Pandemics and Economics in History #2

The meaning of work, before and after the plague

Podcast: Pandemics and Economics in History #2: The meaning of work, before and after the plague

In the previous episode of this series, we looked briefly at the bubonic plague which traveled the Roman Empire in the middle of the 6th Century CE. The “Plague of Justinian,” named for the emperor, killed at least 25 million people, or about 10% of the world’s population at the time — maybe up to twice that number…. Regardless of exact calculations, the bubonic plague of 541 to 549 was catastrophic. Most cities in the empire shrank, and many farming communities lost substantial population, with some entirely wiped out.

Last episode focused on what this meant in terms of property. This episode considers labor and leisure.

In his new book, The Plague Cycle, economist Charles Kenny, notes that a whole new economic system developed in the wake of the pandemic.

Justinian tried to freeze prices and wages, complaining that people had abandoned themselves to avarice, but the labor shortage gave farmworkers new leverage. The practice of using slaves on farms in Spain and Italy died out, replaced by the feudal system of serfs who owed loyalty and labor to a lord in return for land.
— Charles Kenny, The Plague Cycle, p.40-41

Here, Kenny cites a source full of fascinating details about shifts in the 6th Century.

The very concept of work also underwent a significant change at this time, even though attitudes do not change in the same way or, especially, at the same speed that law codes or battles or political fortunes do. In Roman culture there was a fundamental opposition between leisure (otium) and work (negotium). The first referred not to laziness or aimlessness but to an honorable and agreeable search for wisdom through intellectual or artistic pursuits; the second meant literally the negation of leisure (neatly captured in the English word busi-ness). Work could also be expressed by the word labor, which was considered to be painful and sad. One way of expressing the change that came about in the Latin West in the sixth century was the simultaneous rise of work to respectability and the descent of leisure to its connotation of aimless passing of time.
— Lester K. Little, “Life and Afterlife of the First Plague Pandemic”

With this analysis in mind, we can reflect on changes in how many of us spend our time now, whether working for wages or in other pursuits, and what that means for the value of labor and leisure, ideas of honorable and aimless.

Some official messages tell us on how honorable it is to stay home to “flatten the curve.” But financial and other resources to support that option have not necessarily followed.

Conversely, there’s been a lot of talk about the respectability of work deemed essential. But health-protecting and financial resources have not always followed that declaration.

And how are we valuing artistic and intellectual pursuits? Are these pursuits valued more highly as we seek new ways to connect across distancing? Or further devalued, as in the Roman Empire’s shortage of farm labor 1500 years ago?

I hope this brief dip into history will continue to fuel thoughts about the economics of pandemics in the past and today.

Pleases visit for more on related topics.


Kenny, Charles. The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease. NY: Scribner, 2021. Booktalk on C-SPAN in January. Also available on YouTube.

Little, Lester K. “Life and Afterlife of the First Plague Pandemic” IN Little, ed. Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. (also available thru Google Scholar).

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