Thoughts on Quarantine, Self-Isolation, and Social Distancing with Stories from Ancient Rome and Byzantium

A Cross-over article of Rome, Byzantium, Russia, Star Wars, and Fallout 

Posted by Powee Celdran


Welcome back to another Byzantium Blogger article in the time of the global pandemic of the coronavirus which seems to be not only be world threatening but life changing as well very drastically. Because of COVID-19 still ongoing, one of the worst possibilities is an extended period of lockdown and quarantine everywhere to avoid getting in contact with the virus but also to stop the spread of it. The last time I have done an article on 3 major pandemics in history, particularly in Roman and Byzantine history which were the Antonine Plague of the 2nd century, Plague of Justinian in the 6th century, and the Black Death in the 14th century and also the medieval origins of quarantine, a timely piece of information. The last time I mentioned that my next article would be a Roman and Byzantine Empire comparison, however that one would take too much time to write as it requires extensive research so this time I wanted to do another one relating to the situation of COVID-19 and the thought of the lockdowns all over the world and how it can affect us both good and bad. Now this article would be something rather more personal and an emotional piece at the same time as it reflects some of my thoughts on the lockdown during the coronavirus outbreak but it is also of course another Roman-Byzantine historical piece since I will relate to how certain Romans and Byzantine felt in facing self-isolation, thus this article is considered a special edition article. First of all, being on lockdown and having very limited space to go around and not being able to go out much as I used to is not so much a problem since I could survive months only staying at home now that there is such thing as the internet and online entertainment as well as things to do such as making an article like this and at the same time, I also have about a year’s worth of video games if I played nonstop. What bothers me however during lockdown is the thought of being confined to such a small space without having much access to the world outside for I don’t know how many more weeks which is basically the house I live in and my village which is quite small that it only takes 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other. Another thing bothering me about this is not just the thought of living this way under lockdown for so long but the fact that I’m actually going through this global crisis. Anyway, with all this happening, even back in Roman and Byzantine times, there were many stories of people who went through this kind of self-isolation for years not because of a pandemic but because they were forced to either by imposing it on themselves or because they had committed crimes and were forced to live their entire life in isolation, also this article will be exempting stories of imprisonment as this is more on comfortable self-isolated exiles or simply house arrests, since this situation now probably feels more like that than imprisonment. Since this blog page is about Roman and Byzantine history, I am limiting my stories here to people in those empires, which was basically the same empire if you think about it although with a few stories for exemptions later on including the exile of the family of the last Russian tsar and from fiction the case of Luke Skywalker in the new Star Wars trilogy and the whole premise of the game Fallout 4. This article will then mention first stories of forced self-isolation in certain islands during the Roman Empire period particularly in the time of Rome’s first imperial dynasty, the Julio-Claudians in the 1st century which will includes stories of imperial family members in their self-isolated exiles in which many of them had died in it. Next, I will focus on self-isolation and social distancing in the time of the Byzantine Empire which will be particularly on the Stylite saints, the ascetics who lived above columns their entire lives to stay away from everyone else in order to live in peace being the first to make social distancing popular. Afterwards I will discuss stories of some deposed Byzantine emperors and empresses who were forced to live quarantined for life in monasteries and how their lives had completely changed from the luxuries of the imperial court to the simple lifestyle of an ordinary monk or nun. The feeling of this quarantine period for me is something hard to get used to from always being out to all of a sudden having to be confined to such a small space, but I am alone here as everyone else is doing the same too and to further justify this feeling of mine, I will do this article as these people in history faced the same thing too getting used to a different kind of lifestyle all of a sudden. At the end of this article, my conclusion as the rest of this article is will be somewhat very deep and though this article is somewhat deep as it will go through some of my thoughts on lockdown, it will be quite an easy read too as it will not have too much scholarly information. After all, I am doing this article as a way to express myself in this time but also to show you viewers and Roman/ Byzantine history fans that even back then, emperors and rulers went through this kind of situation too especially after they were deposed.

Tips on how to avoid the Coronavirus from a Byzantine empress

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The 94 Emperors


The Julio-Claudians of Imperial Rome- Exiled in Islands


In the early 1st century AD, during the ruling period of the first emperors of Rome from the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, many imperial family members who were seen as a threat were forced into exile for their entire lives in islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea of Italy. The situation I am facing now that I with many others are in quarantine period is more like what these members of the Julio-Claudian ruling family faced being exiled in these small islands without seeing anything else but the land and the sea which is my feeling now that every day I see the same thing, basically the grass and streets of my village as well as the sky. These imperial family members were particularly Julia the Elder (39BC-14AD), the daughter of Rome’s first emperor Augustus Caesar (r. 27BC-14AD) and Julia’s daughters Julia the Younger (19BC-29AD) and Agrippina the Elder (14BC-33AD) and son Postumus Agrippa (12BC-14AD), as well as Agrippina’s children Nero Caesar (6-31AD), Drusus Caesar (7-33AD), Agrippina the Younger (15-59AD), and Julia Livilla (18-42AD). First of all, the first imperial family member to be banished was Augustus Caesar’s daughter Julia for some scandals she had been involved in. Julia had been married to Augustus’ trusted general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (62-12BC) and had 5 children with him including Augustus’ supposed successors Gaius and Lucius who died suddenly at the early years of the 1st century around the same time Julia was exiled; the other children of Julia and Agrippa were as mentioned earlier Julia the Younger, Agrippina the Elder, and Postumus Agrippa, however Marcus Agrippa had died too early to see his children grow up. After her husband Agrippa’s death, Augustus’ wife the empress Livia (59BC-29AD) had Augustus arrange for her son Tiberius to be married to Julia, although the marriage was not a happy one as Tiberius was still loyal to his ex-wife and because of an unhappy marriage, Julia began having affair with other men. In a theory but also shown in the Robert Graves novel and Tv series I, Claudius, Livia had been long planning to get rid of Julia and her children in order to clear the way for Tiberius to succeed Augustus as emperor so Livia could still continue ruling through her son the same way she did with her husband. In this story, Livia had her stepdaughter Julia go through a scandal of having an affair with a number of Rome’s senators in a single night but before that Julia had divorced Tiberius. Before Julia’s scandal, Tiberius had also lived in a kind of self-imposed isolation in the island of Rhodes where he stayed for a few years to get away from the busy life of Rome until he grew bored of living alone far away but in order to return to Rome, Julia had to be away so he could return as Augustus did not want his daughter anywhere near Tiberius who Augustus saw as a troublemaker. Now when Augustus found out about his daughter Julia’s affairs with numerous senators, he chose to simply banish her for that kind of behavior, yet he did not know Livia set it up. In 2BC, same year as the scandal, Julia was immediately banished to the island of Pandateria in the Tyrrhenian Sea (now called Ventotene) some kilometers away from the coast of the region of Lazio Italy, an island only 1.54sqkm. Today the island of Ventotene is much more inhabited and civilized having a population of 768 and a mayor but back in Roman times it was an isolated island barely inhabited by anyone except for maybe a few fishermen. Since this island was isolated and barely inhabited it was the perfect place to send a scandalous person like Julia into exile to rethink her whole life and to do this, the punishments had to be harsh which meant for the rest of her stay there, Julia was forbidden even to drink wine and to be in contact with any men and no men were allowed there except for the guards who would be watching her the entire time and the fishermen that lived there. On the positive side, Julia’s mother Scribonia who was Augustus’ first wife accompanied her to exile but for both of them, they only had each other to talk to and the same scenery of the sky, sea, and rocks every day, but still no visitors allowed except for boats coming in to bring food, now Julia’s exile to Pandateria is a true example of social distancing and isolation from the real world. In 4AD, after 5 years of living in exile in the small island of Pandateria, Augustus came to regret his decision of exiling his daughter to an isolated island but still did not want her to return to Rome or see her again, instead he moved her to an estate in the town of Rhegium in the mainland of Southern Italy where she would be at least allowed to own a property, have a yearly income, and be allowed to walk the town but under watch of Augustus’ agents. Now in the time Julia was exiled, her second son Lucius died of a fever in Gaul at only 18 in 2AD while her first son Gaius died of illness as well on a military expedition in Lycia at only 23 in 4AD. With Gaius and Lucius dead, their grandfather Augustus was left with no choice but to adopt his stepson Tiberius as his successor, thus Tiberius returned from self-isolation in Rhodes, however just to please his wife Livia did Augustus name Tiberius his successor when in fact he had plans to make his only surviving grandson Postumus Agrippa his successor.

