Plague of Justinian: Older Brother of the Black Death

Infected monks. Religious figures were often the highest demographic of the diseased, as they had to perform last rites on the sick and dying.

By Dr. Kathryn Meyers Emery / 05.17.2013
Mortuary Archaeologist

The Black Death, or Bubonic Plague, was one of the most devastating pandemics to sweep through Europe. In only four years, this single disease wiped out half the population and set back the progress of the nations of Western Europe. Its rapid spread was attributed to fleas, who traveled throughout the countrysides and cities on rats carried on trade caravans. Once bitten, the  victim begins showing signs of swelling of the lymph nodes in the groin and armpits. This was followed by fever, discoloration and vomiting of blood. The high death toll led to economic and social disruption, which in turn caused a rise in religious fervor and fanaticism. After this massive outbreak, it continued to haunt Europe with recurrences throughout the next four centuries. However, before this famous ‘great pestilence’ there was an earlier plague that wiped out of the last remaining powers of the classical era, the Plague of Justinian.

Following the end of the Western Roman Empire in the early 5th century, Europe changed from a united empire to divided and warring kingdoms ruled by barbarians.  However, in Constantinople, the Roman Empire continued in the form of the Byzantines. In the mid-6th century, they were poised to be powerful enough to take back Europe or at least reclaim their lost capital of Italy and Rome. But their mission to take back their lost empire was stopped, not by men but by infection. In 541 CE, the Plague of Justinian, an early form of the bubonic plague hit the Byzantine Empire. The symptoms were similar to the Black Death of the 14th century with swollen lymph nodes and necrosis of the hands. The loss of life in Byzantium led to a decline in the empire, inability to fund wars and public works, and most importantly caused the growth of the other nations in Europe and the Middle East.

Based on the historical accounts it had been assumed that this Justinian plague was similar to the one that struck Europe eight centuries later. However, there have been debates about whether this is true, some arguing it is the same disease, others that they are different strains of the infection, and some that they were completely different. A further complication is that the origin of this disease is unknown, though traditionally it is thought to have arrived from Egypt through trade ships. A new study by Harbeck et al. 2013 examines the DNA of Yersinia pestis, the infectious disease attributed to both these pandemics, to gain insight into this earlier outbreak.

The sample was taken from a cemetery of Justinian plague victims dating to the 6th century A.D. from an Early Medieval graveyard located in Bavaria, Germany. The cemetery included 438 individuals total, with clustering of double and multiple burials characteristic of stressed populations and increased mortality. 19 individuals were selected to be tested for strains of disease. Three approaches were used to test for the presence of Y. pestis, and a number of individuals were determined to have the disease. They were able to confirm that Y. pestis was the causative agent of the Plague of Justinian, and they argue that this “should end the controversy over the etiological agent of the first plague pandemic”.

Phylogeny of the Y. Pestis strain found, via Harbeck et al. 2013

More fascinating is that they were able to determine the phylogeny of this strain of the plague. It was unknown where the disease originated from, though the primary argument was that it came to Byzantium from Egypt through trade ships. The source for the Black Death was thought to be the trade routes through the Silk Road from Asia. The analysis by Harbeck et al. 2013 revealed that the pandemic caused by Y. pestis originated in Asia.

Harbeck et al. 2013 conclude their article with an interesting discussion of the cemetery and its location. As discussed in a previous post and seen in the London Crossrail discovery, mass graves are often a sign of pandemics and mass fatalities due to disease, however at this site they found double or multiple burials that were not as frantic or expedient as the ones that are thought to be traditional of bubonic plague. They argue that this new burial pattern may reveal new sources of plague burials. Further, the cemetery is located in Germany, a region that wasn’t thought to be affected by the first plague. Therefore, they argue that we need to start testing double and triple burials from other sites from this time period to learn the true extent of the Plague of Justinian.

The plague is an interesting phenomenon, and we are only just beginning to understand its origin, cause, and extent. In order to truly interpret this pandemic, we need to begin studying a wider pool- not just restudying the older collections.

Work Cited:

Harbeck, M., Seifert, L., Hänsch, S., Wagner, D., Birdsell, D., Parise, K., Wiechmann, I., Grupe, G., Thomas, A., Keim, P., Zöller, L., Bramanti, B., Riehm, J., & Scholz, H. (2013). Yersinia pestis DNA from Skeletal Remains from the 6th Century AD Reveals Insights into Justinianic Plague PLoS Pathogens, 9 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1003349

Read the journal article free here.