… And it is the moment, with the emperor at the absolute zenith of his achievement, that the world encountered the first pandemic in history.
The coincidence of timing does not, of course, prove that the pandemic caused Rome to fall, or Europe to be born; as above, the uncertainties of the three thousand-body problem makes such a claim fundamentally uncertain.
So writes William Rosen in his Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe (Viking Adult 2007, 384 pages). Nonetheless, the tenor of this wide-ranging book is that the plague
was the instrument that caused a change in history and Rome to fall, as
outlined in the Introduction and Prologue. The reasoning for this particular version of the fall of Rome and
the "birth of Europe" is rather attractive but not wholly convincing.
Despite the enormous loss of life, the eastern empire still went on,
even expanded for a while with Belisarius' victories on the west.
The book, written for "members of the educated public," (to use a phrase I saw recently from Bowersock) by an even more educated member, is an excellent introduction into Late Antiquity and could also be titled "The Life and Times of the Emperor Justinian."
In Part III, "Bacterium," the author's thirst for knowledge and his compulsion to share it gets a bit carried away. Here is all you wanted to know and much more about the evolution of rats and fleas and their eventual interaction, pandemics in general and this one in particular, and the history of bacteriology and evolutionary biology up to its most current status. In this reader's opinion, all this could have been presented in less detail and still remain comprehensible.
The story is presented in a vivid, easy to read style. The book is very well researched and documented and invites further exploration of the writers in Late Antiquity, and on the whole, I can recommend it.