Everything Has Always Been Terrible

A series in which I reflect on how, as the Buddha pointed out, life is suffering.

Plague of Justinian

It’s the original, the one, the only, first plague pandemic, and it got named after the man in charge, Justinian. For the next 200 years, this stuff, plague, would pop up and destroy, much like a mouse discovering where a teacher’s snacks are and gnawing through the bag of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies.

Justinian looking damn good in Ravenna do I have a thing for him oh my I guess I do.

I’m a fan of Justinian’s, only because he had a lot of gorgeous mosaics installed as he had Hagia Sophia built. They’re in Constantinople (which is in Istanbul, if you’ve a date).

Justinian was possibly the last Roman empire to speak Latin as his native tongue, and this makes me feel wistful.

But here’s the coolest thing about him: married this woman, Theodora, even though she was an actress. An actress! Justinian’s uncle had just changed the law so you could marry an actress.

He was an all-around friend to women, passing laws related to prostitution, women’s prisons, rape, and the rights of wives to keep their husbands from buying Teslas (or anything else that put them into great debt).

Yes, Justinian was on our side, ladies, as much as a leader from 1,500 years ago could be.

Justinian was living his best life. He was getting the empire back under (Roman) control.

Until, in 535, there was terrible drought and some other crazy weather in the empire. People think it could have been due to a volcanic eruption, or a comet strike. It wasn’t cool and people were freaked out.

And then in 542, the plague.

Bulbonic plague.

Historians are pretty unsure about exactly how bad it was, but it was bad. Maybe 15 million people died? Maybe 100 million? Maybe 25% of Europe’s population? Or maybe 60%? At this moment in history, it looks like scholars think this plague was exaggerated, was not nearly as bad as the Black Death.

It wasn’t great, though.

Justinian himself got plague, but survived. Like many other leaders we’ve discussed here, he had a problem with way too many dead bodies. One unique solution was to put them on boats and give ’em all a burial at sea. Other bodies were dumped inside old military structures and then they bricked them in.

Historian of the day Procopius wrote that people thought the disease was caused by a demon that would come to you in a dream, or right when you woke up. So some people were like, lock all the doors!

Procopius, who would be better looking if he saw the emperor’s barber, rather than the barber who cut the emperor’s barber’s hair. Unfortunately he lived before the invention of the two barbers riddle.

Locking your door and staying home was not a bad idea.

This round of plague technically lasted until the year 750. For 200 years, it waxed and waned.

So if you feel like covid has gone on forever, well, you’ll be dead long before covid competes with plague. That’s the good news and the bad news, I suppose.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this series, it’s that no matter how shitty things look right now, there are vast swaths of shitshow when you start looking at the past. At anyone’s past.


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