, 5,000 died per day because of the disease. Within a year, it doubled to 10,000 a day. By a year after the plague spread, 300,000 people perished.

Most of the knowledge from the plague came from a lawyer and historian Procopius. According to him, the disease originated from Egypt, near its border with Ethiopia to be exact. From there, it spread uphill to Alexandria. Egypt was the granary of the Mediterranean world. Its grain production fed great expansion. And so, a lot of merchants and soldiers were stationed there. And soldiers and merchants were mostly to be the agents of the spread of the disease. Troop movements, as well as caravans and cargo ships became the way for the spread of the plague. And in 542, perhaps a combination of vessels, caravans, and troop units from Egypt arrived in Constantinople, causing the spread of the disease further.

But some studies revealed that the disease did not truly originated in Egypt but in India. Black rats that carried the disease were endemic in India. And the Silk Trade Route was still active and flourishing. Through merchant ships from India, rats went aboard and became carried across the Indian Ocean to Ethiopia. There the disease could have developed; and through merchants it was carried through north, where it was propagated further across the Mediterranean Basin.

The people of Constantinople feared for their lives when the plague strike. They could not trace where they could have contracted the disease. Some became superstitious, believing that seeing a ghost or a devil in their dreams caused them to be infected and woke up with a fever. Some believed that by isolating oneself inside their home would prevent ghost or demons showing up in their dreams and the plague itself. People’s fear of the disease were even heightened when their Emperor Justinian became infected as well. But luckily for him, he managed to recover.

Justinian could have recovered, but not the same could be said for the Byzantine Empire. With plague spread throughout Asia Minor, Europe and even the British Isles. Officials became overwhelmed by the staggering piles of dead infected bodies. Relatives of the dead feared to bury the corpse because of fear of infection. In Constantinople, a council was formed to clean up the corpses. They were so overcome that mass graves were not enough. Stories of the dead floating the rivers in boats were seen. Towers in fortifications were also used to dispose the bodies. The horrendous amount of those hit led to dysfunction. Military campaigns ere have to be suspended because troops were sick. Caravans could not travel and enter because of sick merchants and quarantines. Officials were also becoming sick and public administration disintegrated.

The Justinian Plague continued to hamper the Byzantine for centuries. It the Roman renaissance into a stand still. It became a factor for its decline through the next centuries. It affected its capability to combat the Sassanid Empire and the rising might of the Islamic Rashidun Caliphate under Umar and Abu Bakar in Arabia. The Justinian Plague lasted until 750 CE, it killed 25% of the inhabitants of Constantinople, 40% of those who surrounded the Mediterranean Sea. It also brought the visions of the revival of a great imperial Rome of Justinian to an end. 

Kohn, G. Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence: From Ancient Times to the Present. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2008.

Whyte, I. A Dictionary of Environmental History. New York: I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2013.

No comments:

Post a Comment