Now Postumus was the youngest child of Marcus Agrippa and Julia and was already at a young age being trained to be a skilled general and politician like his older brothers Gaius and Lucius, however Postumus had an unpredictable personality, was violent, hard-headed, and cared for nothing really except fishing. In 6AD, resisting all efforts to improve his behavior, he went as far as to forcing his grandfather Augustus to step down from the throne but in return Augustus had him placed under house arrest in a villa and the next year he made clear to banish his grandson to the island of Planasia (now Pianosa), an island only 10.25sqkm off the coast of Tuscany in the Tyrrhenian Sea as well found between mainland Italy and Corsica. Like his mother Julia, Postumus was exiled to an island a small isolated island as well but the reason for Augustus to banish him there is though unclear but most probably Livia had set it up too as she hated Postumus and wanted to finally clear the way for her son Tiberius’ succession to throne as Postumus would be the last of the rivals for Tiberius. In 8AD, a year after Postumus was exiled, his older sister Julia the Younger had followed their mother’s footsteps too in being banished to island though in her case, she and her husband Lucius Aemilius Paullus had plotted against Augustus and with their plot uncovered the husband was executed and Julia the Younger banished to the small rocky island of Tremirius (now Isole Tremiti) in the Adriatic Coast of Italy some kilometers west off the coast from the Province of Foggia which faces the Adriatic; now this island was another small one being only 3.13sqkm, though Julia the Younger lived for over 20 years isolated in this small rocky island till she died in 29AD. Postumus meanwhile remained in the small rocky island of Planasia on the opposite side of Italy from Tremirius where his sister was; Postumus remained there for the next 7 years till his death in 14AD. Pianosa which was then called Planasia gets its name from the Latin word for “plain” its flat surface despite its rocky coastal outline, though today the island is only inhabited by 10 people and is marked with 3 fortresses all sticking out to the sea, also from 1856-1997 this island was used as a penal colony, which makes sense due to its small size and being isolated from everything else. Although before Roman times, Planasia had already a few huts built by early settlers and it was in these ancient huts where Postumus himself had settled in living alone all these years. Since it was hard to reach the actual island itself because of its rocky coastal outline, Augustus chose it as the best place to banish his grandson to and to further make it hard for him to leave and guests to come in, Augustus placed guards to watch over his grandson 24/7, also Augustus had ordered the senate to never allow his grandson’s release. Although in 14AD, Augustus and his senator friend Fabius Maximus travelled to Planasia itself according to the later historians Tacitus and Cassius Dio, where in this incident Augustus had gone there probably to makeup to his grandson though it is not said why Augustus went there but most likely he came there to reverse the plan of succession still believing Postumus as his rightful heir despite having him banished. In I, Claudius Augustus actually goes there to that island as a plan to check if his grandson is actually still alive so that he could finally come to succeed him, though after that visit, Augustus had never again returned to Rome as he suddenly died in August of 14AD in Nola. In his mind, Augustus had probably named Postumus his successor but died before he could clarify it, so instead Livia got things her way and from then on, Tiberius had succeeded Augustus as emperor. Shortly after Augustus’ death, Livia and Tiberius as the new emperor ordered the new Praetorian guard commander Lucius Aelius Sejanus to head to Planasia and kill Postumus and the orders were carried out, though 2 years later with Postumus dead his slave Clemens tried to impersonate him, yet the Roman people came to believe it forgetting how Postumus looked like. Meanwhile in the same year Augustus died and Postumus was assassinated, Julia the Elder who was still living in exile at Rhegium had died as well. Julia the Elder’s death, was most possibly caused by Tiberius’ actions once he became emperor and as emperor he was a lot more brutal than Augustus as he discontinued the privileges Julia had at her villa there basically because he hated her ever since, so it is highly possible that Tiberius had Julia locked up in her villa there and starved her to death, thus having his revenge.

Watch this to learn about how the Romans survived the Antonine Plague pandemic (from Invicta).

