“During those times there was a plague that came close to wiping out the whole of mankind. Now for all the calamities that fall upon us from the heavens it might be possible for some bold man to venture a theory regarding their causes, like many marvelous theories about the causes that the experts in these fields tend to dream up which are, in reality, utterly incomprehensible to mankind. Still, they make up outlandish theories of natural science, knowing well that they are saying nothing sound and they are content with themselves if only they manage to deceive a few people they meet into accepting their argument. But about this calamity there is no way to find any justification, to give a rational account, or even to cope with it mentally, except by referring it to God.” Procopius, The Wars (2.22.1)
OUCH! When I first read this, it stung a bit. The plague has been prone to many ‘outlandish theories of natural science’. How will our theories look to future generations of plague scholars? Only time will tell.
Its a shame that Procopius didn’t record some of those theories of natural science that he found so outlandish. Our only clue to these theories is a reference to “subtle theorists and astrologers” (Procopius, The Wars, 2.22.5). A reminder that in the sixth century, astrology was part of the natural sciences. Later in his description of plague devastation, he records that “some doctors … believing that the focus of the disease was to be found in the buboes, decided to investigate the bodies of the dead. Cutting into some of the buboes, they found that a kind of malignant carbuncle had developed inside” (Procopius, The Wars, 2.22.29). He goes on to explain how doctors could not predict at all who would die and who would survive.
In some ways we know much more than Procopius did, even though he lived through it. But, he goes on to tell why he believes that it can not be explained, and many of the reasons he gives are still mysteries to this day. Procopius goes on to tell how it struck the whole earth, sparing no area or region, striking in winter and summer, and people of all ages and both genders of high and low status equally. The great and the good died alongside the cruel and evil. After it was over, Procopius was convinced only the most evil had survived (including the Emperor Justinian).
“For people differ from each other in the place that they live, the customs of their lifestyle, the manner of their personality, their profession, and many other ways, but none of these differences made the slightest differences when it came to this disease — and this disease alone.” (Procopius, The Wars, 2.22.4)
How well founded Procopius assertions are is a matter of debate. Eye witnesses are notoriously error prone and biased. He can’t divorce his emotions from his account, no eye-witness can. If we did some real epidemiology number crunching — oh we if had that data! — then it is unlikely that all these factors really made no difference. From a layman’s point of view and for practical purposes though, Procopius may be correct. It devastated all layers and groups within his society. We would really just be quibbling with his assertions on equality. To the survivors, a few percentage points in the mortality rate would be trivial.
The modern editor of Procopius Anthony Kaldellis has investigated what Procopius meant by “referring it to God”. Procopius was a pagan Roman who yearned for the ideals of the pre-Christian Roman Republic. As a pagan, Procopius was not referring to any sort of monotheistic god, not unless it is to please his Christian emperor. Kaldellis interprets Procopius’ references to God throughout The Wars and his other works as being “what people normally though of as ‘chance’, that is what remains when all rational factors are excluded” (2010a, note 63). So when Procopius refers the cause of the plague to God he means a very different thing that any monotheist would.
Even among Christians, Kaldellis notes that the Byzantines did not have a well thought out theology of how God intervened in practical, everyday matters. They were more concerned with the philosophical debates on God’s nature than on how God interacts with the world. Procopius never invokes sin as a cause, as others do, and he is struck by how the most evil, in his view, survive. Among the other Byzantine writers of the plague of Justinian sin is occasionally invoked as a cause but a well thought out theology never develops (see Kaldellis 2010b), nor does it develop in Europe. There is simply no way to adequately explain how the saintly die alongside the sinners in equal numbers. Collective social sin never gains traction either. This is an area where more work could be done by someone with the linguistic skills to tackle all the various texts from North Africa to Northern Europe.
Prokopius: The Secret History: with Related Texts. Kaldellis, A. trans., ed., introdocution. Hackett, 2010a.
Kaldellis, A. (2010b). The Literature of Plague and the Anxieties of Piety in Sixth Century Byzantium. p. 1-23 in Piety and Plague From Byzantium to the Baroque.