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10 Scary Facts About The Justinian Plague
By Elizabeth Yetter,
Listverse, 17 October 2016.

There have been numerous plagues throughout human history that managed to kill an innumerable amount of people within a short span of time. The Justinian Plague was one of the deadliest plagues in known history, with millions of fatalities. It was right up there with The Black Death, an infamous plague that killed off half the population in Europe in the mid-1300s.

10. First Major Plague In Recorded History

Photo via

The Justinian Plague, which began in AD 541, is considered the first pandemic in recorded history because it swept across three continents. The plague may have started in Egypt and was carried to other continents by merchant ships infested with disease-carrying rodents. When the plague reached Constantinople, it killed roughly 300,000 people there in the first year.

The plague got its name from the Byzantine emperor Justinian, who reigned from AD 527 to 565. Just as Emperor Justinian was trying to rebuild his empire to the glory of ancient Rome, the plague struck and left it devastated. The plague destroyed his military and his economy. Emperor Justinian was also infected with the plague but pulled through, unlike many others.

9. The Deadly Microbe


Both the Justinian Plague and the Black Death were caused by the same microbe, Yersinia pestis. Although the strains of each plague differed, both had deadly consequences. The Black death, which happened between 1347 and 1351, killed 50 to 200 million Europeans. The earlier Justinian Plague killed up to 100 million people across Europe, Asia, Arabia, and North Africa in 50 years.

Although roughly 800 years apart, both plagues are known to have been spread by rodents and their fleas, which transferred the deadly bacteria to humans. Strains of the original microbes are still carried by rodents today.

8. It Has Been Recovered

Photo credit: McMaster University via Laboratory Equipment

Two sets of remains, one female and the other male, were exhumed in the 1960s outside of Munich, Germany. It was believed that they might have been victims of the Justinian Plague. This was confirmed in 2016, when scientists took samples from both remains and found Yersinia pestis inside the female skeleton’s molar. The bacterium was naturally degraded, but scientists were still able to reconstruct the Justinian Plague, and they found similarities with the Black Death.

While resurrecting “dead” diseases usually causes fear, this recent attempt to rebuild the Justinian Plague barely ruffled a feather. This may be because the plague’s bacterium is considered an evolutionary dead end, or it may simply be because most people have not heard of the Justinian Plague.

7. Caused By A Demon


Since medical science as we know it did not exist during the Justinian Plague, people had to come up with their own reasons for its occurrence. Greek historian Procopius wrote that many people believed the disease was caused by a malevolent spirit or demon. The demon was said to either appear to people in a dream or show itself just as they were waking up. Those who saw it would come down with the plague.

To prevent the demon from entering a home, people started barring their doors, and they stopped allowing visitors into their homes. No one was allowed in, not even other family members. It was the only method they knew of to prevent the sickness from coming in and infecting them.

6. Exorcisms


With so many people having visions before coming down with the plague, Christian followers began to believe that God was punishing them by allowing demons to infect them with a horrible death. In response, priests began performing exorcisms on the infected. Unfortunately, the exorcisms worked just as well as the medicine at the time. They did nothing to stop the plague from killing its victims.

There was also a group of people who believed that the tonsured monks were demons and the cause of the plague. They fled from the monks whenever they were spotted in the community.

5. The Symptoms

Photo via Ancient Origins

The Justinian Plague would start off with just a mild fever. It seemed like it was nothing to really worry about until a few days later, when swellings would start to form. The black blisters, filled with pus, were the sure sign that someone had the plague. At this point, the victims would sometimes fall into a deep coma and pass away. Less fortunate victims would become delirious and paranoid. They were often suicidal and extremely difficult to care for.

All of this happened within just a few days. It was a fast-acting plague that started off like a mild infection and left behind far too many corpses for the living to properly bury.

4. Disposing Of The Bodies

Photo credit: Seifert L., Harbeck M., Thomas A., Hoke N., Zoller L., et al. via PLOS ONE

In Constantinople, over 5,000 people were dying from the plague each day during the height of the pandemic. It became more and more difficult for families to bury the dead. Justinian eventually had to appoint court officials to dispose of the dead. Still, there were just too many plague victims to care for, and they were left to rot in the streets.

Tombs filled up quickly, and the officials had to get creative. Trenches were dug, and bodies were given mass burials. Some of the bodies were loaded onto death boats. They were taken out to sea and dumped overboard, only to wash up on shore again. Other bodies were dumped into fortified towers, which were then closed up at the top.

3. Body Identification


Many of us despise having to walk around with a name tag in plain view, but during the Justinian Plague, it became a necessity, especially if you had family. Because the plague acted so quickly, people started putting on name tags before leaving their homes. Worn on the arm, they were the only way to ensure proper identification if they were struck by the plague and died away from home.

The tags would give names to the corpses, and their families would be able to learn of their loved one’s outcome if the worst would happen.

2. Food Shortage


The plague hit Justinian’s empire and killed off more than just people; it destroyed its economy. Farmers were wiped out, leaving the farmland to go to weed. Bakers died off, and breads became scarce. Sellers at the marketplace either died from the plague or became too scared to go outdoors, where they might catch the plague.

With so many people dying each and every day, trade came to a complete standstill. People starved, and those who might have been able to pull through the plague had no food or caretakers to help them overcome the sickness. It was a vicious cycle of suffering and death.

1. The Aftermath


There is only one good thing that may have come out of the Justinian Plague, and that is the end of serfdom in some parts of Europe. The plague had attacked people from all walks of life. It killed off government officials, military personnel, farmers, merchants, and religious leaders. Since the Justinian Plague may have killed about half of Europe’s population, every remaining person was needed for society to continue.

Nevertheless, the Justinian Plague may have plunged society deeper into the Dark Ages than if it had never happened. Skills were lost, people were scarce, and everyone feared the wrath of God. Punishment, like the plague, seemed to happen without rhyme or reason.

It would take hundreds of years for European populations to regain their numbers and relearn traditional skills.

Top image: Necrosis of the hand, a characteristic of the Justinian Plague. Credit: Dr. Jack Poland/CDC/Wikimedia Commons.

[Source: Listverse. Edited. Top image added.]