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.


Arson At The Heart Of The Roman Empire 64 AD

In AD 64 Rome was the greatest city in the Western world – the capital of an Empire approaching the height of its power. With nearly a million citizens spread across its seven hills, Rome was accustomed to dealing with serious fires in the hot, dry summers. It had the means, the knowledge, the experience and the perpetual vigilance to cope without batting an imperial eyelid.

The fire that destroyed ancient Rome began by the Circus Maximus, sweeping through the wooden shops and tenements clustered in the warren of streets around the huge stone building. A strong southeast wind drove the flames simultaneously up the Aventine and Palatine hills, faster than anyone could contain them. The fire took on a life of its own, in six days reducing four of Rome’s 14 districts to charred ash and leaving very little upright in seven more. When it looked like burning itself out, it re-ignited – according to the historian Tacitus, with help. Nothing important was spared, including Nero’s favorite palace, the Senate House, the Forum, and the temple of the Vestal Virgins, one of Rome’s oldest and most sacred sanctuaries. It swallowed up 1,700 private houses and 47,000 insulae (literally ‘islands’, meaning multiple-occupancy tenement blocks) and every slum in between.

If the Emperor Nero was directly or indirectly responsible, he got what he wanted – the space in the center of Rome to build his cherished ‘dream city’. But he also made a terrific show of helping to save the citizens, which diminishes the probable myth that he strummed the lyre while crooning a favorite verse-song called ‘The Sack of Ilium’. However, the combination of malicious conspiracy and ostentatious generosity is entirely consistent with Nero’s known instabilities – and frankly, it makes a much better story.

When was the Roman Arson: July 18-27 AD 64
Where was the Roman Arson: Rome, Italy
What was the Roman Arson death toll: Fear and panic caused more death and injury than the fire. Not even the near-contemporary accounts speak of large numbers of casualties from the fire itself. The real death toll came later in the arena of the Coliseum, where Nero sent every Christian the Praetorian Guard could arrest. Christians – then a small but irritatingly vocal evangelistic sect – were convenient scapegoats for the conflagration. After the Great Fire of Rome, Nero derived amusement from holding torch lit dinner parties – using the flaming carcasses of Christians as human torches.

You should know: Rome wasn’t rebuilt in a day – but Nero’s new Palace, the 300-acre Domus Aurea, still survives in Rome’s ancient center, exactly where he ‘dreamed’ it would be.

Sultana Steamboat Tragedy – 1865

The bitter four-year civil war which had torn the American nation apart, pitting North against South, was finally over, and captured Union soldiers who had been held in Confederacy prisons in the South could at last look forward to a reunion with their families. Weakened and exhausted though they were by the harsh conditions of their incarceration, many hundreds of freed prisoners were in understandably high spirits as they boarded the paddle steamer Sultana at the Mississippi river port of Vicksburg on the evening of April 24 1865.

The Sultana was a typical Mississippi side-wheeler; built for the cotton trade, it had often plied the mighty river as a troop carrier during the war. It had left New Orleans three days previously on the long river journey north to Cincinnati, with a regular complement of cabin passengers and a cargo of sugar and livestock.

The problems started at Vicksburg when the crew were powerless to prevent the horde of ex-Union soldiers who pressed their way on board. When the steamer set sail again it was carrying some 2,300 passengers – six times its authorized capacity. The spring flood waters were at their height and the Sultana’s progress was slow against the strong current. When the boat docked two days later at Memphis its boilers were found to be leaking and had to be repaired. Shortly after resuming its passage the boilers gave out under the huge strain and a massive explosion lit up the night sky. The vessel was blown apart and soon ablaze. Those on board, many of whom were unable to swim as well as enfeebled by the ordeal of their captivity, were forced to make a ghastly choice between a watery grave in the ice-cold river or being burned alive.

When was the Sultana Steamboat Tragedy: April 27 1865

Where was the Sultana Steamboat Tragedy: Mississippi River, north of Mephis, Tennessee, USA

What was the Sultana Steamboat Tragedy death toll: Exact figures are unknown as there was no roll-call of the passengers, but estimates of deaths range between 1500 and 1900. Certainly there were only a few hundred survivors.

You should know: The tragedy got very little press coverage at the time as everyone’s attention was focused on the end of the war. The final surrender of the Confederacy forces had taken place only the day before.


Fort Washington Great Train Wreck – 1856

The children who attended the Sunday school at St Michael’s Catholic Church in the Philadelphia suburb of Kensington were excited by the prospect of an outing to Fort Washington, outside the city, for a picnic in the park. They were up at dawn and were boarding the special excursion train by 05.00. Already the balmy mid July air gave promise of a warm day to come. There must have been plenty of lively chatter among the 1,500 children who clambered into the wooden box cars for the short journey. The year was 1856 and for many it will have been their first train ride as the North Pennsylvania Railroad on which they were travelling was just one year old.

