The Plague of Justinian: Its Effects

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by kevin McGonigal, Nov 23, 2021.

  1. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    This morning, on my newsfeed, there was an interesting article titled, 'We May Have Underestimated the First Known Outbreak of Bubonic Plague". We don't get to see that much written about the Byzantine Empire in newsfeeds so I made sure to open and read it. I am sorry that my poor computer skills do not allow me to share it on this site but I am sure readers can find it by Googling the article's title.

    The thesis of the article is that this plague had far reaching and long term effects, mainly negative, and that many historians do not seem to realize just how impactful it has been. I must say, after reading the book, "Justinian's Flea", some years ago, that I have always thought that it was an underestimated cause of some profound changes in Byzantine economics and society. Our present situation may be demonstrating that widespread disease may be more influential, in many areas, beyond the demographics of illness. The author of this study is Peter Sarris from Cambridge.

    Below are three of the coins from the reign of Justinian. The small coin on the upper left is a tremissis (1/3 of a solidus) with, on the reverse, an image of an angel, or Victory. It weighs 1.4 grams and is Sear 149. The second gold coin is a solidus and another version of the angel/Victory, weighing 4.4 grams. it is Sear 140. The large bronze is a large flan follis of Justinian, Anno xii and the large M indicating the value of 40 numia. It is Sear 163 and weighs 20.7 grams.

    Any thoughts or coins of Justinian that you have much appreciated.

    Justinian Plague obv.jpg IMG_2132Justinian Plague rev.jpg
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  3. Al Kowsky

    Al Kowsky Well-Known Member

    I really like the hefty Justinian 40 nummi coins :happy:. Pictured below are 3 from my collection along with a gold solidus.
    2491169-005, AK Collection.jpg
    NGC 3988264-008, AK Collection.jpg

    CNG 490, Lot 339_2, $460, AK.jpg
    Justinian I, AD 527-565 (Year 31, AD 557/8), Nicomedia Mint, 2nd Officina. AE 40 Nummi: 18.43 gm, 33 mm, 6 h. Sear 201. Ex Peter J. Merani Collection, purchased from Mark E. Reid (The Time Machine, December 6, 1998.
    I liked this coin despite the hard green corrosion & die rust :D.

    2101304-004, AK Collection.jpg

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

  5. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    Your Justinian folles are of museum quality. How beautiful and in Byzantine coinage that's not a commonplace.
    Hrefn and +VGO.DVCKS like this.
  6. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    Your Justinian folles are of museum quality. How beautiful and in Byzantine coinage that's not a commonplace.
  7. Mat

    Mat Ancient Coincoholic

    Justinian I (527 - 565 A.D.)
    Æ Follis
    O: DN ISTINI-ANVS PP AVG Helmeted and cuirassed bust of Justinian facing, holding globus cruciger and a shield.
    R: Large M, cross above, ANNO left, regnal year XXXI right, G ( = officina 3 ) below, THEUP in ex.
    Theoupolis - Antiochia
    SB 220

    Justinian I (527-565 A.D.)
    Æ 1/2 Follis
    O: DN IVSTINI-ANVS PP AVG, Diademed draped and cuirassed bust right.
    R: Large K, cross to left, star above and below, officinia gamma to right.
    Constantinople mint
    SB 164; Doc 33
  8. desertgem

    desertgem Senior Errer Collecktor Supporter

    I do agree with that. While discussion of the current plague is not being allowed here, I do feel as a person of science, that in less than a decade there will be significant population effects. Stay Safe. Jim
    +VGO.DVCKS and Brian Bucklan like this.
  9. ValiantKnight

    ValiantKnight I AM the Senate!

    Justinian I, Byzantine Empire
    AE follis
    Obv: D N IVSTINIANVS P P AVG, diademed, helmeted, cuirassed bust facing, holding globus cruciger and shield, cross to right
    Rev. Large M, cross above, officina letter B below, ANNO to left, XЧ to right, CON in ex.
    Mint: Constantinople
    Date: 541/2 (year 15)
    Ref: SB 163.
    Size: 23.30g, 39mm


    Justinian I, Byzantine Empire
    AE follis
    Obv: D N IVSTINI-ANVS P P AVG, diademed, helmeted, cuirassed bust facing, holding globus cruciger and shield, cross to right
    Rev. Large M, cross above, officina letter Δ below, ANNO to left, XX to right, mintmark QHЧΠ in ex
    Mint: Theopolis (Antioch)
    Date: 546/7 (year 20)
    Ref: SB 220
    Size: 19.9 gr., 39 mm

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  10. Al Kowsky

    Al Kowsky Well-Known Member

    Thanks Kevin :happy:. I was lucky to score some high grade examples before the current runup in prices :smuggrin:. High grade Byzantine gold is much easier to find than nice looking bronze coins, but even common gold is getting very pricey :mad:....
    kevin McGonigal likes this.
  11. iameatingjam

    iameatingjam Well-Known Member

    Some people consider the Justinians plague to be the final nail in antiquity's coffin, and there is a strong case to be made for that, imo.

    Very nice coins. I'm still looking for a Justinian follis myself.
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  12. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    I think that one can make a strong case for plagues to fundamentally effect not just the social order, but every other aspect of living and surviving as well. Consider the effect of the plague (whatever it was) that hit Athens at the start of the Peloponnesian War, then the one that ravaged Rome during the reign of Aurelius and about a hundred years later, again the plague of Cyprian, each of which was followed by catastrophic retrenchment. Things were going along pretty well for Justinian and the Empire until this plague, probably bubonic, knocked the props out from under the emperor and the empire. I would like historians to delve more into that aspect of a civilization's decline. It may be that these plagues are something beyond even a Pericles or an Aurelius or a Justinian to cope with and that the decline and fall of Rome was not the triumph of barbarism and religion but of microbes and contagion.[/QUOTE]
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  13. BenSi

    BenSi Supporter! Supporter


    Justinian I, 527-565. Follis (Bronze, 33 mm, 14.71 g, 7 h), Theoupolis (Antiochia), 533-537. D N IVSTINIANVS P P AVG Diademed, draped, and cuirassed bust of Justinian I to right. Rev. Large M between two stars; above, cross; below, Γ; in exergue, +THEЧP+. DOC 210c. MIB 126. SB 216.

