How a Lethal Pandemic Brought Catastrophe and Class Conflict to the Byzantine Empire

Historians have underestimated the role of pandemics in changing the course of history. Long before the Black Death hit Europe, an outbreak of bubonic plague triggered a profound social crisis in sixth-century Byzantium, shaking the foundations of the empire.

A mosaic of Byzantine emperor Justinian and his suite in Basilica San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. (Roger Culos / Wikimedia Commons)

The COVID-19 pandemic has renewed interest in previous moments of world history when the catastrophic spread of disease had major social ramifications. The impact of the Black Death in Europe is perhaps the best-known example. After the plague had wiped out a large part of the continent’s population, the second half of the fourteenth century witnessed an upsurge of class conflict as the landowning elite tried to maintain its position in the face of labor shortages and popular revolts.

However, this was by no means the first time that a destructive pandemic disrupted the social order. During the sixth century CE, the East Roman or Byzantine Empire was ravaged by a much earlier wave of bubonic plague. A period of intense social and political turmoil followed this biological calamity in what was then by far the largest and most powerful state in the lands of modern-day Europe and the Middle East.

For good reason, the sixth-century period known as the “Age of Justinian” has recently been at the forefront of debates about the socioeconomic impact of disease and its function in processes of historical change. A closer look at this experience can help us to understand the role that pandemics and other calamitous events such as natural disasters and climate change have played in shaping the course of history.

The Age of Justinian

The Eastern Roman Empire is more popularly known as the Byzantine Empire, or simply as Byzantium. However, its rulers described themselves as “Romans” after the western part of the empire disintegrated in the fifth century CE, right up to the point when the Ottomans finally overran Constantinople in 1453 and made it the capital of their state. “Byzantium” is a coinage of later historians.

Upon his accession to the imperial throne of Constantinople in the year 527, the emperor Justinian initiated a major and unprecedented program of imperial reconstruction and renewal. Presiding over an empire that extended over the entirety of modern Turkey, Syria, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt, as well as Greece and much of the Balkan Peninsula, Justinian overhauled the empire’s entire legal system. This project was substantially complete by 534, whereupon Justinian set about reconfiguring the empire’s fiscal framework and provincial administration.

There were two main factors informing the need of Justinian’s administration to secure the more effective collection of taxes at this time. First, since the early sixth century, the Eastern Roman Empire had found itself locked in conflict with its great superpower rival, the Sasanian Empire of Persia, which ruled over much of modern Iraq and Iran. In order to support the army on campaign and invest in the empire’s defensive infrastructure, the imperial authorities in Constantinople needed to maximize the tax revenues at their disposal.

Second, since the late fourth century, imperial society had increasingly come to be dominated by members of a new bureaucratic and military elite, who formed the kernel of an emergent imperial aristocracy of service. The leading members of this elite filled the ranks of the Senate in Constantinople, which expected to be consulted on matters of policy. At a local level, members of this aristocracy had built up ever-larger property portfolios and used their connections and prestige to avoid and embezzle the imperial taxes that they were often expected to collect, and upon which the state depended.

The opinion notoriously expressed by US real estate mogul Leona Helmsley — “we don’t pay taxes; only the little people pay taxes” — would have gone down well in sixth-century Constantinople. The emperor, whose own family was of relatively humble origin, was determined that such tax evasion should cease and that the haughty members of the Byzantine elite be put in their place.

At the same time, Justinian launched a series of aggressive and opportunistic wars against the empire’s neighbors to the west, where autonomous kingdoms under “barbarian” leadership, as the Romans called it, had emerged across the course of the fifth century CE. In 534, his armies conquered the wealthy Vandal kingdom of North Africa, while in 535, imperial forces initiated the reconquest of Italy, which was substantially brought under imperial control by 540, when Justinian’s general Belisarius entered the capital of the Ostrogothic regime in Ravenna. The period from 527 to 540 thus witnessed an era of unparalleled imperial triumph.

The Justinianic Plague

From the early 540s, however, things began to go wrong, as the demands of simultaneous warfare to both east and west became increasingly difficult to meet. In particular, during the year 541, the empire was struck by a major outbreak of bubonic plague. Arriving in imperial territory from East Africa via the Red Sea, the plague rapidly extended across Egypt, Palestine, and Syria.

By 542, it had reached Constantinople: perhaps as much as half the city’s population may have been wiped out during the three to four months when the disease was at its peak there. The pandemic soon encompassed much of the Mediterranean world and beyond, taking a cumulative toll on the population of the empire as repeated bouts of it struck from the mid-sixth century down to at least the mid-eighth.

The bubonic plague of the sixth century — known as the “Justinianic Plague” or “Plague of Justinian” — is described in detail in a number of eyewitness accounts as well as in contemporary legal texts. These sources record how the plague not only led to massive loss of life but also exacerbated the fiscal and military challenges faced by the empire. Over the course of the decades that followed, many of Justinian’s internal reforms were reversed, and much of the work of his generals to reconquer the hitherto lost western territories proved to be short-lived.

Indeed, in the early seventh century, rising social and economic tensions within the empire culminated in a civil war, which opened the way for first Persian and then Arab armies to conquer Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, forcing the empire back onto the defensive. The Age of Justinian thus presents an unusually dramatic example of imperial expansion and subsequent collapse to which the plague is likely to have made a major contribution.

On the basis of genetic evidence from sixth-century grave sites, we now know that the form of bubonic plague that struck Byzantium at this time was closely related to the one that brought the Black Death to Europe in the fourteenth century. Its consequences are likely to have been similarly devastating.

The attention that has recently been lavished on the Age of Justinian in discussion of the impact of historical pandemics is thus entirely justified. It is perhaps more surprising that the period should not have featured more prominently in such debates in the past. There are, I would suggest, two main reasons for this comparative neglect.

Perspectives on Late Antiquity

The first relates to frameworks of interpretation that scholars apply in their work. The period from the fourth to seventh centuries CE, which historians refer to as “late antiquity,” has been the subject of growing historical interest over the course of the past fifty years. This was largely inspired by the remarkable scholarship of the Irish-born historian Peter Brown. Brown’s brilliant 1971 study The World of Late Antiquity helped to recast scholarly understanding of the age.

Brown’s work has consistently (and rightly) emphasized the enormous cultural creativity of what had hitherto been dismissed as an era of torpor and decline. As a result, much of the work that has been written in emulation of Brown has deliberately sought to “accentuate the positive.” This is an approach that inevitably has great difficulty in accommodating accounts of mass mortality and possibly unprecedented demographic collapse.

In addition to the inherent “optimism” of many of those inspired by Brown, the historiography of the period has also been strongly influenced by a body of work by Marxist historians. These writers were operating on the principle that only internally generated class struggle could provide a satisfactory explanation for processes of historical change.

Exogenous factors such as plague or sudden climate change — for which we also have considerable evidence for the 530s and 540s — have been consistently excluded from avowedly “historical materialist” accounts of late antiquity and the Early Middle Ages in general, and of Byzantium in particular. The latter was the subject of a great deal of work by Soviet historians, who were obliged to operate under a high degree of official scrutiny and control that precluded them from discussing the disease.

The second and more significant factor surrounding the relative historical inattention to the Justinianic plague concerns the source material with which historians have to work. The quantity of evidence pertaining to social and economic conditions that survives from the sixth to eighth centuries is considerably thinner than that which survives from the era of the Black Death. This means that historians who are inclined to downplay the impact of past pandemics on processes of historical change can get away with it more easily when it comes to the earlier period than the later one.

No serious historian these days would try to write a history of Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that ignored the Black Death. Yet a number of important historians of late antiquity and the Early Middle Ages have been perfectly happy to pass over the Justinianic Plague in almost total silence.

The combined result of these historiographical legacies has been a pronounced disinclination on the part of many scholars of the sixth century to take plagues seriously. Many of the recent studies that have appeared on the Justinianic Plague have been informed above all by a desire to deny the significance of the phenomenon, seeking to emphasize instead the so-called “resilience” of the states and societies that encountered the disease.

“Resilience” is currently one of the most overused phrases in the field of history and the social sciences. It generally ends up meaning little more than saying that one particular form of calamity — warfare, climate change, pandemic, or any other topic under consideration — did not completely destroy the historical society concerned. However unhelpful this approach may be, we should nonetheless recognize that the Eastern Roman state’s response to the plague was unquestionably a remarkably forthright one.

Impact of the Plague

The Eastern Roman Empire in the Age of Justinian was probably the strongest state anywhere to the west of China at the time when the plague first struck. It had a unified and recently enhanced system of taxation, a strong bureaucratic framework, and a thriving agricultural as well as commercial economy. It also possessed great ideological unity, focused on the idea of empire, the office of emperor, and the imperial city of Constantinople (framed by an increasingly totalizing Christian discourse). As a result, the imperial authorities were in a strong position as they sought to respond to the crisis.

The contemporary legal sources and eyewitness accounts we possess, for example, record how the government introduced a series of crisis-driven measures in an attempt to address the immediate problems caused by mass mortality events. In Constantinople, efforts were made to count the number of dead, and a special official was appointed to arrange for the disposal of the dramatically burgeoning number of corpses.