The steam train was 20 minutes late leaving by the time everyone was safely boarded. The driver knew that a passenger train was scheduled to be approaching from the opposite direction on the same section of single-track line, but he reckoned that he could make up the time so that the two trains could pass each other at a siding along the route. The driver of the passenger train also knew about the excursion and he had slowed down to 16 kph (10 mph) and was blowing his whistle continuously as he approached a blind curve at Camp Hill. The excursion train, however, was on a downhill run and travelling much faster when it rounded the curve and smacked straight into the other. In the head-on collision the boiler of one of the locomotives exploded – it was said that the explosion could be heard 8 km (5 mi) away – and the Sunday school train came off the rails. The children stood no chance in the conflagration that followed as flames engulfed the tinder-dry box cars.

When was the Fort Washington Great Train Wreck: July 17 1856

Where was the Fort Washington Great Train Wreck: Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, USA

What was the Fort Washington Great Train Wreck death toll: Between 59 and 67 people died in the crash, mostly children. Hundreds more were injured.

You should know: The Camp Hill disaster, as the crash is also known, remains one of the worst railway accidents in American history.

The IV Olympiad 1908

Dorando Pietri’s marathon run

To become the defining symbol of an Olympiad, an athlete will normally have won one or more gold medals. That was the case with Mark Spitz, Jesse Owens and Nadia Comaneci, to name but a few. However, in the 1908 Olympic Games, an athlete who didn’t even make the podium captured the hearts of a nation and became the face of the games.

The Games, held in London, were billed as a contest between New World and old – the brash parvenu Americans versus the stiff-upper-lipped British. In the event, a tragicomic character from Italy was to upstage them all.

Even Dorando Pietri’s entrance into the sport of athletics is the stuff of legend. In September 1904 Pietri had been standing in the doorway of the delicatessen where he worked when the champion road runner sped past, during a 10 km (6 mi) race. The desire to race overcame him and, hitching up his apron, he matched strides with the champion all the way to the finishing line without breaking sweat. A star was born.

By the time of the 1908 Olympics, Dorando had already run a marathon in an astonishingly quick time of two hours 38 minutes. It was therefore no surprise that, coming into the stadium, he had gained himself a lead of over three minutes. From here on in, things began to go badly wrong for the Italian. Just feet from the line his legs turned to jelly and he collapsed. First aid was administered and when he came round the doctor and a steward helped him to his feet.

Unable to teeter more than a few steps, he dropped and was picked up again, before being helped across the line. The crowd of 100,000 roared their approval. But the Americans, whose athlete Johnny Haynes finished second, objected. Poor Pietri was subsequently disqualified.

When was Dorando Pietri’s Marathon Run: July 24 1908

Where was Dorando Pietri’s Marathon Run: Between Windsor Castle and White City Stadium, London, UK

You should know: The 1908 Marathon was extended by 350 m (1,155 ft) so that it could start at Windsor Castle. It is quite possible that, had it been run over the previous traditional distance of 42 km (26 mi) Dorando would have made it across the line unaided. He did, however, become the darling of the games and a special medal was struck in his honour.

Ibrox Stadium Disaster 1902

Even though the football fixture between Scotland and the Auld Enemy England at Ibrox Park in 1902 was the 31st meeting between the two teams, stadium-based mass spectator sport was still in its infancy. Crowd control was little more than volunteer stewards holding up signs to indicate that parts of the ground were full, while the police were on hand to crack a few heads if things got rowdy, as they quite often did.

Fate played a hand in proceedings as the venue for the fixture, an unofficial world championship, was decided by the toss of a coin. Celtic lost out, so it was the home of Glasgow Rangers that would host this prestigious event. By the time of the 15.45 kick-off a partisan crowd of around 70,000 had assembled in the ground. Singing, clapping and stamping their feet, they roared as the players took to the field.

The match had barely kicked off when disaster struck the West End Stand. The wooden structure gave way under the stress of the heaving masses, creating a giant hole through which people began to fall. Panic ensued as thousands who were near the hole began to flee the terrifying pit. They rushed towards ground level, crushing those on the lower tiers whose attention was fixed firmly on the game. It soon became a scene of carnage as people lay injured and dying with little chance of medical assistance.

It is perhaps indicative of the times that the match was halted for a mere 15 minutes to allow the wounded and the dead to be stretchered away before play resumed. That people should attend a sporting fixture and not come home alive was, however, something that shook the whole of Britain, and benefit matches across Glasgow’s sectarian divide were set up to support the bereaved families.

When did the Ibrox Stadium disaster happen: April 5 1902

Where did the Ibrox Stadium disaster happen: Ibrox stadium, Glasgow, Scotland, UK

What was the Ibrox Stadium’s disaster death toll: 25 dead 500 plus injured

You should know: In just over 100 years of its history Ibrox has witnessed almost 100 deaths. The words ‘ibrox’ and ‘disaster’ have all too often been synonymous, most recently in 1971 when 66 died after a stairwell gave way.