Q&A + Errata
Q & A
Below are responses to questions raised by readers of Justinian's Flea; to ask your own, please feel free to e-mail me directly, using the button to your right.
Your biography says that you used to be an editor and publisher; how did you come to write this book?
After my former employer and I parted company, and while I was interviewing for the sort of jobs I had held for twenty-five years – Executive Editor, Publisher, that sort of thing – my wife asked me “what would you do if you weren’t afraid to fail at it”? So you might say that I started writing on a dare.
(If you’ve decided that my fear of failure was justified, well, that's also what the "e-mail me" button is for.)
Deciding what to write was actually easier than deciding to write at all, since one aspect of publishing books is suggesting projects to authors, and I therefore had a file full of ideas that I had offered to authors with whom I’d worked over the years. I had originally proposed writing a book about the Plague of Justinian to a historian for whom I’d edited three other books…and while he didn’t decide to pursue it, I did.
Why the interest in such a little-known period?
Part of the appeal is that it is so little-known. I’m awestruck by the ability of some popular historians to find audiences for such well-known topics as the Civil War, or Napoleon, but I didn’t feel confident enough to compete with them.
When I was first explaining this project to my editor and agent, I used to say that, thanks to movies and television, most people can conjure a pretty clear picture of the world around the time of Julius Caesar, and the time of Richard the Lion Hearted – gladiators and crusaders, for example; Cleopatra as played by Elizabeth Taylor, and Eleanor of Aquitaine as played by Katherine Hepburn – but nothing of the time in between, which is more than a thousand years.
The best writerly advice I ever heard (and with which I bored dozens of authors back when I was an editor) is not to write what you know, but to write what you don’t know about what you do know. When I started on this project, I knew a fair bit about European and Mediterranean history, but not much about Late antiquity.
I can’t help noticing that the leading characters of your book are not only violent and cunning, but more than a little promiscuous, resembling some of the characters in I, Claudius, and the HBO series Rome; do you see them that way?
A bit. I recall that one of the reasons given for the excess blood and sex in both television series was that they were set in a pre-Christian historical period, which is obviously nonsense, as anyone who has read a biography of the Borgias will realize. Even if it were true, it wouldn’t let the characters in Justinian’s Flea off the hook, since they were living in a fully Christianized Roman Empire…which didn’t stop them from sleeping, poisoning, and murdering their way to the top. Justinian’s wife, the Empress Theodora is generally believed to have spent her youth as a prostitute and a pornographic stage actress; Antonina, the wife of Justinian’s great general Belisarius, appears to have had affairs with dozens of men, including her own adopted son.
In some ways, though, the most impressive thing about the careers of people like Theodora and Justinian is neither their appetite nor their unscrupulousness, but their ability to rise to the very top of the world’s greatest empire even when born to families whose class was just above that of slaves. There’s a lot to detest about such a violent period, but it was arguably a lot easier to improve your lot in life in this era of the Roman Empire than in the British Empire seventeen centuries later.
Writers who spend years in the company of a single character or group of characters frequently find themselves feeling affectionate toward them; did you?
Very much so. It’s actually quite easy to admire Justinian’s general Belisarius, who is practically a comic book hero -- tall, good looking, courageous, brilliant…a 6th century Eagle Scout – but the period is practically a “Best-and-the-Brightest” address book: Belisarius’ wife Antonina and the Empress Theodora are not only clever and seductive, but hugely competent: Antonina accompanied her husband on one campaign after another, and not just for company’s sake; she was practically the Army's quartermaster during the conquest of North Africa. And Theodora wasn’t just the consort to the emperor, she was the empress herself, involved in making policy on her own account.
What else? Justinian supervised the work of the ancient world’s greatest architect and jurist, one to rebuild Constantinople, especially the great church known as the Hagia Sophia. The Persian Emperor Khusro the Great, who might be the best example history has of a true philosopher-king … so much so, in fact, that when the pagan faculty of the Academy in Athens (the one built originally by Plato) were feeling unloved in a Christian empire, Khusro brought all of them to Ctesiphon, his capital on the Tigris (just across from where Baghdad would be founded a century later) and built them a new university.
