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Medizinhistorisches Journal, XXX

DOI 10.25162/xxxx-xxxx-xxxx

Mischa Meier

The ‘Justinianic Plague’:

An “Inconsequential Pandemic”? A Reply
Die ‚Justinianische Pest‘:
Eine Pandemie „ohne Auswirkungen“? Eine Erwiderung

Kurzfassung: In einem in PNAS 116 (2019) publizierten Beitrag wurde der Versuch unter-
nommen, zu zeigen, dass die ‚Justinianische Pest‘ keine größeren Auswirkungen gezeitigt und
insbesondere keine Zäsur zwischen Spätantike und Frühmittelalter markiert habe. Dieser Ver-
such, gegen eine „maximalist position“ zu argumentieren, weist jedoch erhebliche methodi-
sche Schwächen auf, die hier herausgearbeitet werden. Zudem wird gezeigt, dass der Pest sehr
wohl eine Bedeutung für den Epochenübergang zukommt, allerdings weniger unter demogra-
phischen Gesichtspunkten als wegen ihrer kulturellen, religiösen und sozialen Auswirkungen.
Auch wenn neue naturwissenschaftliche Daten und Methoden eindeutige und objektive Ant-
worten auf vieldiskutierte Fragen suggerieren und aktuell größere Aufmerksamkeit der Medien
auf sich ziehen, so bedarf doch auch dieses Material – so die Schlussfolgerung – einer differen-
zierten Diskussion, die vorschnelle Komplexitätsreduktionen vermeidet und nur in interdiszi-
plinärer Zusammenarbeit gewährleistet werden kann.
Schlagworte: Justinianische Pest – Seuchen – Epidemien – Epochenübergang – Justinian

Abstract: The article takes up an essay published in PNAS 116 (2019), whose authors try to
show that the ‘Justinianic Plague’ did not have any demonstrable major effects and in particular
cannot be considered a “watershed event” between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.
This attempt to argue against a “maximalist position”, however, contains considerable method-
ological weaknesses, which are pointed out. It is also argued that the plague must certainly be
given a place in the transitional process between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages;
this has less to do with demographic aspects than with cultural, religious and social develop-
ments. Even if recent scientific data and new analytical methods suggest precise and objective
answers to much-discussed questions and this approach currently enjoys broad public support
in the media, this material, too – so the conclusion – requires a differentiated discussion that
does not make any hasty reductions in complexity and can only be achieved in interdisciplinary
Keywords: Justinianic Plague – Epidemic diseases – Epoch transition – Justinian
2 mischa meier

No Watershed Event?

A few months ago, PNAS published an article that caused an international sensation:1
The authors believe they can prove that the so-called Justinianic Plague, which struck
the Mediterraneum, Europe and the Middle East in several waves between 541 and 750,
had hardly any measurable demographic effects and, in particular, did not play a signifi­
cant role in the questions around the transition between Late Antiquity and the Early
Middle Ages: “We find little evidential support for the claim that the JP [= Justinianic
Plague, M. M.] was a watershed event” – as the authors conclude.2 The study derives
its immediate persuasive power and particular appeal for the media and larger groups
of interested persons from its unusual methodological approach. For the authors rely
primarily on scientific analyses; quantitative methods are even preferred in those pas-
sages that deal with the evaluation of contemporary written testimonies. A qualitative,
interpretive evaluation of the texts is no longer undertaken. This new methodological
approach is accompanied by massive criticism of previous research, which is accused
of dealing with the material too lightly. Historians, it is claimed, “tend to read plague
passages positivistically and to accept late antique claims and commentary on the JP at
face value”.3
Less striking and sensationalist, but more profound in its arguments is a parallel
publication put forward by the same authors.4 However, since this article has not at-
tracted the same amount of media attention and contains qualitative discussions of the
material in addition to the quantitative arguments, it will not be the focus of the present
text, which is intended in particular as a critical examination of the general recent trend
to market research in the humanities more strongly in the media by clothing it in a sci-
entific garment and placing it in scientific publication organs.
Has the methodological paradigm shift solved the mystery of the ‘Justinianic Plague’
and its evaluation? Do the scientific analyses suggesting accuracy and objectivity now
enable us to make a final assessment of the pandemic and its consequences? I am scep-

1 Mordechai et al. (2019). Just a few excerpts from the broad media echo:
12/02/world/plague-roman-empire-scn/index.html [26.3.2020] (K. Hunt);
Historiker-streiten-ueber-Folgen-der-Pest-article21437196.html [26.3.2020] (W. Willems); https://www.
[26.3.2020] (K. Schlott);
[26.3.2020] (M. Brauer/R. Knauer);
reich--wie-stark-wuetete-die-pest-wirklich--9032176.html [26.3.2020]. Recently, the authors have again
prominently placed their views, this time starting from the Covid-19 pandemic, see M. Eisenberg / L. Mor-
dechai / R. Alpert, Why Treating the Coronavirus Like the Black Death Is So Dangerous. Our Standard
Outbreak Narrative Conceals the Reality of Pandemic Diseases, in: Washington Post, 6. Februar 2020:
so-dangerous/ [10.4.2020].
2 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25553.
3 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25547.
4 Mordechai/Eisenberg (2019).
The ‘Justinianic Plague’: An “Inconsequential Pandemic”? A Reply 3

tical in this respect and would like to take a closer critical look at the methods applied
by the authors.
Lee Mordechai and his colleagues specifically target the “maximalists” who have
claimed (in their view) “that the Justinianic Plague […] caused tens of millions of
deaths throughout the Mediterranean world and Europe, helping to end antiquity and
start the Middle Ages”.5 This, however, is misleading, because in the following the “maxi­
malist position” is defined as
a broad consensus […] across disciplines that estimates JP mortality in the tens of millions,
with numbers ranging between 15 and 100 million, or alternatively, 25 to 60 % of the estimated
population of the Late Roman Empire.6

This definition by no means refers to an exact research position, but rather generalizes
a very large, internally finely differentiated spectrum of different perspectives and ap-
proaches.7 Yet, it should make a considerable difference whether the mortality rate for
the ‘Justinianic Plague’ is given as 25 % or 60 %8 – in addition, the period under consider-
ation should have to be asked: Is it only the first plague wave 541/42 or the entire phase
in which the pandemic is detectable, i. e. about two centuries? Also a spatial differentia-
tion would be necessary. And finally, it should be pointed out that in the concert of the
historians sceptical voices can certainly be heard, whose weight should not be underes-
timated (e. g. Mark Whittow, Chris Wickham, Peter Heather, Bryan Ward-Perkins).9 An-

5 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25546.

6 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25546; see also l. c., 25553: “The consensus maximalist position asserts that the JP
reduced the population of the late antique Mediterranean and Europe by more than a third, killing tens of
millions and ending antiquity”. In the conclusion (25553) they mention a “current maximalist estimate of a
50 % demographic loss”.
7 The literature on the Justinianic Plague has grown rapidly in recent years. In the following I will mention
only a few contributions that play or have played a major role in the discussion. For a more detailed orien-
tation I would like to refer to the recent research reviews of Stathakopoulos (2000) and Eisenberg/Mor-
dechai (2019): Russell (1968); Biraben (1975/76); Biraben/Le Goff (1975); Allen (1979); Bratton (1981);
Seger (1982); Conrad (1986); (1994); (1996); Leven (1987); (1995); Durliat (1989); Robin (1992); Harri-
son (1993); Kislinger/Stathakopoulos (1999); Atkinson (2002); Sarris (2002); (2006); (2007); McCor-
mick (2003); Schamiloglu (2004), 255–260; Meier (1999); (22004), 321–340; 373–387; (2004a); (2005);
(2016a); (42020), 817–848; 892; 943–945; 957–975; Meier (forthcoming); Stathakopoulos (2004), prob-
lematic for several reasons, see my review in: Byzantinische Zeitschrift 97, 2004, 627–629; (2012); Horden
(2005); Arjava (2005); Little (2007); (2011); Sallares (2007); Kaldellis (2007); Leppin (2011), 206–215;
240–242; Harper (2017), 206–287; Gruber (2018). Rather for a public audience and not free of mistakes:
Rosen (2007).
8 Older extreme positions (e. g. Russell [1968]: 40–50 % between 541 and 600; Allen [1979], 11: 57 % during
the first plague wave 541/42; Leven [1987], 151: 50 % by the mid of the 8th c.; Evans [1996], 160: 60 %) have
long been overcome by research (see e. g. Horden [2005], 159: 20–30 % during the entire pandemic, i. e.
till about 750; Stathakopoulos [2012], 109: about 20 % in Constantinople in 542; an exception is Harper
[2017], 244: 50 % demographic decline during the first wave). I myself still consider a reduction of the pop-
ulation of the eastern Mediterranean by about 25 % between 541 and 544 to be plausible, see Meier (2005),
9 Whittow (1996), 66 f.: “there is no evidence for this devastating impact […] business as usual”; Wickham
(2006), 548 f.: “the sixth-century plague, however dramatic its local incidences, was a marginal event in
the demographic history of our period”; Heather (2018), 307: “But there is little convincing archaeological
evidence for any major disruption to the fabric of the East Roman agricultural economy in the mid-to late
4 mischa meier

yone who ignores all these internal differentiations within research and instead speaks
of a single “maximalist position” as “consensus” is making rough simplifications that do
not correctly reflect the current state of the discussion.10 Moreover, the supposed re-
search consensus is by no means that
plague mortality is alleged to have depopulated the ‘known world’ and to have accelerated the
transition to a ‘backward’ ‘Dark Age’ period, devastating the Late Roman Empire and extin-
guishing antiquity.11

