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Artist's representation of a scene during the Justinianic plague.

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.”

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

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.

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.

"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

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 paintingSt 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



The bulk of this article is dealing with the Justinan Plague of 541-542 AD which predates by a few centuries the Republic of Venice (Venetians ). This City/State starts from either the 7th century AD or the 11th depending on what you read and believe. It lasts until about 1797.

It could be that after this initial out break where it is believed to have lingered around for a few centuries, could have laid dormant (undergoing mutations) for the most part with the occasional flare up. Then in the 14th century with the Black Death/Bubonic Plague there is a massive outbreak.

Either or, there still is the question of how this germ arrived. It is believed that it originates as the article mentioned in either China (not Mongolia as you mention) or India. South east China/Asia to be exact and or from a coastal port of India. At least this is what I have read about the origins of this Plague.

The fleas hitch hiking a ride on the rodents who in turn are hitch hiking on ships sailing either directly to the Middle East of into ports along the coast of India where they would land then onto vessels heading to the Middle East.

It is doubtful if these rats would have travelled overland with any caravans as they would have been easily discovered and killed, where as on a ship there are lots of places to hide.

Your suspicion of an ‘evil plan’ of the “Venetian Luciferians brought them (the rats ) into Europe in a genocidal campaign against native/Europeans”. (are you really meaning/implying against the White Christian enclave of Europe). Sure sounds like one of these conspiracy theories you are trying to plug.

Further, interesting comments you also posted with the article about ‘Ancient Book of the Deer’. Can’t help but wonder about your claim that Henry is your ancestor of sorts. Can’t help but think your ego is involved a bit here and claim is based in that you share the same last name. But perhaps you are correct, only you would know. Either way if there is a relationship SO WHAT?

It is obvious with the comment in your; mind, thoughts and belief it was and is those of Jewish origin that invaded England in 1066. WOW! It also seems these folks also brought about the ‘Dark Age’ of Europe. They also invaded North, Central and South America. They are the age old boogey man in your doctrine, causing all the evils of the world. Using lies and deceit as their too, after all in your doctrine this is their ‘modus operandi’. Again WOW !

Such DINGLE BERRIES. More conspiracy theory stuff.

I would bet you’re a big fan supporter of the former Adolf Hitler and his henchmen and their doctrine of preserving the ‘true pure blood lines’ etc.. That all the deaths that occurred in and out of the camps did not happen. That it is all a conspiracy full of lies and deceit. I am surprised that you did not blame the plague on the Jews and not the luciferians, oh forgot they are also Jews in your eyes I bet.

As to your 2 pennies worth, remember that pennies are not used in Canada anymore. Implying that your comments are garbage which can easily be flushed down the toilet. That your beliefs are really not needed anymore or wanted by many. But in this crazy world we have to ‘honour’ your ‘free speech’ no matter how

To quote you from your comment to M., “you are part of the problem (we humans face)…your remark (s/comments) is tainted”. YOU ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM and you are tainted.

By the way, the consumption of too much KUSH is detri-mental to your health and well being. Just saying.

William Bradshaw's picture

How did Asian black rats with bubonic plague carrying fleas from Mongolia get into Europe? I strongly suspect that the Venetians/Luciferians brought them into Europe in a genocidal  campaign against native Europeans. It may have been an evil plan that was actually inspired by their tetraploid human masters. 

William H. Bradhaw, Dipl. T, CPIM

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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