Justinianic Plague: new study casts doubt on its real impact

Hyperaxion May 5, 2020

The first bubonic plague epidemic affected the Roman Empire between 541 and 750. Scientists used a mathematical model to estimate the number of deaths from the disease.

Many historians believe that the Justinianic Plague, the first bubonic plague epidemic that affected the Roman Empire between 541 and 750, killed half the population at the time. The population estimates of that period, however, are somewhat contradictory, due to the lack of historical documents and reports.

Justinianic Plague: new study casts doubt on its real impact
(Credit: Wikimedia commons).

With this in mind, two researchers from the University of Maryland, in the United States, decided to examine the impacts of the Justinianic Plague using a mathematical model. To that end, they focused their efforts on an outbreak of the disease that hit the city of Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire, in 542, and was documented by citizens of the time.

According to the researchers, some primary sources say the plague has spread through unique “transmission routes” and killed up to 300,000 people in the city, whose population was approximately 500,000. However, the new research shows that there is no accurate information on the dynamics of the outbreak described in these primary sources.

The researchers published an article with their findings last Thursday (30), in the scientific journal PlosOne. According to the researchers, the variation in the ecological and social patterns of the region, such as the climate and population density, for example, indicate that the Justinianic Plague affected different parts of the Empire in different ways.

“Our results strongly suggest that the effects of the Justinianic Plague varied considerably between different urban areas in late antiquity,” said Lee Mordechai, who participated in the study, in a statement. “This paper is part of a series of publications in recent years that cast doubt on the traditional interpretation of plague using new methodologies. It’s an exciting time to do this kind of interdisciplinary research!”

As Lauren White, the research leader, reported, this is the first time that a mathematical model has been used to study the Justinianic Plague. “Given that there is very little quantitative information in the primary sources for the Justinianic Plague, this was an exciting opportunity to think creatively about how we could combine present-day knowledge of plague’s etiology with descriptions from the historical texts,” she said in a statement to the press.


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