Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire
I wasn’t planning on reading this book at all. Merely saw it on a friend’s table yesterday, got curious, and asked if I could read it before she did. Now I feel as if I’ve eaten a 10-course meal in the space of 20 minutes.
This era of history is not usually my thing. I was an International Studies major in college, so I of course covered it in my history classes, and I taught it to my world history students, but it’s not an era I would seek out books upon. However, I was fascinated by Pox Americana (I read it as research for my WIP), and the title of this book sounded like it was similar. It wasn’t really. But in this case, that isn’t a bad thing, because Rosen provided a buffet of information so well presented that you don’t need a background in history to take it in.
His bottom line is this:
” It was the golden age of Emperor Justinian, who, from his glorious capital of Constantinople, united and reigned over an empire stretching from Italy to North Africa. It was the zenith of his achievements–and the last of them. In A.D. 542, the bubonic plague struck. In weeks, the glorious classical world of Justinian was plunged into chaos, and the beginings of a medieval Europe were born.”
However, the plague itself only occupies perhaps a quarter of the book. The rest of it is background, side-plots, and connections to other ideas and future events. Rosen follows a common thread, loops off on a connected idea, but always manages to bring the reader back the main thread before they get too lost.
In the course of the book, Rosen covers “history, microbiology, ecology, jurisprudence, theology, and epidemiology,” not to mention tidbits of architecture, art, trade, politics, medicine, and numerous other subjects. Whether he was discussing the changing tactics of warfare or the warring theologies of the early Christian Church (Arian vs. Monophysites vs. orthodoxy/Catholic), his writing went down so smoothly that I almost wasn’t aware of how much I was taking in at times. The only sections that I found hard to chew was when he went into great detail about the evolution and biology of Yersinia pestis, that is, bubonic plague.
Justinian’s Flea is heavy reading, but not overwhelmingly so. It appeals both to serious students of history as well as to the curiosity of the “layman.”