- Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541–750
All students of Late Antiquity, from the first-year undergraduate to the scholar who has spent decades studying the Roman or Byzantine Empires, owe a profound debt of gratitude to Lester Little. First, he planned and organized a conference of specialists in varied disciplines, which was held at the American Academy in Rome in December 2001; now he has edited a volume of essays from that conference which constitutes a rounded treatment of the pandemic that began in the reign of Justinian and lasted until the middle of the eighth century. The volume stands as an exemplar of the right sort of interdisciplinary scholarship, where scholars with very varied expertise have come together in a cooperative enterprise which marks a significant step forward in our historical understanding of their shared subject. The disciplines involved are principally molecular biology and epidemiology on the one hand, archaeology and history on the other, and the publisher's blurb does not seem unduly boastful when it claims that the joint efforts of experts in different fields have produced "a comprehensive account of the pandemic's origins, spread, and mortality, as well as its economic, social, political and religious effects."
Some recent sophisticated historians adept in the latest historical, hermeneutic, and literary theories have belittled attempts to identify the exact medical [End Page 275] nature of the Justinianic plague. Peregrine Hordern, for example, declared that "arguments about diagnosis provide entertainment . . . but they do not necessarily advance historical understanding" ("Mediterranean Plague in the Age of Justinian," in Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian, ed. M. Maas [Cambridge, 2005] 134–60, at 151). This volume shows the shallowness of such pronouncements. For there now seems to be no doubt whatever that the Justinianic plague was something completely different from earlier plagues in the ancient world. The plague among the inhabitants of Attica cooped up inside the Long Walls of Athens in the Peloponnesian War has most plausibly been identified as smallpox, though I suspect that typhus or some similar disease cannot be ruled out completely, despite R. Sallares, The Ecology of the Ancient Greek World (London 1991), 244–62, 463–66 nn. 345–71. The Antonine plague that started in 166 a.d. and affected almost the whole of the Roman Empire was certainly smallpox, as shown by R. J. and M. L. Littman, "Galen and the Antonine Plague," AJP 94 (1973), 243–55. The medical nature of the plague about which the bishops Cyprian of Carthage and Dionysius of Alexandria waxed eloquent in the middle decades of the third century has never been convincingly elucidated, but no long-term demographic effects can be detected. What struck Egypt in 541, however, was undoubtedly the plague caused by the bacillus known as Yersinia pestis, which manifests itself in pneumonic and septicaemic forms as well as bubonic plague. This plague spread rapidly and widely; it persisted sporadically for two centuries; and it was the first of three well documented pandemics, the others being the Black Death, which began shortly before the middle of the fourteenth century, and a pandemic that broke out in China in the late nineteenth century. The two later cases indicate that the first pandemic too must have had a high overall rate of mortality, perhaps more than 50 percent in some areas.
The essays in this valuable volume fall into three categories. Little himself provides a general introduction and Jo Hays an illuminating survey of how modern historians normally deal with epidemics, while the volume concludes with essays by Robert Sallares and Michael McCormick on the contribution of epidemiology and molecular biology to our understanding of the plague. The central bloc of chapters document and discuss outbreaks of the Justinianic plague area by area. Although several contributors refer to outbreaks of the plague there, the volume lacks a systematic survey of its incidence and effects in the Italian peninsula, even though a serious decline in the population of...