Modern tree-ring dating techniques inform us that during the 6th century CE most of the world was enveloped in a 125-year-long mini Ice Age . It was caused by 1) eruption of an immensely powerful series of volcanoes in Ice Land during the years 536, 540 and 547, and 2) in the south west corner of Central Americas (modern el-Salvador), during the year 540, eruption of a volcano of such great power that it is counted among the top 10 most destructive volcanoes of the last 7000 years, and due to which the Maya civilization suffered a catastrophic collapse with more than 100,000 deaths.
The colossal volume of smoke released from these two volcanoes kept most of the world in a foggy darkness for many years, sun’s warmth remained distant, and average global temperature even during the summer months remained between two and twelve degrees celsius. Sixth century Roman historian Procopius wrote that “sunlight was as faint and empty of warmth as that of the moon.”
Due to this paucity of sunlight and its warmth during the sixth and early seventh centuries, most of the Middle East, Mediterranean, and Central Asia suffered a devastating series of famines, thousands emigrated from Central Asia to Middle East, Persia, Europe and India, but Arabia’s otherwise barren deserts enjoyed a historic period of high-yielding fertility.
Then in 541, a bubonic plague emerged in Egypt and spread with such swiftness that in a short while pathways from Egypt to China and the island of England began filling with dead bodies. The original culprit was a bacteria named Yersinia pestis which transmits to humans via flea carrying rats. An infected person starts to notice black or purplish buboes popping up on the skin, along with high fever, and if not treated, the person would most probably die within ten days.
During the next 200 years, between 536 and 745, Justinian plague kept recurring every ten to fifteen years. It seems from the writings of sixth century historians that the plague began in Kush (Ethiopia) and spread its trail of destruction via Egypt and Yemen to Palestine (Levant), Constantinople, and eventually, China and England. But modern genetic research reveals that Yersinia pestis first emerged in the Central asian mountain ranges of Tian Shan (heavenly/celestial mountains), also called Tengri Tagh (God/spirit mountains) in Turkic, evolved there, and possibly transmitted via trading vessels from India and Indian ocean to Africa and Egypt.
The principal sources available for studying this plague are written in four languages: primarily Syriac (the liturgical language of eastern Christianity), and then Greek, Latin, and some Arabic. Contemporary Syriac accounts named the plague “mawtana rabba.” The generic term for pestilence or epidemic disease in Syriac is mawtana, “mortality,” which corresponds to “waba” in Arabic, or sometimes simply mawta, “death.” A “great plague” is called a “mawtana rabba.” Later historians named it the Justinian Plague.
The lengthiest account on “mawtana rabba” is found in the Syriac Ecclesiastical History of the Bishop John of Ephesus. John (Youhanan in Syriac) of Ephesus was a native of Amida (modern Diyarbakr) in northern Mesopotamia (southern Turkey), and had the misfortune of traveling from Egypt to Constantinople in 541 AD. In Palestine, John wrote that he saw entire town populations wiped out. “During the tumult and intensity of the pestilence,” he wrote, “we journeyed from Syria to the capital. Day after day we, too, used to knock at the door of the grave along with everyone else. We used to think that if there would be evening, death would come upon us suddenly in the night. Although the next morning would come, we used to face the grave during the whole day as we looked at the devastated and moaning villages in these regions, and at corpses lying on the ground with no one to gather them.”
According to John, some people carried corpses all day, while others spent the day digging graves. Houses and farms were abandoned; animals forgot their domestication. “Crops of wheat in fertile fields located in all the regions through which we passed from Syria up through Thrace were white and standing but there was no one to reap them and store the wheat. Vineyards, whose picking season came and went, shed their leaves, since winter was severe, but kept their fruits hanging on their vines, and there was no one to pick them or press them.” In his Lives of the Eastern Saints, John reported on one monastery that buried eighty-four of its members who had died of the plague. He writes that in Constantinople, more than 10,000 were dying each day, and when the number exceeded 230,000 the administrators stopped counting.
Other Syriac writings contain details of later outbreaks in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, including the Chronicle of Zuqnın, whose monastic author, in recounting the epidemic of 743–745 under Umayyads, specified that the victims had swellings in the groin, the armpit, or the neck. The Zuqnın Chronicle records a pestilence (mawtana) that broke out in Mesopotamia in during 546 and 547 CE, and a great pestilence (mawtana rabba) that broke out at Amida in during 557–558 CE, where 35,000 people died within three months.
The principal Greek source is the work of the historian Procopius of Caesarea, who was present at the court of Justinian in Constantinople in the early 540s. In his Persian War, Procopius wrote, “there was a pestilence by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated. . . . It started among the Egyptians. Then it moved to Palestine and from there spread over the whole world. . . . In the second year it reached Byzantium in the middle of the spring.” He says that for the majority of those struck, fever was the first sign, then developed after a few days a bubonic swelling, either in the groin, in the armpit, or beside the ears. He reports that the mortality rose alarmingly, eventually reaching more than ten thousand each day. Procopius also mentions that the emperor himself was taken ill. Justinian, however, recovered and reigned for two more decades.
