Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Book Review (#37 of 2014) Justinian's Flea by William Rosen

Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe
This book is primarily about the reign of Justinian (482-565 A.D.) with the bubonic plague ("The Devil") as a key world-changing component in the second half of the book. There is a lot of contextual history provided, which some critics have argued is unnecessary and detracts from the book. I was looking for wider regional context, so I enjoyed much of it. The author gives a helpful summary of the history of the decline of Rome as government moved away from Italy and to the provinces. There is also a brief history of the Goths as well as the Scythians' (Mongols and Turk from Central Asian steppes) and other peoples' encroachment toward Europe. All of this is necessary to really understand the geographical importance of Constantinople and the pressures facing it, and the mentality of its authorities. The religious history is also important as ecumenical councils were trying to decide on doctrine and East was developing apart from West, and Justinian would have been a theologian were he not an Emperor.

Prior to the plague, the most significant event in Justinian's reign was the Nika riots of the Blues and the Greens, the Roman equivalent of today's football hooligans, destroying half of Constantinople and killing tens of thousands. That history and the politics surrounding it is itself fascinating. 

However, the detailed tangents on anything remotely touching Justinian and Constantinople are a bit much. Detailed accounts of Belisarius's conquests, Jewish history, silk production in China, etc. are unnecessary and add nothing. The supposed focus of the book-- the bubonic plague and its consequences-- are not even introduced until the last half of the book. Its impact on Constantinople itself and the various social structures and religion in the Empire is hardly mentioned. The economic and geopolitical impacts are the focus of the few chapters devoted to the plague.

4 million people died within two years. The plague shrunk the population of Europe and any area the Empire touched. As Persians took advantage of the Roman Empire's weakness to gain territory in Anatolia and beyond, eventually they also succumbed to the plague. The plague led to a lack of labor supply and an invention of better tools and even an increase in property rights among the farming peasants in Western Europe. The Arabs, who due to desert climate and remoteness were isolated from the plague, end up reaping the advantages conquering Persian and European territory and spreading Islam.


Justinian was "the emperor who never sleeps." Justinian's contributions to society were numerous. He re-conquered African and Italian territories and enlarged the empire. He set out to reform all of Roman law, commissioning the Codex Justianius and the Corpus Juris Civilis, which became the legal standard for the West (and was used by the Continental Congress in drafting the U.S. Constitution). Justinian's wife was a very licentious woman, as were many of the women chronicled in this book. The morals of Rome really declined in the 4th century. It was odd in that leading figures staked out theological positions and fought, often violently, for them, but were morally void of any impact of that theology.

I give this book 3 stars out of 5 because it was a lot of information about nothing pertaining to the Plague or Constantinople or the birth of Europe. There is a such thing as too much context.

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