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Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe

Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe

Written by William Rosen

Narrated by Barrett Whitener


Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe

Written by William Rosen

Narrated by Barrett Whitener

ratings:
4/5 (38 ratings)
Length:
11 hours
Publisher:
Released:
May 28, 2007
ISBN:
9781400173853
Format:
Audiobook

Description

The Emperor Justinian reunified Rome's fractured empire by defeating the Goths and Vandals who had separated Italy, Spain, and North Africa from imperial rule. At his capital in Constantinople, he built the world's most beautiful building, married its most powerful empress, and wrote its most enduring legal code, seemingly restoring Rome's fortunes for the next 500 years. Then, in the summer of 542, he encountered a flea. The ensuing outbreak of bubonic plague killed 5,000 people a day in Constantinople and nearly killed Justinian himself.



Weaving together evolutionary microbiology, economics, military strategy, ecology, and ancient and modern medicine, William Rosen offers a sweeping narrative of one of the great hinge moments in history, one that will appeal to readers of John Kelly's The Great Mortality, John Barry's The Great Influenza, and Jared Diamond's Collapse.
Publisher:
Released:
May 28, 2007
ISBN:
9781400173853
Format:
Audiobook

About the author



Reviews

What people think about Justinian's Flea

4.2
38 ratings / 16 Reviews
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Reader reviews

  • (4/5)
    I have been putting off reading this since August 15, 2015 (or so), because I wanted a little more coverage of the Roman Empire (and I don't currently have Gibbon in my library). I got that earlier history from 'The Climax of Rome,' by Michael Grant, which I recently finished and reviewed. Okay. So I have always been interested in books about disease and its effects on civilizations, and I have to say, this is one of the best I've read. Wow. What a narrative! This is obviously about WAY more than the plague of Justinian. Here we find how Justinian was one of Rome's most incredible emperors, how he was the driving force for the design and construction of the Hagia Sophia, and the Corpus Iuris Civilis, the law-book of the Roman Empire (and all subsequent European legal codes up until Blackstone, in 1769), yes, and how he reconquered most of the Roman territories that the various Goths and Vandals had snatched away, and after all this (in great detail - including about the Parthians, Persians, etc.), Rosen chronicles the plagues. Causes and results are analyzed in detail. I suggest wikipedia's articles on extreme weather events of 535-536, and the Lake Ilopango eruption of 410-535 A. D. What a great read!
  • (3/5)
    Mr. Rosen has assembled a competent examination of the most serious event of the 500's CE. He has good chapters on the Plague and the Architecture of Hagia Sophia, which he examines in great detail. The architectural excursus is not greatly germaine to the rest of the book, which concludes with a reasonable survey of the Middle East in the 500's.
  • (3/5)
    Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe
    This book is primarily about the reign of Justinian (482-565 A.D.) with the bubonic plague ("The Devil") as a key world-changing component in the second half of the book. There is a lot of contextual history provided, which some critics have argued is unnecessary and detracts from the book. I was looking for wider regional context, so I enjoyed much of it. The author gives a helpful summary of the history of the decline of Rome as government moved away from Italy and to the provinces. There is also a brief history of the Goths as well as the Scythians' (Mongols and Turk from Central Asian steppes) and other peoples' encroachment toward Europe. All of this is necessary to really understand the geographical importance of Constantinople and the pressures facing it, and the mentality of its authorities. The religious history is also important as ecumenical councils were trying to decide on doctrine and East was developing apart from West, and Justinian would have been a theologian were he not an Emperor.

    Prior to the plague, the most significant event in Justinian's reign was the Nika riots of the Blues and the Greens, the Roman equivalent of today's football hooligans, destroying half of Constantinople and killing tens of thousands. That history and the politics surrounding it is itself fascinating.

    However, the detailed tangents on anything remotely touching Justinian and Constantinople are a bit much. Detailed accounts of Belisarius's conquests, Jewish history, silk production in China, etc. are unnecessary and add nothing. The supposed focus of the book-- the bubonic plague and its consequences-- are not even introduced until the last half of the book. Its impact on Constantinople itself and the various social structures and religion in the Empire is hardly mentioned. The economic and geopolitical impacts are the focus of the few chapters devoted to the plague.

    4 million people died within two years. The plague shrunk the population of Europe and any area the Empire touched. As Persians took advantage of the Roman Empire's weakness to gain territory in Anatolia and beyond, eventually they also succumbed to the plague. The plague led to a lack of labor supply and an invention of better tools and even an increase in property rights among the farming peasants in Western Europe. The Arabs, who due to desert climate and remoteness were isolated from the plague, end up reaping the advantages conquering Persian and European territory and spreading Islam.


    Justinian was "the emperor who never sleeps." Justinian's contributions to society were numerous. He re-conquered African and Italian territories and enlarged the empire. He set out to reform all of Roman law, commissioning the Codex Justianius and the Corpus Juris Civilis, which became the legal standard for the West (and was used by the Continental Congress in drafting the U.S. Constitution). Justinian's wife was a very licentious woman, as were many of the women chronicled in this book. The morals of Rome really declined in the 4th century. It was odd in that leading figures staked out theological positions and fought, often violently, for them, but were morally void of any impact of that theology.

    I give this book 3 stars out of 5 because it was a lot of information about nothing pertaining to the Plague or Constantinople or the birth of Europe. There is a such thing as too much context.
  • (4/5)
    This was a really good read- extremely well written and organized. Much of the history was familiar to me from elsewhere, I don't think Rosen breaks new ground here but his synthesis of the cultural, historical, technological and, of course, bacteriologic state of the 6th century Roman empire was an absolute joy to read.
  • (5/5)
    While bouncing around throughout the history of the Roman Empire, Justinian's Flea concerns itself mostly with the period from the end of the Western Roman Empire at the hands of Odoacer at 476 CE through a period following the long reign of Justinian the Great (527-565 CE). The military history of this period is well covered, particularly the illustrious career of Justinian's famous general, Belisarius. But for the premise of the book, you need to look much smaller. While the empire enjoyed a massive rebirth in power and scope under Justinian, a tiny flea hitched a ride on a rat out of Africa, carrying in its gut a particularly nasty bacteria. The first documented epidemic of the bubonic (and then pneumonic when transferred person to person) began during the great emperor's reign. Justinian even survived a personal encounter with the mostly fatal disease. Rosen does a nice job telling us how the world of Justinian came to be; very little of this book actually covers the epidemiology of the plague (although it is covered in good detail). He also makes some interesting conjectures. The plague was less virulent in China, a country very nearly like the Roman Empire in multiethnic composition and expanse. China would survive this plague, however, while Rome deteriorated. After major cities were substantially depopulated and the armies of the empire defeated by an unseen adversary, Islam took hold in the largely plague-free Arabian peninsula (plague likes rat-infested ships to transport) and proceeded to expand quickly into Palestine as well as Belisarius' recently-conquered Libya. Rosen suggests that without the plague, Byzantine armies could have squashed the upstart religion before it could get rolling. Justinian's reign saw the last vestiges of Roman glory. The plague made it possible for the ever-present outsiders to make headway against the empire and shatter its foundations. Not until one of these external tribes, the Franks, were charged with the protection of the new "Holy Roman Empire" under Charlemagne would setbacks be reversed, but by then the Empire was a very different creature indeed as the rise of nationalism brought its own challenges.
  • (4/5)
    Interesting that I had never heard of Belisaurus, Khosro the great, Narses and the like, even though I'm an eager reader of history. This book is more about history than the plague, which, to be frank, it doesn't spend a lot of time on. Not that this is a bad thing because, after all, who wants to read about rats, and people developing huge black bubos?