Rather, this is an extreme position within a wide spectrum,12 which certainly includes
gradations that are still under discussion. For example, despite the criticism of Mor-
dechai et al., I myself would still adhere to the thesis that ‘Justinianic Plague’ was an
important factor in the transformation process between Late Antiquity and the Early
Middle Ages (see below), without consenting to the exaggerated position of Kyle Har­
per. The difficulty ultimately lies in assessing what role the epidemic may have played
in concrete terms, particularly in combination with numerous other factors. Our task
is to describe and analyze a highly complex transformation process; whether scientific
or quantitative methods and the narrowing of their results to monocausal approaches
implying determinisms – be they positive (Harper) or negative (Mordechai et al.) – can
prove effective remains to be doubted.

Literary Sources

This applies in particular to the handling of the literary tradition. In order to prove the
problematic nature of contemporary texts, Mordechai and his colleagues first refor-
mulate well-known reservations against an interpretation of the plague as a historical
caesura, which had already been put forward in the 1980s (without mentioning Jean
Durliat’s publication, which is central in this respect),13 but which in the meantime were
considered to have been dispelled.14 They concern the low presence of the plague in
contemporary literary texts and its almost complete absence in non-literary documents

sixth century due either to plague or to Justinianic overtaxation”; Ward-Perkins (2005), 134: “Disasters like
these certainly did happen, with terrible consequences for many individuals; but it is probably right to see
them as subsidiary, rather than primary, causes of the decline of the ancient economy. […] It was […] the
fifth-century invasions that caused these difficulties, and brought down the ancient economy in the West”.
10 Similarly undifferentiated: Mordechai/Eisenberg (2019), 5 f.: “Drawing heavily on the catastrophic Black
Death model established by recent scholarship, estimates for the mortality of the Justinianic Plague range
between 33 and 60 per cent of the Mediterranean population. Scholars estimate catastrophic death tolls
such as fifteen, twenty-five, or even one hundred million people. We refer to this paradigm as the ‘maximal-
ist interpretation’. […] practically all the relevant scientific publications, despite their contribution to our
understanding of the Justinianic Plague, uncritically assume the maximalist interpretation and cement it
as fact in scholarly discourse”.
11 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25546.
12 Taken by Harper (2017). But see the criticism put forward by Haldon et al. (2018a); (2018b); (2018c).
13 Durliat (1989). Mordechai/Eisenberg (2019), 6, however, mention this important contribution.
14 See Biraben (1989); Stathakopoulos (2000), 270; Sarris (2002); (2007); Meier (2016a).
The ‘Justinianic Plague’: An “Inconsequential Pandemic”? A Reply 5

(inscriptions, papyri, legislation, coins) as well as the archaeological evidence. Literary

texts, it is stated, “contain significant biases that must be contextualized”.15 However, ex-
actly this requirement is not fulfilled in the further course of the discussion; instead,
purely quantitative aspects are emphasized. With reference to the exaggerated number
of victims in contemporary accounts,16 research is generally accused to be naïve positiv-
ism.17 A closer look at the literature, on the other hand, would have quickly made it clear
that historians have long since ceased to uncritically adopt the ancient figures as a basis
for quantitative calculations (as was still sometimes the case in the 1970s),18 but have
long since interpreted them as a manifestation of the quality of the suffering experienced
by fellow survivors19 and have accordingly been struggling intensively with the interpre-
tation of each individual text.
Furthermore, we have to put into perspective the following objection that contem-
poraries had mentioned various accidents “such as earthquakes and relatively minor vol-
canic eruptions”, but not the plague.20 In the 6th century – and this is what I will concen-
trate on in the following, as the first and probably most momentous plague wave fell in
the years 541/42 – people were particularly sensitized to unusual developments, natural
phenomena, catastrophes and accidents. This was the result of specific expectations of
the Last Days, which, based on widespread chronological calculations, condensed in the
years around 500.21 The fact that in this phase also those events were mentioned to which
less importance is attributed from an ex post perspective should not surprise anyone at
first. One of these events was an 18-month solar eclipse, which was anything but a mere
consequence of a “minor volcanic eruption”, but the result of a gigantic volcanic event,
the traces of which can be detected throughout the entire northern hemisphere.22 The
‘Justinianic Plague’ was undoubtedly a culmination in the continuing series of accidents
and catastrophes that swept across the Eastern Roman Empire in the 6th century,23 and
it was negotiated with appropriate intensity. For contrary to the assertion of Mordechai
et al., it is quite present in almost all contemporary texts in which one would expect

15 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25547.

16 Procopius states in the Bella (Prok. BP 2,23,1–2) that the plague had spread in Constantinople alone for
four months and caused 5000, and eventually even 10,000 or more deaths daily; in his Anekdota he draws
a disaster scenario for which Justinian is blamed, finally concluding that the plague has killed half of man-
kind (Prok. HA 18,44). The figures in the work of John of Ephesus are similarly unbelievable: 16000 victims
per day; with 230000 dead the imperial officials would have given up counting ( Joh. Eph. in the Chronicle
of Zuqnīn p. 87 Ed. Witakowski).
17 See similarly Mordechai/Eisenberg (2019), 7: “The direct evidence is almost entirely literary, is frequently
exaggerated, and is quoted uncritically”.
18 E. g. Russell (1968); Allen (1979).
19 Pointed out by Leven (1987), 146–148.
20 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25547.
21 See comprehensively Brandes (1997) and Meier (22004); furthermore Meier (2002b); (2008).
22 Stathakopoulos (2003), 251–255; Meier (22004), 359–365; Arjava (2005); Harper (2017), 249–257. Possible
connections between the climatic event 536 and the outbreak of plague in 541 are discussed by Antoniou/
Sinakos (2005) and Newfield (2018).
23 For a catalogue of catastrophes see Meier (22004), 656–670.
6 mischa meier

a corresponding mention (not, of course, in the bulk of other texts);24 this applies to
the historical work of Procopius, the report of John of Ephesus, the Chronicle of John
Malalas, the church history of Euagrius as well as various smaller chronicles and their
later derivatives. When, in order to prove the contrary, it is pointed out that the search
in electronic databases has produced only a small number of lexical references, it must
be countered, on the one hand, that the quantitative method cannot replace the quali-
tative argument: It goes without saying that the majority of the databases contain texts
in which, due to the genus, topic or interests, no mention of the plague would have been
expected anyway; a simple offsetting of this mass of texts against the existing evidence
cannot therefore lead to valid results. Or did the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 have very
little impact because it did not play a role in the vast amount of esoteric literature, cook-
books, romance and crime novels produced during this period? On the other hand, a
prudent application of quantitative methods would have presupposed, first of all, a re-
flection on the situation of transmission. For the material available to us represents only
a little fraction of the extensive literary production of the 6th century, and the question
of the extent to which this fraction can be considered representative of the whole was
not raised by the team of authors around Mordechai. However, the mere fact that John
Lydus, for example, announces a separate chapter on the plague in the summary of his
work De magistratibus,25 but that this has not been handed down, should be a warning
to be more careful when dealing with quantitative methods in literary texts.
By the way, this also applies to single findings: The fact that Procopius dedicates only
1.0 % of his work to the plague, as the authors calculate, certainly does not say anything
about a general ineffectiveness of the epidemic, but rather about Procopius’ themat-
ic priorities; the same applies to Gregory of Tours, who is said to have dealt with the
plague in 1.3 % of his work.26 Similarly the fact that contemporary chronicles often deal
with the plague in only one sentence is hardly a valid argument against the excessive im-
portance of the epidemic,27 since this form of recording of events results from the basic
structure of ancient and medieval chronicles; to argue with the length and shortness
of single entries simply does not make any sense for this genre. Anyway, one should be
cautious: For example, Malalas’ original report may have been much more extensive
and, like large parts of the rest of his Chronicle, may have fallen victim to far-reaching
cutbacks in the course of the transmission process.28 In any case, an intensive qualitative

