The Bubonic Plague and Other Natural Catastrophes

Alex de Borba

Alex de Borba

In the last days of the year 2004, an undersea earthquake located off the coast of Indonesia caused a colossal tidal wave that engulfed the shorelines of the Indian Ocean and drowned approximately 300,000 people.

By a remarkable coincidence, a valuable study of the late Roman world published a month before this natural disaster was entitled “Ammianus and the great tsunami.” At the end of his account of the revolt of the usurper Procopius in 365–6, Ammianus presented a complex and vivid description of a massive inundation of the eastern Mediterranean basin, which providentially matched and presaged the travails of the Roman Empire itself.

Contemporary accounts of later Roman history pay an extraordinary amount of attention to natural disasters. Much of the immediacy of studying late antiquity derives precisely from the parallels that can be drawn between the crises faced by the empire and those that are felt in the modern world.

It is not fanciful to suggest that many contemporary observers saw natural disasters as a reflection of mankind’s precarious condition, which called into question the essential viability of the Roman Empire. In relation to the middle and later years of the sixth-century arguments have been put forward that such events in nature may not merely have been a metaphor for crisis and decline, but literal causes of the empire’s collapse.

The early years of Justinian’s reign had been swept forward by a wave of irrepressible optimism. The anxieties that had gripped the empire in the years around 500, when many had expected the world to end (see p. 28 for the Chronicle of Ps-Joshua of Edessa), had evaporated with the passing of the years.

The religious tension between the Monophysite sympathies of the ageing emperor Anastasius and the largely Chalcedonian beliefs of his subjects in Constantinople was resolved with the accession of Justin. The succession of Justinian, who was already in effective charge of the state before his uncle’s death, released an outburst of energy.

The emperor was supported by a dynamic generation of officials and military men, and the self-confidence of his regime was crowned by military success. The challenge of the Sassanians was dissolved in the eternal peace of 532; Africa had been recovered in Belisarius’ lightening campaign of 533; that triumph, celebrated in 534, was followed by the conquest of Sicily in 536; and the recovery of the western empire was now anticipated.

“By means of mighty wars God granted us the opportunity to make peace with the Persians, to abase the Vandals, Alans and Moors, to gain possession of the whole of Africa, and of Sicily in addition, and to have high hopes that God would grant us ruling power over the remaining territories which the Romans of old once conquered as far as the boundaries of the two oceans, but then cast away in their subsequent carelessness.” (Justinian, Nov. 30.11.2 [536])

The only clouds to darken the horizon had gathered in the East. The hostilities with the Sassanians and their Saracen allies under the Lakhmid chieftain Al-Mundhir had brought a war to the Orontes Valley and up to the walls of Emesa and Apamea. Moreover, a series of earthquakes had inflicted massive damage on the cities of Syria, principally Antioch, which was shattered in 526 by a quake which Procopius reported as killing 300,000 people (Procopius, Bell. Pers. 2.14.6; cf. Malalas 420, 6–7; see p. 350).

The pattern of natural catastrophes which occurred after the mid-530s is known to us only through the hindsight of the surviving sources. They retain virtually none of the optimism which radiated from the imperial pronouncements of the early part of the decade. The event above all which shaped this pessimistic outlook was the devastating onset of bubonic plague in 541/2.

The first outbreak of plague in Constantinople, where it raged for four months in the first half of 542, is described in detail by Procopius (Bell. Pers. 2.22–23) and in an account by John of Ephesus, which was transmitted in the Syriac translation of his ecclesiastical history (Chronicle of Ps-Dionysius of Tel-Mahre Pt. III, 74–98). This recorded the effects both in the Palestinian countryside and in the capital.

Day by day we too — like everybody — knocked at the gate of the tomb. If it was evening, we thought that death would come upon us in the night, and again if morning had broken, our face was turned the whole day towards the tomb.

Even more, telling is a sentence from an edict of March 1, 542, issued by the emperor himself, that which has occurred in the present time requires no explanation, for the presence about us of death, which pervades every place, makes it necessary for no one to hear about that which each one of us has endured. (Justinian, Edict VIII)

Procopius established that the infection had arrived from the Egyptian port of Pelusium, and the church historian Evagrius may well be correct in claiming that it had originated in Ethiopia (Evagrius 4.29).

The plague probably manifested itself in three forms: buboes, the outbreak of infected boils in lymphatic nodes, especially the groin; septicemia, when the infection spread through the blood system; and infection of the lungs.

Transmission of the first two symptoms was due to fleas, whose bites spread the infection between rats and men, while the third could be passed from person to person through spittle. Septicemic infection of the plague was spectacularly virulent, often causing death within hours, as contemporary witnesses observed, although they were unable to establish its cause.

