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The Great Plague devastates Constantinople 541-543

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Christa Jenneman
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« on: February 21, 2010, 09:42:12 am »

The Great Plague devastates Constantinople
541-543


    In AD 542 a plague struck Constantinople that was so overwhelming, it changed the face of history forever. This plague occurred in the 15th year of the emperor Justinian's reign. At the height of the contagion's rampage, the daily death toll may have reached 10,000 or more. Justinian himself, was stricken with this disease. The final death count is not clearly known, but some historians feel that it may have reached into the upper hundreds of thousands.

    Much of the information that is known about this plague comes from Procopius. Procopius was the legal advisor to the general Belisarius. He accompanied Belisarius on his missions throughout the Mediterranean Basin at the time that the plague erupted. It is through his accounts that the course of the disease, and the reality of the suffering became public to Europe.

    Back to "Restoration of the Roman Empire in the East" Chronology

    The disease was first noticed in Pelusium. This is an Egyptian harbor town, which was infected with a huge rat problem (as was most of Europe at this time). It then ripped through Alexandria on its northern invasion towards Syria and Palestine. (1) Procopius wrote "From there it seemed to spread all over the world, this catastrophe was so overwhelming that the human race appeared close to annihilation." The problem with this plague was that no one was sure of what caused it. In later years we have found out that the disease was caused by bacteria and parasites that used rats as hosts. These rats would then infect our drinking and eating sources, thus spreading the bacteria to hundreds of thousands of people. It was written by Procopius that all victims appeared to experience similar symptoms. (2) "They had a sudden fever, some while sleeping, some while walking, and others while engaged without any regard of what they were doing." Soon after, the symptoms would escalate into a type of swelling. The abdomen, armpits, thighs, and ears were the most common body parts affected. The lymph glands were also commonly affected. They were called buboes and for this part of the body the illness was named. (3)

    Normally the disease would then take a sharp turn for the worse. Some would die suddenly, while others would remain alive in a violent state of deliriousness. Some victims would fall into coma and die in their sleep. The most excruciating death, though, came from the victims who remained conscious and mentally awake as the contagion ravaged their bodies. In some cases, a discharge of puss signified that the victim was on the mend, in others the swelling simply disappeared, but the victim suddenly died, as if he was poisoned.

    Finally, some survivors regained perfect health. These people that recovered were then believed to be immune. They were then put to work carrying off and burying the thousands of new bodies daily. Soon these "undertakers" were again taken ill, this time though often falling the fatal victim to the plague. Many problems now would arise: what to do with the bodies since there was no one who could dispose of them, and the mass-graves were soon going to be filled. The people of Constantinople began to place bodies anywhere they could. Bodies were placed in towers, on roofs, in water, and burned. Some were not dealt with at all, simply left in houses to rot. Famine set in to the city too, because mills where corn was ground stopped operating. (4) Money and food were handed out to these brave souls in the name of Justinian.

    Just as the disease seemed to be at its peak, it disappeared. Winter halted the disease, along with the dispersion of people to the neighboring rural areas. The plague, however, held on to life. Though the bacteria retreated, it was by no means conquered. It would attack again in the 14th century with such fury that it would earn a new name. That name would strike terror in the hearts and minds of people for years to come -- Black Death.

 

    Notes:

    (1) - Great Disasters, p. 60.

    (2) - Great Disasters , p. 61.

    (3) - "Medicine"

    (4) - Justinian and Theodora, p. 181.

 

    Bibliography:

    Barker, John W. Justinian and the Later Roman Empire, (Madison; University of Wisconsin, 1966).

    Great Disasters, (McGraw-Hill, 1989).

    Browning, Robert. Justinian and Theodore, (New York; Praeger Publishers, 1971).

    Byzantium, (New York; Time-Life, 1966).

    "Medicine" in: World Book Encyclopedia (1989).

http://www.thenagain.info/WebChron/easteurope/Plague.html
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Christa Jenneman
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« Reply #1 on: February 21, 2010, 09:43:13 am »

The Plague of Justinian was a pandemic that afflicted the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire), including its capital Constantinople, in the years 541–542 AD. The most commonly accepted cause of the pandemic is bubonic plague, which later became infamous for either causing or for contributing to the Black Death of the 14th century. Its social and cultural impact is comparable to that of the Black Death. In the views of 6th century Western historians, it was nearly worldwide in scope, striking central and south Asia, North Africa and Arabia,[citation needed] and Europe as far north as Denmark and as far west as Ireland.

