The Plague


The Plague of Justinian, 541-c.750

The Justianian Plague erupted in the Eastern Roman empire at the Egyptian port of Pelusium on the eastern end of the Nile delta. Although it is surely not the first pandemic, it is the first to survive in the historical record that can be accurately diagnosed and studied. There is now no doubt that it was caused by Yersinia pestis, the same bacterium that caused the Black Death of the 14th century and still causes significant deaths today. It is named for Emperor Justinian pictured to the right because it arrived during his reign and he is considered to be the last significant Roman Emperor. As bad as the plague was elsewhere, there is no doubt that the Eastern Roman empire that then encircled the Mediterranean took the brunt of the first wave of the plague in the 540s. The plague played a considerable role in the final collapse of the Roman empire, the birth of most of the modern European nations, and the rise of Islam. In effect, it played a significant role in shaping the world as we still know it today.

Justinians Empire
Justinian’s Empire

I also discuss the plague of Justinian on my other blog, Contagions. Posts on historical and social effects of the plague in Britain and Ireland will mostly appear here on Heavenfield. Posts with an emphasis on science and all plagues from antiquity to today will appear on Contagions.

Plague Glossary (click here)

Plague Tales

Plague in the Mediterranean

Plague in Rome

Plague in Bavaria

Plague in the British Isles

Archangel Michael currently on top of Castel Sant’ Angelo made in 1753 (Public domain, wikipedia)

People of the Plague

Christianity and Islam


9 thoughts on “The Plague

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    1. The 14th century really isn’t my specialty but the Black Death did make labor more valuable. Everyone was looking for labor including the church. More land also came to the survivors of the plague as they inherited from a pool of relatives who died in the plague. Try John Hatcher’s The Black Death: A Personal History if you want to learn more.

    1. Plague ancient DNA has been found in late sixth century Bavaria. Plague spread by networks like a spider web rather than a wave so look for networks connecting northern Germany to plague stricken areas. As far as I know, archaeology will have to inform us about German areas where there is little or no documentation.

  1. Hello Michelle,

    Many thanks for your research on the Justinian plague. This is really helpful to me. I’m a GP intern from Brest, Brittany, currently working on my these “Health and Medicine of the Early Medieval Britons and Bretons”. It’s a litterature review of both the historical and archaeological – mostly paleopathology – sources from 5-10th century western Brittany, Wales and South-West England.

  2. Thanks for your kind words Michelle. I went through your other blog aswell. I may not have much to add about the plague, but I hope my research may give an impetus to future works, among other things to look for Y. pestis DNA or antigens on 6th century skeletons. The Justinian Plague is one of my favorite topics, along our breton corpus of trepaned skulls (there are 12 cases in the cemetery of Saint-Urnel in south-west Brittany).

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