The mortality rate in the capital accelerated rapidly from 5,000 to 10,000 deaths per day. John of Ephesus reported a maximum daily toll of 16,000 deaths, and observed that the official casualty count was halted when it reached 230,000 overall. Justinian ordered soldiers and a senior official (a referendarius) to take charge of the logistic horror of burial.

The towers of the fortifications of Sycae, across the Golden Horn, were transformed into plague pits, and the stench of the rotting corpses was blown back over the city (Procopius, Bell. Pers. 2.23.5–11).

The casualty figures reported in the sources are unlikely in themselves to be more than approximations. A recent study argues that the victims may have amounted to one-third of a total population for the city of around 750,000.5 In the Secret History Procopius alleged that half the inhabitants of the empire, having survived previous devastation by warfare, famine, earthquake, and flood, died from the plague (Secret History 6.22 and 18.44).

Procopius and Evagrius indicate that the first outbreak, which lasted into 543, covered the entire world (Procopius, Bell. Pers. 2.22.3 and 6; Evagrius 4.29). The epidemic was carried in the first place by ship, striking harbour cities before it spread to the interior.

Alexandria was engulfed before Constantinople itself. Inscriptions from Nessana in southern Palestine record premature deaths, doubtless from the plague, in October and November of 541, matched by gravestones from Gaza and elsewhere in the region.

The literary sources speak of whole settlements being abandoned, and of cattle and crops untended in the fields. Evagrius, whom himself survived the first outbreak in 542 as a child of six, recorded the impact on his own family in Antioch.

He observed another vital and catastrophic aspect of the epidemic, that it recurred at intervals, more or less in synchronism with the fifteen-year indiction cycle. By the time he was writing, in his fifty-eighth year, it had taken the lives of his wife, his only son and a daughter, other relatives, and numerous servants and dependents on their estates.

And so at the outset of this great misfortune I was affected by what are called buboes while I was still attending the elementary teacher, but in the various subsequent visitations of the great misfortunes I lost many of my offspring and my wife and other relatives, and numerous servants and estate dwellers, as if the indictional cycles divided out the misfortunes for me. Thus as I write this, while in the 58th year of my life, not more than two years previously while for the fourth time now the misfortune struck Antioch, when the fourth cycle from its outset had elapsed, I lost a daughter and the son she had produced, quite apart from the earlier losses. (Evagrius 4.29 (178), trans. Whitby)

Epidemiological studies of the closest historical parallel to the Justinianic plague, the Black Death, indicate that recurrences of bubonic plague could be expected, sometimes at no more than four-yearly intervals.

Dionysios Stathakopoulos has identified eighteen significant recurrences of the plague between 541 and 750. Four of the first five outbreaks (541–3; 571–4; 590–2; 597–601) are explicitly documented both in the eastern and western Mediterranean and in the Near East.

Much of the written evidence after the seventh century derives from Syriac or Arabic sources and attests outbreaks in Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Egypt, but Constantinople was certainly struck in 618/9, 658, and 747. Bubonic plague is documented in England and Ireland in the seventh-century, while archaeology, combined with scientific testing, has established the burial of plague victims in Bavaria, and perhaps also in Poland and Finland.

The overall impact of the plague on the society and economy of the Mediterranean world of the sixth and seventh centuries is disputed. Mark Whittow, in keeping with his view that the Roman world in 600 was a powerful state, facing favourable political conditions, and supported by a prosperous economy, has argued that there is no evidence that the plague had a devastating impact.

Wickham also devotes little space either to the Justinianic outbreak or to subsequent recurrences of the plague across and beyond the frontiers of the empire, concluding that “the sixth-century plague, however dramatic its local incidences, was a marginal event in the demographic history of our period.”

This contrasts with the judgment of Liebeschuetz, that the plague was probably a major but not the only factor in a major population decline during the sixth- and seventh-centuries, and Sarris’ conclusion that “the plague served to alter the social balance of power at the grassroots of Eastern Roman society. It shook the economic foundations of aristocratic control while curtailing still more sharply the economic resources upon which the state depended.”

There are some grounds for arguing that the ancient writers, by concentrating on the dramatic and terrifying outbreak of 541–3, have exaggerated its long-term consequences. Just as Europe recovered to its former level of population within a century of the Black Death, which may have killed between a third and a half of its inhabitants, so the effects of the Justinianic plague may have been reduced or annulled by the end of the sixth-century.

The parallel with the Black Death indicates that some cities and rural areas would have suffered more seriously than others, although given the state of current knowledge it is hard to draw significant distinctions in its regional impact. No doubt the remoter, landlocked areas suffered less than densely populated coastal areas, and the death toll would have been highest in the teeming metropoleis of Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria.

It is worth noting that rural Galatia, in the center of Asia Minor, had numerous thriving village communities at the end of the sixth-century, even though we know for certain that it had been touched by the plague in 542. However, the provisional assessment, which is all that our current evidence will allow, must be pessimistic rather than optimistic. Most commentators have argued for a population fall of between 20 and 50 percent between 542 and the death of Heraclius a century later.

Although he argues against the long-term impact of the plague on population levels, Chris Wickham’s comprehensive survey of rural settlement in western Europe from Britain and Denmark to Mediterranean Gaul, Italy, and Spain, concludes that the evidence from archaeological excavations and surveys is consistent with an overall population decline in the period 550–700 of around 50 percent, a severe reduction although falling short of complete demographic collapse.

The frequent recurrence of plague through the sixth and early seventh-centuries surely pushed population levels down, especially in the cities. So did the fact that the Roman Empire as an entity relied heavily, in economic and military terms, on seaborne transport throughout the Mediterranean.

This held its fabric together, but also made easy the spread of disease. Modern research has given the plague an increasingly central place in explanations of the decline and fall of the Eastern Roman Empire, and the arguments will be examined in more detail on pp. 479–91.

Other disasters, natural and manmade, afflicted the empire. The most significant of these was a remarkable climatic episode which persisted through 536 and 537. Procopius observed that in the tenth year of Justinian’s reign a most terrible portent occurred. “The sun’s rays lacked any brightness, and for an entire year shone like the moon, just as though it were in eclipse, and from that time on men were beset by war, plague and anything else that portended death.”

The Syriac chronicle of Ps-Zachariah noted that “the sun became dark at daytime, and the moon by night, while the ocean was stormy with spray from the 24th of the same month of this year until the 24th of June of the following indiction year” (Ps-Zachariah 9. 19d, trans Phenix and Horn). These observations are confirmed by other contemporary writers, including John of Ephesus:

“There was a sign from the sun, the like of which had never been seen and reported before. The sun became dark and its darkness lasted for eighteen months. Each day it shone for about four hours, and still, this light was no more than a feeble shadow. Everyone declared that the sun would never recover its full light again.” (John of Ephesus in Chronicle of Ps-Dionysius 65, copied by Michael the Syrian 9.26)

Cassiodorus in Italy observed that for almost a full year the light from the sun cast no shadows and the temperature even in the hottest season was feeble. Crops did not come to fruition, and there was even a fear of frost at harvest time.

His detailed description clearly implies that ordinary visibility was much reduced by dust. “The air, condensed from snow by excessive cold, is not thinned by the sun’s fire; but it endures in the density that it has acquired, obstructs the heat of the sun, and cheats the gaze of human frailty. For things in space dominate our sight, and we can see through them only what the rarity of their substance allows” (Var. 12.25, trans. Barnish).

The most precisely dated information comes from the Monophysite historian, Ps-Zachariah of Mytilene, who wrote that “the sun began to be darkened by day and the moon by night, while the ocean was tumultuous with spray (?) from the 24th of March in this year till the 24th of June in the following year fifteen.”

The year-sequence is the indiction cycle that began in 522/3, and he refers to the period between March 24, 535 and June 24, 536. The year of darkness also coincided with the visit to Constantinople of the bishop of Rome, Agapetus.

This is confirmed for the eastern empire by the chronicle of Marcellinus, which indicates that conflict over grazing grounds between the rival Saracen confederations of the Lakhmids and the Ghassanids became particularly acute in 536, in the wake of disastrous crop failures (Marcellinus, Chron. 2, 105), and by Procopius’ note that the year of darkness coincided with the period during which Belisarius was in Sicily and Solomon in Carthage, that is spring 536.

One important imperial measure that should be connected with these circumstances is a major edict of 538/9 concerned with new regulations for the delivery of grain to Constantinople from Egypt (Justinian, Edict 13).

Cassiodorus’ letter is associated with a batch of official correspondence relating to the difficulties of collecting tax in kind from the provinces of Italy. A general letter dating to September 537, the first year of the following indiction period, insisted on the necessity of landowners paying their dues (Var. 12.16).

This was followed later in the autumn by a letter to the inhabitants of the province of Istria, insisting that they should pay in kind in full as travellers had reported that the region had produced its due crop of grain, wine, and olives that year (Var. 12.22).

Instructions, however, were also sent to the local tribune to collect fish and salt from the coastal region around Venice, which would not have been affected by agricultural harvest failures (Var. 12.24).

Another letter reported that wine, corn, and millet had all failed among the Veneti, and that requisitioned army supplies from Concordia, Aquileia, and Forum Iulii were to be restricted to meat, while wine could be obtained at market rates from the Istrians (Var. 12.26).

