Black Death Plague – Constantinople – Byzantine Empire – 542 AD

Bubonic Plague from Asia arrived via Africa at Constantinople in 542

In 542, Roman Emperor Justinian was actively rebuilding the empire from its new headquarters in Constantinople, often referred to as the Byzantine Empire since there was so much Greek influence there. The old western part with its center in Rome had been taken over by barbarians, vandals, and others. Through a series of military victories, Justinian’s forces had been able to recapture much of Italy and had also been successful on other fronts. It was in the midst of these successes that Constantinople was ravaged by the first case of a Black Death pandemic. It reached Justinian’s capital from Egypt, probably carried by rats in ships. Historians have estimated that close to half the population of Constantinople died from the plague during its four or five months of active infections. The number of soldiers left for Justinian’s campaigns was completely inadequate so he had to step back from defending or further extending the historic frontiers.

Procopius, a historian living in Constantinople at the time, vividly described the plague and its effects. He pointed out that often, in the first day of infection, nothing very serious was evident but, on the second day, a bubonic swelling developed in the groin, armpits, or on the thighs and mental problems began to appear. Some went into a deep coma while others became delirious. Death came quickly to many while others lived for several days. When small black pustules appeared in the skin, the infected individual usually died within a day. Another symptom, vomiting blood, almost always led to death within a few hours. The physicians of that time tried a variety of cures but the results were always the same: again and again the cases that they fully expected to live died and the ones who seemed to the physicians to be hopeless lived on far beyond the period of the pandemic.

In the sixth century there was no significant understanding of bacteria and their role in the spread of diseases, and nothing was yet known anywhere about genes and their critical influence in determining who survived and who did not. These are the reasons for the perplexity experienced by the physicians when they tried their best to save the sick and the results were disappointing. It was the same centuries later when the same Black Death that overtook Constantinople in 542 swept over London in 1665. Many people in London, such as gravediggers, who were constantly exposed to infected bodies, stayed quite healthy while those who had just a single exposure to the infection died within two days. U.S. researchers who investigated this problem in the late 1990s solved the problem: those who had a particular gene, commonly known as Delta 32, did not catch the disease if they inherited this gene from both parents. If they received the gene from only one parent, they got sick but they recovered.

The same gene in HIV patients is now known to be the reason for them escaping the consequences of that particular infection. Procopius went on to describe the disease in Constantinople by showing how it affected pregnant women. Here, as in the general population, death came to both mother and baby but, in a few instances, either a mother died at the time of childbirth while the child survived or else a child died and the mother survived. It seems likely that in these rare cases the Delta 32 gene had been inherited from one parent. One common cause of death that seemed to have escaped the attention of Procopius was inflammation of the lungs, usually followed by spitting blood. Death followed quickly in these cases. Overall, the 542 pandemic ran its course over a time period of four or five months, a common sequence in other places at different times. At its peak, 10,000 died daily. The disposal of dead bodies overwhelmed the whole city. At first, friends and relatives attended to burials but very soon, with bodies being left unattended in streets and homes, huge pits were dug for mass disposal of the dead. Even these arrangements were inadequate so, with more and more bodies piling up, men removed the tops of the towers on the city walls and threw bodies into the spaces inside the wall.

The great leaders of the Roman Empire saw the whole inhabited world as their domain of responsibility, yet when Justinian became emperor there had not been any additions to the empire’s traditional territory since its acme in the second and third centuries. A glance at a map of the empire in second century and then one in the sixth reveals the enormous amount of shrinking that had taken place in the intervening four hundred years. Justinian was determined to change this condition and push back the existing frontiers to encompass as much as possible of the known world. The Greek city of Byzantium became the new Rome in the year 330. It was named Constantinople in honor of Emperor Constantine who established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Justinian ruled this eastern empire from 527 to 565 and, in the first half of that period, he set about restoring the size and prestige of the former empire. In many ways his reign therefore represented a preservation of the Roman past.

