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Justinian's Flea: The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire [Paperback]

William Rosen
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (82 customer reviews)

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Book Description

July 29, 2008 014311381X 978-0143113812 Reprint
The epic story of the collision between one of nature?s smallest organisms and history?s mightiest empire

During the golden age of the Roman Empire, Emperor Justinian reigned over a territory that stretched from Italy to North Africa. It was the zenith of his achievements and the last of them. In 542 AD, the bubonic plague struck. In weeks, the glorious classical world of Justinian had been plunged into the medieval and modern Europe was born.

At its height, five thousand people died every day in Constantinople. Cities were completely depopulated. It was the first pandemic the world had ever known and it left its indelible mark: when the plague finally ended, more than 25 million people were dead. Weaving together history, microbiology, ecology, jurisprudence, theology, and epidemiology, Justinian?s Flea is a unique and sweeping account of the little known event that changed the course of a continent.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

What might be called "microbial history"—the study of the impact of disease on human events—is a subject that has received great attention in recent years. Rosen's new book follows John Barry's The Great Influenza and John Kelly's The Great Mortality. An editor and publisher for more than a quarter century, Rosen absorbingly narrates the story of how the Byzantine Empire encountered the dangerous Y. pestis in A.D. 542 and suffered a bubonic plague pandemic foreshadowing its more famous successor eight centuries later. Killing 25 million people and depressing the birth rate and economic growth for many generations, this unfortunate collision of bacterium and man would mark the end of antiquity and help usher in the Dark Ages. Rosen is particularly illuminating and imaginative on the "macro" aftereffects of the plague. Thus, the "shock of the plague" would remake the political map north of the Alps by drawing power away from the Mediterranean and Byzantine worlds toward what would become France, Germany and England. Specialist historians may certainly dislike the inevitable reductionism such a broad-brush approach entails, but readers of Collapse and Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond's grand narratives, will find this a welcome addendum. (May 14)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Surveying the reign of Emperor Justinian of the Byzantine Empire during the years 527-65, Rosen enlists a range of topics from architecture to conquest to bubonic plague. The latter looms largest in his account, for it wreaked havoc in 542. Justinian's ambition to restore the Roman Empire, going great guns at the time under General Belisarius, came to a halt. The calamity's demographic consequences must have been substantial, too, if uncertain, and Rosen salts his text with speculations about the Byzantine seedlings of Europe's future nations. With more surety, Rosen relays eyewitness descriptions of the Justinian plague, with which he integrates the modern scientific understanding of Yersinia pestis and its carrier, the rat. Before the plague arrived in Constantinople, luckily for Justinian's historical reputation, he had already finished building the Hagia Sophia and codifying Roman law. Deeply steeped in the literature of late antiquity, Rosen wears his erudition lightly as he weaves interpretations into a fluid narrative of the era's geostrategic possibilities before the final onset of the Dark Ages. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (July 29, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 014311381X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143113812
  • Product Dimensions: 0.9 x 5.5 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (82 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #124,532 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
75 of 79 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Emperor and a Bacterium Rewrite History June 12, 2007
Great men have changed the world. And so have microbes. And changes fifteen hundred years ago, among ancient societies that are irretrievably lost except to scholars, created contingencies that have made our world what it is, with no way possible to conceive all the "what ifs" that have thereby fallen out to give our current political, religious, and social situation. If you are like me, the history of the sixth century Mediterranean, especially Constantinople, is one vague gray area, but it doesn't have to stay that way. _Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe_ (Viking) is a strange book in many ways. It is not written by an academic with long publishing credentials behind him. William Rosen has publishing credentials, but they are in the business of publishing, where he has been a senior executive. This is his first book as author, and it shows all the enthusiasm of a hobbyist eager to let others know just how interesting is the subject of his particular fascination. It is crammed with religious, military, and political history, along with large doses of epidemiology and bacteriology (to help explain how bubonic plague works) as well as an addendum of entomology (to help explain the equally history-making silkworm). Not every hobbyist could make his obsession interesting, but Rosen's book swarms with so many facts that it is always surprising and never dull.

The backbone of the book is a biography of the Emperor Justinian himself. He was born in a Balkan hill town in 482 CE, but an uncle, a general in the imperial guard, adopted him, took him to Constantinople, and got him an education. Justinian was a hard worker, productive to the point of robbing himself of sleep. He did not pay much attention to his appearance, and he tended to asceticism.
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44 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The flea that changed history May 10, 2007
A combination of biography, sweeping historical drama, vivid eyewitness accounts, geopolitical intrigue, and epidemiological detective story, "Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe" argues that Yersinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for bubonic plague, was the major force that led to the decline of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire of late antiquity and the subsequent rise of medieval Europe.