The lawyer Agathias undertook to continue the history of Procopius. He wrote that after 544 when plague ceased in Constantinople, it had never really stopped but simply moved on from place to place, until it returned to the city almost as though it had been cheated on the first occasion into a needlessly hasty departure. This was the spring of 558, when “a second outbreak of plague swept the capital, destroying a vast number of people.” The form the epidemic took was not unlike that of the earlier outbreak. A swelling in the glands in the groin was accompanied by a high fever that raged night and day with unabated intensity and never left its victim until the moment of death.
In churches, temples, roads, and caravanserais people would often drop dead. Many died while hoisting the dead bodies of their loved ones. One Nestorian priest from Basra wrote that a seemingly healthy man strolling in front of him suddenly opened his mouth wide, winced as if a knife had ripped him, and then dropped dead. John of Ephesus painted such haunting images in his account as if narrating a zombie movie: healthy people in streets swirling down as if dazed and died, their bellies stretched beyond human limits, mouths wide open, lifeless eyes staring at howling winds, hands reaching out as if clasping their souls back, and then their bellies would rip, spilling pus mixed with blood which would run down the streets as if water. Women quarters filled with bodies, their mouths open, and bellies stretched wide. An unbearable stench tyrannizing entire cities.
From the North African city of Carthage, we have testimony of the Latin poet Corippus. In 549 he recited at Carthage his epic poem, the Johannis, on the recently concluded war between the Byzantine army and Berber tribes. In the midst of the war a terrible pestilence arrived by sea. Death was so widespread, he reports, that people became desensitized to it, no longer shedding tears even for their loved ones or observing those rites traditionally due the deceased. Social breakdown was further evident in the scramble among survivors to take possession of the properties and belongings of the victims. Wealthy widows were more sought after than young maidens. References to a later plague epidemic in North Africa, in 599 and 600, are found in the correspondence of Pope Gregory the Great.
Modern historians advise caution in accepting these accounts and numbers prima facie, and it’s true that often medieval authors gave high numbers only to signify the intensity of an event. But what’s undeniable is that almost all of these chronicles share same tale of horrors, of symptoms and signs, of periodic waves, that had devastated their home towns. The contemporary narrative sources available to the historian, be they from East or West, written in Latin, Greek, Syriac, or Arabic, speak with one voice in describing the plague as having had a major demographic impact on communities, urban and rural alike.
Not unlike most modern maladies, “mawtana rabba” too first descended upon the impoverished neighborhoods of a city, and then advanced to the palatial elites. And somewhat like the modern world, all sorts of rumors on its possible causes started to spread before the plague’s actual descent. The rumor among Palestinians was that dark headless men holding long copper rods were visiting the cities from the ocean every night in glistening copper boats. In Constantinople, people started acting on the odd rumor that if plates and pots made with clay were to be thrown on the ground from the top most windows of the house, the plague will flee. First the men and women of one neighborhood began throwing down their dishes, then second, and third, and for three days nobody was to be seen at the city streets because all were busy slinging their dishes down. And when that didn’t work, people started acting on another rumor that the angel of plague approaches them in the form of a priest or monk, and they started yelling at priests and monks to leave them alone, that they still have time left in this world. When leaving their homes, people would hang tags with their names and addresses on their necks.
Even those who managed to recover suffered intense fatigue for years, buboes emerging and popping, spilling pus down their bodies, not a single strand of hair left on their heads. It became hard to distinguish a monk from a commoner.
Usually plague-ridden dead bodies were buried in mass graves outside the city gates, or they’d be collected in large stacks and tossed via boats into oceans. As the numbers of dead escalated, cities further dipped into chaos, and people began abandoning the traditional religious rites offered for their dead. When no one was left to sink or bury the dead, the emperor Justinian ordered his ministers to invite the tribes inhabiting the mountains, and offer them as much gold as they might want but to do this godawful job. According to his minister Theodore, these tribals first stamped down on these bodies and then bundled them together, then they buried them inside giant pits dug outside the city.
The volume of trade and of production declined generally in the mid-sixth century. In some places, new housing ceased. The coastal cities (the greatest centers of wealth) were hit first and hardest, and perhaps their weaknesses rippled through the Mediterranean lands. Both Kulikowski (in Visigothic Spain) and Peter Sarris (in Byzantine lands) have detected attempts to tie increasingly scarce labor to land, attempts especially notable in a time of legal and economic turmoil.
