Comets and plagues - Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Empire Chapter 43 Part 2
A comet lighting up the sky was a portent

We are at the end of chapter 43 and we find Gibbon in full on enlightenment mode. The reign of Justinian happened to coincide with a couple of comets, some significant earthquakes and a major plague. Previous ages would have agreed with the Byzantines themselves and taken these as communications from God but Gibbon is a modern man and instead gives us the science. The plague was probably the biggest event in history since the fall of the western empire and had profound effects many of which are still being unpicked today.

It originated in Asia, probably China.  It has recently been discovered that the Black Death – some 800 years later – was carried to Europe by gerbils. I think they managed to avoid the blame for so long because they shredded the evidence.  

Justinian’s plague was very similar to, and may well have been identical to the Black Death.  Recent research has suggested that both were caused by the same bacteria, though bacteria famously adapt rapidly so we can’t be sure just how similar the effects of an infection would have been several hundred years apart. But biologists do know a remarkable amount about the causative organism.  It has even been possible to detect the effects of the plague on the genome of the modern day European population. The rapid radiation from central Asia left tell tale signs in the DNA, which can be read and analysed by modern technology. This is a science that is still in its infancy and who knows what information more years of diligent study will glean from this source.  

What we know without any science is that the effects in the sixth century were devastating.  In the short run, the death toll was astonishing. Procopius reported 10,000 deaths a day. He has a tendency to exaggerate.  But modern experts have made their own assessments that the real figure was 5,000 which is still high enough. It was enough to overwhelm the city’s social resources leaving bodies piling up in the streets and filling the air with the stench of death.  In the immediate aftermath the estimate is that 25% of the population of the mediterranean area died, hitting food production and tax revenues. The plague fell in the middle of the wars against the Ostrogoths in Italy, and it no doubt affected both sides.  It is far from impossible that it affected the outcome of the campaign.

Gibbon doesn’t speculate on it’s effects beyond the empire itself, but it is quite likely that it was a major factor in a shakeup of the size of different tribal groups in northern Europe.  This was the darkest patch of darkness in the dark ages and we are very short of sources. But one possible consequence was that in the island of Britain the urbanised Romano-Britons were more exposed to the plague than the agrarian Saxons.  If so it may well have been a factor, and maybe even the decisive factor, in the triumph of Saxon culture over that of the indigenous inhabitants. If so, the plague that affected Justinian also played a role in my currently using English to talk to you.  It was certainly an event that has cast a long shadow.

Justinian himself was probably more bothered by actually contracting the disease himself.  He survived it, but it may well have impaired his abilities and led to a much less impressive leadership style.  His mean spirited treatment of Belisarius for example took place late in his reign after he had recovered from the infection.  He also lost his soul mate Theodora at around the same time – possibly as a result of cancer. So it might have been that rather than his own illness that lowered his spirits.  But an outbreak of a serious disease must be something that is very draining to someone with the controlling tendencies that Justinian always displayed. Wars can be won. Earthquake damage can be repaired.  Building projects can be completed. A plague in an era when nobody knows what causes it or how to treat it, just saps the energy of the state and comes and goes at its own pace heedless of the actions of the humans it afflicts.

This was a disaster that affected every aspect of the empire, from the untilled fields, the unpaid taxes, the unmanned defences all the way to the palace inhabited by a widower with no companion to console him as his plans and ambitions for his empire collapsed before his eyes.

There was another calamity that afflicted Constantinople directly. There were a prolonged series of Earthquakes that caused extensive destruction.

Plague and earthquakes are still not entirely understood by modern science, but in an earlier age they were completely beyond explanation.  In the absence of anything better, one possible explanation was divine intervention. And it was a common supposition that what happened among the stars affected what went on below.  It doesn’t seem an unreasonable belief in fact. The sun and the moon both have very noticeable effects, so why shouldn’t the more modest celestial bodies? So when something really out of the ordinary happens in the sky alarm bells would ring.  Comets were regarded as predictors of war, plague and disaster. This notion would have been confirmed by the arrival of a comet early in Justinian’s reign.

What exactly they heralded would no doubt have been the source of much speculation when they appeared.

But comets were of great interest to the scientists of Gibbon’s time too.  Indeed this was at the cutting edge of the science of his day. One of the early triumphs of seventeenth century astronomy was the realisation not only of what comets were but of the successful calculation of their orbits.  The most famous of these is of course Halley’s comet, named after Gibbon’s contemporary Edmund Halley. The comet that appeared in Justinian’s reign had also been identified and its periodic returns determined. The passage where Gibbon describes this comet’s career is my favourite part of the whole book and I hope you will indulge me in simply handing over to the man himself with just some mild editing.

“In the fifth year of his reign, and in the month of September, a comet  was seen during twenty days in the western quarter of the heavens, and which shot its rays into the north. The nations, who gazed with astonishment, expected wars and calamities from their baleful influence; and these expectations were abundantly fulfilled. The astronomers dissembled their ignorance of the nature of these blazing stars, which they affected to represent as the floating meteors of the air; and few among them embraced the simple notion of Seneca and the Chaldeans, that they are only planets of a longer period and more eccentric motion.  

