The Death Toll of Justinian’s Plague and Its Effects on the Byzantine Empire

The Death Toll of Justinian’s Plague and Its Effects on the Byzantine Empire

Joshua North (Armstrong Atlantic State University)

Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History (2011)


The glory of the Roman Empire was a distant memory by the time the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (r. 527–565) came to power in 527. For Justinian too much time had passed since the western provinces had slipped from Roman control, and he set out to be the emperor to restore the glory to the mighty Roman Empire. In 533 Justinian secured the “endless peace” with the formidable Persian Empire in exchange for eleven thousand gold pounds annually.[1] By 540 the Byzantine military had made significant gains in North Africa and the Italian Peninsula. However, in 541 a plague began in Constantinople and two years later ravaged the Byzantine Empire. The exact nature of the plague is unknown, although it is widely believed to be a strain of the Bubonic Plague.[2] The high mortality rate of the plague caused a severe shortage of labor that had a tremendously negative effect. The plague’s high virulence and subsequent strain placed on the empire both militarily and economically directly resulted in the decline of the Byzantine Empire.

Prior to 534, the Byzantine Empire’s military campaigns had been successful for a few years. In 534, Justinian dispatched future general Belisarius to reconquer Northern Africa. The final decisive battle between the Vandals and the Byzantine force was at Tricamarum, and Belisarius’s victory here effectively wiped the Vandals off the world’s stage. Justinian had now recaptured the Vandal kingdom; he was able to turn his attention to Italy. In 535 Belisarius began his march on Italy where he occupied Naples and Rome from the hands of Goths. After the newly chosen Gothic King Vitigis regrouped his army, he brought it against Rome. Belisarius withstood the siege of Rome, which lasted over a year.

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