In his edict, Justinian complains of how, in the wake of the plague, tradesmen, artisans, and agricultural workers had given themselves over to avarice and were demanding twice or even three times the prices and wages that had hitherto been the norm. The emperor decreed that those responsible for issuing wages and stipends to building workers, agricultural workers, or any other group of workers were not to credit them with anything more than their customary remuneration. Likewise, Banaji’s statistical analysis of Egyptian land-leases recorded among the papyri would appear to record a marked improvement in the security of tenure enjoyed by lessees from the middle of the sixth century onward. From the first half of the sixth century to the second, the proportion of leases of indefinite duration increased from 17.2% to 39.4%. The proportion of leases of only one year’s duration declined over the same period from 29.3% to 9.1%
That the plague visited Yemen appears to be corroborated by the inscription of Abraha on the dam at Ma’rib dated 543 CE, which refers to death and sickness striking the community at Ma’rib; the dam was repaired when the fatal epidemic had passed. This outbreak of bubonic plague lasted longer in the east. At the end of his account of the three years of plague, John of Ephesus remarks that “these same calamities still persist in the eastern territories and are not over.” The pre-Islamic Arab poet Hassan Ibn Thabit records the pestilence, described as “the stinging of the jinn,” devastating the rural population of the empire’s eastern fringes. It appears to have reached China by the early seventh century.
“Mawtana Rabba” kept returning in waves for more than 200 years. The Syrian Christian priest Evagrius wrote that during the last decade of 6th century “in a total of 210 years from 541 to 750, there were about eighteen outbreaks of the plague.” This amounts to an average of one outbreak about every 11.6 years. This seems to apply to the first six plague waves for which we can compute the inter-epidemic intervals for Constantinople. These range approximately from eleven to seventeen years, with an average of 14.2 years, a fact corroborated by Evagrius, who records that the plague seemingly broke out during the first or the second year of the indiction cycle, indicating a periodicity of roughly fifteen years. From the thirteenth to the eighteenth wave, Syria was reportedly hit on all six waves, with inter-epidemic periods ranging from five to nine years and an average of 6.6 years.
Not unlike our times, people in sixth century reached for all kinds of explanations. We know, via archeology, that there was a spike in construction of new churches and monasteries. On the other hand, according to John of Ephesus, some Egyptian and Palestinian towns returned to worshipping their idols. As the plague was ravaging Egypt and Alexandria in September 541, crowds in Constantinople gathered round a woman who had gone into ecstasy and was claiming that in three days time the sea would rise and swallow everything. Agathias narrates case that occurred in Constantinople in 557 when the city had been visited by a devastating earthquake. Some individuals claiming to be prophets or possessed by demons began announcing that even worse catastrophes were imminent. These are some of the many testimonies that bear witness to the eschatological climate that must have been dominant at the time. Historian Procopius wrote from Constantinople that, “a plague of such deadly nature has spread from Egypt and Palestine to the rest of the world that it seems the end times are imminent.”
The plague was perceived in both a religious and a rational way. According to the religious approach, plagues were an expression of divine retribution or punishment, and the result of human sins, either individual or collective, and that it announces the end times. This was a notion central to both popular Greek and Jewish thought. Although in the New Testament, Christ does not present disease as a necessary result of sin, the Christian interpretation of disease established and stressed exactly this relation. In Byzantine texts dealing with the plague, this was the dominant opinion. Collective sin of people bringing about the just divine wrath in the form of the plague. In two polemical instances, this transgression is not presented as collective, but as individual: Justinian, termed “lord of demons” in Procopius’ Anecdota, is made solely responsible for the plague, as is the iconoclastic Emperor Constantine V by iconophile authors.
Youhanan Bar Penkaye wrote that this collective onset of famines, earthquakes, and plagues is an irrefutable sign of end times. Procopius wrote that there could not be an earthly or natural explanation of this plague, it must have been sent directly from God almighty himself. John of Ephesus wrote that an angel whose duty is to dissociate humans from worldly desires and to guide them on a spiritual path towards God is responsible for this plague, that in his eyes this plague is a lash of mercy from God, and an opportunity to plead God for forgiveness. On the other hand, according to the Greek priest Zachariah, this plague was directly from Satan who was left on a leash by the God so that he could punish people for their sins.
Contrary to this divine aetiology, a rational interpretation of disease had been first established almost a thousand years ago by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates: “I do not believe that the ‘Sacred Disease’ is any more divine or sacred than any other disease, but on the contrary, has specific characteristics and a definite cause.” According to him, epidemic diseases were defined as follows: “When a large number of people all catch the same disease at the same time, the cause must be ascribed to something common to all and which they all use; in other words to what they all breathe.” This definition was later adopted by the other great medical personality of Antiquity, Galen, and retained its authority throughout the Middle Ages in both Islamic and Christian world. The malignant air responsible for these outbreaks was called miasma.