Roman Empire under Emperor Augustus
Julio-Claudian family


Many years later after Augustus’ death in 14AD during the reign of Tiberius (14-37AD), Agrippina the Elder, the younger sister of Julia the Younger and older sister of Postumus would also follow her mother’s footsteps of being exiled to island, and even more surprising, Agrippina was exiled to Pandateria, same island her mother Julia the Elder was exiled to in 2BC until moving to Rhegium in 4AD. Now Agrippina had been married to Tiberius’ nephew the successful general and Roman war hero Germanicus (15BC-19AD) known for finishing the war between the Romans and Germanic tribes and because of that he had become popular enough that the people would choose him as emperor over Tiberius. However, in 19AD at the time Germanicus was put in charge of the armies in Roman Syria, he suddenly died of an illness caused most probably by poison, yet it was unclear who was behind the plot to poison him, although Agrippina had certainly believed Tiberius was behind it conspiring with Germanicus’ political rival the senator Piso to poison him all the way in Syria as Tiberius had appointed Piso governor of Syria most likely to keep a close eye on Germanicus. Piso was however put on trial and after being found guilty of murder he killed himself, but this still did not stop Agrippina from suspecting Tiberius as her husband’s actual killer. Agrippina meanwhile was a strong and independent woman for Roman times that when she was still married to Germanicus she accompanied him in all his campaigns in the woods of Germania staying in the camps of the soldiers training them even and in fact in one incident during a raid of the Germanic tribes on one of the army camps, she led the soldiers in the defense against the Germans. Now if Agrippina was tough enough to lead soldiers in fighting the unpredictable Germanic tribes while her husband was out in the frontlines leading his soldiers in battle, she was tough enough to stand up against the hard-headed emperor Tiberius. While Tiberius had appointed his son Drusus the Younger as his successor, Agrippina had her own plans to elevate the positions of her and Germanicus’ sons Nero and Drusus Caesars to be Rome’s future emperors but because of this, Tiberius grew suspicious on Agrippina while Tiberius’ trusted agent and advisor Sejanus continued stirring up trouble behind Tiberius’ back as in 23AD he had secretly poisoned Tiberius’ son Drusus making it however clear for Agrippina to have Tiberius make either of her sons the next emperor as Tiberius’ grandsons were too young and Tiberius could die any sooner. Tiberius though was still intent to get rid of Agrippina still seeing her as a threat to his family’s succession while behind it all he did not know Sejanus was plotting to take the throne but also to get rid of Agrippina. In 26AD, Tiberius retired to the large island of Capri to live his whole life in luxury and away from the politics of Rome which was left to Sejanus though it only became worse as in Rome Sejanus had one by one eliminated Tiberius’ enemies only to make himself closer to actually getting rid of Tiberius himself. Now in his reign, Tiberius had set up countless treason trials wherein numerous of those suspected as enemies of the state were executed or imprisoned and one of those accused of treason was Agrippina in 27AD basically because of her plans to put her sons in power, however unlike Sejanus who was discreet on his plot to take over the empire, Agrippina was open about it. In 29AD, Sejanus delivered his final attack on Agrippina and at that same time, Tiberius had made it final that Agrippina would be sentenced to exile in Pandateria, same island her mother was exiled to some 30 years ago. While Agrippina was exiled to the small rocky island of Pandateria, her eldest son Nero was exiled to the even more sparse and depopulated island of Ponza which was although slightly larger than Pandateria and only a few kilometers west of Pandateria, although both mother and son were not permitted to see each other despite their islands being close to each other. The punishment for Agrippina’s treason against Tiberius’ rule was exile basically as a way to punish her by reflecting on her thoughts and words as she had always wanted to rule the empire despite her not knowing the responsibilities of it, which is basically the reason why Tiberius exiled her to that small island, not only to suffer the same way her mother did but to have the island as her own empire and see how tiring it is to run one. In reality it was a lot worse being in that island despite being alone without anyone else because after a time you’d grow bored without talking to anyone especially for a person like Agrippina who was so used to socializing and openly speaking about her ambitions. Agrippina remained in that island in solitary exile except for the guards stationed to make sure she doesn’t escape until her death 4 years later in 33AD. According to the historian Suetonius, Agrippina’s death was caused by losing an eye after being beaten by the centurion in charge of guarding her while the historian Tacitus says Agrippina’s death was caused by starvation whether or not it was self-imposed or she was starved to death. Her son Nero meanwhile died in 31AD in Ponza, 2 years before his mother either by being executed by Tiberius’ orders or committing suicide to avoid execution. For the other son Drusus meanwhile, in 30AD a year after his mother and brother were exiled, he was accused of plotting against Tiberius as well and was thrown into the prison of Palatine Hill dying 3 years later (33AD) from starvation being left with nothing to eat in prison but the stuffing of his bed. Though before Agrippina, Nero, and Drusus died Sejanus’ plots were already exposed to Tiberius including poisoning Tiberius’ son, so Sejanus too was arrested, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. Tiberius lived till 37AD dying in Capri ironically appointing Agrippina and Germanicus’ third son Gaius “Caligula” as his successor. With Caligula as emperor (r. 37-41AD), he collected the ashes of his mother and brothers and returned them to Rome as they were popular among the people as the family of Germanicus, although ironically in 39AD as Caligula turned into the mad emperor he is known as, he exiled his 2 younger sisters Agrippina the Younger and Julia Livilla to Ponza, same island his older brother Nero was exiled to as he suspected them of plotting against him. However, Caligula was assassinated by his Praetorian Guards in 41AD replacing him with his uncle Claudius (r. 41-54AD), the younger brother of Germanicus as emperor and once coming to the throne, Claudius recalled his 2 nieces Agrippina the Younger and Julia Livilla to Rome. Now Emperor Claudius I would be a good example of social distancing in his earlier years as he basically remained away from the spotlight spending most of his time alone at home studying and writing books, also because he was a person with disabilities but it was only at an old age when he came into the spotlight as he became emperor. Now speaking of those exiled to the islands, it was probably not all to bad for them as they had a great scenery except that everyday would be the same, basically what quarantine feels like.

Watch “Revenge of Germania” to see the story of Agrippina the Elder and Germanicus in Lego (from No Budget Films).


The Stylite Saints of Byzantium


Now we fast-forward into history to the successor empire of the Romans, the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire, when the Roman Empire had become a strongly Christian Empire. For the Christians of the Byzantine Empire, holiness was defined by living an ascetic lifestyle completely distancing yourself socially as way to avoid temptation in order to control yourself. Ever since the early days of Christianity in the time of the Roman Empire, Christians have lived their lives for years as ascetics (hermits) especially in the deserts of Egypt and the Middle East as way to both avoid sin and temptation but also to be closer to God. One of the greatest examples of the early Christian ascetics was the hermit St. Anthony (251-356) living for more than a hundred years, most of it in isolation in the deserts of Egypt. Now during the early days of the Byzantine Empire, many Christian ascetics began to live their lives in isolation above columns in the various cities of the Eastern Roman Empire including its capital Constantinople as well as in Asia Minor, Greece, and Syria. These Christian hermits who lived above columns were known as Stylites, and in the history of Byzantium there were 124 stylite saints according to a report as late as the 19th century. Although these stylite saints did not only appear in the early days of Byzantium as after the Latin Crusader conquest of Constantinople in 1204, the French Crusader chronicler Robert de Clari reports that he saw hermits in Constantinople living above columns for years. These stylite saints have lived above columns for years meditating, praying, and fasting without ever leaving, although communities would develop around them at the base of the column believing these hermits had miraculous powers that could heal them, though these stylites being above the columns distanced themselves from their supporters that way. Now during this time of quarantine, if you are stuck in a unit many levels above the ground suspended in the air, think about those stylites of Byzantium that they were able to live in such as small space without ever moving for years usually till they died, but at least the advantage of living above these columns was that they could see everything from above like the city skyline. These stylites once climbing above these columns to live in them had gone as far as to not move their bodies in order to weaken them believing that weakening their bodies would help ensure the salvation of their souls. Now the goal of other stylite saints of the Byzantine Empire were to outdo the other stylite saints they knew by beating their record of number of years living above columns. The most famous Byzantine stylite saint is St. Simeon the Elder (390-459), a son of a shepherd from Asia Minor who entered monastic life at an early age and from that early age, he had already taken that life too extreme that he was asked to leave the monastery spending an entire Lent season in a hut without ever eating or drinking, thus miraculously surviving it, afterwards he chose to live alone in a narrow space between 2 rocks in the mountains of Asia Minor, but because of this feat of living alone under a rock, crowds flocked to him pestering him for blessing but Simeon did not want the crowds so instead he chose an all new lifestyle to totally distance himself from the crowds, which was to live in a small platform above a 3 meter pillar he discovered somewhere in Syria wherein he would get very minimal food of bread and goat’s milk delivered to him from boys from the nearby monastery, and he would receive them from a bucket lifted by a pulley. However when the monastic elders of the monastery found out about Simeon’s feat of living above the column for such a long time they suspected he was doing it out of pride and not humility so they decided that if he doesn’t obey and refuses to come down they’d drag him but if he submitted to them he would be allowed to remain above the pillar, however he chose to submit so they allowed him to stay. The next pillar he found was 15m high located near the city of Aleppo in Syria where he lived for 37 years till his death in 459, and over the years as Simeon remained above the column people would gather below it asking him for blessings until word of his ascetic feat spread all over the empire even reaching the court of the Byzantine emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-450) himself and as a devout Christian, Theodosius II came to respect St. Simeon and whatever he was doing. Now the British historian Edward Gibbon writes that according to a Syriac source, St. Simeon above the column was exposed to the hot summers and cold winters yet he miraculously survived them all while this Syriac source also says St. Simeon fastened himself above the column to restrict his movements and prevent himself from sitting down, but his restraints chafed on his flesh and revealed the bone and sinew, then 3 joints on his spine were dislocated because he constantly bent down and stood up again when he prayed; while also this source says for 9 months the boils on his left foot oozed pus and worms which fell to the ground with a stench so great that people had to smear cedar resin under their noses as they approached him. Meanwhile the emperors Theodosius II, his successor Marcian (r. 450-457), and his successor Leo I the Thracian (r. 457-474) came to admire Simeon for his ascetic feat that Simeon had even asked one of these 3 emperors to build a wall around his pillar so that he could no longer have any contact with the people who constantly pestered, meanwhile he did not allow even his mother to go near him and when his mother died he asked that her coffin be brought up to him to say goodbye to her. Simeon died in 459 living 37 years above the pillar near Aleppo and when he was found dead in that same pillar, a disciple found his body stooped in prayer and buried in a nearby church. This pillar though survived for centuries until only in 2016 when it was unfortunately hit by a missile.

