The new findings “rewrite” the history of late antiquity by questioning the long-held assumption that a Roman plague changed the world.
An international team of scholars led by an Israeli professor has found that the Justinianic Plague, which lasted from about 541-750 CE, may not have been nearly as disastrous as previously assumed.
“Our article is the first time such a large body of novel interdisciplinary evidence has been investigated in this context,” lead author Lee Mordechai a senior lecturer at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told Phys.org. “If this plague was a key moment in human history that killed between a third and half the population of the Mediterranean world in just a few years, as is often claimed, we should have evidence for it. But, our survey of datasets found none.”
The research team examined contemporary written sources, inscriptions, coinage, papyrus documents, pollen samples, plague genomes, and mortuary archaeology that focused on the Late Antiquity period (300-800 CE).
Merle Eisenberg, a co-author of the paper, which was published by the a peer-reviewed prestigious scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), commented, “We asked historical questions that focused on the potential social and economic effects of plague.”
By taking this unique angle, “The team found that previous scholars have focused on the most evocative written accounts, applying them to other places in the Mediterranean world while ignoring hundreds of contemporary texts that do not mention plague,” Phys.org reported.
The team does not argue that “the plague killed tens of million of people,” Newfield said. However, the “[p]lague is often construed as shifting the course of history. It’s an easy explanation, too easy. It’s essential to establish a causal connection.”
Changes in burial traditions were also studied, according to Phys.org.
“We investigated a large dataset of human burials from before and after the plague outbreak, and the plague did not result in a significant change whether people buried the dead alone or with many others,” said co-author Janet Kay, a lecturer in the Council of the Humanities and history and the CSLA-Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in Late Antiquity in the Society of Fellows at Princeton University.
The Black Death, a plague that took place about 800 years after the Justinianic Plague, in contrast, “killed vast numbers of people and did change how people disposed of corpses,” Kay said.
The Justinian time period included many important events, such as the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the rise of Islam. Some history books have attributed the plague to these events.
However, according to Eisenberg, “Our paper rewrites the history of Late Antiquity from an environmental perspective that doesn’t assume plague was responsible for changing the world.”