Tuesday, March 31, 2020

"Work of Every Description Ceased" ~ First hand accounts of the Plague of Justinian, 6th century AD

Click above for a video excerpt from The Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius
describing a personal encounter with the dreaded Plague of Justinian.

The thought of pandemic troubles many souls these days. It is well to keep in mind that as bad as things may seem with regard to the deaths caused by the COVID-19 virus, we are not even within shouting distance of the type of utter and absolute societal devastation caused by the typical catastrophic historical plague.

One of these epic pestilential events was the so-called Plague of Justinian of the mid-to-late 6th century AD. Erupting in AD 542, the Plague of Justinian is thought to be the first recorded outbreak of a disease which would later be known as the Black Death—Bubonic Plague. While not as well-known as the scourge that wiped out nearly a third of the population of 14th century Europe, Justinian's Plague raged for over 50 years and claimed hundreds-of-thousands if not millions of lives. It was also largely untreatable and the physicians of late antiquity were unable to determine even how it was transmitted. Much later, medical science would discover that the vector was a flea carried by the black rat.

Modern popular histories, like Justinian's Flea, have attempted to make the case that this plague was the direct precursor to the collapse of Roman and Persian power in the near east. But much more interesting to me are the first-person accounts of the plague which have come down to us from antiquity.

The premier source for Justinian's Plague is, of course, Procopius of Caesarea, the great classicizing historian of the 6th century. Procopius was, no doubt, an eyewitness to the awful career of the deadly pathogen. His lengthy account includes the following passage which gives an indication of how the scourge ravaged even the most magnificent city in the world at the time, Constantinople:
...All who had the good fortune to he in health were sitting in their houses, either attending the sick or mourning the dead. And if one did succeed in meeting a man going out, he was carrying one of the dead. And work of every description ceased, and all the trades were abandoned by the artisans, and all other work as well, such as each had in hand. Indeed in a city which was simply abounding in all good things starvation almost absolute was running riot. [Taken from Procopius: History of the Wars, Book II, Chapter xxiii]
Detail of The Plague at Ashdod by Angelo Caroselli, 1631. If you click to
enlarge and look closely at the lower left, you will see the culprit who
helped spread the Plague of Justinian in the 6th century AD.
Presented below is another contemporary account of the Justinianic Plague taken from the Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius. This fascinating work was written in the late 6th century AD by Evagrius Scholasticus, a lawyer originating in Syria near Antioch. Though he deals largely with matters impacting the Christian churches of his time, Evagrius also inserts details of more general interest into his histories, including this account of the Plague and how it affected him on a deeply personal level. A video rendering of the Evagrius's account may be found at the beginning of this post. The full text is provided below for convenience:
I will also describe the circumstances of the pestilence which commenced at that period, and has now prevailed and extended over the whole world for fifty-two years; a circumstance such as has never before been recorded. Two years after the capture of Antioch by the Persians, a pestilence broke out, in some respects similar to that described by Thucydides, in others widely different. It took its rise from Aethiopia, as is now reported, and made a circuit of the whole world in succession, leaving, as I suppose, no part of the human race unvisited by the disease.
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Some cities were so severely afflicted as to be altogether depopulated, though in other places the visitation was less violent. It neither commenced according to any fixed period, nor was the time of its cessation uniform, but it seized upon some places at the commencement of winter, others in the course of the spring, others during the summer, and in some cases, when the autumn was advanced. In some instances, having infected a part of a city, it left the remainder untouched; and frequently in an uninfected city one might remark a few households excessively wasted; and in several places, while one or two households utterly perished, the rest of the city remained unvisited: but, as we have learned from careful observation, the uninfected households alone suffered the succeeding year. But the most singular circumstance of all was this; that if it happened that any inhabitants of an infected city were living in a place which the calamity had not visited, these alone were seized with the disorder. This visitation also befell cities and other places in many instances according to the periods called Indictions; and the disease occurred, with the almost utter destruction of human beings, in the second year of each indiction.
Thus it happened in my own case—for I deem it fitting, in due adaptation of circumstances, to insert also in this history matters relating to myself—that at the commencement of this calamity I was seized with what are termed buboes, while still a school-boy, and lost by its recurrence at different times several of my children, my wife, and many of my kin, as well as of my domestic and country servants; the several indictions making, as it were, a distribution of my misfortunes. Thus, not quite two years before my writing this, being now in the fifty-eighth year of my age, on its fourth visit to Antioch, at the expiration of the fourth indiction from its commencement, I lost a daughter and her son, besides those who had died previously.
The plague was a complication of diseases: for, in some cases, commencing in the head, and rendering the eyes bloody and the face swollen, it descended into the throat, and then destroyed the patient. In others, there was a flux of the bowels. In others buboes were formed, followed by violent fever, and the sufferers died at the end of two or three days, equally in possession, with the healthy, of their mental and bodily powers. Others died in a state of delirium, and some by the breaking out of carbuncles. Cases occurred where persons, who had been attacked once and twice and had recovered, died by a subsequent seizure.
The ways in which the disease; was communicated, were various and unaccountable: for some perished by merely living with the infected, others by only touching them, others by having entered their chamber, others by frequenting public places. Some, having fled from the infected cities, escaped themselves, but imparted the disease to the healthy. Some were altogether free from contagion, though they had associated with many who were afflicted, and had touched many not only in their sickness but also when dead. Some, too, who were desirous of death, on account of the utter loss of their children and friends, and with this view placed themselves as much as possible in contact with the diseased, were nevertheless not infected; as if the pestilence struggled against their purpose.
This calamity has prevailed, as I have already said, to the present time, for two and fifty years, exceeding all that have preceded it. For Philostratus expresses wonder that the pestilence which happened in his time, lasted for fifteen years. The sequel is uncertain, since its course will be guided by the good pleasure of God, who knows both the causes of things, and their tendencies. [Taken from: The Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius, Book IV, Chapter XXIX].
No doubt, this is sobering reading. But we may take some solace in that even in the face of such calamitous losses, the plague eventually subsided, men and women survived, children were raised up, and many turned back to God for comfort in their affliction. We should also give thanks that modern-day medical science is better equipped cope with such pandemic scourges than our ancient forebears who stood practically defenseless in the face of such virulent and deadly contagions.


Catholic Legal Beagle said...

A great read, loved reading the first hand accounts as they help to put the COVID-19 situation in a better perspective and how we have a lot to be thankful for. I am reading Justinian's Flea btw, which is a good history lesson but you don't really get anything about the plague until the final 3rd of the book. Curious what you thought about it if you have read it.

Florentius said...

Thanks for asking. I read Justinian's Flea some years ago as it was right in my wheelhouse. Here is the review I wrote at the time: Still scratching my head over Justinian's Flea