Time and science have justified the conjectures and predictions of the Roman sage: the telescope has opened new worlds to the eyes of astronomers;  and, in the narrow space of history and fable, one and the same comet is already found to have revisited the earth in seven equal revolutions of five hundred and seventy-five years. The first,  which ascends beyond the Christian era one thousand seven hundred and sixty-seven years, is coeval with Ogyges, the father of Grecian antiquity.

The second visit, in the year eleven hundred and ninety-three, is darkly implied in the fable of Electra, the seventh of the Pleiads, who have been reduced to six since the time of the Trojan war. That nymph, the wife of Dardanus, was unable to support the ruin of her country: she abandoned the dances of her sister orbs, and fled from the zodiac to the north pole.

The third period expires in the year six hundred and eighteen, a date that exactly agrees with the tremendous comet of the Sibyl, and perhaps of Pliny, which arose in the West two generations before the reign of Cyrus.

The fourth apparition, forty-four years before the birth of Christ, is of all others the most splendid and important. After the death of Caesar, a long-haired star was conspicuous to Rome and to the nations, during the games which were exhibited by young Octavian in honor of Venus and his uncle. The vulgar opinion, that it conveyed to heaven the divine soul of the dictator, was cherished and consecrated by the piety of a statesman; while his secret superstition referred the comet to the glory of his own times.  

The fifth visit has been already ascribed to the fifth year of Justinian, which coincides with the 531st of the Christian era. And it may deserve notice, that in this, as in the preceding instance, the comet was followed, though at a longer interval, by a remarkable paleness of the sun.

The sixth return, in the year eleven hundred and six, is recorded by the chronicles of Europe and China: and in the first fervor of the crusades, the Christians and the Mahometans might surmise, with equal reason, that it portended the destruction of the Infidels.

The seventh phenomenon, of 1680, was presented to the eyes of an enlightened age.  

Its road in the heavens was observed with exquisite skill by Flamstead and Cassini: and the mathematical science of Bernoulli, Newton  and Halley, investigated the laws of its revolutions.

At the eighth period, in the year two thousand three hundred and fifty-five, their calculations may perhaps be verified by the astronomers of some future capital in the Siberian or American wilderness.”

You can’t fault writing like that.

That is quite a bit of name dropping at the end there.  He manages to mention John Flamsteed, the first astronomer royal, Cassini who first noticed the divisions in the rings of Saturn, the great mathematician Bernoulli as well as Newton and Halley the go to guy for comet related matters.

Sadly, you can fault the science.  It is no longer believed that this comet actually exists.  That does spoil it a bit. But I just love the sense of optimism and the confidence of it.  Gibbon’s time had reached beyond the ignorance of former ages and from now on mankind could look forward to greater and greater knowledge, and in the future the wastelands would be transformed into centres of learning and culture.  

And in fact a lot of the promise that Gibbon saw has materialised.  Sadly no comet will brighten the sky in 2355 but we can still hope that on the predicted day the world will live up to Gibbon’s expectations of progress and hopefully of peace.

I’ll end this episode by noting the end of the man who has been the chief actor over the chapters I have been looking at recently.  Justinian died on the 14th of November 565 at the age of 82 after a reign of 38 years. That record in itself puts him in the top league of emperors.  Only Theodosius and Augustus outlasted him. And getting to die of natural causes was something of a rarity too.

It was very much a reign of 2 halves, with brilliant and ambitious projects in his early years and much more caution in the later ones – possibly due to the after effects of the plague.  He nonetheless deserves his place among the greatest of the Roman emperors. In some ways he was the greatest in terms of the growth in power and influence of the empire. His ego was well ahead of his ability, but both were considerable.  He rated himself as a statesman, an architect, a tactician, a lawyer and a theologian. Had he not had an empire to run he would probably have had the talent to do at least one of those extremely well. He was hard working, shrewd and above all was a good judge of character and was able to find and nurture the talent he needed to run his government.  

His achievements were many.  Some simply stand for themselves and command respect.  The legal code and Hagia Sophia are both unique testaments to a remarkable mind and imagination.  His military achievements on the other hand probably looked a lot more impressive at the time than they do looking back. When you know just how transitory they were they lose their lustre.  His interventions in the theological controversies that absorbed his contemporaries would not trouble us much today even if they had been decisive. But as it is they had little effect then and are not remembered now.

However his character will always be blighted by his treatment of Belisarius.  Of course, we are not despotic rulers of decadent empires. We don’t really understand the pressures he was under or how things would have panned out if he had done things differently.  It is possible that Justinian was simply doing what needed to be done rather than what he actually wanted to do.

But there is one failing that we simply cannot excuse him for.  He failed to nominate a clear successor. This could have been disastrous for the empire that he did so much to build up.  We’ll see how things worked out on that next time.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *