Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe

by William Rosen

Hardcover, 2007



Call number



Jonathan Cape (2007), Edition: 1st Edition, 377 pages


Weaving together evolutionary microbiology, economics, military strategy, ecology, and ancient and modern medicine, author Rosen tells 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 victims from Ireland to Iraq, and opened the way for the armies of Islam. Emperor Justinian had 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. 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, bringing about one of the great hinge moments in history.--From publisher description.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member justindtapp
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
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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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LibraryThing member EleBoo
Book Review of Justinian’s Flea
By Elena Booze
Justinian’s Flea is about the bubonic plague, and the fall of Rome. It is also about the birth of Europe and the emperor of Rome, Justinian.
Justinian’s Flea includes the enemies of Rome, and their impact on the country. Also, it includes the
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history of Justinian, and how he became emperor. Justinian first was a peasant from the Balkan town of Tuaresium. He eventually became a general, then emperor. His wife, Theodora, was a prostitute until her marriage with Justinian. The bubonic plague caused terrible damage to Rome, and was spread by fleas. Rome was eventually torn apart from the inside-out, and it was too weak to defend against the Huns, Goths or Visigoths.
I thought that Justinian’s Flea was very interesting, however, worded in a way that made it slow to read. I liked how it included many interesting details, like how Theodora was the daughter of a bear-keeper, and had her first child at the age of sixteen. I thought that this information made the book interesting, and made me feel that the author had done very, very extensive research. I think that Justinian’s Flea went on a little too long with all of the detail, though. Information about the actual plague was not provided until past half of the book. I enjoyed reading this book, but I think that it was written for mainly adults, and requires patience to finish.
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LibraryThing member Farree
I have been putting off reading this since August 15, 2015 (or so), because I wanted a little more coverage of the Roman Empire (and I don't currently have Gibbon in my library). I got that earlier history from 'The Climax of Rome,' by Michael Grant, which I recently finished and reviewed. Okay. So
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I have always been interested in books about disease and its effects on civilizations, and I have to say, this is one of the best I've read. Wow. What a narrative! This is obviously about WAY more than the plague of Justinian. Here we find how Justinian was one of Rome's most incredible emperors, how he was the driving force for the design and construction of the Hagia Sophia, and the Corpus Iuris Civilis, the law-book of the Roman Empire (and all subsequent European legal codes up until Blackstone, in 1769), yes, and how he reconquered most of the Roman territories that the various Goths and Vandals had snatched away, and after all this (in great detail - including about the Parthians, Persians, etc.), Rosen chronicles the plagues. Causes and results are analyzed in detail. I suggest wikipedia's articles on extreme weather events of 535-536, and the Lake Ilopango eruption of 410-535 A. D. What a great read!
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LibraryThing member dmcolon
Justinian's Flea is a great account of the Mediterranean region in the sixth century. Its focal point is the plague that hit the region during the reign of Justinian, which is really pretty obvious now that I think of it. But the book is an amazing look at several regional histories, science,
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epidemiology and the like. Rosen gives a gripping account of the main events and people of the era.

The historical sections are a pretty straightforward account of the leading events and figures, but Rosen does a great job stringing together many different narrative strands into a compelling story. The sections on the plague were, for me at least, terra incognita. The author goes pretty deep into the science here and while parts of it were over my humanities major head, I enjoyed them nonetheless.

Rosen concludes the book with an account of the rise of Islam. This was, for me, the main point of the book. Without Justinian's flea, and the resultant plagues that hit the Persian and Byzantine worlds, the entire Islamic empire would have been implausible. I'm not sure this qualifies as a random event, but it does make the contrast between historical determinism and human agency blurry for me.
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LibraryThing member Halieus
This book is extremely well-written, and the breadth of knowledge contained in it is simply amazing. Rosen has brought together the culture of the day, conquests, military exploits, architecture, political intrigue, even so far as explaining why the etymology of different species of flea was more
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(or less) fortuitous in spreading the plague so quickly, and over such a wide area.

