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The Plague of Justinian

The plague of Justinian

The Plague of Justinian

In the year 542 AD, a catastrophic event unfolded that would forever alter the course of Byzantine history. The Plague of Justinian, named after the reigning Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, swept through the Eastern Roman Empire, leaving a trail of death and destruction in its wake. 

Origins and Spread

The Plague of Justinian is believed to have originated in the Eastern Mediterranean, possibly in Egypt or the Nile Delta. Precopius in his ‘History of the Wars’ suggests that it ‘started from the Egyptians who dwell in Pelusium’ and that it then spread towards Alexandria and Palestine initially. 

Historians speculate that it was caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium, similar to the one responsible for the Black Death in the 14th century and this has link has been reinforced by the detection of of Y. Pestis DNA from human remains in gravesites from the period. The disease spread through trade routes, facilitated by the bustling commerce of the Byzantine Empire.

Contemporary sources describe ‘swellings’ and ‘black pustules’ which all lean towards the ‘Black Death’ although accounts of ‘apparitions of supernatural beings in human guise’ give a clue as to the superstitious times and fear of the people. 

Impact on Society

The impact of the Plague of Justinian on society was nothing short of catastrophic. Estimates suggest that the pandemic resulted in the deaths of millions of people, exacting a heavy toll on urban and rural populations alike. 

The dense cities of the empire became hotbeds for the transmission of the disease, leading to a rapid spread and high mortality rates. Some scholars have suggested that, at it’s peak, Constantinople suffered 5000 deaths per day and that the initial wave of the plague caused 40% of people to die in the city. In the countryside and Eastern Mediterranean as a whole 25% of people are estimated to have succumbed. 

The death toll was so immense that it caused severe labour shortages and economic decline, leaving fields untended and industries crippled.

Political and Economic Consequences

The Byzantine Empire, already grappling with territorial challenges and military conflicts, was ill-prepared to handle the widespread devastation caused by the plague. The loss of a significant portion of the population weakened the empire’s military and administrative capacity, making it vulnerable to external threats. 

Justinian had exhausted his exchequer to some extent already with the huge cost of his wars against the Vandals and the Ostrogoths, not to mention large scale building projects such as the Hagia Sophia. The economic fallout resulting from huge number of deaths had a massive negative impact on the tax income of the state and the disrupted trade and decreased agricultural productivity further destabilized the Byzantine economy, leading to inflation and social unrest.

Significant quantities of grain from Egypt were the staple of the population of the large cities and as the harvest were disrupted this lead to shortages and consequent price increases. These increases drove wage demands higher and lead to starvation.

Justinian’s Response

Emperor Justinian I recognized the magnitude of the crisis and took various measures to mitigate the impact of the plague. He implemented public health regulations, such as quarantines and restrictions on movement.

Justinian instructed Theodorus, his ‘referendarius’ or public announcer, to take charge of the response and significant expenditure was incurred ensuring that the dead were buried. Initially, mass graves were constructed but as the plague got worse, the dead were crammed into the towers of the city fortifications. 

Treatment of the plague was largely ineffectual whether this was treatment at home via ‘home remedy’ o by trained physicians. Physicians at the time were trained centred on the teaching of Galen, which revolved around the concept of ‘humorism’. This centred on the idea that illness was an imbalance of the body humours of blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. Unfortunately, they had no idea what the real cause of the illness was and as such any treatment was ineffectual. Home remedies consisted of prayer, cold water baths, amulets and rings blessed by saints.

Justinian himself contracted the plague, as Procopius notes he ‘had a swelling in his groin’ but managed to recover. However, in cases where people did not recover and that they had died without making a will, Justinian changed the law to deal quickly with inheritance claims.

Long-Term Effects and Legacy

The Plague of Justinian had profound and long-lasting effects on the Byzantine Empire and the world. It significantly weakened the Byzantine state through the destruction of it’s economy and social structures. This had a knock on impact on the military power that the state was able to project, making it more susceptible to external invasions. In the decades following the plague, the empire lost vast territories to various invaders, including the Lombards who defeated the Byzanitines in Italy in 568 AD. Despite Justinian’s efforts the outcome was a contraction of Byzantine influence an power overall.

Furthermore, the social and economic upheaval caused by the pandemic altered the balance of power within the empire, leading to political and social transformations. The devastation caused by the plague also had demographic consequences, reshaping the population structure of the empire for generations to come. Notably, this starved the empire of military recruits and tax revenues which were both critical to the overall health of the state.

The Plague of Justinian stands as a watershed moment in Byzantine history, leaving an indelible mark on the empire’s social, economic, and political fabric. Its devastating impact reverberated for centuries, reshaping the demographic landscape and contributing to the decline of Byzantine power. This pandemic serves as a stark reminder of the far-reaching consequences that infectious diseases can have on societies and underscores the importance of preparedness and effective response strategies in the face of such threats.


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