We may have underestimated the first known outbreak of bubonic plague

A mosaic of Emperor Justinian I. (Credits: Petar Milošević/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Translated by Julio Batista
Original by David Nield for the ScienceAlert

A Justinian’s plague spread across western Eurasia between the 6th and 8th centuries AD, signifying the first known outbreak of bubonic plague in this part of the world.

According to a new analysis of ancient texts and genetic data, its impact was much more severe than some recent studies suggested.

Certain scholars think that this ‘first pandemic’ may have killed up to half the population of the Mediterranean region at the time, helping to topple the Roman Empire.

Meanwhile, other historians argue that the consequences were much less significant and suggest that the outbreak may have had no more impact than the flu on today’s modern society.

Which brings us to this last study. Cambridge University historian Peter Sarris says historians and archaeologists need to work together with geneticists and environmental scientists to fully understand the scope and scale of ancient disease outbreaks – including, in this specific example, the arrival of bubonic plague.

“Some historians remain deeply hostile towards external factors such as disease as having a major impact on the development of human society, and ‘plague skepticism’ has received a lot of attention in recent years.” these Sarris.

Sarris points to a number of clues that show the devastating impact of the Justinian Plague, including a flurry of crisis measures in legislation passed between 542 and 545 AD when the population declined, followed by a reduction in legislation when the pandemic raged. consolidated.

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A law passed in 542 designed to support the banking sector of the imperial economy, for example, was described as having been written amidst the “enveloping presence of death” by Justinian. Other laws of the time were intended to prevent the exploitation of workers during what appeared to be a severe labor shortage.

Furthermore, a series of light gold coins were issued, representing the first reduction in the value of the gold coin in centuries – something that would have been seen as emergency banking legislation at the time. The great weight of the copper coins that circulated in Constantinople was reduced at the same time.

These signs are more significant than the examples cited by other historians, argued Sarris. Some studies use the relatively rare mentions of plague in ancient literature as evidence that its effects were not as widespread or harmful to society.

“Witnessing the plague firsthand forced the contemporary historian Procopius to break with its vast military narrative to write a harrowing account of the plague’s arrival in Constantinople that would leave a deep impression on subsequent generations of Byzantine readers.” these Sarris.

“This is much more revealing than the number of plague-related words he wrote. Different authors, writing different types of text, have focused on different themes, and their works should be read accordingly.”

Sarris also highlights the growing amount of DNA evidence showing the extent to which bubonic plague has spread during that time – all the way to Edix Hill in England, according to a 2018 genetic analysis of a cemetery, in a case mentioned in the research.

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DNA analyzes like this are a much more reliable method of finding where the plague has spread, Sarris said, compared to leafing through ancient texts. It could also shed new light on the routes the disease took across Europe as it spread.

In this particular case, the disease may have spread to England via the Baltics and Scandinavians, getting there before reaching the Mediterranean – and giving historians a new understanding of how this ‘first pandemic’ evolved.

“We have a lot to learn about how our ancestors responded to epidemic diseases and how pandemics affected social structures, the distribution of wealth and ways of thinking.” these Sarris.

“The increase in genetic evidence will lead in directions we can barely anticipate, and historians need to be able to respond positively and imaginatively, rather than shrugging defensively.”

The research was published in Past & Present.

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