You haven’t mentioned Justinian; why not?
In some ways, he is the most interesting of them all, but also the most contradictory. Here is a Roman emperor who never set foot in Italy; a great conqueror – the greatest since Julius Caesar – who never led troops in the field; the most powerful man in the world, and one of its most paranoid; the richest and one of the most abstemious (he appears to have lived largely on greens and lemon juice).
After spending years in his company, however, he is still something of a mystery to me. In fact, it sometimes seems to me that the period is most distinguished by its elusiveness…not least because of the place religion occupied in the life of Justinian and his contemporaries. It wasn’t merely that pre-Enlightenment Christians drank from a pool of unquestioning faith; during Justinian’s time, they grew drunk on it.
Justinian’s favorite hobby, in fact, was arguing the most obscure points of Christian doctrine (you can easily see where we get the dictionary definition of “Byzantine”). This was brought home to me by way of one really illuminating scene that I included in the book; an incident that took place at the Hippodrome, Constantinople’s great arena for chariot racing. Justinian was seated in the imperial box, surrounded by 50,000 racing fans, when one of them (no doubt equipped with a megaphone) engaged him directly in a debate about the nature of the incorruptibility of Christ’s body. The emperor and the fan went toe-to-toe on the issue in stanza after stanza of extemporaneous verse on the murkiest kind of Christian dogma, with occasional cheers from the crowd when one debater got in a good one. It was as if New York’s Mayor Bloomberg spent halftime at a Knicks game debating the finer points of string theory with a physicist seated twenty rows away, and not only did no one think anything extraordinary about it, but the drunks in the cheap seats applauded.
Mysterious? Perhaps better to say that it’s a lot easier to describe that sort of world, than to really understand it.
Why is the plague of Justinian so little known, compared to the Black Death of the 14th century?
The whole era is actually pretty vague to contemporary people, even educated ones. In addition to the general level of obscurity that the period enjoys, it was also a time that marked a sort of historical firebreak; so much of what we know about the Black Death has survived to the present day, I think, because it was, perversely, less disruptive than the Plague of Justinian…or, more accurately, it had a lot more continuity with the period that succeeded it.
These plagues – both of them – didn’t just happen once; each recurred for more than two hundred years…and two hundred years after the Black Death, the nations of Europe were hip deep into the Renaissance, while two hundred years after the Justinianic Plague, the nations of Europe were barely being born.
The result is that poets like Boccaccio and Chaucer could write about the Black Death from personal experience, and visual artists like Giotto and Holbein could create depictions of it. Selecting the jacket art for the U.S. edition of this book brought this home to me in practical (though insignificant) terms, since almost all the fine art images of plague are from 15th century and later, and as a result, show people dressed as if they lived in the 15th and 16th centuries. The one we selected is a painting of a plague from antiquity, but it was painted by Nicholas Poussin in the 17th century.
But they were the same disease?
The same disease, caused by the same bacterium, or very nearly the same. The bacteria in question are actually two variants of the same organism, Yersinia pestis, usually called “antiqua” and “medievalis”. There’s really not much to distinguish one from the other – some slightly different metabolic processes [the older version, for example is able to chemically reduce nitrates to nitrites).
Actually, plague, as distinguished from the bacterium that causes it, does come in different forms, depending on how it is transmitted. Bubonic plague is the most common, and is transmitted by the bite of an infected flea; when the disease finds its way to the lungs, it is called pneumonic plague, and is spread like a cold or flu, by breathing, coughing, or sneezing. [There’s even a third variety, called septicemic.] Bubonic plague kills “only” about half of untreated victims, while pneumonic plague is almost always fatal.
Untreated bubonic plague, however, remains deadly, in the 6th, 14th, or even the 21st century. Whether it kills a few dozen people, or tens of millions, is the difference between a chronic disease and an epidemic.
If the two epidemics were similarly deadly, and similarly important, how were they different?
