Justinian's Flea

Justinian's Flea

Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe

Book - 2007
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A richly told story of the collision between nature’s smallest organism and history’s mightiest empire

The Emperor Justinian reunified Rome’s fractured empire by defeating the Goths and Vandals who had separated Italy, Spain, and North Africa from imperial rule. In his capital at Constantinople he built the world’s most beautiful building, married its most powerful empress, and wrote its most enduring legal code, seemingly restoring Rome’s fortunes for the next five hundred years. Then, in the summer of 542, he encountered a flea. The ensuing outbreak of bubonic plague killed five thousand people a day in Constantinople and nearly killed Justinian himself.

In Justinian’s Flea , William Rosen tells the story of history’s first pandemic—a plague seven centuries before the Black Death that killed tens of millions, devastated the empires of Persia and Rome, left a path of victims from Ireland to Iraq, and opened the way for the armies of Islam. Weaving together evolutionary microbiology, economics, military strategy, ecology, and ancient and modern medicine, Rosen offers a sweeping narrative of one of the great hinge moments in history, one that will appeal to readers of John Kelly’s The Great Mortality , John Barry’s The Great Influenza , and Jared Diamond’s Collapse .
Publisher: New York : Viking, 2007
ISBN: 9780670038558
Branch Call Number: DF556 .R67 2007
Characteristics: 367 p. : ill., map ; 24 cm


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Aug 01, 2015

This is one of the most captivating books I've read in many years. It's overflowing with deeply insightful information concerning the vast changes taking place in the 6th century around the Mediterranean: The end of what had been the Roman Empire and the birth of what would become the European nation-states. But this book is far more than just history. Rosen explores in fascinating detail many of the personalities who were the movers and shakers of that era, including Justinian, his allies, enemies, family, generals, churchmen and the complexities of the Byzantine society. But most fascinating of all is an exploration of the complex, delicate and at times horrifying relationship among the black rat, its flea and the plague bacillus Yersinia pestis -- along with the grain trade, the growth of desely poulated cities and seemingly minor climate cycles that were instrumental in triggering epidemics. To achieve his intent, the author includes a dizzyingly in-depth discussion of the bacteriology and chemistry of the bacillus, which may sound daunting but is done so well that it actually makes for great reading, surely an accomplishment in itself. And in the end, the vast and complex historical impact of the flea, rat and bacillus form the axis of the book -- the question remaining what political, military and religious course might Europe have followed, had the waves of bubonic plague not occurred.
Highly recommended!

Aug 25, 2014

Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe. --- by --- William Rosen. What textbooks, for example, simply dismiss as “the Goths (or whoever) sacked Rome” is recounted in great detail. It is as though, instead of peering at the face of a timepiece one was closely examining the intricacies of all the gears and springs that make it go. And so with this book. However, there are some, myself included, who may have been expecting a little more plague and a little less of the minutiae leading up to Justinian. After all, the title calls for “plague; the cover illustration shows agony, stages of death and a virtually apocalyptic scene somewhere in an ancient city, long ago. And yet, the “action” of an outbreak of plague promised is more “switch and bait” than anything. So what’s right for this “plague week” book?: some sophisticated work on how this devil works ranging all the way from its chemistry to its fleas and its trade routes. At times, Rosen borders on the tedious. A good book for those with a strong historical bent, less so for plague fans; lots of notes and references (not an organized bibliography per se) to expand your reading.


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