Because of St. Simeon’s great feat of living above a column for years till he died, his disciple St. Daniel the Stylite sought to imitate his master’s lifestyle by also choosing to live above a column, though Daniel chose a column somewhere north of Constantinople beginning his residence there sometime after Simeon’s death in 459. However, Daniel squatted in a pillar belonging to someone’s property and the owner of the property appealed to the emperor Leo I himself and the Patriarch of Constantinople St. Gennadius to force Daniel out of there but the patriarch instead did not listen to the landowner and allowed Daniel to live above it even ordaining Daniel as a priest, while the Holy Orders took place with Daniel still above the column, now that’s a perfect example of an event happening with complete social distancing. Daniel then became famous for living above that column that he decided to move to a taller one so the emperor Leo I who had become a fan of Daniel decided to build a taller one next to it as well as a plank so Daniel could move to the next one from the one he was at, however the taller column was almost destroyed by a thunderstorm which almost killed Daniel, Leo I then wanted to execute the column’s architect but Daniel intervened to spare the architect’s life. Daniel lived above the column surviving numerous rain and snow storms as well as the strong north wind from Thrace which one time snatched his thin clothes away leaving him naked exposed to the icy rain that one day his disciples found him almost dead with him long hair and beard entirely glued to his skin that they had to thaw him with hot water, though after waking up Daniel claimed that he did not feel anything saying he dreamt of sleeping on a comfortable couch under warm blankets; Daniel too above the column had suffered several sores, cuts, and ulcers on his feet from constantly standing. St. Daniel though did not beat his master St. Simeon’s record of living above the column as St. Daniel only stayed above the column for 33 years until he died in 493, however in his life above the column he was frequently visited by the emperors Leo I and Zeno (r. 474-491). Other than St. Simeon and St. Daniel, Byzantine scholars report other extreme cases of stylites such as one reported by the theologian St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390) who lived in a mountaintop cave in Palestine for over 25 years and one hermit reported by the theologian St. Theodoret of Cyrus (393-466) who had stayed for 10 years in a tub suspended in midair from poles. Other than stylites, another extremist form of ascetics were the Dendrites like the Stylites except they chose to isolate themselves above trees and there were the Grazers who lived out in the wild for years without even preparing their meals and instead fed off from the earth until they ended up behaving like wild animals that they ran away whenever seeing people, thus making this an extreme case of social distancing while other ascetics tried to distance themselves from people by standing still covering themselves with animal skins. In Byzantium, the stylite saints or other hermits were so much more extreme than western monks as in the west monks lived in isolation in communities with other monks while in Byzantium these monks took it to an all new level totally isolating themselves from everything else.

