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.