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Justinian's Flea by William Rosen

Book Review by Pertinax

When I was sent this work I had initially supposed I would be receiving an account of the first of the Justinian epidemiological episodes in 541 CE (which re-appeared thereafter in various “waves” of subsiding deadliness for nearly two hundred years). However the work is something wider than that, and therefore of greater interest to a more catholic audience. It could be recommended as a “ general view of the Justinian World” with its notable judicial and architectural excellence, or as a study of a great Chief Executive (perhaps equal or greater than Augustus dare I say?), his able wife Theodora and very able general Belisarius. It is a litany of geo-political triumphs engineered by these enormously important figures and others within their political and social orbit.

The plague itself is one of the greatest fracture lines in known and recorded history and the world that is “lost“ by its arrival (in the East at least) was at a zenith of confidence and intelligence not recovered for a thousand years. The traumatic effect of the plague on this particular society's ability to feed and protect itself in the face of threatened change is the key motif in the work, this being either from the Sassanids in the East or the many broiling footloose tribal proto-nations in the West. It also gives lucid insight into the ability of the newly made Islamic world to appear as an epoch making force, apparently from nowhere, but in effect from a widely dispersed non-urban population that was mostly untouched by plague whilst all its urbanised neighbours died in direct proportion to the sophistication of their host society.

Firstly, I commend William Rosen’s style, twenty five years as a senior executive in a publishing house has made his first written endeavor well informed, it is a slick, witty and incisive book. He would appear to have absorbed a lot of knowledge as to how not to alienate an audience with a quite esoteric work. There are some excellent one liners, and its always good to laugh out loud at a witty Romanophile in-joke, it was rather like the happy self-indulgence I felt at the UK UNRV meet, being able to talk Rome non-stop either “light” or “heavy”.

The chapters of the book could be read separately as small informative essays , but the overall narrative nevertheless has a structured flow assimilating these neatly executed observations. My own specialism (the actual demographic and medical nuts and bolts ) doesn’t actually appear till two-thirds of the book has been read, but I wasn’t at all impatient given how much I was enjoying the general narrative.

Initially we learn of the journey of the poor Illyrian Petrus Sabbatius from Tauresium to Imperial splendour as Justinian in Byzantium. We are granted an historical back story to the “relocation” of the Imperial Capital to Byzas‘ settlement and its total eclipse of Rome in terms of status, architecture and geo-political power. We meet Justinian, in many ways an unassuming man, but perhaps the most talented of talent spotters in history, his foibles for Theology (The Arian Heresy is a major sub-theme of emphasized urgency in this period.) his racy and intelligent wife Theodora (who settled down to be an even more intelligent, shrewd and a perceptive diplomat) and who was one of the rocks of his reign. Belisarus can hardly be ignored (nor his somewhat inconstant, but Amazonian wife) his military achievements are sensational, frightening an army of Huns off with a few garrison archers and some peasants banging sticks together takes wit, imagination and nerves of steel. The restructuring of the army and its continued development (Limitanii/Comitatii) underscores the military narrative along with the fascinating evolution of the bow armed heavy cataphract cavalryman as the apex of the military elite.

The Hagia Sophia has an entire chapter devoted to the mind boggling logistical effort required to rebuild on the ruins of its riot destroyed predecessor, and this feat of mathematics, engineering and civic willpower is described as one of undeniable swagger and Imperial vigor. This physical manifestation of Empire and Faith is stunning in itself, but the simultaneous codification and edition of the whole of extant Law on a scale that can only be described as epic and resonates into the heart our own laws and lawyerly procedure today.

The crushing of the Visigoths and the campaigns within Italy and northern Africa are enumerated, the constant parry and thrust with his mirror image Khusro the Second in Persia. The scourge of the Huns in the context of the instability of the residual Western empire, the various client arab states (Ghassanids in particular), the various tribal/ethnic movements that crossed and recrossed the remnants of the Western Empire are covered with commendable simplicity.

Into this vital world comes the mutant bacteria Yersina Pestis, referred to as “the demon” in the book. The mutation of the original bacteria is carefully discussed, and the tragedy of the diseases non- interest in humans. The complete derailing of normal life is catalogued, the greatest immediate problem being an inability to bury the dead in sufficient quantities, or indeed to find a place to put them (the towers of the city defences were opened up by removal of roofs and filled with the dead), as cremation was out of the question as a matter of Christian doctrine. The structural demolition of agriculture and trade from a lack of persons to actually undertake work and keep the basic fabric of society from unravelling is catalogued from horrific eyewitness accounts.

Justinian himself survived the plague, as would perhaps half of those infected if their auto-immune systems were reasonably strong, but the colossal mortality (perhaps half the Byzantine population) the main structural problem caused was the total undermining of agricultural productivity, and the subsequent restructuring of the agrarian system to produce what in effect became the early medieval three field system especially in northern Europe (or rather where the Northern European nations would one day come into being.) This is the basic failure but it leaves little to the imagination to realise that a labour intensive society would be damaged on many fronts, not the least being the armed forces and particularly sailors and anyone in the maritime trades (given the “passage” of the black rat by sea), being on a closed vessel with plague bitten rats offered little in the way of career advancement.

The problem for humans is essentially this, if a very abundant rat population (which likes nothing more than a steady supply of grain) is parasitised by the flea containing the plague bacterian, and this flea is too efficient in killing its hosts then this same flea is driven to seek out another live host to bite The flea is fooled into thinking it is starving by action of the plague bacteria, (a coagulant in its gut does not allow it to digest harvested blood) the flea is impelled to bite more to seek blood. This is fine if the biting is just done to rats, they are smitten with plague, ( they die -that being the apotheosis of the bacterian), but not normally until the fleas have also bred to maintain a reservoir of the virus. Sadly when rat populations hit demographic peaks, having an abundant supply of grain in a concentrated area, fleas can then "jump off" searching for hosts and land on (and bite) humans almost by inadvertence. This is the only method of contagion, one cannot cough bubonic plague onto another human for example. So a huge die off of infected rats leaves humans grossly susceptible to contagion, if such a population is weakened by ergot poisoning (use of ergot contaminated grain from a damp store) the fatality rate exceeds the basic likely plague fatality rates considerably. I should mention that pneumonic plague is a mutation of the bubonic variant, can be “coughed” onto another person and is virtually 100 percent deadly, but this mutation (mercifully) rarely occurs.

The whole work also throws the longevity of “Rome” as a civilisuing ideal into the context of modern time frames, between Caesar and Justinian we are as far from Edward the Second as to The Kaiser, yet the “idea” of Rome as a measure of justice and right lives throughout this immense stretch of time.

Overall a witty and informative read, especially rewarding to Romanophiles who have previously set their eyes toward the Late Republic and Dominate.

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Book Review of Justinian's Flea - Related Topic: Byzantine Emperors


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