Stylite saints- social distancing in Byzantium
Stylite saint comic


Exiled Byzantine Emperors Part1


If Byzantine ascetic saints chose to distance themselves from people in order to live holier lives, emperors who were deposed meanwhile were forced to live away from society usually in monasteries till they died without ever being allowed to leave. Monasteries in fact would be the most humane punishment for a deposed emperors as many other deposed emperors like Maurice in 602, Justinian II in 711, Alexios II in 1183, Andronikos I in 1185, and Alexios V in 1204 would end up being executed by the usurping emperor while other deposed emperors like Isaac II Angelos in 1195 were blinded and imprisoned by the usurping emperor and John V imprisoned for a time in 1376 before returning to power in 1379, though many deposed emperors were blinded as a way to disable them from taking the throne. Now before getting to the lives of the exiled emperors, one Byzantine emperor who could perfectly survive during quarantine is Julian the Apostate (r. 361-363) as he never really wanted the life of an emperor, instead he would rather spend his life studying philosophy and wouldn’t mind staying in the same place doing it. However, Julian was a tragic character as he was appointed the successor of his cousin Constantius II (r. 337-361) when in fact Constantius II came to throne killing off Julian’s father for being suspected as a traitor, Julian though ruled short and died in 363 in battle against the Sassanid Persian Empire, thus his plan to return the old Roman Pagan religion was never achieved. Julian’s predecessor Constantius II just to mention is a perfect example of being hygienic in order to avoid getting a virus like the one now especially since in one story when he entered Rome in a triumphal procession in 357, he sat still for hours in is carriage without ever touching his face, spitting, or rubbing his nose, that way you could surely avoid getting a virus. Now on to the deposed emperors, the first one to be exiled and isolated was Basiliscus (r. 475-476) who came to power in 475 after deposing Zeno, the Isaurian general and son-in-law of Leo I; Zeno at first only ruled for a few months after succeeding his son Leo II who died in childhood after ruling for a few months in 474 succeeding his grandfather Leo I. Since Zeno was an Isaurian, meaning of foreign blood and not Greek, he was unpopular and dethroned in 475 and Basilicus, his wife Ariadne’s uncle replaced him as emperor while Zeno fled to his native Isauria in the Taurus Mountains of Asia Minor, though Basiliscus sent as army led by the other Isaurian general Illus to capture Zeno, but instead Illus defected to Zeno’s side and marched back to Constantinople with Zeno in 476 eventually overthrowing Basiliscus who when overthrown hid in a church but when found, Zeno agreed to simply banish him and not shed any of his blood. Instead, Zeno banished Basiliscus and his family- his wife Aelia Zenonis and son Marcus to Cappadocia where they would die the slow way being enclosed in a dry cistern and only within months, during the winter of early 477 Basiliscus and his family died of starvation and lack of sunlight but also because of the brutal winter of Cappadocia. Many of the next deposed Byzantine emperors though would be forced to live their lives a simple monks in monasteries such as the usurper Leontios who in 695 overthrew Emperor Justinian II, slit his nose, and banished him to Cherson in the Crimea though 3 years later in 698 Leontios was overthrown by a military commander who became Emperor Tiberius III Apsimar (r. 698-705); Leontios like Justinian II got his nose cut as well and was confined in a Constantinople monastery for the rest of Tiberius III’s reign until 705 when Justinian II returned to power wherein when being re-crowned had both Leontios and Tiberius III displayed at the Hippodrome and beheaded while their bodies dumped in the sea. Justinian II though would be overthrown for a second time in 711 and this time actually beheaded and from then on there would be a change of Byzantine emperor every 2 years starting with Philippikos Bardanes (r. 711-713), then Anastasius II (r. 713-715), and Theodosius III (r. 715-717) though Theodosius III would be forced to step down from power in 717 replaced by Leo III the Isaurian (r. 717-741) while Theodosius III was confined to a monastery though interestingly the same year he was overthrown, he became Bishop of Ephesus. Leo III became known for instituting Byzantium’s Iconoclast movement which would go on for more than a century while his son Constantine V (r. 741-775) would take the Iconoclast movement even more seriously, but in 742 after Constantine V became emperor, his brother-in-law, the Armenian general Artavasdos who helped Leo III take the throne in 717 and had married Leo III’s daughter Anna usurped the throne from Constantine V believing Leo III promised him the throne but in the next year when his and Constantine V’s forces clashed in battle, Artavasdos lost and together with his 2 sons were blinded on Constantine V’s orders and afterwards, all 3 of them were confined for life in the Monastery of Chora outside Constantinople. The death date of Artavasdos and his sons remain unknown but Artavasdos as a supporter of the icons took the throne to revive the use of icons which Leo III and his son campaigned against. Constantine V had remained in power for many more years and after his death in 775 was succeeded by his son Leo IV who died in 780 ruling for only 5 years only to be succeeded by his son Constantine VI (r. 780-797) who was too young so his mother, Leo IV’s widow Irene of Athens ruled as his regent and at that time temporarily ended Iconoclasm. However, when Constantine VI grew up, he wanted to get rid of his mother’s influence, though he failed and in 797, Irene overthrew her son and blinded him sending him to live his entire life alone blind in a monastery till his death sometime before 805. Irene (r. 797-802) became the first female ruler of Byzantium but at the end the empress also ended up overthrown in 802 after agreeing to a marriage union with the newly crowned Holy Roman emperor of the west Charlemagne, but this decision of Irene got the people to rise up against her for agreeing to marry someone the Byzantines thought of as barbaric. Irene was then declared deposed and replaced by the finance minister Nikephoros I (r. 802-811) who banished Irene to Lesbos where her life completely changed being a nun and forced to spin wool, though in 803, a year after being exiled there, she died possibly because from the heartbreak of losing the throne. Nikephoros I however did not rule long enough as in 811 he was killed in battle against the Bulgarians who turned his skull into a drinking cup and was succeeded by his son Staurakios (r. 811) who was however paralyzed from the battle that killed his father so his reign only lasted for 2 months as his injuries were too severe, instead he was as usual sent to a monastery where he died the next year. Staurakios was succeeded by his brother-in-law Michael I Rangabe who had also stayed in power for so short as after 2 years, in 813 he abdicated from power in order to not be overthrown by the rebel army of the general Leo the Armenian, Michael I was then forced to retire to a monastery in the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea off the coast from Constantinople where he would remain a monk for several years until he died there in 844; Michael I’s son Niketas who also became a monk with his father later became Patriarch Ignatios of Constantinople. Years later, an empress who would be sent into a nunnery was Theodora in 857, the mother of Emperor Michael III (r. 842-867) and like Irene, Theodora ruled as regent for her son and ended the Iconoclast movement for good but when Michael III grew up he wanted to be independent from his mother interfering so he had her banished to a nunnery in Constantinople where she would die 10 years later, 867 the same year her son was assassinated by the Macedonian peasant who became Emperor Basil I (r. 867-886), the founder of the Macedonian Dynasty.

Byzantine Monastery, exile place for deposed emperors


Exiled Byzantine Emperors Part2


In the era of Byzantium’s Macedonian emperors, many of its rulers, empresses in particular ended up exiled after failing in schemes in taking power. The first of the empresses of the Macedonian Dynasty to end up banished to a nunnery for life was Zoe Karbonopsina in 919, mother and regent of the younger emperor Constantine VII. Zoe was empress regent for her son after her husband, Constantine VII’s father Leo VI (r. 886-912), Basil I’s son died unexpectedly in 912 although for year from 912-913, Leo VI was succeeded by his brother and co-emperor Alexander but only a year into his reign he unexpectedly died too, which meant the young Constantine VII came to power under the regency for his mother. However, the regency for the young Constantine VII was chaotic as the council of regents fought with each other for the future of the young emperor and after a failed military expedition in Bulgaria, in 919 a rival faction of the regency in Byzantium led by the Armenian admiral Romanos Lekapenos, a commoner by birth seized the throne to protect the young emperor and forced the empress into the nunnery of St. Euphemia in Constantinople for life. The admiral however did not fully protect the young emperor, instead he became crowned Emperor Romanos I (r. 920-944) and ruled a successful reign while the young Constantine VII was demoted to the lowest rank of co-emperor as Romanos put all his sons in power including appointing one of them Patriarch of Constantinople and marrying his daughter to the young Constantine VII. Ironically, Romanos I met the same fate as the empress he banished as in the end of 944 he too was banished to a monastery as his sons, the co-emperors Stephen and Constantine Lekapenos fearing their old father will not choose them as his successors broke into their father’s room, arrested him, and sent him away to a monastery in the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea. Although some 2 weeks later in the beginning of 945, the rightful emperor Constantine VII returned to power after such a long time by deposing the usurping brothers and ironically exiling them to the same monastery as their father. The story of Romanos’ exile to a monastery shows a complete change of lifestyle which he would undergo for the rest of his life having such a drastic transition from the lavish feasts and comfort of the imperial palace to the simple and uncomfortable lifestyle in a monastery. When the sons arrived in the monastery their father was sent to, their father appeared looking nothing more but a simple monk greeting his sons as if they were the emperors saying that he had nothing to offer them but boiled water as cold as snow and nothing to eat but beans and leeks, this then shows that no matter how powerful you were, when sent to monastery you were forced to live and eat like the monks and for 4 year until his death in 948, the deposed Romanos I remained in that monastery, though Constantine and Stephen were allowed to leave the monastery but instead exiled to separate Greek islands in the Aegean to live the rest of their lives. On the other hand, the rightful emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 913-959) is another perfect example of a person who would perfectly survive quarantine life like the emperors Claudius I and Julian before him as like those 2 emperors of the past, Constantine VII was a true introvert, a total scholar, and artist who spent most of his life indoors doing what he loved most, reading and writing books, and compared to Romanos I and his sons who were sent to live in the monastery hating it as they were energetic men of action, Constantine VII would have loved the life of the monastery because of the peace but wouldn’t love it too much as well as he enjoyed living in the palace with all the luxuries including a mechanical throne that can be elevated that he saw no need to travel his empire and socializing with foreign rulers even was done in his throne room impressing them with his mechanical throne. Throughout his life, Constantine VII wrote and compiled books on his empire, its regions, and people without ever travelling it and instead he discussed his empire all based on reports from agents while just staying in his desk. Now during quarantine and you want to see the world so badly or know what is happening, be like Constantine VII and read stories about them and picture them in your head, and that way you can even make stories out of them. Constantine VII had left behind for his son and successor Romanos II (r. 959-963) and instruction manual for running the complicated Byzantine Empire, though the scholarly emperor Constantine VII met his death in 959 poisoned by his daughter-in-law, Romanos II’s wife Theophano, a commoner from Byzantine era Sparta who in 963 also allegedly poisoned and killed her husband but still remained empress after marrying the war hero general Nikephoros II Phokas, who became emperor in the same year (963). However, Theophano as usual again had plotted against her husband the emperor and in December of 969, Theophano with her new lover, the general John Tzimiskes plotted to assassinate Nikephoros II and one night the emperor was killed in his sleep and John I Tzimiskes was crowned emperor by the patriarch only if he agreed to the patriarch’s terms of executing his conspirators who joined him in killing Nikephoros II and banishing Theophano instead of marrying her. John I agreed to the terms, executed the assassins, and instead of marrying Theophano he married Constantine VII’s daughter Theodora and banished Theophano the Princes’ Islands as well to live the rest of her life there isolated in the island of Prote without ever being allowed to leave, although after John I’s death in 976, Theophano and Romanos II’s son Basil II (r. 976-1025) came to power and allowed his mother to be freed, Theophano though died probably 2 years after. The Macedonian Dynasty lived on to the next century, its last ruler was Basil II’s niece Theodora (r. 1055-1056) and after her death, she was succeeded by the military finance minister Michael VI Bringas (r. 1056-1057) who however got into a conflict with the general Isaac Komnenos and was forced to abdicate and live as a monk in a monastery, 2 years later (1059) he died in the same monastery he retired to. The next emperor Isaac I Komnenos (r. 1057-1059) grew up orphaned in the Stoudion Monastery in Constantinople but becoming a general, he would later take throne in 1059 but after pulling a muscle during a hunt, he fell into a fever wherein he thought he would almost die, he then chose to abdicate from power and return to the same monastery he grew up in. Isaac I when retiring to that monastery had a complete change of lifestyle from being on in the action as a general and emperor, he ended becoming nothing but a humble doorman without ever complaining or leaving the monastery, he however died a year later. Isaac I when abdicating appointed his most trusted man, the general Constantine X Doukas (r. 1059-1067) as the next emperor, though the new emperor was a weak ruler and so was his son Michel VII Doukas (r. 1071-1078). In 1078, a military rebellion led by generals Nikephoros Bryennios and Nikephoros Botaneiates forced Michael VII to abdicate, so Michael VII left behind his wife and young son and retired to the Stoudion Monastery as well becoming a monk for years, though later he ended up becoming the Bishop of Ephesus before dying in 1090 in Constantinople. The emperor who took over from Michael VII, Nikephoros III Botaneiates only stayed in power for 3 years as in 1081, he was overthrown by the rebellion of the general Alexios Komnenos and escorted to the Peribleptos Monastery of Constantinople where he remained for the rest of the year, dying in December. In one story, the deposed Nikephoros III was asked what he missed most about the imperial court life, he said he missed the food and feasting, which was not present at the monastery.


