Visualizing the Plague of Justinian in the Mediterranean

Browsing through this morning I came across some graphics from the Topographies of Entanglements project from the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Division of Byzantine Research. Unfortunately there is very little explanation with these graphics.

Comparing these two graphs they are not conveying exactly the same information.  How do we define a wave of plague? Does it have to show directional movement? How far does it have to go?  Given the sparse information from this period, accurately defining waves must be tentative.   The second graph, may be a more realistic representation. The second graph charts individual epidemic outbreak records giving a better representation of scale and that the gaps between the waves are not plague-free. Given the sparse records in the early medieval period, we can not take the lack of reports in 580 and 610 to mean that the plague disappeared completely. Plague was also occurring outside of the Mediterranean in these low years. For example the major wave of plague to devastate Britain and Ireland was from 664-668.



From: Visualising waves of Plague epidemics in the Mediterranean and the Near East, 541-750 AD by Topographies of Entanglements. Graphics by Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, 2013. (Here converted from tiff files to jpg.)

They took their data from Dionysios Stathakopoulos, Famine and Pestilence in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Empire: A Systematic Survey of Subsistence Crises and Epidemics (Ashgate, 2004).

4 thoughts on “Visualizing the Plague of Justinian in the Mediterranean

  1. Britannia Rule the Waves, if only subjunctively.

    As any fule kno, English historians are peculiarly well equipped in the study of Waves, even though I can see Russian history from my window. Very flat, Indiana.

    Russia may have had its Waves of Indo-Europeans, Varangians, and Mongols, and later of French and Germans, but they never came, there weren’t many of them, and they left no influence, having been beaten off by brave Slavophiles. It is the English who have taken Waves seriously.

    It is memorable that English History has been marked by various Waves, such as the highly romantic and memorable Wave of Beards which resulted in the Great Armadillo.

    The withdrawal of the Roman legions to take part in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (due to a clamour among the Romans for pompous amusements such as bread and circumstances) left Britain defenceless and subjected Europe to that long succession of Waves of which History is chiefly composed. The Roman Empire was overrun by Waves not only of Ostrogoths, Vizigoths, and even Goths, but also of Vandals, Huns and so on.

    However, Britain had already experienced Waves of Celts, of various kinds, as they abandoned waiting for the sky to fall on their heads, and Waves of Romans, who brought baths, central heating, and roads which all led to Rome. The subsequent withdrawal of the Romans led to Waves of Picts (and, of course, Scots, who were currently not in Ireland) who had recently learnt how to climb the wall. As the Goths, Huns, and so on occupied much of Europe, England was afflicted with Waves of Angles and Saxons, who imposed Jute on the Kingdom of Merciless, and several Waves of Danes, whose practice of Danegeld resulted in the creation of Middlesex.

    Waves of English historians have studied these Waves in detail, ever since the Venomous Bede participated in the Wave of very historical Saints. Now, however, there are Waves of archaeologists who deny the existence of these Waves, and insist that the various Waves actually consisted of artefacts and jewellery, a Good Thing, and of husbands and grammar, a Bad Thing. Whichever kinds of Waves there were, it is clear that English historians rapidly became Top Wave Experts.

    As a result, all English history has consisted of Waves of Norman Kings (French), Tudors (Welsh), Stuarts (Scottish), Hanoverians (German), and the rarely seen Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, which is now extinct and buried under Windsor.

    Thus, even though America is now Top Nation and history has come to a full stop, as a result of Waves of Monoglots invading archives everywhere with Firefox (and the sword), the Waves of English historians have overrun British and European history, while still waiving the rules.


    1. I never really thought of the wave metaphor as being particularly English. The metaphors of a island nation are part of our legacy. Its good to be conscious that it is a particular English-ism. I understand that “plague pit” is also, but I do like that one.


  2. That facetious post was, of course, intended to throw doubt on the use of “waves” as a heuristic tool, in this or other cases. For studies of disease, “waves” have a cluster of epidemiological baggage which may or may not be sufficiently scrutinized.

    Even if used only as a metaphor describing waves on a graph, “wave” suggests, for example, the epizootic waves of dying rats, supposedly carrying the plague. Was there a tsunami wave that really was held back by the Militärgrenze? Could the quarantine of ships be effective in containing tidal bore waves of rats, running down the lines, or could people carry the disease ashore, as was believed at the time?

    It is notorious that the lack of reports about heaps of black rats, moraines left in the streets by the great wave, is used to attack the historical diagnosis. Why rats that live inside wattle-and-daub walls should choose to die in the streets is unclear to me.

    The speed of transmission, too fast and too specific for waves, has also been used to attack diagnoses. Graham Twigg used the speed of travel from the coast, narrowly up the road towards London in 1348, to argue for anthrax, as I recall. It’s not clear why rats can’t travel on wagons or why a murrain of anthrax should move quickly and narrowly, but no matter. He also attacked the isolated Plague of Eyam, supposedly brought in by bales of cloth. On the other hand, in his earlier book on the black rat, he said that rats must have been dying, because there was plague in Scotland.

    [I write under correction, as it’s a long time since I read his books.]

    All metaphors have a tendency to escape their originally intended use, and “waves” might have all manner of unintended effects.

    “Epidemiology of the Black Death and Successive Waves of Plague,” Samuel K Cohn JR

    ” High Throughput, Multiplexed Pathogen Detection Authenticates Plague Waves in Medieval Venice, Italy,” Thi-Nguyen-Ny Tran, et al.

    “Initiation and spread of traveling waves of plague, Yersinia pestis, in the western United States,” J.Z.Adjemian et al.

    “The great waves of plague that twice devastated Europe and changed the course of history had their origins in China, a team of medical geneticists reported Sunday, as did a third plague outbreak that struck less harmfully in the 19th century.” — NY Times, Oct. 31, 2010


  3. I think there are few instances when the term wave can be used securely and those instances have genetic links between outbreaks that show a physical connection. I prefer to the second graph for that reason.

    For what its worth, I tend to think of flea movement more than rats. Fleas can be transported in trade goods without rats and human fleas (or possibly lice) can transmit plague human to human.


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