24 See, for example (and only regarding the outbreak in 541/42), Prok. BP 2,22–23; Malal. p.  407,12–19;
407,94–96 Ed. Thurn; Vict. Tonn. ad ann. 542 = Chron. min. II 201 Ed. Mommsen; Joh. Eph. in the Chroni­
cle of Zuqnīn p. 74–98 Ed. Witakowski; Euagr. HE 4, 29; Vita Symeonis Iunioris 69 p. I 59–60 Ed. van den
Ven; Jak. Edess. = Chron. min. (Syr.) III 242 Ed. Brooks; Meg. Chron. p. 42 Nr. 9 Ed. Schreiner = p. 19
Nr. 10 Ed. Whitby; Theoph. a. m. 6034 p. I 222,22–23 Ed. de Boor; Mich. Syr. 9,28; Chron. ad ann. 1234 LXI
p. 155–156 Ed. Chabot.
25 Joh. Lyd. Mag. kephalaia III 16 p. I.2,7 Ed. Dubuisson/Schamp: Περὶ τοῦ ἀπευκταιοτάτου λοιμοῦ, καὶ ὅπως
ἀπεπαύσατο (“On the cursed disease and how it disappeared”).
26 On Gregory’s plague accounts, see Bachrach (2007).
27 See, however, Mordechai/Eisenberg (2019), 8.
28 At least, there are still some entries left: Malal. p. 407,95–96 Ed. Thurn; p. 407,12–19 Thurn; p. 418,41–42
Thurn; p. 420,71–74 Thurn; p. 422,41–42 Thurn (= Theoph. a. m. 6053 p. 235,10–11 Ed. de Boor). Morde­
The ‘Justinianic Plague’: An “Inconsequential Pandemic”? A Reply 7

examination of those 1.0 % and 1.3 % would have been far more effective than context-
less calculations of figures – or, as Mordechai et al. put it (without then carrying it out
themselves): “each passage should be examined critically, both within the context of
the work in which it is encountered and within the work’s particular cultural setting”.29
This criticism may well lead to the conclusion that John of Ephesus “used the plague to
offer his audience a series of moral religious commentaries on sinful actions”.30 It does
not immediately follow from this, however, that the entire representation is historically
worthless.31 Finally, the fact that Theophanes comments on the plague wave of the year
732–35 in only one brief sentence,32 should not be misinterpreted as evidence of a lack
of significance: In the mid of the 8th century the reappearance of the disease, which had
been endemic since 541, simply did not cause too much sensation; nevertheless, Theo­
phanes considered it that important that he selected it to be the only event of the year
732 worth mentioning at all. One will therefore have to interpret the short Theophanes
sentence in exactly the opposite way than the authors suggest.
On closer examination, one can hardly agree with the authors when they state the
following as an interim conclusion: “The quantitative approach to the written evidence
suggested above reveals that the common maximalist JP narrative, which is based al-
most exclusively on the written evidence, was founded on weak premises”.33

Justinian’s Legislation

Similar methodological objections one has to raise against the arguments that Mor-
dechai and his colleagues put forward with regard to the laws promulgated by Justi­

chai/Eisenberg (2019), 11, point out that Malalas’ accounts are extremely brief. In particular from the
comparison with the detailed description of the earthquake in Antioch 526 they draw the conclusion: “If
plague was so catastrophic, Malalas would have paid more attention to it” (11). However, this interpreta-
tion overlooks the fact that the author in his entire chronicle gives far more space to the events in Antioch
than to the events at other places; the particular length of the report on the Antioch earthquake 526, there-
fore, does not allow any statement about the meaning of shorter passages referring to other places and
regions, but has to be seen in the context of the basic structure of the chronicle.
29 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25547. Even Mordechai/Eisenberg (2019) do not achieve this to a sufficient extent.
They dedicate a short section to the historiographer Procopius (ibid., 9–11), but his detailed report in the
Bella is quickly disqualified (Prok. BP 2,22–23) with the laconic remark “The social effects of plague in his
description, however, are partial and restricted to the capital” (9 f.). Instead, it is then shown in more detail
that the mention of the plague in the Anekdota and especially the assertion that it had destroyed half of
mankind (Prok. HA 18,44) – the latter is allegedly “frequently” (Mordechai/Eisenberg [2019], 10) cited
by scientists (for which no proof is provided) – is worthless, since it has to be seen in the context of sharp
criticism of the emperor. The latter, of course, has long been known; hardly anyone would take Procopius’
statements in the Anekdota seriously nowadays! However, it would have been worthwhile to deal with the
description of the plague in the Persian Wars, which Mordechai and Eisenberg refuse, however.
30 Mordechai/Eisenberg (2019), 13.
31 As Mordechai/Eisenberg (2019), 12 f., suggest.
32 Theoph. a. m. 6225 p. 410,19–20 Ed. de Boor: τούτῳ τῷ ἔτει ἐγένετο θανατικὸν ἐν Συρίᾳ, καὶ πολλοὶ ἀπέθανον
(“In this year there was dying in Syria, and many people died”).
33 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25547.
8 mischa meier

nian.34 Jean Durliat had already pointed out in 1989 the (supposed!) strange silence on
the plague of the Novels;35 in the meantime, however, it has been shown that there are
several allusions to the epidemic in the legal texts. Thus, for instance, in the 7th edict of
March 1, 542, reference is made quite bluntly to the “encompassing presence of death in
all places” (ἡ γὰρ εἰς πάντας τοὺς τόπους διελθοῦσα τοῦ θανάτου περίστασις) – a clear ref-
erence to the plague, which by the way had reached Constantinople not only in spring
542,36 as I have shown elsewhere.37 Also the 122th Novel of 23 March 544, with which
the government tried to counteract the price increases resulting from hunger crises, ad-
dresses in the Praefatio unmistakably (and by no means “obliquely”)38 the plague as the
cause of the disaster (paídeusis).39 It is also incorrect to claim that “it refers to the capital
rather than the rest of the empire, implying that any broader effects were limited”,40 since
in the epilogue the legislator does not only address the city prefect of Constantinople,
but also another authority not mentioned by name,41 which – what parallel formula-
tions suggest – is probably the praefectus praetorio Orientis.42 The law was therefore
conceived to apply to the entire Roman East. Finally, Novel 77 is indeed undated, but
can be placed in the period from ca. 542–550/51 with good arguments.43 The fact that
the plague (λοιμοί) is mentioned here in a series with hunger and earthquakes44 does
not speak against its relevance,45 but points out once again that it was embedded in a
longer series of catastrophes. In this context, also those legal testimonies that indirectly
refer to the effects of the plague should not be overlooked. The 128th Novel (a. 545),
for instance, regulated the so-called epibolé, i. e. the allocation of land that had been
abandoned (presumably due to plague losses) to certain persons, who thereby also had

