Five centuries after the birth of Christ the ancient Mediterranean world was booming; architecture, literature, trade, and philosophy, were experiencing great leaps in development. In Constantinople, Justinian was trying to hold together the Roman Empire despite inroads from barbarians from all directions. By all accounts he was an able (if at times brutal) leader, but he was unable to fight the first pandemic of Bubonic plague. From 541-542 it is estimated to have killed 25 million people, depopulating cities and perhaps leading to the shape of the modern world from the European nation states to the rise of Islam.
Justinian’s Flea tells this story with sections ranging from the biology of rats, and their passengers of fleas and Yersinia pestis (the bacterium that causes Bubonic plague), to the political intrigues of Justinian’s Court. The author has brought together disparate disciplines and facts including climate estimates from tree rings, the technological advances of ancient warfare, grave sites, and notarized wills. The book is fleshed out with wrenching quotes from contemporary accounts such as the prolific Procopius who said “there was a pestilence by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated.”
Justinian’s Flea is a weighty but readable tome and since I don’t usually read nonfiction history, I learned an enormous amount. I lean towards science nonfiction and this book is a great companion for other books about the role of diseases in human history such as The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, Plague: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Slack, or The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.
For fiction readers, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks, which is set in the time of the Black Death (Bubonic Plague 600 years later), includes harrowing descriptions of the disease and the effects on people even if they survived. For those interested in visuals you could also try the History Channel DVD The Dark Ages.
Check the WRL catalog for Justinian’s Flea.