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Thread: The Justinianic Plague: An inconsequential pandemic?

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    The Justinianic Plague: An inconsequential pandemic?

    Existing mortality estimates assert that the Justinianic Plague (circa 541 to 750 CE) caused tens of millions of deaths throughout the Mediterranean world and Europe, helping to end antiquity and start the Middle Ages. In this article, we argue that this paradigm does not fit the evidence. We examine a series of independent quantitative and qualitative datasets that are directly or indirectly linked to demographic and economic trends during this two-century period: Written sources, legislation, coinage, papyri, inscriptions, pollen, ancient DNA, and mortuary archaeology. Individually or together, they fail to support the maximalist paradigm: None has a clear independent link to plague outbreaks and none supports maximalist reconstructions of late antique plague. Instead of large-scale, disruptive mortality, when contextualized and examined together, the datasets suggest continuity across the plague period. Although demographic, economic, and political changes continued between the 6th and 8th centuries, the evidence does not support the now commonplace claim that the Justinianic Plague was a primary causal factor of them.

    https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2019/11/26/1903797116

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    Meta study, no new empirical data. It’s sufficiently argued that the first, Justinian Plague, was not on the same level as medieval plague. Its demographic effects are minor. I guess it’s not necessary anymore to include a plague as one of the causes of the abandoned countryside on the northern Byzantium border before Slavic and Avar incursions.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mha View Post
    Meta study, no new empirical data. It’s sufficiently argued that the first, Justinian Plague, was not on the same level as medieval plague. Its demographic effects are minor. I guess it’s not necessary anymore to include a plague as one of the causes of the abandoned countryside on the northern Byzantium border before Slavic and Avar incursions.
    Oddly, the writing-style of the paper reads almost impassioned about disproving it.

    Based on the evidence presented above, we believe that the JP and the so-called “First Pandemic” bear comparatively little resemblance to the Second Pandemic and the Black Death, which significantly affected the demography, economy, and landscape of western Eurasia and North Africa (7577). In light of the paucity of supporting evidence, the “First Pandemic” label is problematic. More broadly, the scholarly treatment of the JP demonstrates the dangers of uncritical multidisciplinarity (78). Although interdisciplinary approaches to the study of the past frequently advance research, they can also inadvertently employ circular reasoning to produce and reinforce erroneous narratives that are often difficult to detect.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jovialis View Post
    Oddly, the writing-style of the paper reads almost impassioned about disproving it.
    Yeah. Something stinks here. They're too emotional.

    There's not that normal academic distancing. Why should they care this much?


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    1 members found this post helpful.
    Quote Originally Posted by mha View Post
    Meta study, no new empirical data. It’s sufficiently argued that the first, Justinian Plague, was not on the same level as medieval plague. Its demographic effects are minor. I guess it’s not necessary anymore to include a plague as one of the causes of the abandoned countryside on the northern Byzantium border before Slavic and Avar incursions.
    Why? Do you think war and population flight are enough to explain the depopulation that was followed by a really big genetic shift in the northern part of the Balkans (which is suggestive of a low extent population, otherwise it'd be much harder to leave such a big long-term genetic impact)?

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    First you have to determine the population density before the event and after the event and see if you can recover skeletons from the era or mass graves. Is the depopulation due to people moving to the cities and leaving the countryside behind? It can't be an easy life to live on the border and be subject to invasion of any Avar, Vandal and Goth that happened to be passing by. Remember also that some of the so called barbarians were encouraged to settle close to the Danube to discourage other invaders from coming. They were promised land and money. When the money stopped coming they rebelled and invaded Constantinople or Adrianople.

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    3 members found this post helpful.
    The thesis which the authors are trying to debunk is this:
    "Plague mortality is alleged to have depopulated the “known world” and to have accelerated the transition to a “backward” “Dark Age” period, devastating the Late Roman Empire and extinguishing antiquity (e.g., refs. 5 and 6). Yet this narrative overlooks the fact that the political structures of the Western Empire had already collapsed in the 5th century and the Eastern Empire did not decline politically until the 7th century (18, 19).