The plague would return with each generation throughout the Mediterranean basin until about 750. The plague would also have a major impact on the future course of European history. Modern historians named it after the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I, who was in power at the time and himself contracted the disease.
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« Reply #2 on: February 21, 2010, 09:43:44 am »

Origins and spread

The outbreak may have originated in Ethiopia or Egypt[citation needed] and moved northward until it reached metropolitan Constantinople. The city imported massive amounts of grain—mostly from Egypt—to feed its citizens and grain ships may have been the original source of contagion, with the massive public granaries nurturing the rat and flea population.

The Byzantine historian Procopius records that, at its peak, the plague was killing 10,000 people in Constantinople every day, although the accuracy of this figure is in question and the true number will probably never be known for sure; what is known is that there was no room to bury the dead, and bodies were being left stacked in the open. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian I ensured that new legislation was swiftly enacted so as to deal more efficiently with the glut of inheritance suits being brought as a result of the plague deaths (Moorhead, J., 1994).

Justinian had expended huge amounts of money for wars against the Vandals in the Carthage region and the Ostrogoth Kingdom of Italy. He had also dedicated significant funds to the construction of great churches like the Hagia Sophia. Amidst these great expenditures, the plague's effects on tax revenue were disastrous. As the plague spread to port cities around the Mediterranean, it gave the struggling Goths new opportunities in their conflict with Constantinople. The plague weakened the Byzantine Empire at the critical point at which Justinian's armies had nearly wholly retaken Italy and the western Mediterranean coast; this could have credibly reformed the Western Roman Empire and united it with the Eastern under a single emperor for the first time since 395 AD. It also may have contributed to the success of the Arabs a few generations later in the Byzantine-Arab Wars.[1]

The long term effects on European and Christian history were enormous. Justinian's gambit was ultimately unsuccessful. The overextended troops could not hold on. When the plague subsided, they were able to retake Italy but not to move further north. They held it for the remainder of Justinian's life, but the empire quickly lost all of Italy but the southern part after he died. Italy was decimated by war and fragmented for centuries as the Lombard tribes invaded the north.
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« Reply #3 on: February 21, 2010, 09:44:11 am »

Virulence and mortality rate

The actual number of deaths will always be uncertain. Modern scholars believe that the plague killed up to 5,000 people per day in Constantinople at the peak of the pandemic. It ultimately killed perhaps 40% of the city's inhabitants. The initial plague went on to destroy up to a quarter of the human population of the eastern Mediterranean. New, frequent waves of the plague continued to strike throughout the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries AD, often more localized and less virulent. It is estimated that the Plague of Justinian killed as many as 100 million people across the world.[2][3] Some historians such as Josiah C. Russell (1958) have suggested a total European population loss of 50% to 60% between 541 and 700.[4]

After 750, major epidemic diseases would not appear again in Europe until the Black Death of the 14th century.
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« Reply #4 on: February 21, 2010, 09:44:50 am »

An Empire's Epidemic

Scientists Use DNA in Search for Answers to 6th Century Plague

By THOMAS H. MAUGH II, Times Staff Writer

By the middle of the 6th century, the Emperor Justinian had spread his Byzantine Empire around the rim of the Mediterranean and throughout Europe, laying the groundwork for what he hoped would be a long-lived dynasty.

His dreams were shattered when disease-bearing mice from lower Egypt reached the harbor town of Pelusium in AD 540. From there, the devastating disease spread to Alexandria and, by ship, to Constantinople, Justinian's capital, before surging throughout his empire.

By the time Justinian's plague had run its course in AD 590, it had killed as many as 100 million people -- half the population of Europe -- brought trade to a near halt, destroyed an empire and, perhaps, brought on the Dark Ages. Some historians think that the carnage may also have sounded the death knell for slavery as the high demand for labor freed serfs from their chains. Justinian's plague was a "major cataclysm," says historian Lester K. Little, director of the American Academy in Rome, "but the amount of research that has been done by historians is really minimal."

Little is hoping to do something about that. In December, he brought the world's plague experts together in Rome to lay the groundwork for an ambitious research program on the pandemic. A book resulting from the meeting will be published this year.

Modern techniques for studying DNA have begun answering long-standing questions about the evolution of the plague bacillus, how it infects humans and what can be done to counteract it.
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« Reply #5 on: February 21, 2010, 09:45:03 am »

While a 6th century plague might seem an esoteric subject, Little and others think that it has great relevance in a modern world that is continually threatened by emerging diseases. A second pandemic of plague struck Europe in the Middle Ages -- the so-called Black Death -- killing 25 million people and once more producing widespread social disruption.

