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in association with, click hereJustinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe
by William Rosen

… And it is the moment, with the emperor at the absolute zenith of his achievement, that the world encountered the first pandemic in history.

The coincidence of timing does not, of course, prove that the pandemic caused Rome to fall, or Europe to be born; as above, the uncertainties of the three thousand-body problem makes such a claim fundamentally uncertain.

Nonetheless, the tenor of this wide-ranging book is that the plague was the instrument that caused a change in history and Rome to fall, as outlined in the Introduction and Prologue (see Table of Content below).

This book, written for "members of the educated public," (to use a phrase I saw recently from Bowersock) by an even more educated member, is an excellent introduction into Late Antiquity and could also be titled "the Life and Times of the Emperor Justinian."

After the Introduction and Prologue, we are introduced to a young Petrus Sabbaticus, the later emperor Justinian, on his way from his native Illyricum to Constantinople to join his uncle Justin, and a brief description of Constantine's "New Rome." There follows a thoroughly summary of the history of the western and eastern empires, beginning with Diocletian, delving into the controversies developing in the Christian church, discussing the Barbarian migrations, and setting the stage for the story of the 6th century A.D. The age of Justinian is laid out in a wide-ranging way, from the emperor himself, his spouse Theodora to the great general Belisarius, the chronicler Procopius, the Nika revolt, the rebuilding of the Hagia Sophia, the historical importance of the Justinian Code, and anything else imaginable of the era. Space is also given to the Persian ruler Khusro, and there are musings about China and the silk trade.

As this is the story of "Justinian and the Flea," we have Part III "Bacterium." This is where the author's thirst for knowledge and his compulsion to share it gets a bit carried away. Here is all you wanted to know and much more about the evolution of rats and fleas and their eventual interaction, pandemics in general and this one in particular, and the history of bacteriology and evolutionary biology up to its most current status. In this reader's opinion, all this could have been presented in less detail and still remain comprehensible.

The effect of the plague in Constantinople, in 542 and "the annus horribilis that was 558," are vividly described with the assistance of eye-witness accounts. There is a discussion as to where the pandemic ,may have originated and how it progressed, and also what effect it had on the later Western Europe.

The book ends with the Epilogue "Yarmuk," introducing Mohammud, discussing the devastating battle of Yarmuk in 636, and a brief summary of the fate of the eastern empire, and a return to the flea:

The most long-lasting effect of the plague was not its initial impact, but the way in which its aftershocks remade the topography of Europe and the Mediterranean. As the demon washed across the lands once ruled by Rome, it left behind tidal pools: the distinctive regions in which protonations like the Franks, Lombards, Saxons, Slavs, and Goths could coalesce and combine into polities called France, Spain, and England ... and, a few centuries later, into Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands. The consequence – the birth of Europe – is what prompted Josiah Russell, forty years ago, to write: "In the whole Mediterranean-European complex, neither Charlemagne, nor Harun [el-Rashid] nor the great Isaurian and Macedonian dynasties could break the pattern set up by the flea, the rat, and the bacillus."

The reasoning for this particular version of the fall of Rome and the "birth of Europe" is rather attractive but not wholly convincing. Despite the enormous loss of life, the eastern empire still went on, even expanded for a while with Belisarius' victories on the west.

The story is presented in a vivid, easy to read style. The book is very well researched and documented and invites further exploration of the writers in Late Antiquity, and on the whole, I can recommend it. There are some lapses which have been pointed out elsewhere by people more qualified than this reader, and an erroneous footnote has been noted and will be corrected with the next printing.

William Rosen was a senior executive at McMillan and Simon & Schuster publishing houses for more than twenty-five years. "Justinian's Flea" is his first book.

Table of Content

Introduction: The Three Thousand-Body Problem
Prologue: Pelusium


1 "Four Princes of the World"
2 "We Do Not Love Anything Uncivilized"
3 "Our Most Pious Consort"


4 "Solomon, I Have Outdone Thee"
5 "Live Honorably, Harm Nobody, and Give Everyone His Due"
6 "The Victories Granted Us by Heaven"


7 "Daughter of Chance and Number"
8 "From So Simple a Beginning"
9 "The Fury of the Wrath of God"


10 "A Man of Unruly Mind"
11 "No Small Grace"
12 "A Thread You Cannot Unravel"

Epilogue: Yarmuk

© 2007 Irene B. Hahn
in association with, click hereJustinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe
by William Rosen
Viking Adult 2007
384 Pages
ISBN: 0670038555
List Price: US$27.95/UK: Used & New

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