If more authors wrote as engagingly as Rosen, history classes across the US would be filled to overflowing.
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LibraryThing member NielsenGW
William Rosen is a great editor in his own right, but when he writes, his real talent comes out. Deftly combining history, medicine, sociology, and religion, Rosen posits that the Roman Empire's true demise was a convergence between the first outbreak of Bubonic Plague and the weakened state of the
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Roman army. The book starts off slow, with a complete history of the empire between Diocletian and Justinian, then gets really good with an in-depth analysis of the evolution of the plague virus. A slowish but ultimately rewarding read.
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LibraryThing member MiaCulpa
Interesting that I had never heard of Belisaurus, Khosro the great, Narses and the like, even though I'm an eager reader of history. This book is more about history than the plague, which, to be frank, it doesn't spend a lot of time on. Not that this is a bad thing because, after all, who wants to
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read about rats, and people developing huge black bubos?
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LibraryThing member romanccm
This was a really good read- extremely well written and organized. Much of the history was familiar to me from elsewhere, I don't think Rosen breaks new ground here but his synthesis of the cultural, historical, technological and, of course, bacteriologic state of the 6th century Roman empire was
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an absolute joy to read.
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LibraryThing member JeffV
While bouncing around throughout the history of the Roman Empire, Justinian's Flea concerns itself mostly with the period from the end of the Western Roman Empire at the hands of Odoacer at 476 CE through a period following the long reign of Justinian the Great (527-565 CE). The military history of
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this period is well covered, particularly the illustrious career of Justinian's famous general, Belisarius. But for the premise of the book, you need to look much smaller. While the empire enjoyed a massive rebirth in power and scope under Justinian, a tiny flea hitched a ride on a rat out of Africa, carrying in its gut a particularly nasty bacteria. The first documented epidemic of the bubonic (and then pneumonic when transferred person to person) began during the great emperor's reign. Justinian even survived a personal encounter with the mostly fatal disease.

Rosen does a nice job telling us how the world of Justinian came to be; very little of this book actually covers the epidemiology of the plague (although it is covered in good detail). He also makes some interesting conjectures. The plague was less virulent in China, a country very nearly like the Roman Empire in multiethnic composition and expanse. China would survive this plague, however, while Rome deteriorated. After major cities were substantially depopulated and the armies of the empire defeated by an unseen adversary, Islam took hold in the largely plague-free Arabian peninsula (plague likes rat-infested ships to transport) and proceeded to expand quickly into Palestine as well as Belisarius' recently-conquered Libya. Rosen suggests that without the plague, Byzantine armies could have squashed the upstart religion before it could get rolling.

Justinian's reign saw the last vestiges of Roman glory. The plague made it possible for the ever-present outsiders to make headway against the empire and shatter its foundations. Not until one of these external tribes, the Franks, were charged with the protection of the new "Holy Roman Empire" under Charlemagne would setbacks be reversed, but by then the Empire was a very different creature indeed as the rise of nationalism brought its own challenges.
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LibraryThing member as85
If you want to read a book about Justinian, this book might do - his life, times and accomplishments are well detailed. If you want to read a book about the flea that carries the plague bacillus, you likely could do better than this book, but would at least find a couple of chapters related to your
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interest in this book.
HOWEVER, if you want to read a book about Justinian's Flea (emphasis on the possessive!) in order to discover how the plague impacted and possibly ended the Roman empire of antiquity, this book will not do. This book just tells you that the plague killed lots of people. There is no analysis of why the plague did or did not weaken Rome's army more than those of its enemies or how a decline in population impacted Roman society. Instead, you will wade through pages and pages on topics such as the Empire's efforts to import silk worms, the various Christian theological debates raging Justinian's life, and the construction defects of the Hagia Sofia, and then, in the last two pages, be informed that the plague caused the atomization of Europe into nation states. Maybe it did, but you'll need to read some other books to learn why.
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LibraryThing member Meggo
A very detailed and well researched book about what is one of the first major pandemics, the black plague epidemic of the late Roman Empire. My primary criticism is that for a book on plague, it takes an awful long time to get to the whole plague thing -- over halfway through the book, in fact. The
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non-plague bits are an interesting enough review of late Roman imperial history and bacteriology, but I frankly could have used more of an ethnographic and sociological study of the plague and its impacts; this is more a biography of Justinian.
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LibraryThing member atiara
Very interesting but sometimes there was too much information. I did not need to know all the detail of the building of the Hagia Sophia. I really enjoyed the chapters on Sassanid Persia and China and how they interacted with the Roman Empire. And it's alway fun to hear about barbarians. I always
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wondered how the Franks came out on top in Europe and Rosen tries to answer the question.
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LibraryThing member GoofyOcean110
I started reading this book expecting a synthesis across disciplines - roman history, epidemiology, some ecology, etc. This book was not that. It turns out that the ecology of the rat is not as interesting as I expected. Much too much time was spent going through Roman emperor after Roman emperor -
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which is entirely tedious, difficult to keep straight, and I felt there was a bit of an expectation of assumed background, which I honestly didn't have. Overall, read the introduction, and then skip the rest.
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LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
Mr. Rosen has assembled a competent examination of the most serious event of the 500's CE. He has good chapters on the Plague and the Architecture of Hagia Sophia, which he examines in great detail. The architectural excursus is not greatly germaine to the rest of the book, which concludes with a
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reasonable survey of the Middle East in the 500's.
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LibraryThing member reader1009
nonfiction. Science and history (more interesting than you'd think, but still kinda long).
LibraryThing member pbjwelch
The book's flaws (and successes) have been covered by many former reviewers so let me add just a few notes that may be of interest to someone at some time:

For anyone who slept through their world history class when it was covering the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Alans, Suevi and Vandals, the first 1/4
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of this book will give you the review you need...and some cute tricks for remembering who was where. (The Vandals were the sailors who made it to Sicily.) Ultimately, "Italy was ruled by Ostrogoths, Spain by Visigoths, and North Africa by Vandals" (p. 58).

