The Infamous Plague Of Justinian

Grace Higgins | November 1st, 2019

Most people have heard of the black plague and know it is one of the deadliest diseases to have ever roamed the Earth. Fewer people know that there have been many devastating plagues throughout human history, and none were worse than The Justinian Plague which is estimated to have killed over 5,000 people per day in Constantinople alone. It is also considered to be the first pandemic that was recorded in history, this was because it swept swiftly across three whole continents.

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It is thought the disease started in Egypt during AD 541 and traveled quickly across the world due to rodents carrying the disease on merchant ships. Once it hit Constantinople, the major city of the time, it is thought to have killed 300,000 people in the first year. The plague is named after the Byzantine emperor Justinian, who was trying to bring his empire back to the glory days of ancient Rome. The plague annihilated his army and economy, even infecting the emperor, but he miraculously recovered. Farmers were nearly all killed which meant massive food shortages across his empire.

This plague had similar microbes of the Black Death which killed up to 200 million Europeans from 1347 to 1351, however, the Justinian Plague was seen worldwide. Over 50 years this plague killed 100 million people across Europe, Asia, Arabia, and North Africa. The scary part is that scientists have even recovered the disease from exhumed bodies in 2016, and reconstructed the virus.

Historians of the time did not understand the concept of medical science like we do, so it was mostly believed that the Justinian Plague was caused by a demon. The Greek history Procopius wrote that many believers was convinced that the disease was created by a malevolent spirit or demon, this led to people barricading themselves in their homes to stop the spirits coming in.

It would start with a mild fever and then huge swellings would start to form, black blisters filled with pus were the sure sign someone had the plague. At this point most victims would fall into a coma and slowly die, however, many became delirious and paranoid. The latter would regularly lose their minds and become suicidal, making caring for them nearly impossible. It was a fast-acting plague that would strike within days.

There were so many bodies that they ran out of graves, they ended up dumping bodies in mass burial sites or out to sea – only for the infested bodies to wash back up to shore. Other bodies were dumped in towers which were then closed up. It was so likely you would die that people wore name tags at all times to ensure their bodies could be identified for their family members to be notified.

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