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Ancient plague was nothing like flu

The Justinianic Plague, or the 6th-Century bubonic plague as it is known, is the first known outbreak of bubonic plague in west Eurasian history and struck the Mediterranean world at a pivotal moment in its historical development when Emperor Justinian was trying to restore Roman imperial power.

According to researchers, historians have argued about the lethality of the disease for decades, including its social and economic impact and the routes by which it spread. In 2019-20, several studies were published that described the effects of the Justinianic Plague as an “inconsequential pandemic.”

Detail of the mosaic of Justinianus I in the Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. Image courtesy of Petar Milošević.

In a new study, “The Justinianic plague: origins and effects“, published in Past & Present, Cambridge Professor Peter Sarris argues that these studies ignored or downplayed new genetic findings, offered misleading statistical analysis, and misrepresented the evidence provided by ancient texts.

“Some historians remain deeply hostile to regarding external factors such as disease as having a major impact on the development of human society, and ‘plague skepticism’ has had a lot of attention in recent years,” said Sarris.

Sarris, a Fellow of Trinity College, is critical of the way that some studies have used search engines to calculate that only a small percentage of ancient literature discusses the plague and then crudely argue that this proves the disease was considered insignificant at the time.

“Witnessing the plague first-hand obliged the contemporary historian Procopius to break away from his vast military narrative to write a harrowing account of the arrival of the plague in Constantinople that would leave a deep impression on subsequent generations of Byzantine readers. That is far more telling than the number of plague-related words he wrote. Different authors, writing different types of text, concentrated on different themes, and their works must be read accordingly,” he said.

Sarris also refuted the suggestion that laws, coins, and papyri provide little evidence that the plague had a significant impact on the early Byzantine state or society. He pointed to a major reduction in imperial law-making between the year 546, by which point the plague had taken hold, and the end of Justinian’s reign in 565. But he also argued that the flurry of significant legislation that was made between 542 and 545 reveals a series of crisis-driven measures issued in the face of plague-induced depopulation, and to limit the damage inflicted by the plague on landowning institutions.

According to Sarris, the numismatic evidence, in particular, points to a major crisis in imperial finances for which large-scale depopulation would be the most likely cause. The legal and papyrological sources also record how both landowners and the imperial authorities responded to this situation, he states.

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