The biggest difference, I suspect, was not what as experienced by the victims of the plagues, but by the survivors. We have an enormously better acquaintance with the second epidemic - the proper word is pandemic - in part because it engendered so many dramatic and well-remembered reactions. While it is probably too far to say that the Mediterranean society that experienced the 6th century pandemic did so with equanimity, they did not seem to exhibit the sort of apocalyptic mania that was so frequently seen in 14th century Europe: mass demonstrations in preparation for the expected end of the world; persecutions against Jews and others suspected of causing the plague, that sort of thing. They suffered just as much misery from the disease, but less from their own hands.
My hunch is that the difference is due to the relative power of what can only be called a Christian perspective. The societies of the 6th (and 7th and 8th centuries, for the plague recurred over nearly a two century period) were still strongly influenced by a more “antique” turn of thought…the kind of rationalism we tend to associate with Classical Greece and Rome, which did not view natural disasters as a kind of repayment for human sins.
What were the consequences of the plague of Justinian?
The best way I know to answer that is this: Between the end of the 4th century and the beginning of the 6th, the Roman Empire had lost Britain, Spain, France, and Italy to a series of barbarian invasions. Between the years 532 and 540, the empire had reconquered North Africa, southern France, Italy, and Spain, and was a good bet to reestablish itself over almost the entire territory ruled by Augustus. Similarly, in the middle of the fourth century, the Sassanid Persian Empire was at its absolute apex of power and wealth, ruling from Pakistan to the shores of the Black Sea.
Then Yersinia pestis arrived.
Before the 6th century was over, it had killed somewhere around 25 million people, and nearly killed the emperor Justinian himself. Within decades, Rome and Persia were so plague-weakened that the armies of Islam, formed in one of the only parts of either empire to remain plague free, could conquer Mesopotamia, the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, and most of Asia Minor
So, while it would be wrong to say that we know that something as complex as the fall of the Roman Empire was caused by a flea, it is even more wrong to say that we know it wasn’t. Or, put another way, hard as it is to say precisely how the pandemic changed the course of history, it is just plain wrong to suggest that subsequent events would have been the same had it not appeared.
We’ve heard a lot recently about the way in which global warming/climate change may result in future epidemics; was there any relation between climate and the Plague of Justinian?
A National Academy of Sciences study last year actually showed a relationship between warming and the percentage of rodents that become infected with the plague bacterium, predicting up to a 50% increase in prevalence in places like Central Asia.
However, something that depends on as many factors as a plague epidemic is more complicated. The same weather that makes Y. pestis more infective may limit the travel of the fleas that carry them.
Case in point: One of the best guesses for the origin of the disease is East Africa; some pretty persuasive research indicates that one of the events that preceded its arrival at the mouth of the Nile in AD540 was a several years-long worldwide drop in temperature, probably caused either by a comet, or by a massive volcanic eruption…and the change may have caused the flea-carrying rats to migrate north.
The lesson of the Plague of Justinian, partly because it depends on such an extraordinarily unlikely – and extraordinarily unhappy – alignment of rats, fleas, and humans moving them around fast enough that they can spread infection before they die themselves, is that small disruptions in ecological equilibrium (what we used to call the balance of nature) can have big consequences. So, while it’s too much to say that overall global warming is likely to be the cause of a new outbreak of bubonic plague, it is not something we ought to be sanguine about.
Your book is subtitled “Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe”; I get the plague and the empire, but what’s this about Europe?
While you can argue about the importance of the bubonic plague in ending the Roman Empire, there’s no argument at all about the connection between the fall of Rome and the rise of Europe. It’s pretty obvious that the nations like France, Romania, Spain, Hungary, and the principalities that would eventually form Germany and Italy, weren’t going anywhere so long as they were part of a supernational enterprise like Rome. No fall of Rome; no rise of France.
Weren’t nations like France and Germany eventually going to emerge anyway?