    Interesting, what if it had not happened, until that point the regaining of the former Roman Empire looked unstoppable. If Europe had stayed under Roman rule it would changed a lot. But I am sure one of the empires future rulers would have screwed it up.
  14. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    My feeling is similar to yours in that it did look like Justinian was going to pull it off, economic improvements, shown in the improvement of the bronze coinage, reorganization and simplification of the law, new construction, Hagia Sophia, reoccupying territories in the West, North Africa and Italy, even a bit of Hispania. All for naught because of a flea. Though Justinian was afterwards criticized for over extending the Empire's resources, had it not been for that plague gutting his resources, I would have forseen a better world than the one that would emerge.
  15. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter 3rd Century Usurper

    I guess it kind of took the wind out of the sails of Byzantium. That, and the dreadful Persian war in the early seventh century plus the rise of the powerful Islamic movement led to loss of Byzantine hegemony in the Near East. Not until John I Tzimisces and Nicephorus Phocas were parts of Syria recovered from the Abbasids and Hamdanids.

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  16. Heliodromus

    Heliodromus Well-Known Member

    It's hard to imagine that these early epidemics would not have had tremendous societal impact. Not just in the huge percentages of the population killed, but also in demographic shifts and other hard to predict types of disruption.

    Prior to the Justinian Plague of 541-549 AD, there had been the Antonine Plague (likely Smallpox) of 166-180 AD, followed by the Plague of Cyprian (Smallpox again?) of 251-270 AD. Death estimates for the Antonine Plague vary from 10% to 50% of the population (from 65M before to 40M after), with an estimated 2000/day dead in the city of Rome alone at the peak, with this epidemic lasting for around 15 years. The Plague of Cyprian seems to have lasted even longer, around 20 years, possibly even more severe, killing up to 5000/day in Rome. Finally, the Plague of Justinian (Bubonic plague this time) is recorded by Procopius as killing 10,000/day in Constantinople, although modern historians think a figure of 5000/day is probably closer to the truth. Estimates vary, ranging up to 50% of the population dead all told.

    There's really nothing in modern experience that remotely compares.

    It's been suggested that one effect of these epidemics was to at least help accelerate the rise of Christianity as a percentage of the population, due to better survival rates. If I recall correctly, one source for this is Rodney Stark's "The Rise of Christianity". Apparently it's been shown that even basic nursing/care, which was more prevalent in the Christian community, such as keeping the sick warm and well-fed can help survival rates significantly, and over the course of these 10-20 year epidemics, this had a significant impact. One could imagine it may have had a psychological impact too, with the roman gods having failed to protect the empire, but the Christians faring relatively better.
  17. Valentinian

    Valentinian Supporter! Supporter

    Here is a link to a news report with the title "We May Have Underestimated The First Known Outbreak of Bubonic Plague"

    Here is my webpage on the coins of Antioch under Justinian. Antioch not only suffered from the plague, but also from major earthquakes:

    The plague hit in 541 which is year 14/15 of Justinian. At Antioch "M" and "K" coins of Justinian were not issued in years 14 and 15 because of the interruption of the invasion of Khusru I. They were also not issued in years 17, 18, or 19, but the reason for the second interruption is not certain [Grierson, Byzantine Coins, page 66]; Hahn suggests it may have been the plague [p. 62].

    Here is an unusual "K" from year 16:


    Sear 229
    20 nummi
    33 mm. 11.63 grams.
    Year XG = 16 = 542/3.
    Mintmark: CH, bar over the CH.
    Hahn 153
    DOC 236
  18. Tejas

    Tejas Well-Known Member

    I don't think that the Justinian plaque was such a fatal blow to the empire. The plague happed in 541/42, but the empire would expand and flourish for another 70 or 80 years or so.

    Justinian's gravest errors were the overextension of the empire and the neglect of the eastern borders. Justinian devastated the cultural center (Italy) with an unnecessary war against the Goths. And even his wars against the Vandals in Africa were of no real benefit to the security or wealth of the empire.

    At the same time, Justinian completely neglected his eastern borders leaving the East Roman empire completely unprepared when the Muslim invasions came that took Syria, Judaea and the African provinces with ease in the first half of the 7th century. It was the loss of these rich provinces that eventually reduced a large Mediterranean empire to a smallish Greek empire.

    Below is a coin from my collection. It is a solidus of Justinian minted at Rome during the period Dec. 536 to March 538.

    Screenshot 2021-11-24 at 20.48.00.png
    Last edited: Nov 24, 2021
  19. Valentinian

    Valentinian Supporter! Supporter

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  20. iameatingjam

    iameatingjam Well-Known Member

    Thats interesting... considering I have heard that the medieval bubonic plague was responsible for a DECLINE in Christianity (since praying had no effect). Funny how things come full circle like that.
    sand likes this.
  21. Valentinian

    Valentinian Supporter! Supporter

    It may be a "survivor effect". In desperate situations everybody prays. For the dead it didn't work, but they are not around to denigrate praying. For the survivors, praying apparently did work. They are around to praise it. Hallelujah! Christianity is right!
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