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The Justinian Plague Was Bad, but Not as Bad as People Say

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The bacterium Yersinia pestis has been blamed for killing hundreds of millions of people in Europe, Asia, and North Africa. If you don’t recognize that name, you may recognize it by some of its other handles: the Black Death, the Pestilence, and the Plague. 

The Black Death

The pandemic that we have come to call the Black Death was in fact a series of pandemics that occurred over centuries. The Black Death peaked from 1347 to 1351 when it killed between 75,000,000 and 200,000,000 people in North Africa and Eurasia. That horrific four-year pandemic was not the first time the Pestilence had wreaked havoc on society. The first plague pandemic was the Plague of Justinian. It was named in honor of the ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire in 541, Justinian I. 

The Plague of Justinian

The Plague of Justinian occurred from 541 to 542, though it lingered until 750. It was focused around Constantinople (located in what is now Turkey) and the port cities around the Mediterranean Sea. The emergence and spread of the Justinian Plague is blamed on rats infested with plague-infected fleas that were carried on Egyptian grain ships traveling in and out of those ports.

The Plague of Justinian was commonly blamed for killing somewhere between 25,000,000 and 100,000,000 people between approximately 541 and 750. That’s a figure equal to roughly half of Europe’s entire population in around 540. Deaths caused by the bacteria were said to have occurred in a huge area, including Northern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. 


Michael Palmer / Wikipedia / CC BY 4.0

But How Bad Was It?

In Constantinople, written documents suggested the plague killed in the neighborhood of 300,000 people — over half of Constantinople’s population.  Early historians and researchers used that death rate to extrapolate the total death toll caused by the Justinian Plague. The resulting total death toll, 25,000,000 to 100,000,000, is vastly overstated, according to recent research.

Researchers at the University of Maryland applied mathematical modeling to the available records and accounts of the Justinian Plague. They couldn’t determine a precise and lower total death toll but established that the “half of Europe” figure is too high. 

Why? For several reasons. First, that figure is based on records from Constantinople, where the plague was well-documented. It appears the outbreak there was more severe than elsewhere and that death rates elsewhere were much lower.

Second, assume Constantinople-like death rates elsewhere were inappropriate, since transmission routes would have been different everywhere in the massive empire.

In a May 2020 statement, the researchers rejected the Constantinople-based records as a proper basis for determining the breadth and seriousness of the Justinian Plague:

From the modeling, they found that it was unlikely that any transmission route of the plague would have had both the mortality rate and duration described in the primary sources…it is unlikely that a plague outbreak would have impacted all corners of the diverse empire equally. 

This academic mash-up of mathematicians and historians has undermined common accounts of the seriousness of the Justinian Plague but has not replaced those accounts with any firm new consensus. Instead, researchers say, “It’s another call to examine the primary sources and narratives surrounding the Justinianic Plague more critically.”

Some 1,500 years after the Justinian Plague began, researchers are still trying to figure it out. As recently as April 2020, it made number two in the article Here’s The Grisly Details On The Most Devastating And Deadly Plagues, Pandemics, and Epidemics in History. Will this recent research force a reconsideration of that ranking once the historical narrative is re-written? 

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