That’s one of the unexamined assumptions that started me thinking about Late Antiquity in the first place. In the introductory chapter of Justinian’s Flea, I followed the lead of a number of historians in comparing 6th century Rome to 6th century China (one of the most intriguing is found in a ten year old online article written by Daniel Foss). Each had been an empire for more than five hundred years, and had seen its territory halved by increasingly aggressive barbarian invasions. Each embarked on successful campaigns of reconquest, led by enormously gifted emperors … both of them born peasants. Within a century, both were fighting the armies of the Islamic Caliphate.
And there the story diverges. China stayed identifiably China; Rome evolved into a patchwork led by folks called Venetians, Franks, Lombards, and Germans. They would eventually be the first true nation-states – political units with defined borders, unique languages, and distinct histories -in the planet’s history. In fact, you can argue that the only reason that the map of the world is divided into these units today is that the idea of such nation-states may be Europe’s most world-historically durable export.
Does this prove that the empire that encountered the plague was fated to be the only one that turned into these political units? Not exactly…but it is pretty intriguing, nonetheless.
Do you see any connection between the present-day controversies about European identity trying to assert itself in the face of unprecedented immigration?
I do. Though the period of Justinian’s Flea ends with the birth of Islam, it begins with the birth of the sort of “proto-nations” that emerged when Roman authority subsided in Western Europe. The Huns, Goths, Franks, Lombards, and the other peoples that appear so prominently in the histories of the time were, after all, looking for the same thing that not only defines a modern nation – a territory of their own – but seems to feature in every conflict in the world today: people asserting nationhood violently.
Iran and Iraq
A good deal of the action in Justinian’s Flea takes place in another present-day hot spot: Iraq. Is this a coincidence?
Not really. The territory just to the east of what used to be called Greater Syria (quite a bit larger than the modern-day country, but still bordering Mesopotamia) had been at the frontline of conflict for centuries before Justinian and his alter-ego, the last great Persian ruler, the Sassanid shah, Khusro the Great, faced off. Alexander the Great defeated the first Persian Empire there during the fourth century BC, and one of Julius Caesar’s contemporaries, Marcus Crassus, lost his life fighting the armies of a later Persian Empire in the 1st.
However, I’m cautious about extracting specific lessons from the ancients and applying them to the modern world. It’s tempting to see a cautionary tale in Justinian’s wars: The most powerful leader in the world, completely sure of the virtues of his own civilization, launches a series of invasions that result in immediate and relatively easy victories, even though they are achieved with the absolute minimum number of occupying troops. He then faces decades of guerilla battles – in Italy, Spain, and North Africa – against insurgents who view the Roman forces not as liberators but as occupiers.
However, Justinian is not George Bush, nor is the Roman Empire of late Antiquity the United States of America.
Is the Persia of antiquity the same as modern-day Iran?
A lot of modern-day Iranians obviously take a great deal of pride in their Persian imperial past…so much so that the movie 300 generated quite a lot of anger on behalf of folks who thought the movie defamed the Persians of Xerxes. In some ways, they are the successors of those empires, but it’s also true that when the armies of Islam conquered the Sassanid Persians, as a direct consequence of the events described in Justinian’s Flea, they did their level best to destroy everything about all those Persian empires that preceded them; they leveled the Persian’s capital city, built Baghdad on the opposite side of the Tigris, remade the language, the calendar, pretty much everything. I suppose it’s a testimony to the size of the shadow that the Persian empire cast that it’s still visible fifteen centuries after it was destroyed.
In your book, there’s an entire chapter on the building of the Hagia Sophia, Constantinople’s great church, and another on the codification of Roman law; why?
Partly, it’s because even the shortest encyclopedia entry on the life of Justinian will mention both the building and the law code. Partly, it’s because the real subject of the book is the way that the 6th century puts it imprint on the future, and the period’s architecture and its jurisprudence are key to understanding that imprint.
But mostly it’s because as both a reader and an editor, I have always been frustrated by the moment in narrative nonfiction when the author refers to something as “brilliant” or a “masterpiece” and then does nothing to explain what makes it so. I don’t know about you, but I want to know why this painting is a work of genius, or what makes this battle a tour de force. Since the Hagia Sophia is almost universally acknowledged as an architectural jewel, I wanted to explain why.
