Ecological Lessons From History: The Plague That Ended An Empire

How in tune were our ancestors with being good stewards of the planet? Things were better in the old days. People were more in tune with the natural world, the air was cleaner, the land less harassed by our demands upon it. The world was, in short, greener. We’ve all heard it before – but is it true? Of course it is – except when you start looking at the details. Don’t go putting our ancestors up on a pedestal of eco-friendly excellence before you know a little more history.

In 540 AD, the Eastern Roman Empire (better known as Byzantium) was set to conquer the known world, led by its dynamic Emperor of 13 years, Justinian I. Within two years that Empire would be in retreat, sending the course of European history in a very different direction – and the reason was Black Death.

Bubonic plague is Europe’s most destructive disease. The 14th Century incarnation reduced its population by anything from 30-60% (we can’t be sure because of the sheer scale of mortality at this time) – but Europe still emerged with 350 million survivors. What would have happened if it had hit a thousand years earlier? The answer is…it did. It’s now known as the Plague of Justinian, perhaps with good reason, because while he didn’t create the variation of Yersinia pestis that would prove so devastating to human life, he may have created the pandemic.

How? Overambition. Justinian wanted his Empire to return to its former imperial glory, and to do that, he needed expansion and a massive consolidation of resources, most notably grain. The capital, Constantinople, expanded rapidly to a point where it’s believed it could barely feed itself, and this put pressure on the existing trade routes of grain and cloth from Africa. A colder, wetter climatic period mid 6th Century fostered crop failures and famine, adding more impetus to trade and the maintenance of huge granaries to buffer the population’s food supply. In short – perfect conditions for the spread of plague-carrying rodents, believed to have originated in Ethiopia.

Thanks to Justinian’s far-reaching trade network, the plague was a worldwide pandemic, killing anything from 25 to 100 million people when the world population was probably less than 300 million. Constantinople would ultimately lose 40% of its population to the plague (an alleged 5,000 lives a day at its height) and the Eastern Mediterranean would lose a quarter of its people. Justinian’s Empire went into a decline it would not recover from until the 9th Century – and the world reeled under its first taste of the Black Death.

Image: Jane Rahman.

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.