Plague Yersinia pestis

McNeill argues that the destruction of the Byzantine Roman empire in the sixth century AD was wrought by the "plague of Justinian," arguably the first visitation of Yersinia pestis to Europe.27 The Plague acted as a stressor or a solvent on the machinery of empire, resulting in the attenuated erosion of societal and state cohesion, prosperity, and power during the sixth century AD. This emergent pathogen was one of the first negative consequences of the early phases of "globalization," as trade and migration along the Silk Road saw the dissemination of Yersinia pestis from its natural reservoirs in Central Asia to Europe and East Asia.28 Consequently, the contagion resulted in massive mortality among immunologically naive populations throughout the Mediterranean region.29 The demographer Josiah Russell has argued that all the available data indicate that before the arrival of the contagion the populations of the Byzantine Roman Empire and the Persian Empire were robust and enjoying a rapid rate of increase.30 According to the historian William Rosen, this particular manifestation of contagion claimed the lives of circa 25 million people in and around the Mediterranean basin. Rosen concurs with Russell that it "depopulated entire cities; and depressed birth rates for generations precisely at the time that Justinian's armies had returned the entire Western Mediterranean to imperial control."31

Procopius wrote that he witnessed the Plague-induced destruction of 10,000 persons per day at Constantinople, where the illness raged for approximately four months.32 He also noted the profound psychological effects of the illness on norms of behavior and social cohesion. "And after the plague had ceased, there was so much depravity and general licentiousness, that it seemed as though the disease had left only the most wicked."33 Gibbon's account of the disruptive effects of the contagion accords with Procopius' observations:

I only find that, during three months, five and at length ten thousand persons died each day at Constantinople; and many cities of the east were left vacant, and that in several districts of Italy the harvest and the vintage withered on the ground. The triple scourges of war, pestilence and famine afflicted the subjects of Justinian; and his reign is disgraced by a visible decrease of the human species which has never been regained in some of the fairest countries of the globe.34

According to Russell, the initial wave of plague (541-544 AD) reduced the population around the Mediterranean (European and otherwise) by 20-25 percent over a three-year period.35 The contagion also served to induce the collapse of agricultural productivity, as pronounced demographic contraction induced severe labor shortages. John of Ephesus noted that "in every field from Syria to Thrace the harvest lacked a harvester."36

This scenario was replicated in non-European lands. The demographers Ronald Findlay and Mats Lundahl write: "It is a fact (although some historians still refuse to recognize it) that all around the Mediterranean, the cities, as they had existed in antiquity, contracted and then practically disappeared."37 The historian Michael Dols argues that epidemic disease often destabilized existing socio-political and economic equilibria, but that it also contained catalytic potential for the transformation of state-society relations following periods of exceptional turbulence:

. . . the pandemic and its recurrent epidemics were the solvents of classical Mediterranean civilization and were largely responsible for the formation of new political, social, and economic patterns . . . political power gradually shifted to the peoples of northern Europe, who were relatively unaffected by the epidemics, and, conversely, plague greatly weakened the Byzantine empire. Justinian's plans for re-establishing the Roman Empire were wrecked, and the diminished Byzantine armies were unable to defend the extensive frontiers. Hence, there was the successful resurgence of barbarian invasions. . . .38

McNeill, Zinsser, and Rosen support this conceptualization of the Fall of Byzantium, concurring that the stresses generated on both state and society overwhelmed the Empire's adaptive capacity, its ability to defend itself, and its ability to project martial power against its rivals, and led to the polity's gradual dissolution.39

The negative effects of contagion on governance and power projection were consequential, and they were hardly confined to the Mediterranean region. Indeed, it appears that East Asian societies suffered similarly destabilizing effects when the contagion reached them centuries later. McNeill argues that, in the wake of a military revolt in 755 AD, the dissolution of central political authority in China was temporally synchronous with the waves of bubonic plague that visited the region.40

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