The Sixth-Century Plague

Illustration of penitents fall victim to the plague during a processional led by Pope Gregory I. From Folio 72 of Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The plague of the sixth century was a devastating epidemic that was first noted in Egypt in 541 C.E. It came to Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium), in 542, then spread through the empire, east into Persia, and into parts of southern Europe. The disease would flare up again somewhat frequently over the next fifty years or so, and would not be thoroughly overcome until the 8th century. The Sixth-Century Plague was the earliest plague pandemic to be reliably recorded in history.

The Sixth-Century Plague Was Also Known As

Justinian's Plague or the Justinianic plague, because it struck the Eastern Roman Empire during the reign of Emperor Justinian. It was also reported by the historian Procopius that Justinian himself fell victim to the disease. He did, of course, recover, and he continued to reign for more than a decade.

The Disease of Justinian's Plague

Just as in the Black Death of the 14th century, the disease that struck Byzantium in the sixth century is believed to have been "Plague." From contemporary descriptions of symptoms, it appears that the bubonic, the pneumonic, and the septicemic forms of the plague were all present.

The progress of the disease was similar to that of the later epidemic, but there were a few notable differences. Many plague victims underwent hallucinations, both before the onset of other symptoms and after the illness was underway. Some experienced diarrhea. And Procopius described patients who were several days along as either entering a deep coma or undergoing a "violent delirium." None of these symptoms were commonly described in the 14th-century pestilence.

The Origin and Spread of the Sixth-Century Plague

According to Procopius, the sickness began in Egypt and spread along trade routes (particularly sea routes) to Constantinople. However, another writer, Evagrius, claimed the source of the disease to be in Axum (present-day Ethiopia and eastern Sudan). Today, there is no consensus for the plague's origin. Some scholars believe it shared the Black Death's origins in Asia; others think it sprang from Africa, in the present day nations of Kenya, Uganda, and Zaire.

From Constantinople it spread swiftly throughout the Empire and beyond; Procopius asserted that it "embraced the entire world, and blighted the lives of all men." In reality, the pestilence didn't reach much farther north than the port cities of Europe's Mediterranean coast. It did, however, spread east to Persia, where its effects were apparently just as devastating as in Byzantium. Some cities on common trade routes were nearly deserted after the plague struck; others were barely touched.

In Constantinople, the worst seemed to be over when winter came in 542. But when the following spring arrived, there were further outbreaks throughout the empire. There is very little data concerning how often and where the disease erupted in the decades to come, but it is known that plague continued to return periodically throughout the rest of the 6th century, and remained endemic until the 8th century.

Death Tolls

There are currently no reliable numbers concerning those who died in Justinian's Plague. There aren't even truly reliable numbers for population totals throughout the Mediterranean at this time. Contributing to the difficulty of determining the number of deaths from plague itself is the fact that food became scarce, thanks to the deaths of many people who grew it and transported it. Some died of starvation without ever experiencing a single plague symptom.

But even without hard and fast statistics, it is clear that the death rate was undeniably high. Procopius reported that as many as 10,000 people a day perished during the four months that the pestilence ravaged Constantinople. According to one traveler, John of Ephesus, Byzantium's capital city suffered greater numbers of dead than any other city. There were reportedly thousands of corpses littering the streets, a problem that was handled by having enormous pits dug across the Golden Horn to hold them. Although John stated that these pits held 70,000 bodies each, it still wasn't enough to hold all the dead. Corpses were placed in the towers of the city walls and left inside houses to rot.

The numbers are probably exaggerations, but even a fraction of the totals given would have severely affected the economy as well as the overall psychological state of the populace. Modern estimates — and they can only be estimates at this point — suggest that Constantinople lost from one-third to one-half its population. There were probably more than 10 million deaths throughout the Mediterranean, and possibly as many as 20 million, before the worst of the pandemic was through.

What Sixth-Century People Believed Caused the Plague

There is no documentation to support an investigation into the scientific causes of the disease. Chronicles, to a man, ascribe the plague to the will of God.

How People Reacted to Justinian's Plague

The wild hysteria and panic that marked Europe during the Black Death were absent from sixth-century Constantinople. People seemed to accept this particular catastrophe as just one among many misfortunes of the times. Religiosity among the populace was just as notable in sixth-century Eastern Rome as it was in 14th-century Europe, and so there was an increase in the number of people entering monasteries as well as a rise in donations and bequests to the Church.

Effects of Justinian's Plague on the Eastern Roman Empire

The sharp drop in population resulted in manpower shortages, which led to a rise in the cost of labor. As a result, inflation soared. The tax base shrank, but the need for tax revenue did not; some city governments, therefore, cut salaries for publicly sponsored doctors and teachers. The burden of the death of agricultural landowners and laborers was two-fold: the reduced production of food caused shortages in the cities, and the old practice of neighbors assuming the responsibility of paying taxes on vacant lands caused an increased economic strain. To alleviate the latter, Justinian ruled that neighboring landowners should no longer bear the responsibility for deserted properties.

Unlike Europe after the Black Death, the population levels of the Byzantine Empire were slow to recover. Whereas 14th-century Europe saw a rise in marriage and birth rates after the initial epidemic, Eastern Rome experienced no such increases, due in part to the popularity of monasticism and its accompanying rules of celibacy. It is estimated that, over the course of the last half of the 6th century, the population of the Byzantine Empire and its neighbors around the Mediterranean Sea declined by as much as 40%.

At one time, the popular consensus among historians was that the plague marked the beginning of a long decline for Byzantium, from which the empire never recovered. This thesis has its detractors, who point to a notable level of prosperity in Eastern Rome in the year 600. There is, however, some evidence for the plague and other disasters of the time as marking a turning point in the development of the Empire, from a culture holding on to the Roman conventions of the past to a civilization turning to the Greek character of the next 900 years.

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Snell, Melissa. "The Sixth-Century Plague." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Snell, Melissa. (2021, February 16). The Sixth-Century Plague. Retrieved from Snell, Melissa. "The Sixth-Century Plague." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).