The Justinianic Plague Wasn’t as Bad as Many Scholars Think
Researchers say that claims of the Justinianic plague as a “mass killer” are wrong. It certainly had some impact, but they assert that plague outbreak, which began in the 6th century, didn’t bring about the end of the weakened Roman Empire or cause the economic turmoil many scholars have declared it did. Cultures didn’t stagnate and societies didn’t fall to pieces due to the Justinianic plague, according to the new study.
How Bad was the Justinianic Plague Really?
Experts believe the Justinianic plague began during the reign of Emperor Justinian, from whom it gained its name, and hit the remnants of the Roman Empire’s population from around 541 to 544 AD. Outbreaks of the plague reoccurred around the Mediterranean and into Europe and the Middle East until about 750, according to ScienceNews.
Environmental historian Lee Mordechai and his colleagues have suggested in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the Justinianic plague only had a “moderate impact” on society. One source of evidence they use for their claim is that “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.”
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Skulls of two plague victims buried together in one grave at the Altenerding cemetery near Munich, Germany (Credit: State Collection of Anthropology and Palaeoanatomy Munich)
Nor did they find a notable increase in mass burials (graves including five or more people interred together), which could indicate “a particularly deadly plague outbreak,” according to ScienceNews.
Study coauthor Merle Eisenberg, an environmental historian at the University of Maryland’s National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis, concludes that “Support for the claim that the Justinianic plague was a watershed event in the ancient world is just not there.”
Reviving an Ancient Plague
In 2016, scientists took molecular clues from ancient plague victims’ bones and determined that the same bacterial infection that caused the Black Death of the Middle Ages in Europe and Asia may have also caused the earlier Justinianic plague.
“Recent molecular clues from ancient plague victims have suggested that plague may have been caused by the same bacterium, Yersinia pestis , which was responsible for the Black Death. But the geographic reach, mortality and impact of the Justinian pandemic are not fully known. Both information from ancient hosts and bacteria could shed light on the role of plague, which has afflicted mankind for more than 5,000 years,” a EurekAlert press release stated.
In their 2016 study, German scientists led by Michaela Harbeck, Johannes Krause, and Michal Feldman found the Yersinia pestis germ in skeletons that date back to the 6th century AD. They were excavated from a burial site in Alternerding near Munich. The genome of the bacteria from these skeletons date back to the plague’s inception.
Remains of a woman, left, and man, right, excavated at Altenerding and found positive for presence of Y. pestis (© State Collection of Anthropology and Palaeoanatomy Munich).
The scientists generated what the press release calls the first “high-coverage genome” of the bacteria that caused the Justinianic plague. The study has revealed new insights about the bacteria and its evolution since the Byzantine era. The analysis revealed features that previous coverage of a draft genome did not show, including 30 mutations and structural rearrangements in the Justinian strain, and also corrected 19 false positive mutations.
This mosaic in a church in Ravenna is a portrait of Justinian. (Petar Milošević/CC BY SA 4.0)
One of the co-authors of the study, Michaela Harbeck, is quoted in the press release as saying:
“The fact that the archeological skeletons which gave these exciting insights were excavated over 50 years ago underscores the importance of maintaining well curated anthropological collections. We were very fortunate to find another plague victim with very good DNA preservation in a graveyard just a few kilometers from where the individual analyzed in Wagner et al. was found. It provided us with the great opportunity to reconstruct the first high quality genome in addition to the previously published draft genome.”
Better Information on Ancient Pathogens and Germs
The analysis shows that the plague bug was more genetically differentiated than previous research and theory had led scientists to believe. These findings have helped researchers develop guidelines on improving the authenticity and quality of data captured in ancient pathogens or germs.
The findings coincide with a research upsurge in reports of the plagues in some areas of the world, and they have developed a high-quality reference system to give insight on evolutionary changed and adaptation of the disease plus its impact on humans.
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"Our research confirms that the Justinianic plague reached far beyond the historically documented affected region and provides new insights into the evolutionary history of Yersinia pestis , illustrating the potential of ancient genomic reconstructions to broaden our understanding of pathogen evolution and of historical events," research colleague Michal Feldman said. "Our reanalysis of previous datasets stresses the importance of following strict criteria to avoid errors in the reconstruction of ancient pathogen genomes."
Plague in an Ancient City (public domain)
It’s believed the Justinianic plague arrived from China and India in 541 AD and continued to ravage the Mediterranean region for over two centuries. The black rat transmitted the disease to fleas, which bit humans.
The later Black Death or bubonic plague of 14th century Europe, caused by the same bug, is believed to have killed about 50 million people.
Top Image: Detail of the painting ‘St Sebastian pleading for the life of a gravedigger afflicted with plague during the 7th-century Plague of Justinian.’ New research suggests the Justinianic plague wasn’t as bad as many scholars believe. Source: Public Domain
By Mark Miller