Updated: Oct 21, 2021
By Julio Cesar Magalhães de Oliveira, University of São Paulo.
The rapid spread of the new coronavirus and the transformation of Covid-19 into a pandemic affecting all continents (with the exception of Antarctica) has once again aroused interest in the history of infectious diseases. Since the emergence of AIDS in the 1980s and even more so with the globalisation process and the global scale diffusion of infectious agents such as the coronavirus associated with SARS, Zika and Ebola, we have often seen comparisons with other epidemics and pandemics in history. Often, however, this contemporary interest has resulted in catastrophic visions of historical diseases that seek, at all costs, to demonstrate the social collapse and destruction of economic systems they would provoke, especially when this view corroborates the grand narratives we are used to. A good example of this is the Plague of Justinian (c. 541–c. 750), which is often taken as a catastrophe of such great proportions that it would have marked the real end of the ancient world and the beginning of the Byzantine Middle Ages.
The Justinianic Plague was one of the three major bubonic plague pandemics throughout history, followed by the Black Death in the 14th century and the Third Plague in Southeast Asia and the world from 1894 to 1950. The bubonic plague is one of three forms of infection caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis that lives in rodents and their fleas (the other two are lung plague and septicemic plague). After 1 to 7 days of infection with the bacteria, the first symptoms are fever, headache and vomiting. Then there is inflammation of the lymph nodes, which in some cases can expel pus. Unlike the Black Death and the Third Plague, however, we have far less information about the demographic, economic, and cultural impact of the Justinianic Plague. We depend in part on literary sources, which should not be taken at face value, and even archaeological research, based on the identification of Y. pestis DNA in skeletons, still offers few samples for a conclusive quantitative approach.
According to the chronicle of John of Ephesus, a contemporary bishop of the outbreak of the pandemic and who served as the basis for all later chroniclers, the plague began in Ethiopia, spread to Egypt and, from Alexandria, to the entire Mediterranean, including Libya, North Africa, Sicily, the Italian peninsula, Gaul and Spain (apud Michael the Syrian, Chronicle, book 9, ch. 28). From Alexandria it also spread to Palestine and from there to Cilicia, Mysia, Syria, Iconium, Bithynia, Asia, Galatia and Cappadocia until reaching the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople (Pseudo-Dionysius of Tel-Mahre, Chronicle, at 855 [=543/44 AD], ch. 2). According to Zechariah, the orator, the pandemic reached Phoenicia, Arabia, Armenia, Mesopotamia and gradually spread among the Persians (apud Michael the Syrian, Chronicle, book 9, ch. 28).
The first wave of the pandemic appears to have lasted for three years, but it would return in recurrent waves until the mid-eighth century. The plague spread along with travellers like John of Ephesus himself, who describes the extent of the disease during his journey from Palestine to Constantinople. In the Mediterranean, its expansion was especially associated with ports, where ships with infected rats docked. The extent and speed with which the disease spread are variable. For two years from its first outbreak, the inhabitants of Constantinople only learned of the disease by hear-saying (Pseudo-Dionysius of Tel-Mahre, Chronicle, year 855 [=543/44 CE], chap. 3). According to John of Ephesus, mortality in Palestine was greater than in Alexandria, leaving villages and cities empty. In Constantinople, 5,000, 7,000, 12,000 and up to 16,000 bodies of the poorest were removed a day, as they were the first to die. When they reached 230,000 bodies, those responsible stopped counting (Pseudo-Dionysius of Tel-Mahre, Chronicle, year 855 [=543/44 AD], ch. 4).
Archaeological evidence suggests that the Justinianic Plague extended even beyond the regions attested to by literary sources. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute and the University of Munich analysed the remains of the Y. pestis bacteria present in skeletons dating back to the 6th century from Altenerding, a cemetery in southern Germany. The high-performance genetic sequencing of the bacterial agent could prove that it was the same strain of bacteria that plagued the Eastern Roman Empire. Like this cemetery, others have been analysed in Germany, France, Spain and the UK for the same purpose.
In a recent article published in Past and Present, however, Lee Mordechai and Merle Eisenberg argued against the historical and archaeological approaches that saw Justinian's Plague as an unprecedented catastrophic event. Literary sources like John of Ephesus not only do not provide accurate statistics, but they present plague results that may have other causes. The epitaphs known today do not suggest an unprecedented mortality, and even the testimony offered by archaeology does not corroborate a mass mortality. In German cemeteries where the DNA of Y. pestis was analysed, the presence of the bacteria is very low in the collected samples. Rat skeletons, the main transmitters of the disease, are also rare. According to Mordechai and Eisemberg, “It appears that scholars have extrapolated from scanty and problematic data to construct broad hypotheses, confirming their pre-formulated theories”.
One problem with catastrophic approaches is that they take the plague as an autonomous agent of change that is never affected by human action. It forgets the different strategies people could adopt to deal with an epidemic and, in particular, the social inequalities that affected these responses. Of course, in antiquity, people did not adopt quarantines, confinements and social distancing protocols like ours. But they could reduce the risk of mortality by migrating elsewhere. In 542, the rural population of Mira refused to enter the city for fear of the plague (Life of St. Nicholas of Zion, 1st ed. and N. Sevcencko, p. 52). Gregory of Tours also attests to the migration of people out of affected cities (Libri historiarum, 10.9.22). Even so, the different social classes were not affected in the same way. We saw that, in Constantinople, the poor were the first to die. In addition, not all people were in the same conditions to respond to illnesses and other unexpected events, such as climate change, earthquakes and wars.
In a recent study of the resilience of pre-capitalist societies to these shocks, Adam Izdebski, Lee Mordechai and Sam White showed the different responses of three cities in the Eastern Roman Empire to sixth-century tensions (and not just the plague). Antioch, Apamea and Beirut maintained throughout the century a remarkable resilience after being devastated by earthquakes, wars and, in the case of the first, four waves of bubonic plague. This was possible thanks to the actions of the imperial power, which in the case of Antioch encouraged rural migration to recover the city's population and in the two other cases changed its economic base. Neither of these shocks represented, therefore, the "collapse" of the system. However, the recovery did not affect all inhabitants in the same way. Of course, not all changes benefited only the elites or harmed only the poorest. The transfer of law schools and the silk industry from Beirut to Constantinople certainly harmed its local elites, while the artisans who worked in the manufacture of silk in the capital benefited. The difference, however, as the authors point out, is that while the elite could adapt, whenever the lower classes were affected, as in the case of silk workers in Beirut, they did not have this possibility. For the elite, migration could be an opportunity to recover and even diversify investments. For the poor, it could represent much more difficult times of misery and precariousness.
Pandemics, like wars and earthquakes, are not democratic. Even though everyone suffers, the most socially fragile suffer the most. And, despite the neoliberal ideas that are rife in our days, resilience to these challenges does not depend only on the capacity and willingness of individuals to adapt.