Tag Archives: Byzantine

Plague extent.

Study reveals true scale of one of the world’s deadliest plagues

New research shows that one of the deadliest plagues in the world was even more far-reaching than previously believed.


Image credits Alchemilla Mollis

The work was carried out by an interdisciplinary team from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany and the Harvard University. They covered 21 archaeological sites across Europe and the Mediterranean that date back to the Plague of Justinian, back in 541 A.D. They report that the plague affected even more of the world than previously believed, reaching as far as the post-Roman British Isles.

Plagues for days

“This study shows the potential of paleogenomic research for understanding historical and modern pandemics by comparing genomes across millennia,” Johannes Krause, director of the Max Planck Institute and co-director of the Max Planck-Harvard Research Center for the Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean and the paper’s corresponding author, said in a statement.

This outbreak was one of the deadliest events in humanity’s history, killing an estimated 25-50 million people (between 13-26%) of the world’s population at the time of its first outbreak. It nearly brought the Byzantine Empire and its neighboring Sasanian Empire to the brink of collapse. Justinian’s Plague was the single deadliest pandemic to afflict Europe (and perhaps the world as a whole) until the Black Plague, and made repeated appearances until the year 750. The Black Death is estimated to have killed every 1 in 2 or 3 people living in Europe at the time. It was caused by the same bacteria.

The Justinian Plague gets its name from the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who ruled the eastern portion of the Roman Empire from Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) after the fall of Rome and the western Empire. The pandemic started during the reign of Emperor Justinian, and spread from Constantinople and ports around the Mediterranean. Accounts from the time say that the plague wiped out half of Constantinople’s population, although these have yet to be confirmed. Such impacts are still under active investigation by historians, archaeologists, and experts in ancient DNA at the Max Planck-Harvard Research Center for the Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean (MHAAM). In the current study, the team reconstructed the genomes of eight Y. pestis strains from samples gathered in France, Germany, Spain, and Great Britain.

Geographic extent of the First Pandemic and sampled sites.
Image credits Marcel Keller et al., (2019), PNAS.

Samples that the team recovered at these sites were examined for genetic traces of Yersinia pestis, the bacteria known to have caused the plague. The first finding was the confirmation that this was the plague that swept the Mediterranean during Justinian’s time, even if it is recorded under various names in historical documents.

Secondly, the team could chart the evolution of the bacteria over time. They report that the strains that popped over the two-century-long pandemic were quite diverse genetically. Samples taken during the latter days of the pandemic show Y. pestis had shed genes relating to two virulence factors, they explain.

“It’s a fantastic example of how we can get new results that are really important in a debate that, kind of paradoxically, is heating up right now about whether the Justinianic pandemic was an important thing or not, just as new evidence really starts to appear,” says paper co-author McCormick.

“The archaeological and archaeogenetic evidence is opening up a whole new — not just a chapter — a whole new book on this great story.”

The team also found traces of the plague in Britain, an area where it hadn’t been previously confirmed. The bacterial DNA found there is more basal, the team explains, which suggests that it arrived there directly from areas where the plague was first reported — such as Egypt — rather than the Roman Empire.

“If that’s so,” McCormick said, “that suggests almost direct transmission from Egypt to Britain.”

This last tidbit is especially interesting. Given that the plague spread from and around the Mediterranean, one would assume that any Y. pestis in Britain would have been carried there by Romano-Celts moving into the islands after the Romans left, a century later. However, the team found the bacteria in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, among people who were expanding their control of Britain at the time. The question now is how the four infected individuals in Britain contracted the plague — a finding which the team says will give us a better understanding of the social, political, and economic dynamics of the day.

McCormick said researchers will continue to expand the picture of this period, focusing on the role the plague played not just in human health, but, given its extraordinary death rate, also in warfare, politics, economics, and a whole host of other human activities.

“We now have a pathogen whose molecular history we can follow for thousands of years,” McCormick said, adding that our understanding of the plague’s impact on this era will continue to grow. “The jury’s out, evidence is accumulating, and we’re all going to learn as we go forward.”

The paper “Ancient Yersinia pestis genomes from across Western Europe reveal early diversification during the First Pandemic (541–750)” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Elusa trash mound.

Ancient trash suggests climate change helped drive the Byzantine Empire into the ground

The Byzantine Empire, the eastern fringe of Rome that spanned both continents and centuries, may have fallen due to climate change — at least in part.


Mosaic showing Empress Theodora, arguably the most influential and powerful of the Eastern Roman empresses, wife of the Emperor Justinian I.
Image via Pixabay.

A research team from Israel reports finding evidence to support the view that rapid climatic changes have contributed to the fall of the Byzantine Empire. The findings, surprisingly, come from trash mounds outside an ancient Byzantine settlement, Elusa.

One man’s trash is another man’s study

The Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire was, for over a millennium, a powerhouse of European culture, science, politics, and economy. It was the product of a schism in Rome — one half of an empire so successful it had grown beyond its ability to govern itself.

In 293 AD, Emperor Diocletian took an Augustus (a co-emperor) to govern the western heartlands of the empire and divided its government into a tetrarchy (an ancient Greek word that translates, roughly, into “rule of four people”). It didn’t go swimmingly at all. Too many cooks spoil the broth, and too many emperors spoiled the empire. Massive (and mutually-destructive) civil wars raged behind the empire’s sprawling borders, bringing it to its knees. In 313, Constantine the Great (who held the rank of Augustus) reunited the empire, and moved the capital from Rome to Constantinople. The schism was set in stone with the emperor Theodosius I, who, in 395, gave his sons Arcadius and Honorius the rule of the East and the West, respectively.

Both halves considered themselves “Roman”, but they were different beasts. The Latin West was overwhelmed by invaders, and slowly collapsed under its own immensity; the East, a richer, more urban, Hellenistic (Greek) entity, squared off against the barbarians and bribed away the few it couldn’t defeat. At its largest, it included land in Greece, Italy, the Balkans, Asia Minor, North Africa, and the Levant. It would outlive its western brother by nearly a thousand years.

Still, it too would eventually fall. Officially, this happened on May 29, 1453, when the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople. However, the whole process was painstaking, with the Byzantines losing, regaining, and re-losing areas of their huge holdings to emerging empires.

One such event was the loss of the Levant, modern-day Israel. What we know today is that this area was taken over by Islamic conquests in the seventh century, with — honestly — surprising efficiency. The team suspected there was more to the story — and their results suggest natural events played a big part in the Byzantine loss of the Levant.

Elusa trash mound.

One of Elusa’s trash mounds.
Image credits Guy Bar-Oz et al., (2019), PNAS.

The study didn’t originally intend to focus on trash heaps in Elusa, but the team took an interest in what the mounds just outside the settlement’s walls were. They dug all the way through the bottom of one such mound and found that it had a layered structure — suggesting it was created by an organized, concerted group of trash collectors during the Byzantine rule. Surprisingly, however, no trash dumping seems to have occurred for almost a century before the settlement had been overrun by invaders.

The researchers take this as a sign that not all was fine in the settlement, and trash collection stopped as a symptom of its hardships. Perusing through literature, the team identified a possible culprit in the form of the Late Antique Little Ice Age. This event, which started around 536 CE, was basically a mini ice-age generated by three volcanoes erupting in a short span of time. They filled the air with enough debris and chemical compounds to cool the climate of much of Europe and Asia.

This mini ice age likely led to crop failures, the team adds. Elusa’s chief export at the time was Gaza wine, which probably didn’t suffer from the colder climate. However, it definitely affected Elusa’s customers — without people to sell its main product to, the city likely went through a severe economic downturn and saw a decline in population. Thus, by the time war came to Elusa’s walls, the city was already reeling and unable to put up much resistance.

The paper “Ancient trash mounds unravel urban collapse a century before the end of Byzantine hegemony in the southern Levant” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.