Exiled Byzantine Emperors Part3


In 1081, the general Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118), nephew of Isaac I, became Byzantine emperor, much of his story is written in the form of an ancient Greek epic in a book called The Alexiad by his daughter Anna Komnene (1081-1153) while she was living in isolation later on life. Before Alexios I’s death in 1118, his wife Irene was plotting to make their daughter Anna the next ruler as she was the eldest child of theirs but Alexios did not agree wanting his son John to succeed him which his wife totally did not agree with thinking John was nothing but useless, on the other hand Alexios I learned from his history that female rulers like the Irene of Athens brought disaster to the Byzantine state. Before dying, Alexios I quickly named John his successor and early in the morning John II was crowned emperor, though when Anna woke up her plans failed as her brother became emperor. Anna and her mother still would never stop plotting to take the throne but when John II discovered the plot, he later had his older sister Anna banished to a convent in Constantinople founded by their mother for life. Anna remained her entire life in that nunnery while her brother was emperor (till his death in 1143) as well as during the reign of her nephew Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180), John II’s son. Sometime in the 1140s, Anna while in isolation at the nunnery wrote her famous book The Alexiad, a true Byzantine era Greek style literary epic, except this book was not fictional, it rather told the story of her father Alexios I’s life describing him as a superhuman warrior, while the book had also describes the Byzantines’ view from her eyes of the first time the Crusaders arrived in her father’s court in the 1190s describing as well the traits and appearances of these First Crusade leaders from Western Europe. Anna Komnene died in isolation in that same nunnery in 1153 but she still remains one of the most famous Byzantine authors other than Constantine VII in writing a detailed account on the happenings of her time. Not so long after Anna Komnene’s death, Constantinople itself would fall to the army of the 4th Crusade and the Byzantines of Constantinople exiled to the city of Nicaea to build a temporary empire there which in a short matter of time grew to be a successful empire ready to take back Constantinople. John III Doukas Vatatzes (r. 1222-1254), the exiled Byzantine emperor of Nicaea could show a few tricks on how to sustain yourself during a lockdown as Byzantine Nicaea under him was basically a state in lockdown in terms of trade as he did not allow the trade of foreign goods in his empire, probably a way to economically weaken the trading power of the Venetians, the enemy of the Byzantines then; instead John III made sure everyone in his empire farmed their own crops and animals instead of importing them. John III’s grandson John IV Laskaris (r. 1258-1261) would be Nicaea’s last ruler before they took back Constantinople but he met a tragic end being self-isolated at a very young age. John IV was only 7 when coming to power after his father Theodore II Laskaris (r. 1254-1258), John III’s son suddenly died after only 4 years in power, meanwhile John IV’s mother the Bulgarian Elena Asenina had already died as well, and the boy emperor’s first regent his father’s friend George Mouzalon was killed in Theodore II’s funeral, thus the regency was taken over by the general Michael Palaiologos who’s army in 1261 recaptured Constantinople and behind John IV’s back, Michael crowned himself the restored Byzantine emperor Michael VIII (r. 1261-1282) and in John’s 11thbirthday at the end of the year, Michael gave him a gift of blinding him. The now blinded John IV was deposed and banished to a fortress where he lived the next 29 years in a small room no longer seeing anything; now this is a tragic story of forced self-isolation as the boy had done nothing yet he was only a child who lost both his parents and had dreams to be emperor of Constantinople restored to the Byzantines, but were all suddenly crushed on his 11th birthday. Only 29 years later in 1290 did the now adult John Laskaris have contact with the outside world but still unable to see anything, here Michael VIII’s son Andronikos II Palaiologos (r. 1282-1328), now having become emperor after his father’s death in 1282 made a visit to John Laskaris’ fortress where he apologized for his father’s attitude to John especially since Andronikos was the reason Michael VIII had John blinded so that Andronikos would be his father’s successor but and after Andronikos apologized, John Laskaris was in fact released from house arrest and allowed to live in Constantinople but being blind, he was unable to make himself emperor, John Laskaris then died in 1305. Andronikos II too met a tragic end in 1328 being overthrown by his grandson Andronikos III Palaiologos who won the civil war against his grandfather marching into Constantinople. The old Andronikos II was forced to abdicate and again live the rest of his life in a Constantinople monastery as a monk dying 4 years later in 1332. The grandson Andronikos III (r. 1328-1341) had a successful rule but met his end too soon in 1341 from malaria without naming his young son John V his successor believing he could live for many more years and because of this, a larger civil war broke out between the young John V’s supporters and Andronikos III’s trusted advisor John Kantakouzenos and his supporters ending in 1347 with John Kantakouzenos winning and crowned Emperor John VI who in 1354 however lost another civil war against the John V who returned to power. The deposed John VI was forced to retire to a monastery in Southern Greece using the name Joasaph but unlike all the other deposed emperors in monasteries, John VI was allowed to leave at certain points in some years but nevertheless remained in that same monastery which gave him time to write books including a history where he documented the Black Death Plague in Byzantium. Sometime in 1367, John VI now a monk left the monastery and travelled to Constantinople to negotiate a Church union with the Latin patriarch and in 1379, his grandson the emperor Andronikos IV after 3 years in power fled when his father John V returned again to power and arrested his grandfather the former emperor John VI. Now John VI’s daughter Helena was married to John V and in 1379 when John V and his 2 other sons Manuel and Theodore escaped the prison, Andronikos IV blamed Helena his mother for releasing his father and brothers so he arrested his mother and her father the monk John VI together with John VI’s other daughters Theodora and Maria holding all 4 of them in a fortress in the Galata District of Constantinople for 2 years until a treaty between John V and his son Andronikos IV was signed in 1381. The old John VI was then allowed to return to his monastery where he died 2 years later in 1383 being a little more than 90-years-old. Now, this completes the story of the exiled Byzantine emperors forced to live their lives in isolation or in very cramped spaces.

