What Archaeology has Learned about Plague and the Emperor Justinian

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The Justinian Plague is what historians call the first human plague pandemic, a disease which spread from central Asia into the Mediterranean basin of Europe between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. The name of the disease comes from the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who ruled from Constantinople when the plague decimated the city.

According to books XXII and XXIII of "De bello persico" ("the Persian war") written from direct experience by the historian Procopius of Caesarea in the 6th century, the disease killed half the Byzantine Empire, or around 100 million people.

Modern scholars believe that was likely a rhetorical exaggeration; but nonetheless, the plague was devastating and it is believed by some to have sped along the final end of the Roman empire.

Eruption and Spread

The Justinian Plague erupted in the Egyptian port city of Pelusium in the summer of AD 541 and within two years it had spread through Constantinople, Syria, Anatolia, Greece, Italy, Gaul, Iberia and North Africa, reaching as far east as Persia and as far north as Ireland. It hurtled over the landscape: in 664, the plague took a mere 91 days to travel from Dover to Lastingham, a distance of 385 kilometers (240 miles) or a rate of about 4.2 km (2.6 mi) per day.

Contemporary reports say the disease was highly contagious, and wiped out entire communities and regions, leading to mass burials and sometimes no burials at all because there was none left to bury the fallen.

The plague dragged on relentlessly in Europe and the Near East with at least 18 recurrences of disease at 8-12 year intervals for the next two hundred years, with overall mortality rates estimated at 15-60%.

The Justinian plague ended about 750, and (apparently) is now extinct.

From Whence Came...

Because the first known outbreak in the west was in Egypt, most writers of the period believed the plague had arisen in Africa. More recent scholars have argued that the Justinian Plague was the work of the Asian-based Yersinia pestis, the same bacteria that delivered the Black Death to Europe some 800 years later, and the modern bubonic plague beginning in 1894. The same sources are suspected for the Black Death and Justinian's Plague: rats and their fleas brought by international trade along the Silk Road, and sea-faring ships.

Symptoms reported by a slew of contemporary writers, including Procopius, Evagrius, John of Ephesus and Gregory of Tours, included the presence of buboes, with swollen lymph nodes (lympadenitis) accompanied by serious and fatal episodes of septicemia or pneumonia: these are the marks of bubonic plague.

Recent sequencing of DNA from victims of the Justinian Plague in France and Germany did find evidence of Y. pestis, albeit of a different strain from those of the later pandemic bubonic plagues. Some debate exists about how related the Justinian version of Y. pestis is to that of the Black Death and modern bubonic plague. Cui and colleagues argue that the Justinian plague came from a Y. pestis strain that arose in eastern Africa and then migrated to Europe and Asia; but most other scholars pinpoint central Asia as the source of the Justinian bacterium.

Aschheim-Bajuwarenring Cemetery

An early medieval graveyard in Aschheim in the Bavarian region of Germany has proven a source of considerable data about the Justinian plague. A total of 438 individuals were buried in single and a few multiple graves, between about 500-700 AD, many of whom are believed to have been plague victims.

Two recent DNA studies have been run an this population. Harbeck et al. detected Y. pestis DNA from 19 individuals from the cemetery, and argued that based on DNA fingerprinting studies, an older, now extinct form of the Asian Y. pestis was responsible for the Justinian plague.

Wagner et al. identified the genome sequence for the Justinian plague among the population and assert that the version of Y. pestis that caused that plague has no known contemporary representatives and is either extinct or unsampled in wild rodents. Clearly the debate has not ended.


Cohn Jr. SK. 2008. Epidemilogy of the Black Death and successive waves of plague.Medical Historical Supplement 27:74-100.

Cui Y, Yu C, Yan Y, Li D, Li Y, Jombart T, Weinert LA, Wang Z, Guo Z, Xu L et al. 2013. Historical variations in mutation rate in an epidemic pathogen, Yersinia pestis.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110(2):577-582. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1205750110

Harbeck M, Seifert L, Hänsch S, Wagner DM, Birdsell D, Parise KL, Wiechmann I, Grupe G, Thomas A, Keim P et al. 2013. Yersinia pestis DNA from skeletal remains from the 6th century AD reveals insights into Justinianic Plague. PLoS Pathogens 9(5):e1003349. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1003349

Wagner DM, Klunk J, Harbeck M, Devault A, Waglechner N, Sahl JW, Enk J, Birdsell DN, Kuch M, Lumibao C et al. In press. Yersinia pestis and the Plague of Justinian 541–543 AD: a genomic analysis. The Lancet Infectious Diseases(0). doi: 10.1016/S1473-3099(13)70323-2
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