Saturday, January 14, 2017

Book Review: Justinian's Flea

Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe
William Rosen
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
  • Battles
  • Eye-popping characters
  • Novelistic tension
  • Informative, accessible science
  • Ideas, ideas, ideas!
I can't not love it.

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. 


  1. Ideas, ideas, ideas!

    What were they that they stood out so much?

    1. In no particular order:

      * Up to roughly AD 500, the Roman and Chinese empires had followed surprisingly parallel courses. Afterwards they diverged massively. Why?
      * How the blurry outlines of what would become modern Europe emerged out of the (ultimately unsuccessful) Byzantine effort to reconquer the West.
      * For that matter, how and why was it ultimately unsuccessful? The enormous damage done by the plague may have been the reason, or a reason, or part of a reason; but there are many other factors to think about.
      * Justinian was responsible for rewriting and codifying Roman law. This had a huge effect on subsequent Continental legal thinking, especially the French Code Napoleon. In particular, the doctrine of Quod principi placuit, legis habet vigorem ("What pleases the prince has the force of law") has been the justification for autocracy since that time. (Compare this to the notions of governance in the Magna Carta.)
      * How the Silk Road affected the course of the plague, the destiny of Byzantium's rival empire in Persia, and ultimately the entire ancient economy.
      * Closely related to the latter: less than a century later Islam erupted out of the Arabian Peninsula--an area largely spared by the plague, because of its lower population density. If Justinian's state had retained its strength, things would probably have gone quite differently. (Justinian died in AD 565; Mohammed was born around AD 570.)

      There's more. This is just a sampling. It's all handled very well, too; each of these ideas intersects with the others.

    2. Here's a quote from the author that sums up one of the major themes.

      " . . . I followed the lead of a number of historians in comparing 6th century Rome to 6th century China . . . Each had been an empire for more than five hundred years, and had seen its territory halved by increasingly aggressive barbarian invasions. Each embarked on successful campaigns of reconquest, led by enormously gifted emperors … both of them born peasants. Within a century, both were fighting the armies of the Islamic Caliphate.

      "And there the story diverges. China stayed identifiably China; Rome evolved into a patchwork led by folks called Venetians, Franks, Lombards, and Germans. They would eventually be the first true nation-states – political units with defined borders, unique languages, and distinct histories -in the planet’s history. In fact, you can argue that the only reason that the map of the world is divided into these units today is that the idea of such nation-states may be Europe’s most world-historically durable export."

    3. This sounds really, really great! It would be an interesting basis for an alternate history novel. The plague doesn't hit. Rome and China start dividing the world. Along come rapid technical advances. Nukes in 1200 AD or so and it's a vastly different planet.

    4. Yes, a lot of alt-hist possibilities popped into my head as I read this. Here's another one, fleshed out from my earlier comment. Suppose that Byzantium remained strong enough to block the spread of Islam? The Sassanid Persian Empire survives and becomes the dominant power in the Middle East. Instead of Christian/Muslim conflict, you get Christian/Zoroastran conflict. Persia becomes a buffer state between China and Byzantium.

      In case it wasn't obvious, I really liked this book.

  2. I got this for Christmas, planning on reading it next week.

    1. Excellent. I hope (and believe) you'll enjoy it. Let us know what your reaction was.

  3. Wow, yes I suppose you did like it.

    The alternate history idea is interesting. You'd have to know an awful lot about the religion to be able to really make an interesting story. I know so little about it. I think that there are only a couple hundred thousand believers, no?

    1. Given the populace at the time, that could even be a high estimate. I wonder how long a Persian Zoroastrian buffer state would last. Hmm. You'd need a Messiah equivalent, a prophet, a speaker who galvanizes the people. Oooh. Wait. Given the religion?


    2. There aren't many Zoroastrans now, but it was more or less the official religion of the Sassanid empire. So in AD 550, there would have been a lot of them--some millions, certainly.

      I like the twin prophets idea.