Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe
Popular history at its best: an epic story in which the newly united Roman Empire under Justinian is decimated by bubonic plague.
In the middle of the sixth century, the world's smallest organism collided with the world's mightiest empire. With the death of twenty-five million people, the Roman Empire, under her last great emperor, Justinian, was decimated. Before Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that carries bubonic plague, was finished, both the Roman and Persian empires were easy pickings for the armies of Muhammad on their conquering march out of Arabia. In its wake, the plague – history's first pandemic – marked the transition from the age of Mediterranean empires to the age of European nation-states – from antiquity to the medieval world.
Justinian's Flea is the story of that collision, a narrative history that weaves together evolutionary microbiology, architecture, military history, geography, rat and flea ecology, jurisprudence, theology, epidemiology, and the economics of the silk trade. The climax of Justinian's Flea – the summer of 542, when Constantinople witnessed the death of 5,000 of its citizens every day – is revealed through the experiences of the remarkable individuals whose lives are a window onto a remarkable age: Justinian himself, of course, but also his general Belisarius, the greatest soldier between Caesar and Saladin, whose conquests marked the end of imperial rule in Italy and Africa; his architect, Anthemius, the mathematician-engineer who built Constantinople's Hagia Sophia (and whose brother, Alexander, was the great physician of the plague years); Tribonian, the jurist who created the Justinianic Code, the source of Europe's tradition of Civil Law; and, finally, his empress Theodora, the one-time prostitute who became co-ruler of the empire, the most politically powerful woman in European history until Elizabeth I.
Melding contemporary sources with modern disciplines, Justinian's Flea is a unique account of one of history's great turning points.
“Ambitious and learned...readers will be swept along by the strong current of Mr Rosen's good natured erudition”
“A massively ambitious work that covers a great deal of ground..... a splendid biography of the emperor Justinian”
Ian Pindar, Guardian
“Assertively modern in language and attitude, Rosen's multi-disciplinary Byzantine history deals not only with fatal microbiology but also celebrates Justinian's major achievements”
“As a feat of scholarship alone this book is extraordinary, but what really impresses is the sense of ease its author manifests in whatever subject he enters. It's as if he had been granted the freedom of late antiquity at birth ... His eloquence, wit, narrative skill, learning and (one dares to add) compassion, hoist this book abouve the miasma of its deeply sombre subject and make it, strangely, a joy”
Independent on Sunday
“Justinan was, as Rosen engagingly sets out, a master statesman.... Rosen carefully weighs his contribution”
“William Rosen doesn´t just give us the most believable, the most human and the most fully rounded Justinian ever. He also conjures up a vivid picture of the age, in a compelling style that makes his weighty learning light”
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, author of Millennium and Civilizations