A third pandemic began in China in the late 19th century and spread to North America, where a large reservoir of the disease remains active in animals throughout the Southwest.

An outbreak occurred in Los Angeles in 1924-25, but was contained.

Plague could become a tool of bioterrorists. Russian experts have long argued that plague is a much more frightening prospect than anthrax. As part of their germ war efforts during the Cold War, Soviet scientists developed strains of plague resistant to antibiotics used to cure infections. Unleashing such organisms could potentially have a devastating effect on modern society.

Understanding Justinian's plague could also lead to insights into other types of disasters, man-made and natural, adds UCLA historian Michael Morony.

"People were dying faster than they could be buried," he said. "I find myself wondering how society survived. That's a relevant question to try to understand."

Plague is caused by a bacillus called Yersinia pestis, identified in 1894 by the Swiss bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin. The bacterium once killed more than half the people it infected but is now routinely controlled by such antibiotics as streptomycin, gentamicin or tetracycline.
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« Reply #6 on: February 21, 2010, 09:45:15 am »

Plague Still Kills

2,000 People a Year

About 2,000 deaths from plague are still reported worldwide every year, a handful of them in the United States. Naturally occurring strains resistant to antibiotics have been observed recently, however, and scientists fear that their spread could lead to large outbreaks.

Y. pestis is carried by rats and other animals. It can be transmitted to humans by direct exposure to an infected animal. Most often, however, it is carried by fleas that bite the infected animals, then bite humans.

People bitten by such fleas develop agonizingly painful, egg-sized swellings of the lymph nodes -- called buboes -- in the neck, armpit and groin. Hence the name bubonic plague.

Some authorities recognize two other forms of plague, one called pulmonary or pneumonic, in which the lungs are affected, and one called septicemic, in which the organism invades the bloodstream, but all are the same disease, Little said.

Because of its possible use in bioterrorism, researchers have been actively studying the plague organism. In October, a British team from the Sanger Center in Cambridge reported that they had decoded the complete DNA sequence of Y. pestis, a feat that could help to control outbreaks.
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« Reply #7 on: February 21, 2010, 09:45:29 am »

"The genome sequence we have produced contains every possible drug or vaccine target for the organism," said Dr. Julian Parkhill, the team's leader.

Genetics shows that the closest relative of Y. pestis is a gut bacterium called Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, which is transmitted through food and water and which causes diarrhea, gastroenteritis and other intestinal problems, but is rarely fatal. Y. pseudotuberculosis may be the immediate ancestor of Y. pestis, but it is not transmitted by fleas. Last month, researchers apparently discovered why.

Bacteriologist B. Joseph Hinnebusch and his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health's Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana reported that the key is a gene called PDL, which is carried by the plague bacterium, but not by the one that causes diarrhea.

Although they do not yet know how it works, PDL allows Y. pestis to survive in the gut of the rat flea. Artificially produced strains of the bacterium without the gene are destroyed in the flea's gut and thus cannot be transmitted to humans.

Hinnebusch and his colleagues believe the bacterium acquired the gene from other soil bacteria by a process called horizontal transfer, somewhat akin to a form of bacterial sex. The transfer probably took place 1,500 to 20,000 years ago, they said, setting the stage for full-scale epidemics of plague. "Our research illustrates how a single genetic change can profoundly affect the evolution of disease," Hinnebusch said.

Some scholars have argued that Y. pestis was not the cause of the Black Death and, by implication, of Justinian's plague as well. Jean Durliat, a French expert on the Byzantine Empire, argued in the 1980s that contemporary literary accounts of Justinian's plague were overblown and exaggerated, and not supported by archeological evidence.
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« Reply #8 on: February 21, 2010, 09:45:41 am »

Last year, British historians Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan published "Biology of Plagues," arguing that death spread through Europe much too rapidly in the 14th century to be caused by Y. pestis.

They believe that the Black Death must have spread through human-to-human contact and argue that it might have been caused by the Ebola virus or something similar.

Anthropologist James Wood of Pennsylvania State University made a similar argument last month at a meeting in Buffalo, N.Y.

"This disease appears to spread too rapidly among humans to be something that must first be established in wild rodent populations, like bubonic plague," Wood said. "An analysis of monthly mortality rates [among priests] during the epidemic shows a 45-fold greater risk of death than during normal times, far higher than usually associated with bubonic plague."

But molecular biology may be on the brink of answering questions that history cannot. One unique feature of the plague virus is that it accumulates inside the teeth of its victims, where its DNA can be protected for centuries, or perhaps even longer.

