the Apocalypse

the Apocalypse

The Emperor and the Plague

Dominik Delp

During his long and eventful reign, the Roman emperor Justinian I (527–565) encouraged reform projects and achieved brilliant victories.

In only six years (528–34) his lawyers managed to condense the existing imperial laws into the so-called Corpus Iuris Civilis. Furthermore, he initiated a tax reform and handed important positions to young and capable men, often from outside the traditional imperial elite. In 533, his military achieved a grand success by thoroughly defeating the Vandal empire. Two years later he even attempted to regain Italy from the Goths. History remembers the emperor as a leader who cared for his people and looked after them. Even today, spectacular buildings such as the Hagia Sophia confirm this image.

Dark Clouds on the Horizon

After extremely promising beginnings, the situation in the Roman Empire declined. In 532, about ten thousand people died when Justinian quashed an uprising in Constantinople. During 536 and 537, the sun “darkened” for several months across the entire Mediterranean – the result, we know now, of a volcanic eruption. The consequences were climatic changes, failed crops and local famines. In 540, Persian armies invaded the empire, thus intensifying general uncertainty, particularly after devastating earlier attacks from Bulgarian troops.

What threatens us?

In 541, a previously unknown disease broke out in the Egyptian town of Pelusion. People initially came down with a mild fever, but the sick soon also developed swellings in the armpits. Some people fell unconscious, others went manic, some were covered with black blisters and died soon after, and in others, the blisters began to ulcerate. If people recovered, they sometimes suffered speech problems or numb limbs.

The epidemic spread rapidly. From Egypt it travelled inland via the coasts and eventually reached Constantinople, where it raged for about four months. The historian Prokop mentions at first 5,000, then 10,000 and more daily deaths. He described the dramatic situation: “There were not enough living souls to bury the dead. People barricaded themselves inside their houses. When one saw a person in the street still alive, it was someone carrying a body.” John of Ephesus, who was travelling in the Empire during that time, describes abandoned villages and dead cattle in the fields, and he feared that he himself would soon fall victim to the disease.

Painting: "Die Pest [The Plague]" by Arnold Böcklin, 1898.
TEXT The extent of
the pandemic

It is difficult to estimate how many people fell victim to the pandemic. Contemporary witnesses are notoriously unreliable, while the historians of antiquity have tended to follow existing models. Prokop, too, copied part of his description from accounts of an epidemic in Athens from nearly a thousand years previously. Further written sources and archeological finds indicate, however, that the entire empire was affected, right up to its borders. Some estimate that about a third of the population died.

Graphic: The extent of the pandemic

Who are we?

The plague had the insecure and weakened population of Roman Empire in a firm and merciless grip. People were helpless in the face of the illness. It seemed to afflict everyone, regardless of rank, influence, piety, or habits. The plague only seemed to subside in a region after it taken a high death toll. Even when people thought it was over, it came back, and sometimes with a vengeance.

Many people, still recovering from previous disasters, considered it apocalyptic; they thought the end of the world and the return of the redeemer was near. When this also did not come to pass, it only increased widespread uncertainty. Even people of normally sound mind began to doubt. If this wasn’t the apocalypse, but mankind’s suffering continued, how could these calamities be explained? Was it God’s punishment, brought on by a bad emperor? Indeed, Quite a few people blamed Justinian. He himself came down with the illness in 552, and it initially looked like he wouldn’t survive.

Background and collage: Oil painting "The Plague of the Philistines at Ashdod" by
Pieter van Halen, 1661.
TEXT Evagrius and
Simeon Stylites
He saw my thoughts after the loss of my children, when I asked myself why such a disaster had not befallen the heathens who had many children, and even though I hadn’t told anybody about it, he wrote to me, told me to let go of those thoughts because God wouldn’t like them.
Evagrius Hist. Eccl. 6,23

The ecclesiastical historian Evagrius, who had been ill with the plague as a child, later lost his wife, many of his children, relatives, numerous slaves on his estate and eventually another daughter and grandchildren to the disease. Why, he secretly asked himself, did many heathens not contract the illness, while he, a righteous Christian, had had to suffer so much? The biographies of Saint Simeon and Evagrius himself relate how the saint, after he learned of the historian’s doubts through divine intuition, eventually led Evagrius back to the righteous path.

What do we need?

Justinian was under pressure. Hi situation was made worse by the fact that over time, the role of the emperor had become more and more charged with Christian-religious ideology, even among his predecessors. He himself explicitly announced that he had been appointed by God, a process called ‘sanctification’. There didn’t seem to be a way out. The emperor urgently needed something to strengthen his position, which became less and less stable by the day. His insecure and anxious subjects needed leadership and a promise of salvation they could believe in, because all the old patterns of making sense of life were failing.

Drawing: Detail of a medaillon of Justinian I.

What should we do?

Initially, people reacted to the calamity in what was then the usual way: they went to penitential processions or sought shelter with holy men. But when both proved to be ineffective, people took to more drastic measures: there are occasional accounts of professional criminals who, in their fear, found faith and gave up their heinous crimes – but only for a short time. The opposite presumably occurred more often: in their superstition, the people of Constantinople threw clay vessels out of their windows – this was thought to protect them from the disease. Sometimes anger was directed at holy dignitaries and representatives of religion. Statues of saints were toppled from their plinths; monks were suddenly met with deep distrust.

The emperor had little choice but to stay on the established path and to emphasize his closeness to God even more explicitly by praying, engaging in ascetic practices and pious acts. Additionally, he ordered very earthly measures. He tried to mitigate for the lack of food caused by the depopulation of whole regions, and he also kept the army and administration of the empire functioning. Both the Empire and the church survived, but the disease continued to return for another half a century.

TEXT Hostility
towards holy men
When a monk or another cleric turned up, they would shriek and flee, assuming that they were death itself who would destroy them.
Joh. Eph. Hist. Eccl. = Ps.-Dionysius,
Chronicle of Zuqin z. J. 543/4 = p. 108 Witakowski

In his history of the church, which survived as a fragment, John of Ephesus describes numerous superstitious and sinful practices during the plague years. The following quote is from one of these morally-charged texts:

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