There was an unbroken tradition in Roman law that had continued from the earliest days of the empire into the sixth century. Justinian felt that the preservation and renewal of these laws was as important as the recovery of former territory and he set about getting the work done. It was an immense task, one that was to last far beyond the life of the Byzantine Empire and serve in later centuries as the basis of European jurisprudence. The work was begun in 528 when Justinian appointed ten jurists to compile a new codification of the statute law and it was completed a year later. The next task was even bigger, the preparation of a summary of jurisprudence from the great Roman lawyers of the second and third centuries. This involved the reading of two thousand manuscript books, assessing the key matters of content, and reducing the total amount of material to one fifth of the original. All this took three years of hard work. Justinian had a reputation of being a very hard worker and he inspired these writers by his own example. His staff often used to find him busy at work in the middle of the night.

Once the work of codification and summary of jurisprudence had been completed, no further commentary on the law was permitted. The code and the summary, or digest as it was called, now represented the whole of the law. Any new legislative acts were referred to as novels; they usually dealt with issues in ecclesiastical and public affairs. One very long novel dealt with Christian marriage law. It was a sign of the times, particularly the changed times that accompanied the move of the empire’s capital from Rome to Constantinople, that all of these novels were written in Greek, not Latin. Furthermore, Justinian knew that many Roman laws had never been popular in the Greek east so local preferences frequently replaced old Roman laws. Hellenic traditions affecting family, inheritance, and dowry, for example, appeared in the new legislation. In addition, the power of the father, traditional in old Roman thought, was now considerably weakened. Christian influences too appeared in much of the newer legislation.  There was a desire to make law more humane, an emphasis that came from Justinian’s interest in including the idea of a love of humanity, and it was expressed in laws protecting the weak against the strong, favoring the slave against the master, debtor against creditor, and wife against husband. These improvements may seem small today but they represented a huge advance from the days of the old Roman Empire.

Justinian’s role in the Black Death pandemic needs to be examined because it was he who greatly extended the activities of the empire into Africa, the place that was the source of the Black Death. His first moves were directed at recapturing some of the lost lands of the west. His armies invaded the Vandal and other kingdoms, one after another, in a series of bitter wars from 540 onward, and in all of these he achieved considerable success. He made the Germanic kings servants of the eastern empire but there remained the difficult problem of religious purity. Justinian was devoted to the Nicene Creed, brought in by Constantine as the official religion of the empire, but the Germanic kings were practicing and preaching a form of Christianity considered heretical by the established church. The Vandals were most zealous and quick to seize orthodox churches in order to convert them into different places of worship. The Vandals were so few in number that they resorted to terror in order to control their subjects so their kingdom became a police state in which orthodox Christians were stripped of property rights, and frequently of freedom and even of life. When a delegation of orthodox Christians from Africa appealed to Justinian to fulfill his role as defender of the faith, he decided that the time had come to bring Africa back under the control of the empire. The immediate incentive for attacking the hundred-year-old Vandal kingdom in Africa was soundly based. Their king, Hilderic, had fostered good relations with the orthodox Christians. Exiled bishops had been recalled and churches reopened, but in 530 he was deposed by his cousin Gelimer and, from his prison, Hilderic appealed to Justinian. Even so, Justinian was uncertain about taking action because an earlier expedition had led to disaster. Finally, after much deliberation, Justinian went ahead with the invasion of Africa, convinced that the restoration of true Christianity justified it. The expedition set sail in 533 under the command of Belisarius.

The field army numbered 18,000 men, 10,000 of them infantry and 5,000 cavalry. There were also some others. In Sicily, Belisarius got the welcome news that Gelimer was unaware of the offensive and had sent 5,000 men and 120 ships under his brother Tata to put down a rebellion in Sardinia. The expedition from Constantinople landed in Tunisia, and the army marched along the coast toward Carthage while the fleet accompanied it offshore. Gelimer’s reaction was to put Hilderic to death and then march out to resist the invasion. His tactics were poor, perhaps due to inadequate planning, and he was routed. Belisarius marched on and took possession of Carthage. Gelimer fled westward and joined his troops who had been recalled from Sardinia, but within a few months suffered another defeat near Carthage. Gerlimer hid for a time with local tribesmen but finally surrendered. Belisarius went back to Constantinople with his captives and booty and Justinian arranged a victory celebration for him when he arrived, somewhat like the old Roman celebrations that followed successful military campaigns. About two thousand of the captives were conscripted into the army of Justinian.

Quite apart from his military successes and defense of traditional Christianity, Justinian achieved fame because of his extensive building program. The outstanding illustration of his work, one that still survives in the Istanbul of today, is the Hagia Sophia. There was an earlier church on the site that would become Hagia Sophia’s, built by Constantius in 360. He was the son of Emperor Constantine who had liberated the Christian faith from centuries of persecution. The earlier church was known as the Great Church. In 404, this church was destroyed by mobs and, later, in 415, rebuilt. It too fell victim to a rampaging mob of heretics in 532. The new emperor, Justinian, firm defender of orthodoxy, made short work of the howling heretics and ordered that construction begin on a brand new basilica. Construction work lasted from 532 to 537 and the new church was consecrated in 537. Architecturally the grand basilica represented a major revolution in church construction. It had a huge dome and this demanded new skills and new materials in order to support the weight of the dome. No one had ever previously attempted this. There were no steel beams available at this time so the dome had to be supported by massive pillars and walls. The church itself measured 260 by 270 feet, the dome rose 210 feet above the floor, and the overall diameter of the dome was 110 feet.

Some awareness of the danger of earthquakes was known at the time but everyone was convinced that the huge structures employed would meet any threat. They were wrong. Parts of the church and dome were destroyed subsequently in an earthquake and large buttresses had to be added to the supports. In 1204, Roman Catholic crusaders attacked and sacked Constantinople and Hagia Sophia, leaving behind a lasting legacy of bitterness among Eastern Christians. For more than 1,000 years Holy Wisdom had served as the cathedral church of the Patriarch of Constantinople as well as the church of the Byzantine court, but that function came to an end in 1453, when the Ottoman Turkish Sultan seized the Imperial City and converted Hagia Sophia into his mosque. Today, Justinian’s dreams of restoring the greatness of the old Roman Empire are long forgotten but the magnificent Church of the Holy Wisdom, which is the interpretation of the words Hagia Sophia, is still admired. It is a tourist attraction because it dominates the skyline of the modern city. Such was its stability over the centuries that, during an earthquake in Constantinople in 1999, the safest place for people was considered to be the Hagia Sophia. It is the mother church of all Eastern Christians of the Byzantine liturgical tradition both the Orthodox and the Greek Catholic.

The reign of Justinian proved to be a major factor in all of the history of late antiquity. Paganism finally lost out and the Nicene Creed that Constantine had established in the fourth century was almost universally recognized. From a military viewpoint, it marked the last time that the Roman Empire could go on the offensive with any hope of success. Africa and many other areas had been recovered. When Justinian died, the frontiers he had secured were still intact but it was the degree of restoration of the old empire that he had won back and the accompanying greatly expanded trade with the rest of the known world that led to the pandemic which destroyed so much of Constantinople and cut short all further military campaigns. Justinian had not created the disease, but he created the pandemic, which followed the movements of men and goods in Justinian’s greatly expanded empire. Without the empire and its huge shipments of grain and cloth from Africa, it is difficult to imagine how the First Pandemic could ever have hit Constantinople at such an early date.

Istanbul is Turkey’s largest city, and its cultural and economic center. It is located on the Bosphorus Strait, and encompasses the natural harbor known as the Golden Horn in the northwest of the country. Istanbul extends both on the European (Thrace) and on the Asian (Anatolia) side of the Bosphorus and is, thereby, the only metropolis in the world which is on two continents. Its 2000 Census population was 8,803,468 (city proper) and 10,018,735 (province), making it, by some counts, one of the largest cities in Europe. The census bureau estimate for July 20, 2005, is 11,322,000 for Istanbul province, which is generally considered as the metropolitan area, making it one of the twenty largest metropolitan areas in the world. Istanbul is located at 41° N 28° E, and is the capital of Istanbul Province. Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, had been the popular name of the city for five centuries already, a name which became official in 1930. Due to its three-thousand-year-old history, it is considered as one of the oldest still existing cities of the world. Istanbul has been chosen as the European Capital of Culture for 2010. Istanbul is sometimes called the “City on Seven Hills” because the historic peninsula, the oldest part, was built on seven hills, and is also represented with seven mosques at the top of each hill.

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