Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe

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Penguin, 2007 - History - 367 pages
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A richly told story of the collision between nature’s smallest organism and history’s mightiest empire

The Emperor Justinian reunified Rome’s fractured empire by defeating the Goths and Vandals who had separated Italy, Spain, and North Africa from imperial rule. In his capital at Constantinople he built the world’s most beautiful building, married its most powerful empress, and wrote its most enduring legal code, seemingly restoring Rome’s fortunes for the next five hundred years. Then, in the summer of 542, he encountered a flea. The ensuing outbreak of bubonic plague killed five thousand people a day in Constantinople and nearly killed Justinian himself.

In Justinian’s Flea, William Rosen tells the story of history’s first pandemic—a plague seven centuries before the Black Death that killed tens of millions, devastated the empires of Persia and Rome, left a path of victims from Ireland to Iraq, and opened the way for the armies of Islam. Weaving together evolutionary microbiology, economics, military strategy, ecology, and ancient and modern medicine, Rosen offers a sweeping narrative of one of the great hinge moments in history, one that will appeal to readers of John Kelly’s The Great Mortality, John Barry’s The Great Influenza, and Jared Diamond’s Collapse.

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Its interesting, but somewhat wandering. The book is more about a specific period of time than it is the plague and Justinian. It is certainly an impressive amount of scholarship on the late Roman Empire, but reads like several sections of several other books that have been brought together. It's not quite a biography of Justinian. It's not quite a history of the plague and its implications. Its not quite a history of the Eastern Roman Empire's battles with the Goths, Persians, or nascent Islam. Though well-written and readable, it overall lacks focus and coherence that one would expect given its title and cover blurb.  


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About the author (2007)

William Rosen was an editor and publisher for more than twenty-five years.

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