    I think this first objection is rather silly, frankly. No, the Eastern Empire did not begin a precipitous decline until the 7th century, but I don't know where they get their information that it wasn't weakened before that. Second of all, it's precisely the fact that militarily and structurally the western Empire was no longer viable that made the effect of the the plague more devastating there. No structures remained in place to try to contain the illness, or care for the ill, or bring in food for the healthy, or maintain the structures for a clean water supply and on and on.

    Imagine a situation where there's been a massive, destructive war which leaves the army defeated, local forces of order dead, or disorganized, or scattered, the municipal and other governmental buildings in ruins, the water mains destroyed, the trucks no longer bringing in food, no more hospitals or clinics for the ill, and then introduce a plague to the already sick and malnourished survivors. Now imagine the plague hitting an empire still relatively intact.
    They didn't forget how to read and write in the eastern Empire. Medicine was still practiced. Water still flowed, food was still delivered to the cities. Invaders, having destroyed the heating systems, weren't building fires in the middle of the law courts in the forum.

    That's why it looked like this in the Middle Ages, people.



    They don't see a difference in the two situations?

    They then turn to contemporaneous written sources:

    "
    Moreover, late antique plague narratives are complex literary accounts with multiple layers of rhetorical meaning. Their authors had political, ideological, and personal purposes for their writing and the texts contain significant biases that must be contextualized. An account of a catastrophic plague could reflect reality or be a gross exaggeration employed to underscore a particular point (e.g., divine disapproval). One key account of the JP, for example, asserts that the initial occurrence killed 99.9% of the population (28), while another influential late antique author claims that Emperor Justinian—whom the author claims was an “evil demon”—killed 1 trillion people during his reign in various disasters (29). "

    There's a bit of straw man arguing going on there, imo. Every respectable scholar knows that motivation must be examined not only with ancient "histories", but with those of today. No respectable scholar of the period accepts outlandish claims like that 99.9% figure. All respectable scholars look at all the references and choose the ones with the most likelihood of being correct.

    They then compute the total number of fragments we have from the period and say well, a lot of them don't mention plague at all, they mention earthquakes and other climatic occurrences. OK., is what has come down to us from this turbulent period a statistically sound and representative sample of everything which might have been written? Would a city stricken with plague necessarily have lots of people helpfully keeping track of the precise numbers and recording them for prosperity?

    Part of the problem with this paper is the emphasis on the Eastern Empire where, I would maintain, government would have continued, documents and laws would continue to be promulgated, etc. Yes, as per the land under cultivation for cereals, as charted by pollen counts, the land may have continued to be cultivated. Of course one question is cultivated by whom. Slavery was still practiced.

    The areas where it was argued, to my knowledge, that Justinian's Plague had the most impact on changing society and destroying the last remnants of the achievements of the Roman Empire and leaving the way open to migration was precisely in the west, the Balkans, for instance, where no governmental structures existed to mitigate the effects.

    Now, even there, the death toll may indeed not have reached the levels of the Black Death totals, where a quarter to thirty percent of the populace died, and where in isolated places like some towns in the Lunigiana some 90% died, but it was enough to sound the end of an era. Yes, it was already on its knees, but with the plague the last supports fell. Plus, I am not convinced that the scattered references we have to disease outbreaks even before the 6th century were not precursor outbreaks.

    All in all, the paper is rather a jumble, imo. Different areas should have been approached separately, not in this blanket approach which obscures the differences.

    Also, to my recollection, no respectable scholar ever posited that the retreat into the "Dark Ages" was solely because of the Justinian Plague. It was all the calamities of the fall, and the plague, and for Italy the "Gothic War" were the coup de grace.

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    I agree with authors' main point, that perception of the first plague is influenced by the second plague, Black death. They are citing some sources, how is this view prevalent in academic discourse, but I can also confess that that were my images too. My takeaway from the paper would be, not that it is impossible, that plague was very devastating for the population, but that you have to have some empirical indices, that that was really the case in certain region or locality. It should not be hard to find some concrete signs of such devastating phenomena in studied community if it really happened.



    Nevertheless, the interpretation really seems excessively argumented, typical top-down approach. I only find main observation too valuable, to discard the whole idea of the article because of style. (And I also just skipped textual deconstruction.)



