BMCR 2007.08.25

Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750

, Plague and the end of antiquity : the pandemic of 541-750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xiv, 360 pages : map ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780521846394. $75.00.

Table of Contents

Few students of history are unaware of the Black Death, which has been the subject of much scholarship. The effects of the Plague on the society and culture of the Middle Ages have been explored at length. Yet, surprisingly, the Plague of Justinian, the first recorded pandemic of the disease, has received comparatively little scholarly attention. In order to address this lack of comprehensive scholarship a conference on the subject was held in December 2001 at the American Academy in Rome, resulting in this publication.

The goals of this work were twofold: firstly, to establish an epidemiological profile of the Justinian pandemic, namely, its origin, reoccurrence, and mortality; and secondly, to study the effects the pandemic had on Late Antique societies and institutions, in both the short and long term. This book succeeds in these goals, and its strength comes from the interdisciplinary collaboration of scholars representing the fields of history, epidemiology, archaeology and molecular biology, each bringing a unique perspective. One only has to look at the languages represented in the textual sources — Arabic, Latin, Greek, Syratic, Old Irish — to understand the geographic and temporal ground covered. The book is arranged into five sections that create a sense of unity despite the breadth of material covered: Introduction, the Near East, the Byzantine Empire, the Latin West and the Challenge of Epidemiology and Molecular Biology.

The volume’s themes are laid out for further discussion in the two chapters of the Introduction. The opening paper is by Little, ‘Life and Afterlife of the First Plague Pandemic.’ He includes a history of all three pandemic outbreaks of the plague and an overview of the written sources, ancient and modern. He lists the numerous changes pandemics can create in human society — political, religious and economic. One of his more interesting ideas is that the concept of work changed. Depopulation led to a scarcity of workers and this positively affected the way their work was viewed. Leisure pursuits, previously admired in Roman culture, now became associated with laziness.

Hays’ chapter, ‘Historians and Epidemics,’ takes a more large-scale view by examining what common questions historians can ask of all epidemics. Although he admits that the paper draws few conclusions he has an excellent discussion of the social constructions of disease. He also questions the circumstances surrounding pandemics, whether global weather patterns, sets of natural disasters or human behaviour can create opportunities for plague to spread and flourish. He makes the important point that there are a variety of human responses and modern researchers must be careful how they interpret those responses.

The following three sections focus on regional areas in order to establish the location and effects of the Justinian Plague on the smaller scale. Some chapters often seem composed of two unrelated sections as the authors attempt to meet the dual aims of the book: listing the evidence for the outbreaks and spread of the Plague and examining the effects of pandemic. This can make the papers feel disjointed, although it works relatively well terms of presenting the history of the progress of the disease closest to the relevant regional discussions.

Morony, in ‘For Whom Does the Writer Write,’ examines the Syriac sources. He identifies the difficulties in separating hyperbole from fact, interpreting religious metaphors and translating ancient medical terminology. He argues that the modern separation of the plague into a single biological event is not how contemporary authors viewed the circumstances. Famine and violence were linked with disease, and one could often cause the other. He concludes that ancient sources are best at describing the immediate effects that cause such strong impressions but not as useful for following long-term repercussions.

Kennedy complements the work on Syria by providing accompanying archaeological research to compare with the text, in ‘Justinian Plague in Syria and the Archaeological Evidence’. He looks for signs of depopulation related to the Plague. He argues that changes can be seen in the sixth century and that general trends occur such as contraction of rural settlement and a decline in urban building. However, the dating of his archaeological material is rarely refined enough to link changes to specific events. The pandemic was one of a number of tragedies during this period; earthquakes and Persian invasions also affected human society. He concludes that more evidence is needed, but what evidence exists does not contradict the statements of extensive mortality in the textual record.

The next section concentrates on the Byzantine Empire and this topic overlaps geographically with the preceding section. Stathakopoulos is the first of two authors to study the effect on the Byzantine empire in ‘Crime and Punishment.’ He covers the psychological, political, legal and military effects of the plague. He looks for common human responses in the textual evidence, including borrowing theoretical models from psychology. He argues that the most common interpretations of the pandemic are to dismiss it as unimportant or to ascribe all social and political changes as responses to it. Stathakopoulos suggests instead that the pandemic did affect Byzantium, although it occurred within a series of crises and was one of the many factors that shaped society.

Sarris, in ‘Bubonic Plague in Byzantium,’ begins with an interesting discussion of the origins of the Plague. He then looks for confirmation of extensive depopulation as described by contemporary writers by examining the non-literary evidence from the Byzantine Empire. Sarris uses the economy as a marker for examining how serious an effect the pandemic had on society. He effectively demonstrates that there were fiscal weaknesses in the sixth century by combining legal, papyrological and numismatic evidence. Especially of interest is his discussion of rural depopulation and the advantage enjoyed by survivors in securing better lease terms.

