949: Justinian’s Flea by William Rogen

by Gerard


949.5013: Rosen, William. Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire. New York: Penguin, 2008. 324 pp. ISBN 978-0-14-311381-2.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 900: History and Geography
  • 940: History of Europe and Western Europe
  • 949: History of other parts of Europe
  • 949.5: History of Greece
  • 949.501: Early history to 717 AD
  • 949.5013: Early Byzantine period, 323 AD to 171 AD

When boats arrived in Constantinople from Egypt in 541 AD, they weren’t carrying just exotic foods and trinkets. Rats and fleas from the lower holds scrambled into the new landscape, and with them came the plague. The disease swept through port cities, leaving corpses riddled with black buboes in its wake. At its peak, ten thousand people a day died in Constantinople. William Rosen’s Justinian’s Flea takes a look at the damage this microscopic agent caused to humans and how that affected history for centuries to come.

William Rosen is a great editor in his own right, but when he writes, his real talent comes out. Deftly combining history, medicine, sociology, and religion, Rosen posits that a major factor in the demise of the Roman Empire was the convergence between the first outbreak of bubonic plague and the weakened state of the Roman army. The book starts off slow, with a complete history of the empire between Diocletian and Justinian, then gets really good with an in-depth analysis of the evolution of the plague virus. A slowish but ultimately rewarding read.