Even more remarkable in this respect is Anastasius of Sinai’s Questions and Answers, a work written at the very end of the seventh century. Question 114 addresses the topic whether it is possible to escape the plague by fleeing to another location. Anastasius answers with a piece on the origin of plagues. They either break out as a result of divine chastisement or because of corrupt air, vapors, pollution, and stench. In the first case, they cannot be escaped, but in the second, with God’s will, flight to a location with healthier air will often help avoid death. This is Anastasius’ effort to offer a compromise between “Hellenistic rationalism and Christian views on direct divine intervention,” between a “pre-Christian medical and physiological tradition” and the Judeo-Christian model of disease as “chastisement from heaven . . . designed to drive out the evils afflicting the body politic.”
To what extent was this series of plagues, famines, and the little Ice Age responsible for the destruction of the Roman and Persian empires and the emergence of Islam?
Historian Peter Sarris writes in his excellent book Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam that “a diminution in tax revenues caused by the demographic impact of bubonic plague and aristocratic tax evasion appears to have occasioned mounting difficulties in paying the army. It is in this context that we should understand the attempted reduction in military pay proposed by the Emperor Maurice in 588.” (In 588 the garrison at the important frontier city of Martyropolis simply handed it over to the Persians, declaring that they ‘would not be ruled over by a shopkeeper.’ That same year, much of the imperial field army, stationed at Monocarton near Edessa, rose up in rebellion against the Emperor Maurice’s proposed 25 per cent reduction in military pay.)
He notes, “Failure to pay the army adequately or on time, however, tended to lead to desertion, defection, or revolt, as most vividly revealed by the Eastern field army’s response to Maurice’s attempted cuts. Moreover, at some point in the late sixth century, it appears to have become common for the cash component of the stipend issued to garrison troops to be paid in copper rather than gold. Consequently, the collapse in the purchasing power of the copper follis from the reign of Justin II onwards is likely to have had ever more pronounced implications for the loyalty and morale of the military rank and file, as well as of the civilian population of the empire.”
Eventually, Rome under the astute leadership of Heraclius managed to defeat Persia, but, according to professor Sarris, “The Eastern Roman Empire was thus restored territorially, but it was a shadow of its former self. The imperial concentration on the East had necessarily led to a further weakening of its position in the Balkans … Many of the cities of Anatolia and Asia Minor had been ransacked by the armies of the shah or exhausted by the fiscal demands of Heraclius’ war effort. In Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, the reassertion of imperial control at this point must have been largely nominal.”
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In Part three, Mawtana Rabba in Persia, more on the 6th century war between Rome and Persia, and the five waves of plagues under Umayyads.
Part 1: https://www.brownpundits.com/2021/10/09/the-plagues-of-justinian-and-amwas-the-200-years-long-series-of-plagues-and-pestilence-and-the-conquest-of-muslims-over-rome-and-persia/
History of al-Tabari: The Conquest of Iraq, SouthWestern Persia, and Egypt Vol XIII (Trans. Gautier H. A. Juynboll)
Arabic Plague Chronologies and Treatises Social and Historical Factors in the Formation of a Literary Genre, Lawrence I. Conrad
TA ‘UN AND W’ABA: Conceptions of Plague and Pestilence in Early Islam, Lawrence I. Conrad
The Comparative Communal Responses to the Black Death in Muslim and Christian Societies by Michael W. Dols
Epidemic disease in central Syria in the late sixth century: Some new insights from the verse of Hassān ibn Thābit, Lawrence I. Conrad
Abraha and Muḥammad: Some Observations Apropos of Chronology and Literary “topoi” in the Early Arabic Historical Tradition, Lawrence I. Conrad
Life and Afterlife of the First Plague Pandemic, Lester K. Little
Historians and Epidemics: Simple Questions, Complex Answers, Jo N. Hays
‘For Whom Does the Writer Write?’: The First Bubonic Plague Pandemic According to Syriac Sources, Michael G. Morony
Justinianic Plague in Syria and the Archaeological Evidence, Hugh N. Kennedy
Crime and Punishment: The Plague in the Byzantine Empire, 541–749, Dionysios Stathakopoulos
Bubonic Plague in Byzantium: The Evidence of Non-Literary Sources, Peter Sarris
Procopius and the Sixth Century, Averil Cameron
When Numbers Don’t Count: Changing Perspectives on the Justinianic Plague, Monica H. Green
Rejecting Catastrophe: The Case of the Justinianic Plague, Lee Mordechai, Merle Eisenberg
Ancient Yersinia pestis genomes from across Western Europe reveal early diversification during the First Pandemic (541–750), Marcel Keller and others
The Political and Social Role of Khurasan under Abbasid Rule 747-820, Elton L. Daniel