In this inaugural episode of “Pandemics and Economics in History,” we look at one of the first pandemics for which we have any kind of thorough records: what is known as the “Plague of Justinian,” in the final years of the Roman Empire.
Bubonic Plague of 541-549 CE
In the late Fifth and early Sixth Century of the Common Era, the Roman Empire consisted primarily of lands around the Mediterranean Sea: parts of places we now call Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria. The bubonic plague, a fast-acting disease caused by “yersinia pestis” bacteria, traveled around the Roman Empire between 541 and 549 CE.
Justinian, who ruled the empire from 527 to 565, contracted the plague himself, but he survived after a long illness.
The global population was, historians estimate, around 200 million at the time, and the plague killed roughly 10% of that population — something like 25 million people. It was reported that the city of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) buried 5,000 people a day at the worst, while some whole cities were emptied, and farming communities were wiped out.
Historians have long studied this period and tried to understand its impact. European-centered history often considers the “Plague of Justinian” as a key factor in the collapse of the Roman Empire and the subsequent rise of Europe’s power. But some scholars offer a slightly different perspective.
A contemporary of Justinian, a writer called Procopius, claimed that the emperor “had no scruples about appropriating other people’s property….Driving all wealth from the country of the Romans in this manner [Justinian] became the cause of universal poverty.”
Later scholars far less extreme in their language and attitudes to Justinian also note that the emperor refused debt repayment leniencies that had been common prior to his reign; raised taxes without recognizing altered circumstances of communities that had lost people and infrastructure to the plague; and insisted on payment even from those who had abandoned their properties in despair.
In short, the empire collapsed, some argue, not so much because of the pandemic itself, but due, at least in part, to economic policy and practice that ignored the pandemic’s impact on the people.
Without, claiming to be an expert on ancient economics, I do think there are lessons to be gleaned from this historical pandemic….And from a narrative of such obvious bias as the one Procopius provides.
The historian opens his work by noting that people of his own time will know the truth but worrying that future generations, faced with a tale of so much wickedness, “may think me a writer of fiction,” or, he writes: “even put me among the poets.” He also wonders if it might be better to refrain from recording the rulers’ mis-deeds at all, “lest future tyrants, hearing, might emulate them. It is deplorably natural that most monarchs mimic the sins of their predecessors and are most readily disposed to turn to the evils of the past.”
Reading the Sixth Century Procopius is a reminder to interrogate our sources, to wonder about personal and literary motivations, back stories, class perspectives, and, of course — and, of course, challenges of translation and transmission across language and culture.
Having asked our questions, we can then return to the evidence provided:
- after years of pandemic and a great shifting of resources, who remained?
- what properties were usable?
- who had access? and
- who benefitted from their use?
Visit our blog, communitythrucovid.com, for more on this topic, jumping 1500 years to the present day.
Thanks for listening to and/or reading the first episode of “Pandemics and Economics in History.”
Rosen, William. Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe. Viking, 2007. (Available thru public libraries, including DCPL. Book website. Also find parts on Google Books)
Procopius. The Secret History. Probably written around the year 550.
See also: “Ancient trash” (on archaeology and pandemic). Economics blog.