I am referring to the number of pages these leaders are allotted in the current Encyclopedia Britannica, if viewed with a rather large text-size on the Britannica iPhone app. Does this really mean that Obama is almost four times as important as the Roman historical figure who did so much to change the world?
And to think that on May 17, 1983 I sat near Barack Obama in the graduating class at Columbia University while school president Michael Sovern delivered his boring homily on U.S.-Soviet relations and Isaac Asimov rose to silently receive his honorary doctorate. I didn’t know the future president. I knew very few other seniors. Neither Obama nor I graduated with honors, as can be seen in the Columbia Senior Class Day booklet, handed out the day before.
I realize more is known about Obama than Justinian, but surely the editors at Britannica are doing their readers a disservice when they devote so much more space to a contemporary politician than to the ancient ruler. Can Obamacare really compete with Justinian’s Code? I note as I type these lines that Microsoft Word does not try to correct me when I type “Obamacare”: it’s now part of the lexicon! And yet the Affordable Care Act remains a lesser achievement than the aforementioned Code, the Hagia Sophia (ah! Microsoft wants to correct “Hagia”!), and the re-conquest of Italy.
All of which is by way of introducing the volume JUSTINIAN’S FLEA: THE FIRST GREAT PLAGUE AND THE END OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE by William Rosen, published in 2007. It’s a fun and memorable read, especially of course for history buffs; but it is flawed. The problem is the title and the way the book has been marketed. Its main thesis can be summed up simply: the (for us) little-known sixth century bubonic plague had a role in toppling the Roman Empire. Due to depopulation, the Empire was left vulnerable to the spread of Islam in the following century. The emphasis on the plague serves as a great hook, but most of the book isn’t even about the plague; it’s more a survey of Late Antiquity as it transitioned into Medieval times. When Rosen finally gets to the “demon,” he delivers a dramatic and eloquently scientific chapter on bacteria, flees, rats, and the conditions that carried plague to the world at large from its original “home” in Africa. These are very intricate and detailed passages; I felt he was building a grand pedestal. But the statue never arrived. I suppose I wanted Camus. I wanted novelistic scenes of the first arrival of rats, the piling up and mass burial of bodies, the spread of hysteria and pain. A solemn overture is played—no fully realized opera ever shows up. What’s missing is a detailed account or even imaginative speculation about how people living back then experienced the spread of humanity’s first great plague. Instead, Rosen veers off to . . . Persia, and then the Franks, and the Silk Road. The topic of the plague comes up often enough following its arrival, but it’s not developed, not in the right way. Just twenty or thirty pages of cinematic description of what the plague felt like, and then a chapter with some concrete theories connecting the scourge to Rome’s fall would have made this book a masterpiece.
Nevertheless, what we do have is a well-written, engaging look at Late Antiquity that whets the general reader’s appetite for such classics as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and the histories of Justinian’s contemporary Procopius. There are enough scintillating facts and nuggets to keep the reader engrossed. What Rosen does especially well is create an atmosphere; we read his words and we know we are in the presence of something mighty and dreadful and grand. Oliver Stone succeeded in creating this kind of atmosphere in JFK. There is a scene in which the New Orleans district attorney is seated at a round restaurant table going through documents and photos related to Kennedy’s assassination and the Illuminati-type characters who might have been responsible. The lighting, the camerawork, the eerie choir music in the background—I get goosebumps just remembering that scene. Rosen has the same gift. There’s isn’t a page that’s dull. Like Stone, he opens doors for the reader, in this case doors that lead to wide open spaces of depopulated farmland, horrific battle scenes and massacres, heresies, dark theology, glorious architecture, “barbarians” on the move across wide swaths of land. From Part III, “Bacterium”:
When the demon began the last stage of its own evolution, its immediate ancestor may have been living anywhere between the River Nile and the Bay of Bengal, but for now, it is probably more useful to adopt the creature’s perspective, and to say that it lived in a somewhat more circumscribed universe: the mammalian gut. Like all bacteria for the previous three and a half billion years, it was very small—so small that it approached the lower limit of life itself. Fifty of them, stacked atop one another, would just about equal the thickness of a dollar bill. Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, as it would one day be called, was, by the scorecard kept by natural selection, a highly successful organism: wide ranging, gigantic in numbers, and, in general, so innocuous in its effect on its host that it could survive for decades in the same human intestine, causing little more than an occasional flulike stomachache.
Most of us have heard about the Black Death, but Justinian’s Plague is less famous, even though it may have been even deadlier and more consequential for Europe and the world. Rosen has done a fine job of shedding light on those almost forgotten times.