Justinian’s administration introduced reforms to prop up what we might call the banking sector of the imperial economy, which played an important role in tax collection. This made it easier for lenders to pursue debts owed to them by the heirs of those who had died in the pandemic. In addition, the metallic content of the imperial coinage was adjusted to make up for a shortfall in state income.

The authorities also attempted to impose price and wage controls. The economic disruption caused by the plague, and the localized labor shortages to which it inevitably gave rise, had resulted in basic commodities disappearing from markets while workers and artisans demanded higher wages.

In particular, the imperial government strained every sinew to ensure that agricultural land — the main basis of the fiscal system — continued to be worked and taxes continued to be paid. Lands that were left abandoned or devoid of inhabitants were automatically assigned to local landowners and village communities.

The contemporary historian Procopius complained that Justinian refused to write off the tax debts of landowners, despite the fact that most of their agricultural workers had died. There are clear signs from the surviving documentary evidence that Justinian significantly increased rates of taxation on landholdings between the 540s and the 560s, despite having made earlier promises that such tax rises would be unnecessary if everybody just paid their fair share.

There are indications that these efforts may well have initially helped to stabilize the ship of the Byzantine state as it first found itself rocked by the sudden onset of plague. The emperor’s attempts to ensure the continuous cultivation of land, in particular, may have been helped by the fact that there appears to have been a relative surfeit of labor in the late antique countryside just before the plague struck.

Catastrophe, Conflict, and Class

However, such success came at the price of rising social tensions. As mentioned above, the legal evidence records that many workers and artisans who survived the plague responded to it by successfully demanding higher wages. Further evidence would suggest that those peasants and farmers who rented land off the government, the imperial church, and members of the aristocracy also demanded lower rents, and that these demands were also successful.

As a result, those who probably felt most of the economic pain of the 540s and 550s are likely to have been members of the empire’s landowning elite. This was a social layer with which Justinian’s relations had never been good, and whose members now found themselves caught between the demands of the state and those of their employees. Much of the literature that survives from this period (such as the writing of Procopius) is highly critical of Justinian and his regime. This hostility arguably reflects the bitterness and anxiety of this “squeezed middle” of the early Byzantine world.

In the year 565, Justinian finally died, to the evident relief of many of those around him. His successor, his nephew Justin II, went out of his way to attempt to build bridges with members of the imperial elite. Even though Justin complained that upon his accession to the throne, he had found the imperial treasury “burdened with many debts and heading towards utter destitution,” the new emperor nevertheless agreed to lower rates of taxation and write off the tax debts of the elite.

He also effectively dismantled Justinian’s provincial reforms by decreeing that, henceforth, imperial governors were to be elected by provincial landowners rather than being sent out from the capital to crack down on their abuses. At the same time, the imperial government, landowners, and landowning institutions such as the church combined in an effort to roll back the gains in living standards that working people had achieved in the initial wake of the plague during the 540s.

The inevitable result of this era of aristocratic reaction was mounting social conflict across the lands of the Roman Near East. This contributed to the civil war and imperial collapse of the early seventh century. The rank and file of the imperial army became increasingly alienated by efforts on the part of the cash-strapped state to reduce their pay, while rioting and factional disputes spread simultaneously throughout the cities of the empire.

Legacies of the Plague

The Justinianic Plague did not destroy the Eastern Roman state (and nobody has ever claimed it did). However, the pandemic and the ways in which people responded to it served to heighten preexisting social and economic tensions within the empire, which helped to rip it apart in the following century.

As I have mentioned, efforts to deny the significance of plague have often come from historians with roots in the Marxist tradition, or those trained by them. Yet those efforts actually distract attention from the key role that economic struggles and class animosities played in the unraveling of the empire during the early seventh century, when the externally generated crises of warfare, climate change, and disease combined with the inner tensions at the heart of late antique society.

Blindness to the importance of external events such as plague has always been one of the great weaknesses of the historical materialist approach. By taking plague seriously, historians of the Age of Justinian who want to lay claim to those elements of historical materialism that can still help us to explain the past can finally move on from trying to sustain the unsustainable, and instead put class-based struggles back at the heart of their analysis, where it belongs.

In his work The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx famously wrote that “men make their own history . . . but they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves.” As the Age of Justinian reminds us, those circumstances have always included the epidemiological conditions with which mankind has been obliged to contend.

It is time for avowedly progressive historians to move on from “plague denial” and return to the study of class. Class-based analysis still has much of value to teach us about both the “ancient” and the “medieval” worlds, just as class tensions remain at the heart of many political struggles in the world today.