The Latin West section looks at the religious and textual evidence from Gaul, Spain, England and Ireland, which were all affected by this plague to differing degrees. Although Stoclet’s chapter ‘ Consilia humana, ops divina, superstitio,’ makes interesting points, it is occasionally hard to follow. Stoclet argues that the Plague helped strengthen Christianity as the dominant religion in Gaul and gave power to its human agents, kings and bishops. Stoclet argues the adoption of pagan practices into Christianity was a comfort to people and prevented reoccurrences of outright paganism. One of the effects is the incorporation of pagan traits in the identities of Mary and the Saints.

Kulikowski’s chapter ‘Plague in Spanish Late Antiquity’ does an admirable job given the paucity of regional evidence. He discusses the textual sources that describe four separate outbreaks and the limited archaeological evidence. Present evidence suggests that the population of Late Antique Spain was too small to support an endemic disease. This does not imply that it had no effect on society; he notes several changes regarding attitudes to death and burial. However, Kulikowski posits that outbreaks of the Plague were more regular than the evidence would suggest. He argues that the inclusion of four sermons in the Toledo Homiliarium implies that preachers were expected to encounter the disease often enough to need an appropriate homily in their repertoire.

Maddicott writes on ‘Plague in Seventh Century England.’ As is often the case with seventh century Anglo-Saxon England, accounts from monasteries, especially those of Bede, form the majority of the historical sources. This chapter is an excellent addition to the book as it discusses the Plague without relying on Mediterranean sources, which are influenced by shared literary traditions. Maddicott argues that the monasteries were the focal points for the spread of the Plague outbreaks. From these the disease spread into the countryside as evidenced by abandonment of sites. Despite these initial consequences the long-term effect on monastic life was positive and encouraged the cultural flowering of the Northumbrian monasteries.

Similarly, Dooley’s ‘The Plague and its consequences for Ireland’ discusses how religious and secular institutions were affected, but also concludes that the effects were not all disastrous. She focuses on the long-reaching effects of the Plague on the changing role of kings. Dynasties experienced setbacks but remained largely intact. The role of kings became interwoven with religion, their personal virtue was believed to protect their subjects, and like saints, they were believed to have the ability to protect against the plague.

The final two chapters are by Sallares and McCormick. In contrast to the book’s largely humanities-based perspective, these authors approach the plague from a medical standpoint. It is this section which truly makes the book a complete and unique discussion. Sallares, in ‘Ecology, Evolution and Epidemiology of the Plague,’ examines the plague from an epidemiological viewpoint. He discusses at length the assumption, on which the entire premise of the book hangs, that Justinian’s Plague was in fact a yersinia pestis pandemic. Leading proponents have argued that it is not possible to link pre-modern outbreaks of the plague conclusively to y.pestis and other diseases may have been the cause.1 Sallares constructs a very sound case for the Plague based on its descriptions and knowledge of other diseases spread by arthropods, like Typhus and Malaria. He seems at ease with the notion of killer epidemics and calmly states that a multi-drug resistant strain of the disease exists today. Given that this statement comes after ten papers describing the Plague’s devastation, it is immensely disquieting.

The final chapter, McCormick’s ‘Towards a Molecular History of the Justinianic Pandemic,’ was for this reviewer the most interesting paper of all. However, it must be noted that it is at times very medical. He does a fine job of explaining the more technical details and avoiding medical jargon, but it could still be heavy going for those who do not have a biology background. He discusses the techniques of DNA extraction of the Plague organism and its molecular history, showing that understanding its mutations and virulence can help answer questions about mortality and transmission rates. This study successfully presents the newer techniques of paleopathology and its applications.

I did find the placement of Sallares’ chapter at the end of the book a bit problematic. Many of the book’s authors go to lengths to establish that the disease in question is in fact the Plague. As the authors themselves state, it is important to establish that the waves of outbreaks in different regions were caused by the same pathogen. This is an excellent point and the authors do argue the case well, but the frequent recitation of textual passages that chronicle the disease’s hallmarks — buboes, blood and painful death — starts to feel repetitive. The work may have been better served by placing Sallares’ biological evidence nearer the beginning, thus avoiding the defensive tone in some of the papers.

Despite this small criticism, this work escapes the fate of so many single-subject edited volumes, remaining interesting and thought-provoking throughout. Each chapter has new ideas to provide the reader, and Little does an admirable job of editing a comprehensive volume with a minimum of repetition. Given the scope and interdisciplinary nature of the book this could not have been easy. The few minor problems do not detract from the overall strength of this work. It is an excellent scholarly discussion and a base from which further research can occur. Though focused on a single topic it does much to add to discussions of Late Antique society and its shift into the Early Middle Ages. It examines anew wider topics such as economies, settlement patterns, and cultural attitudes to death. Along with other recently published works such as Justinian’s Flea,2 this book is an indication that this fascinating topic is finally receiving the scholarly attention it deserves.


1. Leading researchers for an alternate pathogen: G. Twigg, The Black Death: A Biological Reappraisal (New York 1984); and S. Scott and C.J. Duncan, Biology of Plagues: Evidence from Historical Populations (Cambridge 2001).

2. W. Rosen, Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe (Viking 2007).