34 More detailed are Mordechai/Eisenberg (2019), 20 ff., in explaining their scepticism concerning the
non-literary sources.
35 Durliat (1989), 112, referring to Nov. Iust. 122.
36 In this direction, however, point Mordechai/Eisenberg (2019), 21, n. 66 (following the general consensus
and a mistaken statement in Prok. BP 2,22,9). If there is an explicit reference to the plague in a law of
1 March 542, the following argument is surprising: “The four laws issued from April onward are not con-
cerned with plague” (Mordechai/Eisenberg [2019], 21). One gets the impression that investigation periods
are defined here arbitrarily in such a way that the desired results can be derived from them. Why was the
year not counted from 1 January?
37 See Meier (22004), 326; (2005), 92 f.
38 Mordechai/Eisenberg (2019), 22.
39 Nov. Iust. 122 pr.: Ἔγνωμεν ὡς μετὰ τὴν παίδευσιν τὴν κατὰ φιλανθρωπίαν τοῦ δεσπότου θεοῦ γενομένην […]
(“We have recognized that after the chastisement, which was due to the humanity of God the Lord […]”).
40 Mordechai/Eisenberg (2019), 22.
41 Nov. Iust. 122 epil.: Ταῦτα δὲ ζητεῖσθαι καὶ ἐκδικεῖσθαι κελεύομεν παρά τε τῆς σὴς ὑπεροχῆς καὶ τοῦ
ἐνδοξοτάτου ἐπάρχου ταύτης τῆς εὐδαίμονος πόλεως (“We order that this will be investigated and punished
by your excellency and the most illustrious prefect of this fortunate city”).
42 So Miller/Sarris (2018), II 801, n. 1, referring to Ed. Iust. 13.
43 In detail demonstrated by Meier (22004), 591–599.
44 See Nov. Iust. 77,1,1: διὰ γὰρ τὰ τοιαῦτα πλημμελήματα καὶ λιμοὶ καὶ σεισμοὶ καὶ λομοὶ γίνονται (“Due to such
crimes hunger, earthquakes and diseases do arise”).
45 But see Mordechai/Eisenberg (2019), 22.
The ‘Justinianic Plague’: An “Inconsequential Pandemic”? A Reply 9

to bear the tax burden lying on the land46 – a procedure about which Procopius also
bitterly complained.47
Mordechai and his co-authors, however, once again sharpen the quantitative argu-
ment by opposing the thesis that there is a connection between the significant decrease
in legislative activity since 543 and the outbreak of the plague.48 However, their approach
has methodological weaknesses in this respect as well: On the one hand, they fail to
recognise the real amount of Justinian’s legislation up to the end of the 530s, since they
only refer to the Novels promulgated after the publication of the second edition of the
Codex Iustinianus (534) (although these alone add up to the stately number of 106 of
the 155 Justinianic Novels that have survived);49 but if we add the 403 constitutions of
Justinian50 from the Codex (and I see no reason why they should be excluded from a
quantitative list), we arrive at a total of 509 (!) laws passed before the year 540. They
are compared with only 46 Novels from the years 540–565.51 The fact that, in quantita-
tive terms, a caesura must be stated for the beginning of the 540s can therefore hardly
be denied. Mordechai et al. explain the extremely high legislative activity of the years
535–539 by the fact that after the publication of the Codex Iustinianus (534) various ad-
ditions and corrections to the codification work were necessary. With this, however, the
entire Novel legislation of the second half of the 530s is in fact reduced to an appendix
of the Codex Iustinianus – a thesis that can be argued, but which does not plausibilize
why the Codex itself already contains a conspicuously high proportion of Justinianic
constitutions, and which would have required a detailed justification and foundation
from the source material – which, however, is not provided.52 Instead, the authors only
put an assertion into the room, which proves to be problematic even on a superficial
glance at the contents of the Novels: It becomes clear that Justinian took up various very
fundamental reform themes in the constitutions of the second half of the 530s, which
can hardly be explained as a mere completion or correction of the Codex Iustinianus –
for example, the complex provincial reform legislation of the years 535/36. Here it is
clearly evident that new fields were taken on.53 In contrast to this, since the early 540s
the thematic priorities of Justinian’s political activity as a whole have shifted towards the
area of church and religious policy;54 the quantitative decline thus corresponds – what
the authors ignore – to a fundamental reorientation and for this reason alone must be
taken seriously. Even less plausible, however, is the subsequent assertion that the decline
in published laws in the 540s was due to the fact that there was no longer any need for

46 Teall (1965), 318; Sarris (2002), 177; (2007), 129.

47 Prok. HA 23,15–16.
48 This interpretation has recently been advocated once again by Harper (2017), 235. See also Sarris (2002),
174 f.; (2006), 219 (states the quantitative evidence); (2007), 126 f.
49 For the numbers see Meier (22004), 103 f.
50 Ebrard (1947), 44. Noethlichs (1999), 704 f., has a different sum: A total of 4680 entries of the Codex Ius-
tinianus contain about 360 Justinianic provisions from about 290 laws.
51 For the years 547, 549, 550, 557, 560, 561, 562 and 564 there are even no laws handed down at all.
52 There is only a general reference to Honoré (1978).
53 For this see Maas (1986).
54 For this see in detail Meier (22004), 234–306; see also Leppin (2011), 276–280; 284–288; 293–308.
10 mischa meier

regulation.55 On what basis, one wonders, would one like to judge this, especially since
it was the emperor and his advisors who decided what had to be regulated and what not
in their perception?
Finally, Mordechai and his colleagues emphasize the fact that the number of surviv-
ing Novels (the question of the tradition of the Novels is another issue that should be
discussed separately) decreases already from the year 540 and not only from the plague
year 541.56 But this is likewise hardly suitable as an argument for relativizing the epidem-
ic events, but first of all refers to the fact that the epidemic, as indicated, was embedded
in a larger catastrophic scenario, which had already come to a threatening head in 540,57
when the Persians unexpectedly invaded the Roman East and quickly advanced as far
as Antioch.58 Historical contexts such as these must also be taken into account when
discussing quantitative aspects of legislation. The figures alone do not allow a valid in-
terpretation of what happened.

Papyrological Evidence

With regard to the papyrological tradition, Mordechai and his colleagues also formulate
arguments that have been discussed since the 1980s.59 The finding that (1) the quantity
of dated papyri from the years 520–570 shows no significant increases or reductions,
that the material (2) contains no indications of population losses, the abandonment
of land or tax reductions, that (3) no known papyrus refers directly to the plague, and
finally that (4) even the extensive documents of the Apion archive show no evidence
of economic stress, is once again taken as an indication, “that plague had no discerni-
ble economic effects”.60 However, also in this case it remains questionable how viable
the quantitative method is. As is well known, the papyrological evidence for other epi­
demics during the principate, such as the ‘Antonine plague’ of the 2nd century, is also
quite limited; epidemics seem to have played no significant role in those texts that were
preferably recorded on papyrus, or to have been reflected only very little in them.61 In
addition, it must be stated that, despite the comparatively large number of preserved
papyri, the state of tradition is far too incomplete to allow plausible conclusions to be
drawn from just what is not mentioned; in any case, the papyri do not provide usable

55 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25548: “Both immediately before the plague outbreak and afterward there would
have been fewer pressing reasons to issue more laws”.
56 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25548, with fig. 2; Mordechai/Eisenberg (2019), 21.
57 So I have interpreted the evidence several times, see Meier (22004), 307–341.
58 Most recently Leppin (2011), 223–229.
59 Durliat (1989), 109 f. For the lack of explicit evidence about the plague in the papyri see also Casanova
(1984), 199.
60 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25548.
61 See Meier (forthcoming). There are a few exceptions, which are, however, hotly debated: P.Thmouis
1,104,10–18 (S. Kambitsis [Ed.], Le Papyrus Thmouis 1, colonnes 68–160, Paris 1985, 98); SB XVI 12816,
with van Minnen (1995). See also van Minnen (2001).
The ‘Justinianic Plague’: An “Inconsequential Pandemic”? A Reply 11

serial data, as is available for late medieval or early modern regions and places.62 From a
methodological point of view, this means that mentioning the epidemic or at least im-
plicit references to it should be of far greater importance than stating negative evidence;
especially in the papyrological field, the already problematic argumentum e silentio is
thus particularly fragile and susceptible to criticism.
But the papyrological material does indeed provide implicit clues. Apparently, peo-
ple in Egypt began to conclude long-term leases in the middle of the 6th century, which
in turn reflects a change in the assessment of the value of agricultural land and may be
related to the experiences during the plague; if this thesis were correct, it would not only
indicate the great importance of the epidemic as a whole, but also its penetration into
rural, less urbanised regions.63


As is well known, the ‘Justinianic Plague’ is only twice explicitly mentioned in inscrip-
tions64 – a reason for Mordechai and his colleagues to critically examine the epigraphic
evidence as well. Despite the methodological problems of a purely quantitative analysis,
which are at least briefly touched upon, the authors also see a clear picture here: “Nei-
ther a sharp decline in inscription production reflecting demographic collapse, nor a
slow decrease in inscription production that could reflect economic decline”.65 While in
the East a clear caesura only became manifest around 610, which the authors explain by
the extensive Persian and subsequent Islamic conquests of Roman territories, regard-
ing the Latin inscriptions of the West one should note: “no immediate plague effect
was observed”.66 A temporary decline in the 550s must “probably be seen as a random
outlier”, and otherwise one has to state: “temporal correlation is insufficient to confirm