Cassiodorus also passed on royal instructions from the Gothic king Theodahat to the bishop of Milan, to sell millet from the state granaries at Pavia and Dertona to a famished populace (Var. 12.27). The climatic disaster had effectively destroyed the harvests of 536 and 537. The correspondence of autumn 537 may imply some recovery, at least in Istria, but overall the situation remained desperate.

The evidence from Cassiodorus is confirmed by details of Procopius’ description of Belisarius’ war against the Goths. The narrative turns time and again to the theme of famine.

During the year-long siege of Rome until the end of March 538, both sides were afflicted by acute food shortages. Famine was the even-handed enemy of the Roman garrison at Ariminum, which was relieved in late summer 538, and the Gothic forces at Auximum and Urbinum.

Starvation brought the towns of Umbria and Picenum to their knees and wiped out entire rural populations in 539, where the inhabitants had been prevented from planting crops by the hostilities, thus compounding the plight of recurrent failed harvests. Procopius’ eye-witness accounts of the famished inhabitants of central Italy during the Gothic War, where over 50,000 peasants starved to death in Picenum alone, help to place him among the great war historians:

“I shall now tell of the appearance which they came to have and in what manner they died, for I was an eye-witness. All of them first became lean and pale; for the flesh being ill supplied with nourishment, according to the old saying ‘laid hold upon itself,’ and the bile, having now the mastery of their bodies by reason of its excess, lent them almost its own appearance. And as the malady developed, all moisture left them, and the skin became very dry so that it resembled leather more than anything else, giving the appearance of having been fastened upon the bones. And as they changed from a livid to a black colour, they came to resemble torches thoroughly burned. And their faces always wore an expression of amazement, while they always had a dreadful sort of insane stare […]. And no one ever laid them in the earth, for there was in fact not a man to concern himself about burying them; and yet they remained untouched by the numerous birds which have the habit of feeding on dead bodies, for they offered nothing which the birds craved. For all the flesh, as I have previously stated, had already been consumed by starvation. Such was the manner in which famine visited the land.” (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 6.20, extracts from 15–33, trans. Dewing)

Famine forced Naples to surrender to Totila in 544. Roman forces hovered on the verge of mutiny and relied in desperation on supplies shipped into Ancona or the Campanian ports. The barbarian forces of Franks, Burgundians, Heruli, and Lombards that descended on northern Italy after 539 resembled a locust swarm, driven from place to place by the desperate search for food.

The cause of the major occlusion of the sun is a matter for conjecture, but by far the likeliest explanation is that the earth’s upper atmosphere had become contaminated by the dust-cloud of a major volcanic eruption. That is the reasonable conclusion of David Keys in his ambitious investigation of worldwide evidence relating to a significant environmental catastrophe during the 530s and 540s.

It rests not only on texts from the classical world and the Far East, but on the evidence of dendrochronology and geological deposits in datable archaeological contexts. A composite graph of tree-ring growth throughout Europe shows that vegetation growth was strikingly depressed in the late 530s and the early 540s, with spectacular lows in 536, 539, and 540.

These figures are confirmed by data from elsewhere in the world, indicating that the climatic aberration was universal. The effect of the dust clouds, if these are rightly thought to be responsible, continued for several years. Agricultural activity almost came to a standstill. The fields of the Mediterranean world were bare, and the people starved. Only the wealthy survived as best they could.

A relevant passage of Procopius’ Secret History blamed the chain of natural disasters which engulfed the empire up to the greatest catastrophe, the outbreak of the plague, on Justinian’s own demonic powers (Secret History 18.36–45). Among the natural disasters, Procopius identified disastrous flooding and numerous earthquakes.

The state of anxiety in this period led to earth tremors being observed and chronicled with obsessive attention, irrespective of their seriousness.

In Constantinople itself, the greatest damage and terror was caused by earthquakes in 542 and 557. The latter event led to the collapse of the precarious dome of St Sophia, and both earthquakes provoked a lasting religious response in the form of the introduction of annual processions to plead for God’s mercy and protection from further disasters.

It is not irrelevant in this context to note a modern parallel and its consequences. In 1999 northwest Turkey, in particular, the province of Izmit, ancient Nicomedia, was devastated by a major earthquake, which claimed over 18,000 lives.

It was and is regarded as only a matter of time before a comparable disaster shatters the vast metropolitan area of Istanbul, home now to some twenty million people. The perception of imminent danger has reputedly already led as many as a million of the inhabitants to leave the city and make their homes on the Turkish south coast.

Fear of earthquake is by far the most substantial constraint on planning and development in the city today.

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