Societal Impact Of Justinian Plague May Have Been Exaggerated

  • Date: 05/12/19
  • Science News

Archaeological evidence suggests a sixth century epidemic didn’t radically change European history

plague
A sixth century Eurasian plague, depicted in this painting as suddenly striking the Italian man on the left, was nowhere near as deadly and politically destabilizing as many scholars have assumed, an analysis indicates.JOSSE LIEFERINXE/WALTERS ART MUSEUM (CC0)

An ancient bubonic plague outbreak often characterized as a mass killer that felled Eurasian civilizations was actually pretty tame, researchers say.

Known as the Justinianic plague, the outbreak likely didn’t cause enough deaths to trigger major events such as the eastern Roman Empire’s decline, Islam’s rise and the emergence of modern Europe, say environmental historian Lee Mordechai and his colleagues.

Many scholars have argued that the Justinianic plague caused tens of millions of deaths starting in the sixth century and reduced European and Middle Eastern populations by 25 to 60 percent. Economies crumbled as a result, devastating what was left of the Roman Empire and ushering in a period of cultural stagnation, from this perspective.

But several new lines of archaeological evidence related to ancient population and economic changes challenge that scenario, Mordechai and his team report December 2 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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“Support for the claim that the Justinianic plague was a watershed event in the ancient world is just not there,” says study coauthor Merle Eisenberg, an environmental historian at the University of Maryland’s National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis. Yet a scenario of the plague outbreak wiping out populations and reshaping societies appears in many textbooks on ancient history, he says.

The Justinianic outbreak, caused by the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis, occurred several centuries before the more widely known Black Death plague, which killed tens of millions of people in the 14th century (SN: 1/17/16). An initial outbreak began during the reign of Emperor Justinian, who ruled the eastern part of the Roman Empire after the fall of Rome, and ran from around 541 to 544. Intermittent plague reoccurrences lasted until around 750, and stretched around the Mediterranean and into Europe and the Middle East.

Researchers in different disciplines have often wrongly assumed that evidence from archaeology, genetics, ancient texts and other sources all indicate that the Justinianic plague wreaked social havoc, contends geographer Neil Roberts of the University of Plymouth in England. Mordechai’s team has assessed evidence from across disciplines to reach a contrasting but plausible conclusion, says Roberts, who did not participate in the study.

In one new finding that points to the Justinianic plague having only a modest impact, land use and cereal cultivation remained largely unchanged during the sixth century in several eastern Mediterranean regions often said to have been shattered by plague. Based on ancient pollen data collected by other investigators, Mordechai, also of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, and his group found no signs of people abandoning farmland in those areas, including agricultural sites near Roman trade routes and cities such as Constantinople, now Istanbul, where plague could have spread quickly.

Neither did burials of five or more deceased individuals in the same grave increase in sixth century Europe, the researchers say. In particular, they emphasize, evidence from 8,207 ancient graves across what’s now England, Scotland and Wales suggests that multiple interments increased slowly starting in the 300s, with no unusual jumps during the time of the Justinianic plague. Mass burials represent another possible sign of a particularly deadly plague outbreak, but in some regions could reflect a cultural practice aimed at keeping deceased members of the same families or social groups together.

Early historical texts and stone inscriptions from Europe and the eastern Mediterranean contain few plague references, the investigators also found. And other written sources indicate that official Roman legislation did not decline after the 541 outbreak, as would be expected in a social crisis.

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