62 In this sense also Sarris (2002), 174; (2007), 126: “While it is true that the papyrological evidence for Egypt
furnishes the social and economic historian of Late Antiquity with much fascinating and rewarding mate-
rial, it nevertheless remains highly fragmentary. The papyri simply do not provide the economic historian
with the sort of population cohorts, traceable through time, such as the documentary sources for late
medieval England provide and on which historians of the Black Death are so reliant”.
63 For this thesis see Sarris (2002), 178; (2007), 130 f.; (2006), 224, based on Banaji (2001), 237 f., Tab. 12.
64 The first document comes from Zora (modern Azra’a, Syria), Koder (1995), 13: † οἱ ἀπὸ ζορ(ᾶς) ἐξ ἰδίων ναὸν
ἠλίου προφ(ήτου) | σπουδῇ ἰωάννου μεννέου διακ(όνου) ἐν ἔτ(ε)ι υλζ᾿ / ἔκτισαν ἐπὶ οὐάρου θεοφ(ιλεστάτου)
ἐπισκόπου | ᾦ ἐπήγαγ(εν) ὁ θ(εὸ)ς πότμον βονβῶνος (καὶ) μάλῃς – “The people of Zora built a church of the
prophet Elijah with their own means, on the initiative of the deacon John, son of Menneas, in the year 437,
under Varus, God’s most beloved bishop, to whom God taught the deadly fatality of the groin and armpit”.
A further inscription comes from Aphrodisias in Caria (Turkey)  – a honorary inscription for a certain
Rhodopaios, who is praised since he had expelled disease and hunger (λοιμὸν καὶ λιμόν), see Roueché
(1989), 137, No. 86.
A later outbreak of plague is probably documented by a funerary inscription from Cortijo de Chinales
(Andalusia), which states the death of the buried person in 609 ab inguinali plaga (CIL II2.7 677). – See
McCormick (2015), 327, n. 10.
65 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25548 f.
66 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25549.
12 mischa meier

a connection”.67 This methodological guiding principle, however, does not prevent the
authors from interpreting the decline of the inscriptions in Rome after 543 without
comment as a consequence of the Eastern Roman-Gothic War.68 Here, evidence that is
by no means clearly negative – the study by Nancy Benovitz, which was not taken into
account, points to significant increases in grave inscriptions in Palaestina and Arabia,
which can be plausibly correlated at least with the first plague wave in 541, probably
also that of the year 59269 – is levelled with contradictory arguments. More important,
however, would have been to discuss the question of how the material should be inter-
preted in the context of the “epigraphic habit” of a given society. Durliat also did not
address this problem (which, of course, was not recognized in research until later), so
little weight can be attached to his conclusions as well. In addition, there is the problem
mentioned by Procopius of burying a rapidly increasing number of victims,70 which also
assumed depressing proportions in several countries (Italy, Spain, USA) during the so-
called Corona Crisis of 2020, and also shows many parallels (not only) from the late
Middle Ages.71 It cannot therefore be relativized exclusively as a topical exaggeration
or dramatic distortion by the historiographer, but deserves to be taken seriously: The
conditions must have been chaotic in some regions at times. In such situations, it was
no longer possible to think of writing elaborate epitaphs; one simply had to cope with
other problems.72 Moreover, as John of Ephesus rightly remarks, the plague (at least at
first) mainly affected the poor, who could not have afforded to write epitaphs anyway.73
So the fact that the plague is not strongly reflected in the epigraphic evidence does not
mean anything at all.


A similar assessment will be reached with regard to the numismatic evidence. In this
field, too, Mordechai and his colleagues have a clear opinion: “Numismatic evidence

67 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25549.

68 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25549.
69 See Benovitz (2014). Also the increase of epitaphs in Gaza and in the Negev during the year 541, which
has been known for some time (see Benovitz [2014], 492, with note 26) is not discussed (Mordechai/
Eisenberg [2019], 25, at least mention it briefly, but only as an example for “circular reasoning”). Di Segni
(1999) had already pointed out an equally significant decrease in building inscriptions in the same region
between 540 and 550.
70 Prok. BP 2,23,3–12.
71 See Bulst (1979), 61.
72 In this sense see also Horden (2005), 154; Sarris (2002), 174; (2007), 126; Benovitz (2014), 490. But see
Mordechai/Eisenberg (2019), 24, claiming that only Procopius mentions the burial problem; against
this, I would like to point to Malal. p. 407,14–15 Ed. Thurn: ἐπεκράτησεν γὰρ ἡ θνῆσις ἐπὶ χρόνον, ὥστε μὴ
αὐταρκεῖν τοὺς θάπτοντας (“For a while there was such a dying that the undertakers were no longer suffi-
73 Joh. Eph. in the Chronicle of Zuqnīn p. 86 Ed. Witakowski, with Horden (2005), 154. This was a conse-
quence of the poorer hygienic living conditions, which encouraged the spread of rats (and thus fleas).
However, these circumstances only delayed the spread of the plague to the more affluent.
The ‘Justinianic Plague’: An “Inconsequential Pandemic”? A Reply 13

for the JP’s impact on economic relations is also nonexistent”.74 This statement is based
on two quantitative surveys, for which the question of representativeness is not dis-
cussed further: The cessation of minting in Antioch in the 540s is exclusively justified
by the incursion of the Persians, whereas the anything but clear evidence for Berytus
is only briefly commented with the words “no visible drop associated with the plague”.
The apocalyptic scenario that John of Ephesus sketches, thus the conclusion drawn on a
narrow material basis, cannot be reconciled with the numismatic evidence in any case.75

Palynological Data

With the evaluation of palynological data Mordechai and his colleagues are breaking
new ground with regard to the ‘Justinianic Plague’. Under the question of whether the
palynological data point to similar devastating consequences as in the case of the Black
Death in the late Middle Ages, analyses of selected places in the Balkans (Greece, Bul-
garia) and Turkey are presented. It is shown that already existing trends in the use of
agricultural land continued and that no excessive advance of pine trees – an indicator for
the abandonment of previously used arable land – can be observed. Deviations (North-
ern Turkey) must be considered “insignificant”, because – a strange argument – they
could not be correlated with written sources on the plague.76 The fact that John of Ephe-
sus claims to have seen completely deserted villages77 is therefore irrelevant to the au-
thors. Instead, they refer to the specific evidence of the Nar Gölü in Cappadocia, whose
sediments do not show a clear break until the end of the 7th century.
In view of the fact that palynological analyzes are an innovative approach in the con-
text of research on the ‘Justinianic Plague’, one would have wished for at least a few
explanatory notes on possible methodological problems and the significance of the re-
sults. For problems also arise for this supposedly objective procedure: On the one hand,
the authors have been able to evaluate a larger number of places for their questions, but
these – like the literary sources – remain selective, and the question of their represent-
ativeness requires intensive discussion, especially when results that do not confirm the
supposed trend are unceremoniously described as “insignificant”. On the other hand, it
is not always clear whether the places where pollen material suitable for analysis is found
are also identical with those regions where land was actually used for agricultural pur-
poses in late antiquity. Therefore, palynological analyses can provide first indications,
but they need to be embedded in further – not least literary – source material. Against
this background, the statement that

74 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25549.

75 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25550. More detailed: Mordechai/Eisenberg (2019), 22–24.
76 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25550.
77 Joh. Eph. in the Chronicle of Zuqnīn p. 75; 77; 81 Ed. Witakowski; similarly Paul. Diac. Hist. Lang. 2,4, on
Liguria during the plague.
14 mischa meier

palynological data from several eastern Mediterranean regions […] not only fail to support the
maximalist interpretation of the JP, but provide evidence for rejecting the 14th century Black
Death as a model for the 541 outbreak of the JP,78

does not allow any conclusions about the effects of the plague beyond the current state
of research.