Tracing the origins of "Justinian's plague" to the fairly benign bacterium Yersinia pseudotuberculosis in East Africa, William Rosen describes how the bacterium, in adapting to a new host, the flea, became far more virulent and mobile. The Mediterranean black rat carried the flea and the plague from Africa aboard ships to port cities all along the eastern Mediterranean and eventually to Constantinople, the capital of the empire, where it killed more than a third of the population.

"Justinian's Flea" also tells of the historical figures whose lives were changed by the plague, including and especially the Emperor Justinian, who hoped to rebuild the former glory of the Roman Empire but could not foresee that his greatest obstacle would be a flea. He was born in a small village in the Balkans and rose to power through family connections and sheer talent, promoting others with merit and even marrying a professional courtesan who went on to become his confidante and a powerful woman in her own right.

Rosen makes excellent use of contemporary accounts to describe not only the immediate effects of the plague, but the far-reaching ones as well, ranging across the empire and beyond, to China and Arabia.
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43 of 47 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Loaded with history, but off target May 9, 2009
William Rosen's "Justinian's Flea: The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire" is better titled "The Life and Times of Justinian the Great". Although Rosen's work is loaded with endless interesting details
of Justinian's rise to power, love life, geopolitical accomplishments, architectural triumphs and his complex personal relationships, it has a proportionally miniscule amount of information about the plague itself. And while I find the aforementioned information worthwhile, it is not why I purchased the book in the first place.

For example, more actual pages in the book are dedicated to the Hagia Sophia than to the details of the plague. In fact, there is no discussion of the plague until well into the second half of the book (page 170 something)...that's a long way to go before you're introduced to the antagonist. In contrast, by page 98 we are in the midst of a mini-series on the birth, destruction and re-construction of the Hagia Sophia. It indeed is one of the the great churches found on earth and we learn a vast array of details regarding its eccentric designers, the history of the arch, the source of the materials, the craftsmen and artisans involved, the socio-political and religious implications of its creation, the specific details of the piers and buttresses, practical liturgical considerations and so on and so on. This one tangent alone carries more pages in the book than the entire discussion of the title's topic.

Additionally, while there is no doubt regarding the impact of the plague on western civilization, Rosen leaves a huge hole in his proposed conclusion relative to the crushing effects of the Islamic imperialism of the following century.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Flee!
This book is the most egregious case of false advertising I've seen in a good long while. In 324 pages purporting to be about "the first great plague and the end of the Roman... Read more
Published 7 days ago by Michael Boudreau
4.0 out of 5 stars History Well Done....
William Rosen writes history they way it should be written, well digested information and a clear narrative. Have just finished Justiniian's Flea and The Third Horseman. Read more
Published 14 days ago by sddorrance
5.0 out of 5 stars Justinians Flea
Good history lesson. Tied together much of what I learned in bits and pieces in my seminary training. Helped to make sense of things
Published 29 days ago by Patricia Frick
5.0 out of 5 stars Just fleas and bacteria?
This is a great story but not likely for them with cropped interests; the Roman Empire and the world 3 billion years before man. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Ken
5.0 out of 5 stars a fascinating history with a breadth of ancillary information
_Justinian's Flea_ is ostensibly about the regin of Byzantine Emperor Justinian (r. 527 - 565) - a fascinating character whose historical significance cannot be understated. Read more
Published 10 months ago by doc peterson
1.0 out of 5 stars If you love good writing...
... then don't read this book. I read and write all the time, for work and pleasure. I'm sorry to say I have never been so irritated by writing style in my whole life. Read more
Published 10 months ago by ASH
2.0 out of 5 stars Not what I was expecting.
Not only did this book go off on chapter long tangents, but contained information that simply wasn't true. I wish I had seen the other reviews before buying. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Weezle
5.0 out of 5 stars A breathtaking achievement!
Mr. Rosen's novel is utterly ambitious, original, and succeeds resoundingly in connecting Justinian's reign to the broad span of that transitional moment between the ancient world... Read more
Published 12 months ago by Matthew J. Storm
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating!
I really enjoyed this book. If you like " the rest of the story" about the science behind medicine and the flu, this one is for you.
Published 12 months ago by Lori
2.0 out of 5 stars Misleading
If you read the blurbs on the book, it looks like an interesting read. Not so-it is a meandering, pedantic history that requires an interest or knowledge of arcane cities, persons,... Read more
Published 13 months ago by everyday man
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