Natural Disasters Plague of Justinian at Constantinople Part 2

About the plague of Justinian in Constantinope, history and aftermath of the death and destruction caused by the disease in the Byzantine empire.



From the beginning of the epidemic, Justinian prepared to meet the crisis as best he could. He appointed an official secretary to oversee the special problems caused by the plague. He paid guardsmen extra to remove the dead. At first, the dead were buried in cemeteries outside the city. As the disease spread, the corpses were thrown, without religious ceremonies, into the sea. Huge trenches outside the city walls later accommodated the growing number of the casualties. Volunteers helped with the disposal of the bodies as the epidemic rampaged, but after a while even the trenches were inadequate. At the peak of the plague, the bodies were barged across the harbor of the Golden Horn to the towers of Syae. The roofs of the towers were temporarily removed and the bodies were placed inside. The wind carried the stench into the city.

All trading stopped, and the city's food supply became exhausted. Justinian borrowed both money and food from foreign governments. The food was rationed to the people by soldiers.

Justinian himself became stricken with the plague. His wife, Queen Theodora, reigned during his illness. The daughter of an animal keeper of the Hippodrome, the controversial Queen Theodora had been an actress in her youth. The people of Constantinople resented her and blamed the plague on her alleged promiscuity during her earlier life. Justinian recovered and resumed his position of emperor. But he was never to regain his full physical strength, and like so many survivors of the plague, he suffered a speech defect.

The plague remained in Constantinople for four months. It peaked for three weeks, at which time the historian Procopius reported 5,000 as the daily death rate. The cold weather of the fall was believed to have helped end the epidemic in the Byzantine capital.

Aftermath: The plague of Justinian crippled Constantinople. It forced the Byzantine Empire into debt, and it killed over half of the city's population, including many aristocrats. Replacement of the casualties of the ruling class resulted in a shift of power and wealth to a new social faction. The disaster contributed to Emperor Justinian's failure to achieve his ambition of restoring supremacy of the Roman Empire. Moreover, the plague did not end in Constantinople. It continued to spread along the Byzantine trade routes into Africa, Asia Minor, and Europe. Remnants of the plague of Justinian are the hypothesized sources for later bubonic plagues in Italy and France throughout the 6th century.

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