Ancient DNA

The authors become rather vague in the discussion of recent Yersinia pestis DNA evi-
dence, which has now been found in about 45 individuals from late antique Central and
Western Europe. Here we first encounter familiar patterns of argumentation again to
confirm the thesis that the evidence “fails to support the claim that the JP significantly
impacted population levels”.79 For example, the sceptical attitude is based on the fact
that only a few Yersinia pestis finds can be correlated with contemporary literary ac-
counts – but why should they have to be? It would have been far more plausible to inter-
pret this very fact as an indication that the epidemic has also spread into areas for which
it was not previously documented in the written accounts (e. g. present-day Bavaria; the
cities of Vienne, Sens and Poitiers; southern England; Valencia).80 The remarkably high
number of mass graves in the 6th/7th century (ca. 40),81 compared to the 5th and 8th
century, is disqualified as “minuscule tally” without further explanation.82 Later, how-
ever, in view of an increase in mass burials in Britain since the 4th century and a “gen-
dered patterning” in the grave findings, the importance of “social identit(ies)” for burial
practice is emphasised.83 Nevertheless, this aspect is not discussed in any further depth,
but again only used to justify the contention that “the claim that trends in multiple bur-
ials evidence plague mortality in late antiquity is dubious”.84
However, the biological arguments with which a significantly lower mortality rate
of the ‘Justinianic Plague’ compared to the Black Death is to be justified are particular-
ly problematic, in my view. These include, above all, the absence of “descendants” of
the late antique Yersinia pestis genome in current material, whereas the genome of the

78 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25551.

79 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25551.
80 Aschheim (Bavaria): Wiechmann/Gruppe (2005); Gutsmiedl (2005); Harbeck et al. (2013); Wagner et al.
(2014); see McCormick (2015), 344–347; (2016), 1010. – Altenerding (Bavaria): Feldman et al. (2016); see
McCormick (2016), 1004 f.; 1008. – Sens: Drancourt/Raoult et al. (2004); Gilbert et al. (2004); Malou
et al. (2012); Drancourt/Raoult (2016). – Vienne: Drancourt et al. (2007); see Signoli et al. (2009). – Poi-
tiers: Castex/Kacki (2016). – Further places with recent findings (southern England, Spain, further places
in Bavaria): Krause/Keller et al. (2019). For an assessment of the respective DNA analyses see Mordechai/
Eisenberg (2019), 27–32.
81 See McCormick (2015), 356; (2016).
82 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25551.
83 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25552. For further criticism see also Eisenberg/Mordechai (2019), 167–169.
84 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25553.
The ‘Justinianic Plague’: An “Inconsequential Pandemic”? A Reply 15

Yersinia strain that caused the Black Death is closely related to that of the causative agent
of the third pandemic (ca. 1894–mid-20th century; East Asia was particularly affected)
and current Yersinia genomes – from which the authors conclude:
That currently sequenced Y. pestis strains associated with the JP and the First Pandemic are
not directly ancestral to later strains could mean that late antique plague was not established in
multiple, long-lived, or highly active reservoirs in any region. […] Notably, the fewer, shorter
lived, and less active the reservoirs, the less human plague there will be.85

The lack of biological relationship between the ancient plague pathogen and current-
ly active pathogens is thus used as an argument against a comparably high lethality of
the disease, without taking into account specific living conditions and possibly differ-
ent susceptibilities and dispositions of the respective contemporaries. In the following,
it is combined with the reference to a possible instability of the late antique Yersinia
pestis genome – an “attenuation” that “could have minimized the number of successful
transmissions (i. e., virulence) and, therefore, the number of potentially infected indi-
viduals”.86 As speculative and hypothetical as these and subsequent considerations on
possible “transmission mechanics” are – even they are put in the service of the overar-
ching thesis that “in the available DNA evidence itself one cannot find confirmation or
support of maximalist readings”.87 Nevertheless, they do not provide a reliable reason for
the postulated “minimalist reading” – nor do the preceding arguments.

Concluding Remarks: “Maximalists”, “Minimalists” and a Historical Perspective

What results from the statements of Mordechai and his colleagues? There is no doubt
that they have succeeded in showing that statements on the effects of the ‘Justinianic
Plague’ – and here they seem to be particularly concerned with the demographic as-
pects, since these can still be quantified most plausibly88 – can only be made with great
reservations because of the uncertain sources and evidential basis. Their criticism of
the “maximalist position”, however, is misleading because this label summarises a broad
spectrum of interpretations in a generalised way and does not take account of differen-
tiations within the research landscape. As shown above, however, even the critique it-
self, which at first glance pretends to deconstruct the “maximalist position” but actually
promotes a “minimalist position”,89 proves to be methodologically highly questionable

85 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25551.

86 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25551.
87 Mordechai et al. (2019), 25552.
88 See Eisenberg/Mordechai (2019), 173: “the central question driving all plague studies”.
89 See Mordechai et al. (2019), 25553: “We contend that this is sufficient evidence to reject the current scien-
tific and humanistic consensus of the JP as a major driver of demographic change in the 6th century Medi­
terranean region. […] Based on the evidence presented above, we believe that the JP and the so-called
‘First Pandemic’ bear comparatively little resemblance to the Second Pandemic and the Black Death,
which significantly affected the demography, economy, and landscape of western Eurasia and North Af-
16 mischa meier

and attackable, since the quantitative approach cannot replace a qualitative analysis and
contextualization of the written testimonies in particular.90 In the controversially dis-
cussed question about the demographic effects of the plague, Mordechai et al. do not
make any offer of their own on the attempt to deconstruct older positions. Above all,
however, they overlook the fact that the question of the effects of a pandemic can hard-
ly be limited to quantifications and considerations of demographic aspects, but rather
leads to the broad field of cultural consequences. Only the embedding of the ‘Justinianic
Plague’ in a multifactorial overall context, only the discussion of the question of what a
pandemic does to (or makes with) the affected societies can provide information about
longer-term consequences – and only against this background can the question of the
plague as a factor within the transformation process between Late Antiquity and the
Early Middle Ages, which was only briefly touched upon (and negated) by Mordechai
and his colleagues, be discussed in depth. My sketchy concluding remarks are dedicat-
ed to this complex, in which I would like to explain my own point of view – as I have
already formulated it elsewhere (and which has already been criticized by Mordechai
and Eisenberg).91 Before, it should be pointed out once again that the plague was by
no means a single catastrophe in an otherwise quiet period, but rather the condensing
moment of an extraordinary series of disasters extending over several decades, which
for its part must be interpreted against the background of very specific eschatological
expectations. This embedding of the plague in a larger catastrophic context alone makes
a purely quantitative analysis focused on individual ‘plague years’ difficult. In contrast,
there are four points that I consider to be particularly relevant in view of the cultural im-
pact of the pandemic: (a) an increase in Marian devotion in the Roman East (which had
long-term consequences), (b) the gradual unfolding of the cult of images, (c) a further
intensified sacralization of the emperor as well as – vaulting over all these phenomena –
(d) the encompassing process of liturgification of Eastern Roman Byzantine society.
(a) Of course, the devotion to the Mother of God did not only develop in the con-
text of the plague epidemic of the years 541/42, but already had a longer history.92
The Council of Ephesus 431, which established the role of Mary as the Bearer of
God, was an important stage in this process, whereby (quite existing) older forms
of Marian devotion began to develop a new dynamic.93 From then on, a continu-
ous increase and differentiation of Marian miracles, Marian festivals and Marian

rica”. Explicitly Mordechai/Eisenberg (2019), 7: “This article espouses a minimalist perspective on the
consequences of the Justinianic Plague”.
90 Mordechai/Eisenberg (2019), 49 f., state in this context: “Further digital and quantitative research meth-
odologies could provide further evidence to understand changes during the sixth century”.
91 I repeat here my considerations in Meier (2016a). See also Meier (22004); (2005); (42020). For criticism of
my theses see Mordechai/Eisenberg (2019), 47; Eisenberg/Mordechai (2019), 178.
92 Mordechai/Eisenberg (2019), 47, criticize my considerations on the connection between plague and the
veneration of Mary as follows: “A more holistic examination, however, reveals that Marian devotion had a
prominent role in liturgies, church councils and church construction already a century earlier”. But I never
did deny that, see Meier (2016a), 284 (referring to the Council of Ephesus 431).
93 On late antique Marian devotion  – in particular in the 5th century  – see Cameron (2004); Pentcheva
(2006); Maunder (2008); Brubaker/Cunningham (2011). For the early times see Shoemaker (2016).
The ‘Justinianic Plague’: An “Inconsequential Pandemic”? A Reply 17

