Plagues Past, Present and Future

The historian Procopius witnessed and survived the Justinian Plague, which arrived in Constantinople around 1541. Thanks to Procopius, we know it was bubonic plague, and that people reacted by doing what the Centers for Disease and Control recommend today. And it shows that in 480 years, humans of a certain persuasion have become more willfully ignorant and vicious.

When the scale of the catastrophe became known, people stayed home.

“During that time it seemed to be no easy thing to see any man in the streets of Byzantium, but all who had the good fortune to be in health were sitting in their homes. … And if one did succeed in meeting a man going out, he was carrying one of the dead. And work of every description ceased, and all the trades were abandoned by the artisans, and all other work as well. … In a city which was simply abounding in all good things, starvation almost absolute was running riot. Certainly it seemed a difficult and very notable thing to have a sufficiency of bread or of anything else …”

And what have we today, in these United States of America? We have governors and senators, above all in the South, above all Republicans, whining that putting a bandanna over your face is an unconstitutional affront to liberty. 

We have churches wheezing that God will not hear their prayers unless they can gather together in an enclosed space, in a specific building.

Well, if I didn’t have a god that was no better than that, I’d trade him in for another. There’s plenty of them out there.

The people of Constantinople, in other words, practiced social-distancing. They self-isolated. And if they wailed about it — and certainly they did — they wailed to their gods, and to one another. They didn’t wail about whether it was fair or not.

They didn’t wail about it to get votes, and complain that it was unfair to them personally.

Procopius concludes his two chapters on the plague with this sentence: “And it fell also upon the land of the Persians and visited all the other barbarians besides.”

But he didn’t blame the Persians for it.

(Procopius covered the plague in Book II, chapters xxii-xxiii, in his “History of the Wars.”)

Let’s move on with parallels between the Plague of Justinian and our own.

“This disease always took its start from the coast, and from there went up to the interior,” Procopius wrote in II, xxii. That’s because the rats and fleas arrived on merchant ships, then cut bait and headed inland. (Fernand Braudel elucidated the point in his trilogy, “Capitalism and Civilization.”)

Our own plague arrived by air, and required far less time to spread inland — it was already inland when it landed.

But why did it come? What caused this horrible global plague?

Procopius: “(S)ome explanation of a cause might be given by daring men, such as the many theories propounded by those who are clever in these matters; for they love to conjure up causes which are absolutely incomprehensible to man, and to fabricate outlandish theories … knowing well that they are saying nothing sound, but considering it sufficient for them, if they completely deceive by their argument some of those whom they meet and persuade them to their view … but as for me, I shall proceed to tell where this disease originated and the manner in which it destroyed men.”

Procopius for President.


Citations come from H.B. Dewing’s translation of “History of the Wars,” Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1914 — out of copyright.

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