Watch this and see chapters 2, 4, and 7 to see the story of John IV Laskaris in Lego (from No Budget Films).




The last historical story to mention here on being forced into isolation in a small space is the Ipatiev House outside the city of Yekaterinburg in Russia where the last Russian tsar and his family were sent into exile and house arrest before being executed there. Since the Russian Empire is the successor empire of both the Roman and Byzantine Empires and also the Third Rome and the Russian tsar the successor of the Byzantine emperors, the Russian Empire ended in this kind of situation too involving strict confinement. In 1917, the Russian Revolution took over the country and the last tsar of Russia Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and leave the capital, St. Petersburg. By April 30, 1918, the former tsar Nicholas II, his wife the former tsarina Alix of Hesse, their 4 daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and their son Alexei as well as their doctor and 3 servants moved into the Ipatiev House under the watch of the Soviet army Ural division which turned this mansion to be called “House of Special Purpose” which meant the place they would hold the deposed imperial family and keep them there as ordered. The tsar and his family then had the feeling of total isolation from the rest of the world while being watched at the same time as their lifestyle has completely changed from the luxurious life of the palace to being watched by the new army of Russia. In that house the tsar and his family were only allowed limited exercise at the yard to get fresh air while inside all windows were painted over in order for them to not get the slightest look of the outside world, although the tsar and his family were given rooms in the upper floor of the house while the lower floor was for the guards. The tsar and his family were kept in that house for 78 days until midnight of 16-17 July, 1918 when the new commanding officer of the house guards Yakov Yurovsky came in and went to the upper floor ordering the doctor to wake up the whole family telling them they had to evacuate again to another house with the reason being that the enemy army of the guards, the White Army located the house. Within only 30 minutes, the tsar’s family and servants packed up and were led to the basement where moments later after staying still waiting, they were tricked as Yurovsky and his men open-fired at them. However, it took between 20-30 minutes for them to all be killed as the tight space of the room made the slaughter difficult while the tsar’s family kept jewels beneath their clothes causing the bullets to deflect, instead to effectively finish them off, they were stabbed. The house of the execution although does not exist anymore today, instead it was replaced with the Church on the Blood as a memorial for the executed imperial family.

Now being on lockdown in the sense of being cut-off from the outside world has made me think of another similar story, except this time in fiction, which is in the new Star Wars trilogy, the self-imposed exile of Luke Skywalker for many years in the ocean planet of Ahch-to. For me, being confined to my house and small village which has a good amount of space, hills, and grass makes me think of being Luke Skywalker on Ahch-to distancing himself from everyone and most especially cutting himself off from the force feeling that he has failed to return the Jedi Order when his nephew Ben Solo who he trained turned against him. Once he saw his plans turn to failure and his Jedi Temple burned, Luke escaped to the unknown planet of Ahch-to in his X-wing so that no one will ever find him and once landing there finding the island where the Jedi Order began which had already been reduced to ruined structures, he landed his X-wing underwater in order to strand himself in that island for life. From then on, every day for Luke would be the same having the same routine eventually making him lose connection with the force that he could even feel the suffering happening across the galaxy. When in Ahch-to Luke had most possibly remained in that not so large but scenic island, which in reality is the island of Skellig Michael found south of the coast of Ireland and the ruins of the original Jedi Temple being the ruins of a 6th century monastic settlement where ascetic monks like those in Byzantium chose to live in isolation where at least there they lived on the ground unlike in Byzantium where ascetics like the Stylites lived for years above columns. In that island Luke had basically no communication with anyone, when in fact he may not have even talked with the Lanai caretakers there, and at the most the only other living things he had interactions with were the animals native to the planet. Luke’s location was only discovered later on by the Resistance and the only time he finally got in contact with someone from beyond the planet was with Rey when she arrived there asking Luke to train her which he at first chose not to but when he did, he only felt the Jedi must end. Luke at the end still never left the island and instead only projected himself across the galaxy using the force dying afterwards and joining the force. Only when dead did Luke realize he was wrong to think of ending the Jedi as Rey planned to do the same as Luke and strand herself in that island after seeing a dark possibility of her future until Luke’s force ghost appeared telling her she must continue the fight. Now out all the Star Wars exile stories I see Luke Skywalker’s is surely the one that relates to the lockdown situation and being cut-off from the rest of the world cause he actually managed to do it while Obi-Wan Kenobi exiled in Tatooine to hide from the Empire most likely had been interacting with people a lot all over the planet and had even fought using his lightsaber while Yoda exiled in Dagobah was something else because all those years alone wouldn’t be much as he had already lived for centuries.

Now another story in fiction I see a lot of similarities to is the game Fallout4 where a nuclear explosion part of the 1-day long Great War between the USA and China annihilated much of the Commonwealth (Boston and Massachusetts) and those who were to hide from it had to live their entire lives in underground vaults to stay away from radiation, a deadlier form of disease much deadlier than a virus and is present in the air. However, the radiation situation of Fallout is so much worse than this as no matter how many years have passed, the Commonwealth was still heavily affected by the nuclear damage and nothing could ever be rebuilt to normal. Your character meanwhile was evacuated from the house and forced to live in underground vault when at first thinking it was temporary but instead was frozen in a pod together with all the other people who entered the vault as a form of experiment by the vault company. Now in that vault, all the residents were in fact frozen when they thought they would be sanitized in them while the staff remained in that tight underground space for months until the food supply ran out and the guards rebelled against and killed the scientists thus escaping the vault probably dying after their escape from the nuclear damage which still remained heavy as no “all clear” signal was given yet. Your player meanwhile had remained frozen in the pod and so did everyone else except waking up only once seeing a mysterious group of people kidnap your baby son until later on you wake up seeing your spouse dead and all the other residents dead from suffocation while only you survived as the vault is totally abandoned with the skeletons of the scientists scattered in the floor. Only later when you exit the vault into the post-apocalyptic world do you find out you have been frozen in the vault for 200 years but still came out in the same body as you were 200 years ago making you the oldest person in the Commonwealth. When in the vault, you had no concept of the passage of time while also the freezing prevented you from aging but when coming out of the vault, your mission is to find your kidnapped son Shaun when at the end you find out it had been 60 years since he was taken and had been used to create humans using his uncorrupted pre-war DNA and when finally seeing him, he is actually older than you being already 60 although in reality being about 210, turns out he is also the head of the Institute using the name Father. When exploring the world of Fallout4 which was once Massachusetts, you would see another vault, which is Vault 81 that had survived these 200 years wherein generations were born and died in that vault without ever seeing the world outside.