legends can be observed, for which not least the Kontakia sung in church services –
and thus in front of large audiences – by the popular poet Romanus Melodus, who
was active in the first half of the 6th century and himself was considered a singer
inspired by Mary, are fine examples.94 The growing devotion to Mary is particularly
well documented for Constantinople, which was considered the ‘City of the Moth-
er of God’ in the 7th century at the latest: in 626, Mary is even said to have faced the
Avar and Slavic besiegers of the capital in person.95 However, this development was
demonstrably accelerated in a special way in the 6th century,96 and the relevant tes-
timonies repeatedly refer to the plague pandemic as a context. Particularly revealing
in this connection is Justinian’s transfer of the feast of Hypapante (also known as
‘Marian Candlemas’ or ‘Presentation of the Lord’) from 14 to 2 February  – just
in the plague year 542. The transfer was  – roughly simplified  – accompanied by
the conversion of an original Feast of Christ into a Feast of Mary with penitential
character and, as can be seen from a Marian legend referring to it, was expressly
done as a measure to appease the plague.97 This procedure was later considered so
successful that the designated Pope Gregory I, who himself had spent several years
in Constantinople and was therefore informed about the ‘successful’ coping mecha-
nisms against the epidemic there, copied it in view of the severe plague epidemic in
Rome in 590.98 Significantly, the ‘Black Death’ in the late Middle Ages also led to an
intensification and differentiation of Marian devotion.99 The deep veneration of the
Mother of God by the population of the capital and the empire, which also emerges
in other testimonies (e. g. in the erection of Theotokos churches, such as the Nea in
Jerusalem, consecrated in 543),100 distinguishes the medieval, the Byzantine Con-
stantinople at any rate clearly from its late antique predecessor, and its intensifica-
tion should therefore definitely play a role in the context of the discussion about the
transformation process from antiquity to the Middle Ages – with what inevitably
also points to the plague.

94 Arentzen (2017).
95 See Mango (2000); Pentcheva (2006). On the events of 626 see Meier (42020), 15–26.
96 Important in this context are the articles of Cameron (1978); 2000.
97 Adgar’s Marienlegenden. Nach der Londoner Handschrift Egerton 612 zum ersten Mal vollständig heraus-
gegeben von C. Neuhaus, Wiesbaden 1886, ND 1953, 220: “Die Häresie des Kaisers Justinian zieht Gottes
Rache und Strafen auf sich, so dass in des Kaisers Lande eine furchtbare Hungersnoth und Pest ausbricht,
an der Tausende der Unterthanen sterben. Durch Schrecken bewogen veranstalten die Bewohner von
Konstantinopel eine Prozession, in welcher sie das Muttergottesbild durch die Strassen tragen. Alle Leute,
die es kommen sehen, fallen nieder, beten und werden geheilt. Das Land aber beginnt wieder Frucht zu
tragen. Zum Andenken an die Rettung des Landes beschliessen der Kaiser und der Patriarch das Fest der
Purification [= Hypapante] einzusetzen, was noch jetzt von allen gefeiert wird.” On Justinian’s transfer of
the Hypapante and its plague implications see Meier (2002a); (22004), 570–586.
98 Greg. Tur. Hist. 10,1. See Meier (22004), 523 f.
99 See Bulst (1996).
100 References in Meier (22004), 584–586; on the Nea see also Trampedach (2015).
18 mischa meier

(b) Significant changes in religious practice in the 6th century can also be observed in
other areas, especially in the worship of cult images.101 This is all the more astonish-
ing as the Christians initially rejected any form of image worship, as they suspected
the survival of pagan practices in it. Since the middle of the 6th century, however, an
increasing number of written testimonies confronts us with venerated icons, both
in the private and public spheres. The image of Christ that is said to have saved
the city of Edessa from the Persians in 544 soon became particularly prominent;102
almost simultaneously, another image of Christ appeared in Kamulianai in Asia Mi-
nor, which quickly multiplied miraculously.103 Also the picture of Mary of Sozopo-
lis104 attracted attention at that time, and one could point to other examples.105 If one
takes a closer look at the circumstances described for the ‘appearance’ of all those
images, a direct connection with the already mentioned severe catastrophes that
struck the Eastern Roman Empire in the 6th century is suggested. Whole commu-
nities felt protected from foreign attacks by miraculous images, especially Edessa,
the home of one of the most famous icons. According to this, it was mainly foreign
attacks that gave decisive impulses to the cult of images, but the plague also seems
to have been not without relevance. Saint Theodor of Sykeon, for example, is said
to have been cured of the disease by an icon during the epidemic of 541/42.106 This
makes it clear once again that the plague cannot be regarded as an isolated phenom-
enon; it drew its terrible impact in contemporary perception, among other things,
from the fact that it was chronological – and, as many believed, causally – linked to
other catastrophes and that, to emphasize this once again, it met with a very specif-
ic, eschatologically charged expectation.
(c) As already indicated, the phenomenon of a further intensified sacralization of em-
peror and empire should also be placed in this overall context. For whoever placed
his salvation in the hands of new or until then not yet in the appropriate way evoked
protective powers had obviously lost confidence in the traditional emergency help-
ers and intercessors – and among these of course also the emperor. For what help
should one hope for from a ruler who himself fell ill with the plague like countless
of his subjects?107 Cautious hints in the sources indicate that this led to criticism of
the emperor,108 which in turn forced him to act: Not only did he demonstrative-
ly engage with the increasing Marian piety of the population by transforming the
Hypapante into a Marian feast of penitential character, by institutionalizing the

101 Details and references for the process that is sketched in the following are to be found in Meier (22004),
102 Euagr. HE 4,27, with Meier (22004), 387–401.
103 Ps.-Zach. HE 12,4.
104 Eustrat. Vita Eutych. 1246–1271 Ed. Laga.
105 For the early cult of images von Dobschütz (1899) is still important; Kitzinger (1954); Cameron (1983).
See also Brubaker/Haldon (2011).
106 VTheod. Syk. 8 p. 7 Ed. Festugiere.
107 Prok. BP 2,23,20; HA 4,1–3.
108 See Joh. Eph. in the Chronicle of Zuqnīn p. 83 Ed. Witakowski. On criticism of the emperor under Justinian
see Bell (2009); (2013), 286–310.
The ‘Justinianic Plague’: An “Inconsequential Pandemic”? A Reply 19

feast of the ‘Annunciation’ (Euangelismos) and by asking Procopius to remark in

his praise of the imperial buildings that he was particularly eager that the historian
should report in detail about the numerous Marian churches he had built.109 Above
all he pursued a remarkable self-sacralization. Justinian himself now took on the
role of holy men who, like Mary, were able to mediate between God and man, and
propagated a similar way of life (asceticism) and similar characteristics (miracles)
to those who helped in need.110 In ceremonial contexts his image was put next to the
christian cross. And soon the image of Christ appeared, in the manner of a Roman
emperor, next to Justinian.111 No one could now dare to accuse the emperor of lack
of piety.112
 Justinian’s successors initially continued this sacral exaltation of the empire and
thus institutionalized it. For Justin II, who ascended the imperial throne after Jus-
tinian’s death in 565, this can be clearly proven on the basis of Corippus’ eulogy. For
the panegyrist the emperor is also a holy man.113 Under the later emperors, however,
a regressive development is becoming apparent again, although a return to the con-
ditions of Justinian’s early days was no longer possible. In this respect, the plague
and its consequences for the emperor ultimately played a quite significant role in
the process of the formation of the Byzantine empire.
 The unfathomable dimensions of the disaster, its lack of explanation and the
universally visible impact of the mass deaths had clearly shown their limits to the
conventional emergency helpers of mankind, e. g. the Holy Men, but also to the
representatives of the churches and – as indicated – not least to the government
of the empire. With Mary and the icons, new protectors now joined the side of
those affected by the plagues. In this respect the Christian religion  – with a few
exceptions – was ultimately not questioned in principle. But the forms of religious
practice changed, new priorities were set, and this had serious consequences. These
are connected with the keyword ‘liturgification’.
(d) This is a phenomenon that is difficult to grasp analytically.114 The term refers to the
fact that since the 540s religion has obviously played a much more important role
than before, in all socially relevant matters. A considerable thrust of religious pen-
etration of the whole of society – beyond the high significance of religion, which
is already evident in late antiquity – is emerging at all levels that we can observe
in our testimonies. The methodological problem of grasping religion in a quanti-
fiable way can be solved by comparing texts of the same genre from the early and
late Justinianic phase. While the former are still clearly oriented towards the clas-
sical-antique heritage and try to harmonize Christian religious contents with it, in

