Horrific Facts about the Justinian Plague

Horrific Facts about the Justinian Plague

Horrific Facts about the Justinian Plague
Image Credits: The Conversation

Throughout human history, there have been numerous deadly plagues that killed an innumerable amount of people. One of these deadliest plagues, which caused millions of deaths, was the Justinian Plague. This plague was right up with the Black Death that exterminated half of Europe’s population in the mid-1300s. Interestingly, that plague broke out during the rule of the Eastern Roman Emperor, Justinian I.

First Recorded Plague in History

First Recorded Plague in History - Justinian Plague

The Justinian Plague is considered to be the first pandemic in recorded history that swept across three continents. The plague started in Egypt and was carried to other continents by merchant ships infested with disease-carrying rodents.

When the plague reached Constantinople, it killed roughly 300,000 people there in the first year. The plague struck and destroyed everything in its path, just as Emperor Justinian was trying to restore the glory of ancient Rome. It hit the economy really hard and Rome became even more fragile. The emperor himself was infected but managed to pull through.


Symptoms - Justinian Plague

The victim of this plague initially suffered from mild fever. Everything seemed fine until black blisters would appear, a few days later. These pus-filled blisters were a surefire sign of someone having the plague.

At this point, the victims would sometimes fall into a deep coma and pass away. Less fortunate victims would become delirious and paranoid. They were often suicidal and extremely difficult to care for. The plague was fast-acting and left far too many corpses in a short amount of time.

Body Identification

Body Identification - Justinian Plague

Most of us dislike going around with a name tag on us. However, leaving home during the plague was so dangerous that people had to wear name tags. The tags helped with proper identification in case any family members fell victim to the plague. The tags would help families to identify the corpses of their loved ones in case of the calamity.

Most of the time, bodies could not be returned to the families and had to be disposed-off directly. The identification became harder and harder as the Justinian Plague continued to affect more and more people.

Disposal of Bodies

Disposal of Bodies

At the height of the Justinian Plague, over 5,000 people were dying every day in Constantinople. Burying these many people became a really hefty task as tombs and burial sites filled up rapidly. The emperor eventually had to appoint court officials to dispose of the dead.

Despite that, there were just too many plague victims to care for. Consequently, a lot of them left to rot in the streets. Trenches were dug and mass burials were done to save space. Many bodies were loaded on boats and thrown overboard in the middle of the seas. The remaining bodies were dumped into fortified towers that were sealed later on.



At that time, Many Christian followers believed that the plague was actually God’s punishment and demons were infecting the humans. In response, priests began performing exorcisms on the infected. Unfortunately, the exorcisms worked just as well as the medicine at the time. They did nothing to stop the plague from killing its victims.


The lack of medical science left people with no choice but to come up with their own reasons for its occurrence. There was a group of people who believed that the tonsured monks were demons and the cause of the plague. They fled from the monks whenever they were spotted in the community. Similarly, Procopius (a Greek historian) wrote that many people believed that the disease was caused by a malevolent spirit. In order to counter that, people barred their doors and stopped letting visitors in.

The Deadly Microbe

The Deadly Microbe

The Justinian Plague and the Black Death, both were caused by different strains of the same microbe, Yersinia pestis. The Black Death, which happened between 1347 and 1351, killed 200 million Europeans. The earlier Justinian Plague killed up to 100 million people across Europe, Asia, Arabia, and North Africa in 50 years. Even though both plagues spread 800 years apart, both plagues are known to have spread from rodents and fleas. Strains of the original microbes are still carried by rodents today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *