Justinian Plague: Disturbing Facts About History’s Deadliest Pandemic

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Covid-19, Chicken Pox, Small Pox, Measles, Plague, and poliomyelitis are the names of some of the deadliest diseases that have ever been occurred.  Here we are going to get some information about the Justinian Plague.  Plague is a terrifying disease caused by a bacteria found in rodents.  The outbreak of this epidemic was an issue to worry about since there was a fear of using plague as a biological weapon.  The epidemic killed millions of people all around the world.  This bacterial infection sometimes still occurs but the good news is it can be treated with antibiotics.  Let’s have a look at some scary yet surprising facts about the plague.

History of the origin of Plague

justinian plague history

To date, three deadliest plague epidemics have emerged namely, the Justinian Plague and the Black Death and plague in China. The Justinian Plague outbreak was noticed in 541 A.D. in the sixth century and spread across Asia, Arabia, Europe, and North Africa. It was named after the Byzantine emperor Justinian I

According to an estimate, tens of millions (around 50 million) of people were killed due to this outbreak which was about half of the world’s population at that time. After 800 years of Justinian Plague, a huge wave of Black Death appeared and swept around 50 million people across Europe starting from 1347 to 1351. The Black Death remained into existence for centuries that lead to the Great Plague of London in 1965-66 caused 70 thousand deaths; the true number of deaths can be over 100000.

The most recent plague pandemic

The most recent outbreak of plague was observed in China in 1855 and continued until the end of 1959. Roughly 12 million deaths were noticed in India and China due to this phase of the pandemic.   

Mystery resolved

plague of justinian bacteria

The cause of plague outbreak was remained mysterious for hundreds of years and lead to superstitions unless Alexandre Yersin discovered the bacterium responsible for plague in 1894. The bacterium was given name Yersinia Pestis. The mystery was resolved due to keen observations and development of advance microscopes that helped a lot in resolving the long term issue. Y. Pestis is a rod-shaped virulent bacterium.   

Discovery of the common link

justinian plague bacterium

DaveWagner, a microbial geneticist at Northern Arizona University along with his team discovered a common link between the Justinian Plague and the Black Death after isolating tiny DNA of the bacterium, called Yersinia Pestis. The research was done on 1500 year-old human skeletons of two victims of plague who were buried at Bavaria in Germany. Both the epidemics were caused by two different strains of the same microbe and both were spread to humans by the rodents and associated fleas that carried the bacteria to humans.

Risk of Reemergence

rodents spread plagues

If we closely look at the findings, then we can notice that there is a possibility of a new strain of plague that could again infect humans in the future. About 200 species of rodents carry the bacteria Yersinia Pestis across the globe. “It does and will continue to spill over into humans every so often,” said study leader Hendrik Poinar, a molecular evolutionary geneticist at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.

Also Read: 10 Ancient Civilizations without Religion

Plague’s stages of reaction on humans

flea during justinian plague
Plague infected Xenopsylla cheopis male 28 days after feeding on inoculated mouse.

Yersinia Pestis works extraordinarily by injecting toxins into defense cells that are responsible for fighting with bacterial infections. After disabling the cell’s functioning, the bacteria can easily multiply itself, thus acts in the direction of weakening the immune system of its host. 

Many small rodents and mammals like rats, mice, prairie dogs, chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits act as host to Y. Pestis bacteria. Among all these rodents, rats are considered to be the main cause of plague to humans as they are in close contact with humans. A flea named Xenopsylla cheopis found on rats transmits the plague bacteria to humans. 

Types of Plague

bubonic plague

According to its stages, two types of plague are known namely Bubonic Plague and Pneumonic Plague. 

The early-stage or the most common form of the disease is bubonic plague. The early symptoms are nausea, vomiting and fever and later painfully swollen lymph nodes affecting areas such as armpit, neck and groin. The affected area becomes black that’s why it was given nickname Black Death during the pandemic.

The advance stage of the plague is called Pneumonic Plague. It is the most infectious stage as the bacteria move into the lungs and the host can easily and directly spread it by coughing into the open air.  

If remain untreated, both bubonic and pneumonic plague can infect bloodstream of the host and will lead to Septicaemic plague. This stage of plague can kill almost 100 % of infected persons. 

Plague in modern times

plague in madagascar

Scientists say, if Yersinia Pestis strikes again, it will not be so devastating if compared to the past pandemics because of two main reasons. First being the hygiene standards that we’ve greatly improved from past times and the other thing is the availability of antibiotics. Plague is vulnerable to antibiotics. 

Some plague cases still pop up in today’s era sporadically across the globe including China, the United States, India, Mongolia, Vietnam, and Africa. The situation and cases are closely being monitored by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. From 1990 onwards most of the cases have appeared in Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo witnessed 4630 cases causing the death of 349 people, between 2004 to 2014. In Madagascar, 2348 cases including 202 deaths of plague have been noticed in 2017. On an average seven human cases of plague appear in the United States each year primarily found in Southwest and California.

Effects of Justinian Plague

Effects of Justinian Plague

Justinian plague had created a hazardous situation in both terms in health and finance. It struck people without any discrimination of age, gender or any other thing. But if we closely compare then we will find that the heaviest toll was of young people especially men. Byzantine Greek Scholar, Procopius described the effects of the plague. He said that at that time it was not easy to see anyone in Byzantium out of doors; all those who were in health sat at home either tending to the sick or mourning the dead. If one did manage to see a man going out, he would be burying one of the dead. All work slackened; craftsmen abandoned all their crafts and every task which any man had in hand.

The bottom line

On concluding the situations of the time of Justinian Plague, it is found that the empire was heavily struck by the effects of plague both in workforce and in finances.  The rampant death toll also impacted the military force as it lack of workforce and increase in wages due to the pandemic.  The inflation was at its highest rate. The empire eventually recovered from the situation but it could not achieve any glory due to continuous cases of Justinian Plague. “During these times there was a pestilence, by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated.” writes Procopius, 542 C.E. The plague attacks the people of all ages and genders but around 50% cases of plague are found in people aging from 12 to 45.


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