Justinian’s Flea

With all the contemporary interest in the H1N1 flu strain and incessant discussion of the risks and likelihood of global pandemics, William Rosen’s delightful, eclectic and far-ranging Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire would seem to be of considerable interest to a broader readership. But a quick perusal of customer reviews on Amazon.com might dissuade you from giving this book a second thought. While the work appears to engender a radical divergence of opinion running the gamut from adoration to revulsion, it is much disparaged in a number of comments — most frequently for the sin of digression. But this admitted tendency to wander is in truth an integral part of the book’s charm, far more virtue than vice, as Rosen meanders across a wide landscape of interrelated topics from architecture through epidemiology and politics to zoology.

Despite a few minor flaws, I found the book richly rewarding and provocative.

If I were to recommend one book and one book only on this intriguing topic, it would be William McNeill’s profoundly interesting Plagues and Peoples, which remains a classic in the field. But Rosen’s Justinian’s Flea would make an excellent companion book, and constitutes an intriguing diversion in its own right.

A Brief Excerpt: Origins

“The scholars and scientists who have spent their lives searching for the birthplace of bubonic plague tend to start their investigations in the present, ‘walking back the cat’ as cleverly as they can. The modern world has literally dozens of basins where the disease is chronic in animal populations, but only three are thought to be more than a century or so in age, and they match up with Devignat’s three variant strains of Y. pestis. Given the fact that, of all the players in the drama – bacterium, flea, rat, and human – Y. pestis is by far the newest, it seems certain that it evolved in one of those three locales: the Himalayan foothills, the Great Steppe reaching west from China, or the Great Lakes of East Africa.

“The demographer J.C. Russell was, for many years, the most passionate advocate of a Great Steppe origin, a view that still has adherents today. Russell’s argument is fairly weak, however, given the lack of any real evidence for plague in the extensive prairie that runs from Mongolia to the Ukraine until the year 610 and not really very much at all until the second great pandemic that devastated Europe in the fourteenth century. Choosing between India and Africa is more difficult; Pauline Allen argued persuasively for an Indian origin, citing the migration of R. rattus westward as a stowaway in uncounted thousands of cargo ships sailing back and forth between Ethiopia and India. However, the historian Peter Sarris rightly observes that India is much closer to, and had significantly greater contact with China, than with the Mediterranean, yet bubonic plague appeared in China at least sixty years later than it did in Alexandria. Sarris is cautious about giving too much weight to this, since the sea routes between Ethiopia and India are far more direct than the overland routes connecting India with China. However, Persia also encountered the plague after Alexandria and Constantinople, and stands squarely astride the land route between the former cities and China. If India were truly the demon’s birthplace, it was a rather meandering demon, one that originated in India, spread to Africa and China, and then bypassed Persia on the way to the Mediterranean.

“Yet another theory holds that the origins of the plague were in Pharaonic Egypt, when the rat flea X. cheopsis jumped from its favored species, Avicanthis niloticus, the Nile rat, to R. rattus, the immigrant species from India. Among the odder hypotheses about the origins of the disease is the one that appears in Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe’s Our Place in the Cosmos, which posits an extraterrestrial birthplace for the plague, whose periodicity is best explained by such activities as sunspots. More persuasive, even though lacking the sophistication of a modern epidemiologist, is the contemporary chronicler Evagrius Scholasticus, who records that the disease ‘took its rise from Aethiopia, as is now reported, and made a circuit of the whole world in succession . . . .’

“(One bit of inferential data supporting an African genesis fro the plague is offered by David Keys’s examination of the four great sixth-century East African port cities – Opone, Essina, Toniki, and Rhapta, all now vanished – which were the ancient world’s largest suppliers of ivory, sending up to fifty tons of the precious stuff, the product of five thousand elephants, up the Nile every year. If the plague started in East Africa, he reasoned, one would certainly see an effect in ivory production, and so he did. From the years 400-540, 120 major ivory artworks [out of an estimated 400,000 made] survive; from 540-700, only 6 survive.)

“If the demon were born in the fertile African valleys between Lake Tana in the north and Lake Rudolf in the south, lands that are to new species what Iowa is to corn, it would have had its choice of northward routes aboard its flea/rat hosts, either via the Red Sea, or up the Nile, past the point, at Khartoum, where the Blue Nile and White Nile combine, past the six cataracts that separate Upper Egypt from Lower, and north to Pelusium, Alexandria, and the Mediterranean.

“As with much else, the Mediterranean is the key to understanding the unique status of Y. pestis, and the disease it carried. Bacterial pathogens had been afflicting humanity for tens of thousands of years before the sixth-century arrival of those bubo-ridden corpses at the mouth of the Nile. But none of them ever swept across what amounted to the entire known world, ending tens of millions of lives, and stopping tens of millions more from ever being born. The reason, simply put, was a mismatch of speed.

“Until the arrival of the demon at the mouth of the Nile, at Pelusium, the disease of civilization had spread at roughly the same pace as civilization itself. Local populations could and did grow, even creating empires of many thousands of square miles – Akkadian, Egyptian, Sumerian, Babylonian, Persian – but the pace at which their merchants and armies traveled was, in general, slow enough to place a brake on the spread of disease. Like a fire, any virulent pathogen would either be tamed, or would consume all available fuel but it could not sustain itself for long. Overland trade was so slow until early modern times that the only reliable way to spread a new disease faster than coevolutionary adaptation was by water, either an inland sea or rivers.

“It was, therefore, probably inevitable that the first pandemic would strike a Mediterranean civilization, rather than a Mesopotamian or Chinese one. The great Belgian historian Henri Pirenne wrote floridly, though accurately, ‘Of all the features of that wonderful human structure [i.e., the Roman Empire], the most striking, and also the most essential, was its Mediterranean character. . . . In the full sense of the term, Mare Nostrum was the vehicle of ideas, and religions, and merchandise.’ A more mundane look at the enormous advantage in time and money of moving goods by water than land – it cost less to ship a bushel of wheat from Palestine to Spain than to send it seventy-five miles by oxcart – suggests not merely the critical character of the inland sea, but also the decisive importance of inland waterways. Egypt was the imperial granary for five centuries not merely because of its farms’ productivity, but their location: none of its cultivated land was far from either the Nile or a canal.

“In the year 540, at the terminus of the ancient world’s greatest riverine complex, the delta of the Nile awaited the arrival of a conqueror greater than Alexander himself.”

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Published in: on November 18, 2009 at 1:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

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