Molecular biologists Michel Drancourt and Olivier Dutour of the University of the Mediterranean in Marseilles, France, reported in 1998 that they had identified Y. pestis DNA in human remains dating from 1590 and 1722. Two years later, they reported a similar finding in remains dating from 1348.

That evidence is "pretty impressive," said Little, and indicates that Y. pestis at the very least played a role in the Black Death.

The Marseilles team is continuing to study other remains from the period to document how widespread the infections were. Meanwhile, archeologists are searching for plague cemeteries from the time of Justinian to perform similar studies.
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« Reply #9 on: February 21, 2010, 09:46:08 am »

Mass Graves Found

In Gaza to Be Studied

Archeologist Michael McCormick of Harvard University has already identified eight mass graves in the Gaza Strip, Turkey and Italy where he expects to find human remains dating from the 6th to the 8th centuries. Remains have yet to be exhumed, however.

Some researchers speculate that a particularly virulent form of Y. pestis was responsible for Justinian's plague or the Black Death, just as an unusually pathogenic form of the influenza virus caused the worldwide flu pandemic in the early 20th century. Analysis of human remains could yield clues.

Theoretically, McCormick said, if DNA is found in the remains, it could be possible to grow the organisms in the laboratory and see if it is, in fact, more virulent.

One of the "major social issues" arising from the great mortality of the plague "is that it tends to raise the value of labor," Little said. "There are not enough workers around anymore. You can't find servants and, when you do find someone, they tend to charge outrageous amounts."

Little and others believe that this increased premium on labor was the final blow to slavery during the Justinian plague and that it similarly brought an end to serfdom during the Black Death.

Historians obviously still have a lot to learn about these pandemics, but valuable first steps have been taken, Little said. With the increasing assistance of molecular biologists, he added, the final pieces of the puzzle may now fall into place.

http://www.ph.ucla.edu/EPI/bioter/anempiresepidemic.html
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« Reply #10 on: February 21, 2010, 09:52:50 am »

The Plague of Justinian (541-542) is the first known pandemic on record, and it also marks the first firmly recorded pattern of bubonic plague. This outbreak may have originated in Ethiopia or Egypt and moved northward until it reached the large city of Constantinople. The city imported massive amounts of grain to feed its citizens—mostly from Egypt—and grain ships may have been the original source of contagion, with the massive public granaries nurturing the rat and flea population.

The Byzantine historian Procopius records that, at its peak, the plague was killing 10,000 people in Constantinople every day. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian I ensured that new legislation was swiftly enacted so as to deal more efficiently with the glut of inheritance suits being brought as a result of the plague deaths (Moorhead, J., 1994).

Justinian had expended huge amounts of money for wars against the Vandals in the Carthage area and the Ostrogoth kingdom of Italy. He had also dedicated significant funds on the construction of great churches like the Hagia Sophia. Coming on the heels of these great expenditures, the effects this epidemic had on tax collection was disastrous. As the plague spread to port cities around the Mediterranean, it gave the struggling Goths new opportunities in their conflict with Constantinople. The plague weakened the Byzantine empire at the critical point when Justinian's armies had nearly wholly invested Italy and could have credibly reformed a Western Roman Empire. The long term effects on European and Christian history would have been enormous. As it was, the **** Justinian took backfired and the overextended troops could not hold on. Italy was decimated by war and fragmented for centuries as the Lombard tribes invaded the north.

It should be noted that ancient historians, and Byzantine historians in particular, and Procopius above all, did not hold to modern standards of fact-checking or numerical accuracy. The actual number of deaths will always be uncertain. Modern scholars believe that plague killed up to 5,000 people per day in Constantinople at the peak of the pandemic. It ultimately killed perhaps 40 percent of the city's inhabitants. The plague went on to destroy up to a quarter of the human population of the eastern Mediterranean. A second major plague wave in 588 spread through the Mediterranean into what is now France. A maximum figure of 25 million dead for the Plague of Justinian is considered a fairly reasonable estimate.

A major pandemic would not appear again in Europe until the Black Death of the 14th century, almost 1000 years later.

References

    * McNeill, William H. "Plagues and Peoples." Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., New York, NY, 1976, ISBN 0-385-12122-9.
    * Moorhead, J., "Justinian", London 1994.
    * Orent, Wendy. "Plague, The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World's Most Dangerous Disease.", Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, NY, 2004, ISBN 0-7432-3685-8.

http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/Medieval/LX/PlagueOfJustinian.html
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