Pandemics During The Byzantine Empire

It’s easy to forget that the world has been dealing with dangerous pandemics throughout human history. We’re not the first ones. Sadly, though, we should be the best prepared. If the last few weeks have shown us anything at all, it’s that even the biggest empires with the supposed best protective measures can fall the fastest. America was ranked highest for its potential pandemic defenses only to allow the novel coronavirus to run rampant for no reason.

Did the Byzantine Empire experience similar decline during noteworthy pandemics during the height of its power?

One of the most noteworthy was the Plague of Justinian from 541 to 542 AD. It ripped through the entirety of the Eastern Roman Empire but mainly affected Constantinople. Other parts of the world were also at the mercy of the plague. Although this plague is relatively unknown, it presumably killed about the same number of people as the Spanish flu: 25 to 100 million people died. This was about half of Europe’s population.

By comparison, the “Black Death” killed up to 200 million people — or about a third of the world’s population at the time. But it was also spread out over a longer period of time, occurring primarily during the years from 1347 to 1351. Technically, the Plague of Justinian became endemic, popping up until the eighth century much like our seasonal flu. Both plagues would have a great impact on the Byzantine Empire.

It’s also worth noting that these were still considered pandemics even though they could not cross the Atlantic Ocean to strike the New World — which would not be “discovered” by Columbus (wink wink: he didn’t actually discover the New World) until 1492.

Shockingly, the Black Death actually had environmental ramifications much like those we’re seeing today. Because so many people died, mankind’s carbon footprint was greatly reduced, as was his impact on the world at large. Reforestation occurred. Some scientists even believe it was this plague that resulted in the Little Ice Age. Coronavirus, by comparison, has resulted in smog-free cities for the first time in many years.

Both of these ancient pandemics were caused by Yersinia pestis, a bacterium. 

The Plague of Justinian, who was emperor at the time it first appeared, killed off perhaps 40 percent of Constantinople’s population. This would greatly diminish the economy.

These plagues were hardly the only two that affected the world during the long-lived Byzantine Empire, but they affected it the most. Others struck other parts of the world such as farther away in the Middle East or African countries.

Hierarchy Of Living In The Eastern Roman Empire

Society in the Eastern Roman Empire wasn’t as far-removed from our own as you might think. Sure, they had a class of rich and a class of poor. There were others who lived comfortably without the luxuries of the super-rich. These Romans had a different kind of government, but you might be surprised why they chose to be ruled the way they did.

Long before the Roman Empire split into east and western halves, it was a kingdom ruled by kings. The monarchy eventually toppled when its people stopped believing in a king’s ability to lead them. The kingdom evolved into a republic, in which certain kinds of citizens were allowed to vote. During one period, consuls held the highest authority but were only voted in for a year at a time, ensuring that no one could easily grasp too much power. To be called a king was a supreme insult.

When the Roman Empire split, emperors continued to rule in the East. Perhaps they weren’t so different from kings. Perhaps they were. In order to keep a dynasty up and running, each successive ruler had to prove legitimacy, and that was determined by ability. If an emperor couldn’t handle the job, down he went. Even plebeians and warriors were sometimes elevated to this position–and that’s all it was, a position–although it was rare.

This was a society in which you could potentially work your way up the ladder no matter who you were, even though it was as seemingly difficult or sometimes impossible as it is today. Anything was possible, but the point is that birth did not guarantee your place in the social hierarchy.

A great number of slaves were used to conduct all sorts of labor. Slaves might be sold to a cruel master or a generous one. It was even possible that a slave could be freed after years of service. Liberated slaves were often accepted as part of society.

At the very top of the social structure were the aristocrats and government officials. Below them were the wealthy merchants and some landowners. On the bottom rung were the poor. The clergy didn’t reside on the same social structure as everyone else, but they might be privy to privileges only enjoyed by those on the upper rungs of the ladder. It was a mostly respected profession like a criminal defense lawyer Miami.