109 Prok. aed. 1,3,1.

110 Asceticism: Prok. HA 13,28–30; Aed. 1,7,7–12 – Miraculous powers: Prok. Aed. 1,7,14–16.
111 Rapprochement to Christ: Belting (1991), 125 ff.
112 Cf. on this entire complex with further references Meier (22004), 608–638; (2016b).
113 Coripp. Laud. Iust. 1,175.
114 An attempt: Meier (2004b); see also Meier (22004), 608–614. Still important is Cameron (1979). See fur-
thermore Nelson (1976), 101; 114 f.; Magdalino (1993), 13; Schneider (2001).
20 mischa meier

the later works those elements that are still in antique tradition increasingly recede
into the background in favour of Christian symbolism. However, such a tendency
can also be seen in other areas. Just compare the ceremony of the triumph over the
Vandals in 534 with that of the triumphant imperial adventus in 559: While in 534
the reference to classical traditions was still part of the programme, in 559 there is
no longer any trace of it; instead we observe a deeply religious ceremony.115 Impe-
rial legislation also confirms this picture: the laws of the 530s are full of allusions
and references to the great Roman past; since the 540s these elements gradually
disappear. Even in art, corresponding tendencies can be observed. The art histori-
an Ernst Kitzinger has repeatedly pointed out that Justinian’s reign, even from the
perspective of his discipline, fell into two clearly distinguishable phases. Firstly, the
attempt at a synthesis of classicist and Christian ideals; then, towards the end of his
reign, the increasing emergence of rigid, religiously transformed Christian forms of
expression.116 The development thus outlined finds its clearest expression in an act
that has more than only symbolic significance: After 541, the consulate, the central
office of the old Roman community, was no longer assigned. The plague had obvi-
ously pushed interest in it into the background.

Seen from today’s perspective, ‘liturgification’ seems to be a peculiar phenomenon that

has the effect of petrification of an entire society. It was, however, of decisive importance
for the continued existence of the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire, because it stabi-
lized a society that had become staggered and simultaneously – which, of course, was
not foreseeable at the time – equipped it for the struggle for survival against the Arabs
since the 630s. It is important to remember the insecurity of the Eastern Roman popula-
tion: The unpredictability of the plague, which, without any discernible logic, carried off
the one, spared the other, completely wiped out one village, but left the neighbouring
village untouched, must have driven contemporaries to despair.117 John of Ephesus won-
dered every morning whether he would live to see the evening.118 The different speeds
at which the disease killed its victims also led to deepest uncertainty. Everywhere,
therefore, the sources reveal desperate strategies to make what happened more plau-
sible for contemporaries. They lie behind tendencies of collective repaganization119 as
well as behind ideas according to which the plague has acted among people in the form
of individual persons. Procopius reports that ghosts who had infected their victims by
beating them were blamed for the transmission of the disease.120 John of Ephesus knows

115 Triumph 534: Prok. BV 4,9. Adventus 559: De caerim. append. ad I p.  497,13–498,13 ( J. J. Reiske [Ed.],
Constantini Porphyrogeniti Imperatoris De Caerimoniis Aulae Byzantinae Libri II, Vol. I, Bonn 1829)
= p. 138,707–140,723 ( J. F. Haldon [Ed.], Constantine Porphyrogenitus. Three Treatises on Imperial Mili-
tary Expeditions, Vienna 1990). McCormick (1990), 65–67; 125–129.
116 Kitzinger (1984), 202 ff.
117 Prok. BP 2,22,8; Euagr. HE 4,29; Greg. Tur. Hist. 4,5. See Sallares (2007), 258–261.
118 Joh. Eph. in the Chronicle of Zuqnīn p. 80 Ed. Witakowski.
119 E. g. Joh. Eph. in the Chronicle of Zuqnīn p. 79–80 Ed. Witakowski.
120 Prok. BP 2,22,10.
The ‘Justinianic Plague’: An “Inconsequential Pandemic”? A Reply 21

of ghost ships, manned by headless ghosts, which are said to have been seen in a city
before the plague arrived.121 And again it is Procopius who tries to construct regularities
by imagining the plague as a creature acting according to a plan and travelling through
the countries, claiming, in the course of time, the due tribute from every region at its
own discretion.122 Euagrius seeks to trace similar regularities by relating the episodic oc-
currence of the plague to the 15-year indiction cycles.123 The historian Agathias, on the
other hand, considers the search for reasons for the ultimately inexplicable catastrophe
to be futile, and Euagrius can only draw the fatalistic conclusion that the further course
of events remains uncertain, for only God knows the causes and everything else.124
If one looks at the historiography of those decades, a process emerges that can only
be understood against the background of the general conditions outlined above: The
classicizing Greek profane historiography, which we still encounter in the historical
works of Procopius, begins to dissolve and converge with the church historiography
into which it flows in the first half of the 7th century. A closer examination of the works
in question reveals that the authors – beginning with Agathias – despair of their claim,
derived from the tradition reaching back to Herodotus and Thucydides, to explain his-
torical events plausibly by causal chains. Agathias, in particular, makes it clear that the
events before him can simply no longer be explained.125 Everything is, as Euagrius states,
handed over to the rule of God. But if this is so, then there is no longer any need for a
classicist profane historiography. Accordingly, it ends – against this background, also as
a consequence of the plague – in the early 7th century. At that time, however, ‘liturgifi-
cation’ had penetrated all areas of Byzantine life, even warfare.126
If one considers the latter aspects: the veneration of Mary, the cult of images, the
sacralization of the emperor, the dissolution of the classicist profane historiography
and – ultimately integrating all these phenomena – the comprehensive ‘liturgification’
of Eastern Roman/Byzantine society; if one also recalls the prominent role that the
plague must have played in this (and for whose denial I still cannot find any plausible
evidence) – then the question of the significance of this pandemic ultimately answers
itself: It was to a large extent responsible for a cultural restructuring process that helped
shape the transition from Late Antiquity to the early Middle Ages. I would like to em-
phasize that these are structural reconfigurations that can be made manifest by means
of comparisons with previous decades, that are sometimes manifest in the sources, and
that are even partially quantifiable (for example, the increase in processions, miraculous
images, Marian feasts, etc.). I am convinced that the impact of the ‘Justinianic Plague’
must be pointed out with the greatest possible emphasis in this context, and less so be-
cause of the mortality it caused and the demographic and economic problems it created.

121 Joh. Eph. in the Chronicle of Zuqnīn p. 97–98 Ed. Witakowski.

122 Prok. BP 2,22,7–8.
123 Euagr. HE 4,29.
124 Agath. 5,10,5–7; Euagr. HE 4,29.
125 See Agath. 2,15,13; 5,4,3; 5,4,6, and, in particular, 5,10,7.
126 End of traditional historiography: Meier (2004a). Warfare: Meier (2009).
22 mischa meier

The short-, medium- and long-term effects of major pandemics cannot be deter-
mined only quantitatively, as the current Covid-19 pandemic clearly shows. Of course,
demographic aspects, the number of people infected, the number of people who have
died and those who have recovered are of great importance (although current events
once again demonstrate the serious problems of counting numbers and the uncertainty
of drawing conclusions from them). But far more important is the question of how soci-
eties change under the pressure of an epidemic disease. This too is impressively demon-
strated in the present day – and this by a pandemic whose mortality rate, even if one
takes a “minimalist position” for the ‘Justinianic Plague’, is still far lower than the num-
ber of victims in late antiquity. Anyone wishing to make a contribution to the complex
discussion about the end of the Roman Empire and the transformation process that led
from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages cannot ignore the epidemic events of that
time without comment. Purely quantitative surveys – regardless of whether they serve
to exaggerate or relativize the pandemic  – do not lead any further, because complex
questions of cultural studies cannot be answered in this way; privileging superficially
objective ‘scientific’ evidence leads us into biologisms and determinisms from which
historical research has long distanced itself with good reason. This does not mean, of
course, that the results of recent scientific approaches and the materials they offer are
without value – quite the contrary. But they do not generate results of their own and
do not themselves answer historical questions – let alone clearly and objectively. They
rather require a careful, methodologically sensitive and critical interpretation. In order
to achieve this, interdisciplinary efforts and, in particular, fundamental joint methodo-
logical discussions are necessary.127 Not only the present, but also the distant past is far
more complex than a numerical value or the result of a DNA analysis might suggest.128


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28 mischa meier

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Prof. Dr. Mischa Meier

Seminar für Alte Geschichte, Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, Wilhelmstr. 36,
72074 Tübingen, Deutschland