    Regarding depopulation of inner Balkan, it's not my main field, but if I remember correctly (and data is still relevant) there some archaeological finds of abandoned villages (Stobi, Bitola) and fortresses (Danube Limes) before the Slav invasion. It's possible, that Romans had a problem with financing defensive system and supplying enough grain to people (Sirmium was devastated a few times, completely in 582 by Avars). Together with aggressive tribes of Huns, Avars, Gepids, and problems in the Near East, it seems rathe logical, that population preferred to abandon border area. Also, cereals pollen show steady and linear decline in North Greece area, long before the plague happened and without changing trend in the time of plague.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mha View Post
    I agree with authors' main point, that perception of the first plague is influenced by the second plague, Black death. They are citing some sources, how is this view prevalent in academic discourse, but I can also confess that that were my images too. My takeaway from the paper would be, not that it is impossible, that plague was very devastating for the population, but that you have to have some empirical indices, that that was really the case in certain region or locality. It should not be hard to find some concrete signs of such devastating phenomena in studied community if it really happened.



    Nevertheless, the interpretation really seems excessively argumented, typical top-down approach. I only find main observation too valuable, to discard the whole idea of the article because of style. (And I also just skipped textual deconstruction.)



    Regarding depopulation of inner Balkan, it's not my main field, but if I remember correctly (and data is still relevant) there some archaeological finds of abandoned villages (Stobi, Bitola) and fortresses (Danube Limes) before the Slav invasion. It's possible, that Romans had a problem with financing defensive system and supplying enough grain to people (Sirmium was devastated a few times, completely in 582 by Avars). Together with aggressive tribes of Huns, Avars, Gepids, and problems in the Near East, it seems rathe logical, that population preferred to abandon border area. Also, cereals pollen show steady and linear decline in North Greece area, long before the plague happened and without changing trend in the time of plague.
    It depends on what you call the decline of civilization. I do believe that when Christianity became a state religion in the empire, the decline in intellectual pursuits was rather severe. Many non-Christians were killed, books were burned, libraries were burned, ancient temples were toppled. The Roman Empire and later the Ottoman Empire were much more tolerant than the Byzantine Empire. Taxes were already heavy to support a centralized government and a mercenary army. Corruption was rampant and so was murder at the imperial palace level. The Justinian plague was not the main scourge. Invaders were numerous from the Vandals and the Avars to the Slavs and the Bulgars. We had the Crusades, then the Seljuk Turks, the pirates from Venice and Genoa and Cataluna and finally the Ottoman Turks. It was a bit too much to sustain a rather incompetent Empire.

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    1 members found this post helpful.
    Quote Originally Posted by bigsnake49 View Post
    It depends on what you call the decline of civilization. I do believe that when Christianity became a state religion in the empire, the decline in intellectual pursuits was rather severe. Many non-Christians were killed, books were burned, libraries were burned, ancient temples were toppled. The Roman Empire and later the Ottoman Empire were much more tolerant than the Byzantine Empire. Taxes were already heavy to support a centralized government and a mercenary army. Corruption was rampant and so was murder at the imperial palace level. The Justinian plague was not the main scourge. Invaders were numerous from the Vandals and the Avars to the Slavs and the Bulgars. We had the Crusades, then the Seljuk Turks, the pirates from Venice and Genoa and Cataluna and finally the Ottoman Turks. It was a bit too much to sustain a rather incompetent Empire.
    I don't find that very convincing, it seems a case of people confusing correlation with causation, and maybe even cause with consequence. The decline in innovation had been happening virtually since the beginning of the Common Era (the Romans of most of the imprial era were amazing in bringing a proto-industrial scale and efficiency to scientific and technical knowledge of their time, but they were not exactly great innovators), and a striking decline in intellectual output had been happening at least since the crisis of the 3rd century, before Christianity became powerful enough to oppress people. By 395 A.D., when Christianity was made the official state religion of the empire, the signs of decadence were already very advanced since generations earlier. When Christianity became really powerful enough to induce mass persecution of non-Christians, the empire had been in increasing decadence for centuries already. As for books and libraries being burned, there seems to have been some exaggeration about that, even including long believed but widely debunken myths about the fire in the Library of Alexandria being linked directly to a Christian attack.

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