As it turns out, the building was a gift from the heavens for an author wanting to bring the 6th century to life. It’s a tangible expression of how different sort of forces act on historical events: not just the forces of compression and tension familiar to engineering majors, but geopolitical forces as well, since the church was built explicitly to synethesize and combine eastern and western styles of cathedral building at a time when the emperor was trying to heal the breach between the eastern and western halves of his empire. It’s also an object lesson in the history of mathematics, a mastery of which was required for building the church’s dome, and of chemistry, ignorance of which caused the church’s first dome to collapse. And it’s a pretty compelling race to the finish, as well, since the architects who built the church did so in less than six years…twenty years less than Chartres Cathedral, and twenty-seven years less than St. Paul’s.
What about the legal code?
I said above that the shortest encyclopedia entry would mention the Justinianic Code, and that’s actually understating its importance. Almost every country in the world bases its legal code either on the Common Law (like Britain and the U.S.) or the Civil Law (almost everywhere in Europe). The Civil Law is, just another name for the Justinianic Code.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that the first acquisition made by James Madison for the Library of Congress’s legal collection was the Justinianic Code. Hardly any bell that rang during the 6th century continued ringing as long as the creation and final codification of Roman law.
One of the themes in your book is the importance of the silk trade; how come?
It’s quite a tale, really. For centuries the most important article of trade traveling between the Roman and Persian and Chinese empires was silk, but neither its Roman buyers or its Persian middlemen had any idea how the Chinese made it; the most popular theories around the time of Augustus were that it was a plant, like linen or flax, or that it was taken from some sea creatures. The Chinese, not surprisingly, guarded the monopoly like the farmer guarded that golden egg laying goose.
Then, in the year 560 or thereabouts, two Nestorian monks – they were probably intelligence agents working for Justinian -- hid some silkworm eggs in a hollow cane, and smuggled them more than a thousand miles along the Silk Road to Constantinople, breaking the Chinese manufacturing monopoly (and the Persian trading monopoly) forever.
Which is a pretty good story on its own, and enough reason to keep. But even more importantly, once the Romans and Persians stopped fighting about a new route to China – the Romans wanted to circumvent the Persians, and the Persians wanted to prevent them – they both stopped supporting proxy armies in Syria and what we would now call Saudi Arabia. As a result, when the Prophet Muhammad was born, ten years after the death of Justinian, he was born in a part of the world from which two great empires had recently withdrawn…a sort of 6th century version of Afghanistan in 1989, after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union and the United States.
Is there any present-day danger from the plague?
The short answer is “yes”. Reservoirs of plague hosts are always with us, though most of them are found among wild rodents…a good thing, indeed, since they tend to avoid human populations, unlike the not-quite-domesticated rats (the proper term is commensal). Just a week before Justinian’s Flea was printed, Denver, Colorado had an outbreak among its squirrel population, and scarcely a month goes by without the discovery of plague-killed prairie dogs in the American southwest.
Even so, a few dozen people contract plague in the U.S. every year, and many more overseas; in 2006, an outbreak of pneumonic plague in the Republic of Congo killed 100 people in a matter of days, which is the expected mortality for such a deadly disease when untreated.
The good news is that the disease is treatable with antibiotic therapy; the bad news is that only weeks ago, a new strain of Y. pestis was discovered in Madagascar that is antibiotic-resistant…apparently because of change in a single plasmid, a piece of free-floating DNA captured by the bacterium.
Is there any risk of plague being used as a biological weapon?
Unfortunately, yes. During the Cold War, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union spent quite a lot of effort investigating just such a weapon – both claiming, probably truthfully, that the real concern was developing a defense – and succeeded in weaponizing the bacterium…though not in its bubonic form. Since bubonic plague, which depends on two different animal vectors, is too chancy to make a useful weapon, the favored choice of the biological warfare types is pneumonic plague, which spreads like any respiratory disease, as aerosol droplets.
The combination of an antibiotic-resistant strain of Y. pestis with an aerosol that can spread the pneumonic version of the disease ought to keep anyone up nights.