History, biography, science, medicine
Every so often I read a book that reminds me of why I love reading. Justinian's Flea is like that. This book has
- Good, clear, engaging writing
- Eye-popping characters
- Novelistic tension
- Informative, accessible science
- Ideas, ideas, ideas!
William Rosen deserves special acclaim for having made Justinian's Flea into a thrilling story. It's not just a history of the sixth-century plague . It's an account of why it mattered. You have Justinian, arguably the last great Roman emperor, struggling heroically to restore his patrimony. He and his brilliant general Belisarius begin the reconquest. Great buildings go up. The laws are reformed.
And all the while, in the background, creeping closer, is the flea--the flea that carries the Yersinia bacterium.
Rosen doesn't fall into the single-cause fallacy of history writing. Nonetheless, he's surely onto something when he locates the Plague of Justinian at the hinge that marks the dissolution of the Roman world and the first genesis of ours. To paraphrase Justinian's Flea: between AD 536 and AD 552 the city of Rome changed hands five times. At the beginning of that time, it was still recognizably the city of the Caesars. At the end, it was recognizably the city of the Popes.
The best-known fictional treatment of the period is Robert Graves's Count Belisarius. For genre readers, L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall is a classic set in Ostrogoth-ruled Rome.
In non-fiction, Justinian's Flea overlaps somewhat with Jared Diamond's well-known (if slightly overrated) Guns, Germs, and Steel. Rats, Lice, and History (Hans Zimmer) and Plagues and Peoples (William H. McNeill) are both very fine books with a larger-scale viewpoint.