The Plague of Justinian 541-542 AD

Although there is plenty of evidence that bubonic plague has been around for as long as mankind, the plague of Justinian is the first properly documented bubonic plague pandemic. The Greek historian Procopius wrote a history of the Byzantine Roman Empire during the reign of Justinian, in which he recounts the devastation wreaked by the plague on Constantinople (later renamed Istanbul), at that time the most important political and cultural center of the Western world and the hub of Christian civilization.

The plague appears to have started in Lower Egypt in AD 540 and gradually spread across the Mediterranean in the ships that transported grain to the center of the Empire. The first few cases appeared in Constantinople in the spring of 542. The disease soon took hold and started to spread like wildfire, raging for four months. People died faster than they could be buried. The Emperor ordered vast pits to be dug to dispose of the rotting corpses; when these overflowed, bodies were stuffed into the towers of the city walls with quicklime poured over them to speed up decomposition, or were loaded onto ships that were pushed out into the Sea of Marmora and set alight. Constantinople came to a standstill, food started to run out and law and order broke down. By the time the plague had run its course nearly half the city’s population was dead.

The plague spread throughout Western Europe where it became endemic with localized outbreaks occurring for the next two centuries. However, the worst was over by AD 590, by which time about a third of Europe’s population had been wiped out. Not for another 1,000 years, when the Black Death ravaged Europe, would a pandemic on the scale of the plague of Justinian be experienced again.

When was the The Plague of Justinian: AD 541-542

Where was the The Plague of Justinian: Constantinople (Istanbul) in present-day Turkey

What was the The Plague of Justinian death toll: Without any accurate historical record, it is impossible to be certain of the mortality rate: estimates vary between 25 million and 100 million deaths – a vast number. At the height of the plague 10,000 people a day were dying in Constantinople.

You should know: Bubonic plague is a virulent flea-borne bacterial infection that primarily affects rodents. The plague spreads to other mammals, including humans, when infected fleas looking for a new host settle on them. The flea-bite injects the plague bacteria into the victim, causing ‘buboes’, excruciatingly painful swellings that quickly turn gangrenous. Today bubonic plague is easily treatable with antibiotics but there are still about 2,000 deaths a year across the world.


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