What the Sixth-Century Plague was:
The Sixth-Century Plague was also known as:
The disease of Justinian's Plague:
The progress of the disease was similar to that of the later epidemic, but there were a few notable differences. Many plague victims underwent hallucinations, both before the onset of other symptoms and after the illness was underway. Some experienced diarrhea. And Procopius described patients who were several days along as either entering a deep coma or undergoing a "violent delirium." None of these symptoms were commonly described in the 14th-century pestilence.
The origin and spread of the Sixth-Century Plague:
From Constantinople it spread swiftly throughout the Empire and beyond; Procopius asserted that it "embraced the entire world, and blighted the lives of all men." In reality, the pestilence didn't reach much farther north than the port cities of Europe's Mediterranean coast. It did, however, spread east to Persia, where its effects were apparently just as devastating as in Byzantium. Some cities on common trade routes were nearly deserted after the plague struck; others were barely touched.
In Constantinople, the worst seemed to be over when winter came in 542. But when the following spring arrived, there were further outbreaks throughout the empire. There is very little data concerning how often and where the disease erupted in the decades to come, but it is known that plague continued to return periodically throughout the rest of the 6th century, and remained endemic until the 8th century.
But even without hard and fast statistics, it is clear that the death rate was undeniably high. Procopius reported that as many as 10,000 people a day perished during the four months that the pestilence ravaged Constantinople. According to one traveller, John of Ephesus, Byzantium's capital city suffered greater numbers of dead than any other city. There were reportedly thousands of corpses littering the streets, a problem that was handled by having enormous pits dug across the Golden Horn to hold them. Although John stated that these pits held 70,000 bodies each, it still wasn't enough to hold all the dead. Corpses were placed in the towers of the city walls and left inside houses to rot.
The numbers are probably exaggerations, but even a fraction of the totals given would have severely affected the economy as well as the overall psychological state of the populace. Modern estimates -- and they can only be estimates at this point -- suggest that Constantinople lost from one third to one half its population. There were probably more than 10 million deaths throughout the Mediterranean, and possibly as many as 20 million, before the worst of the pandemic was through.
What sixth-century people believed caused the plague:
How people reacted to Justinian's Plague:
Effects of Justinian's Plague on the Eastern Roman Empire:
Unlike Europe after the Black Death, the population levels of the Byzantine Empire were slow to recover. Whereas 14th-century Europe saw a rise in marriage and birth rates after the initial epidemic, Eastern Rome experienced no such increases, due in part to the popularity of monasticism and its accompanying rules of celibacy. It is estimated that, over the course of the last half of the 6th century, the population of the Byzantine Empire and its neighbors around the Mediterranean Sea declined by as much as 40%.
At one time, the popular consensus among historians was that the plague marked the beginning of a long decline for Byzantium, from which the empire never recovered. This thesis has its detractors, who point to a notable level of prosperity in Eastern Rome in the year 600. There is, however, some evidence for the plague and other disasters of the time as marking a turning point in the development of the Empire, from a culture holding on to the Roman conventions of the past to a civilization turning to the Greek character of the next 900 years.