Chapters 12 & 13 cover the story of the discovery of silk in the west, its production, trade history, and the subsequent Silk Road, and is one of the best summaries I've seen covering the details (if not the romance) of these aspects of the early history of silk. (I'm adding these two chapters to a recommended reading list I maintain on the Silk Road for students who need to know how many tons of silk were carried west by the average caravan).

And finally, if you want a description of how the plague 'worked' that is too biologically technical for the lay reader but probably too basic for a biologist, turn to Part III, Chapters 7-9.

In short, some bite-sized sections stand out, but as an Intro-to-Epilogue read, I have to concur with the majority of readers, I found the too frequent to's and fro's unsettling.
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LibraryThing member jlbrownn23
An overall good story - essentially how the Plague was critical to the final collapse of the Roman Empire by weakening it at a critical moment just as it was in a resurgence (and just before the rise of Islam). There are several points in the book where the author goes off on a bit of a tangent
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about certain subject - to me these were both the weakest AND the strongest parts. The "tangents" on the construction of the Hagia Sophia and the complex social/environmental factors that lead to the coming of the plague where worth the price of admission all by themselves.
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LibraryThing member chiatt
The first half of Justinian's Flea has little to do with the plague, but instead is filled with a detailed description of the expansion of the Roman Empire under Justinian. Unfortunately, I found the level of detail a wee bit frustrating - particularly the description of battle after battle fought
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to maintain the Empire. However, what seems trivial in the first half becomes very relevant once Rosen starts describing the impacts of the plague. To those considering this book, I would recommend reading the first chapters carefully as it will make the more exiting chapters much more enjoyable.
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LibraryThing member alexlubertozzi
Good history, some fascinating material on the world of late antiquity, including the construction of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (Istanbul). But I'm not sure I'm convinced of the author's arguments about the plague influencing the multi-state nature of Europe. I'm more persuaded by Jed
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Diamond's argument that Europe's geography, as compared to China's, determined its eventual separateness. A good read for history buffs, though.
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LibraryThing member atozgrl
Interesting, but not the easiest read. Rosen's writing style includes lots of asides and parenthetical statements, which doesn't always flow well. I learned a lot of history about the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of modern European countries that I did not know.
LibraryThing member deusvitae
A lively re-telling of the real transition from Late Antiquity into the medieval world in the days of Justinian.

The author vividly tells the story of how the Roman Empire got to the point of having Justinian as Emperor; he describes the situation by which Justinian ascended to the purple and then
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the exploits of the early part of his reign. Africa and Italy are recovered for the Empire; things seem to be going well for the Empire.

Yet, as indicated from the beginning, a plague is on the horizon. The author also describes what was known at his time regarding the development of Y. pestis and what it did to people. He then described how the plague overtook the Roman Empire and the devastation it wrought. The epilogue considers the later battle at Yarmuk between Heraclius' forces and the Muslim invaders and how the Empire lost most of its territory, and its ancient heart, in no small part as an effect of the plague.

The historical narrative here is generally excellent, but its pathogenesis and discussion of the plague itself could use some updating; Kyle Harper spends a lot of time talking about what we have learned about the plague since, and agrees about the devastation and import of the black plague. The role of the ferret, the newest and best theory of the real catalyst for black death outbreaks, is not really manifest here.

A great narrative which could use a refresh/update for the 2020s.
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LibraryThing member mbmackay
This is a good telling of Emperor Justinian's reign at the end of the Roman era. But . . .
I'm peeved by the title: 'Justinian's Flea' suggested to me a book about the plague and how it affected Justinian's time as Emperor, but the book is really a history of the Roman empire during Justinian's
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rule. The plague is merely a bit part in that telling. I was going to blame the publishers for tarting up a bland history with a nifty title, until I found that the author is not a professional historian, and his first career was in publishing!
But I still enjoyed the book. I learned more than I ever expected to know about the very late stages of the Roman Empire. The author gives life to key players, while not going too far past the limited source documentary evidence.
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NJCH Book Award (Honor Book — 2008)


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0224073699 / 9780224073691
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