Ipatiev House “House of Special Purpose” in 3D
Coming out of Quarantine Star Wars meme


Alright, now I’ve come to the conclusion so basically the situation has gone out of hand but at least we handle them much better than people before as back then like during the Plague of Justinian or the Black Death, people did not think of going on quarantine, which is why a lot more had died. Now about the quarantine, sometimes I think it will make me insane especially just having such a small space to go around for weeks but on the other hand I should just remember this moment has given me time to rest and be productive and even do articles like this. I could think about this way that quarantine despite not being able to leave will allow me to be more productive, read and discover more on Roman and Byzantine history, just like how introvert emperors like Claudius, Julian, or Constantine VII spent most of their time or how Anna Komnene made good use of later years confined in a nunnery. The only thing that bothers me is simply the thought of it but at the end, I should remember those people I mentioned here especially from Roman and Byzantine history that they had it worse especially back then when there was nothing like the internet, video games, or movies to keep them busy and instead while in exile they had nothing to do but stare into the sky, grass, and sea. The worst thing that happened about these people who were forced into exile was the complete change of lifestyle such as the Byzantine emperors who had a life full of socializing and events to all of a sudden being banished to live in isolation in monasteries or same with the family of the last Russian tsar from being the rulers of the land to having to be forced to house arrest having to follow strict rules. Out of all these stories I think the worst case of isolation was that of the young deposed emperor John IV Laskaris in 1261, not only because he was blinded and sent to live above a fortress for 29 years but the fact that he had dreams to rule the empire restored to Constantinople but so suddenly all his hopes and dreams were destroyed when his regent Michael Palaiologos betrayed him and worse than that, the young deposed John Laskaris did not have the chance to grow up properly, instead he grew up isolated and in a tower for 29 years only coming out of there at 40 yet unable to live a good life as he was already blind. Now when quarantine makes you unable to do many things and had ruined your lives, think about John Laskaris and how everything he had ahead of him was ruined in an instant. On the other hand, I’d say the Roman imperial family members like Julia the Elder, Agrippina the Elder, or Postumus had it bad that they were banished to an island to die of boredom but unlike John Laskaris they had fresh air and were not blinded at so young when in fact these Roman imperial family members were much older and had the chance to grow up and were banished there for a reason which was because they did bad and plotted against the state while the boy emperor John IV did nothing wrong. On the other hand, the Stylite saints lived quite uncomfortable above columns being exposed to heat, rain, snow, and winds but it was their choice that they isolated themselves without ever leaving the columns just as how Luke Skywalker exiled himself to cut himself from the galaxy and the force. Now I can relate my feeling on this quarantine a lot more to the feeling of the Roman imperial family members exiled to the islands for life because basically like them I still have fresh air to breathe, and some space to walk around while my village feels as if it were an island too and like those islands they were exiled to, 10 minutes to get from one end to the other and I am also glad that I am living in a time where you can get yourself busy at home as almost everything productive I do is at home unlike for those characters in history when in exile they were had nothing to do and no one to talk when at least I can talk to people online. Anyway, I will miss going out and travelling but at least I can just imagine it an on the other had I’ve also come to think that in this quarantine period it would be as if time had not passed because it would be only when I’m out in the actual world when work progresses that I feel time had actually have passed but when only at home, I would basically have no concept from the passage of time like being in the Fallout vaults, and coming out of home from quarantine will feel very much like coming out of the vault. Lastly, I’d like to say even in tough situations like this, history can teach you a lot of things like even during lockdown you can look at these people I mentioned and how they handled or if you are an introvert think about emperors like Claudius I, Julian, and Constantine VII as they are surely to survive in a time like this. Also think about this time of quarantine as time of discovery, a time to read especially on history and from history you can learn how to deal with tough situations like this. Anyway, this is it and next time in a couple of weeks I would post the article I’ve long wanted to do, the Roman-Byzantine Empire comparisons, another interesting read for quarantine time. Anyway, thanks for viewing!

The Story of 3 Plagues Across Centuries

Posted by Powee Celdran

Story and Analysis of the Antonine Plague, Plague of Justinian, Black Death in the time of an Epidemic 


Welcome back to another article by the Byzantium Blogger! This one here is a special edition article made for times like this when a pandemic is ongoing and seems to be getting worse. Now that you are all at home as a safe way to contain the spreading virus, here’s something to read, now that you have time and it is something relating to the world issue now, the spread of COVID-19. If you think the Coronavirus nightmare is scary, read this and see that these 3 epidemics of the past were so much more deadlier going as far as having 5,000 death each day! Back then, without much medical science and knowledge of the disease, these epidemics spread even faster killing a lot more to the point of depopulating entire areas and damaging the economies of countries heavily. With the Coronavirus now, the impact in the economy will be very heavy as stocks will drop in certain companies especially since people will be at home and stop spending on travel in which many companies earn from but back in history, the plagues had an even worse effect on economies as they wiped out thousands, therefore the workforce was reduced and with so few people left to work and farm the fields, their pay had to increase a lot. Now since my site is about Roman and Byzantine history, this article will focus on 3 different pandemics particularly in Roman history which includes Byzantine history as well since the history of the Roman Empire continues up to 1453 as the empire moved east with Constantinople as its capital. The first of the 3 major pandemics here is the Antonine Plague from 165-180 which took place in the era of the Roman Empire while the next 2 happened in the time of the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantine Empire during the Middle Ages which will be the Plague of Justinian in 542 and the most remembered major epidemic in the Middle Ages, the Black Death from 1347-1351. This article will use information from historians of those times who describes the epidemic and its effects as well how people in different parts of the world saw the ongoing epidemics; here some historians write exact details of the epidemic, number of deaths, symptoms, as well as trying to track down its origins, while other historians on the other hand write about the tragic effects of the epidemic, but modern historians and scientists also prove what really caused these epidemics. In history, there have been a lot of more major epidemics than these 3 but I am only choosing these 3 because my site is mostly about Roman and Byzantine history and in Roman and medieval history these were the 3 most significant epidemics that had a major impact on society. In this article, I will also do my best to mention exact details of the epidemic and the place of origin in which many of these epidemics began in either China or Central Asia and through trade routes spread west to the Roman and later Byzantine Empires. Also, this article will mention where these epidemics spread to, how badly hit places were, and the emperors and rulers during these times in which some had even contacted the plague and some even died from it. The first of these 3 epidemics which was the Antonine Plague was the deadliest epidemic in Roman history since it killed a large population of the Empire which was at its height in that time and because of it, it began the decline of the original Roman Empire while the second epidemic here which was the Plague of Justinian devastated the Byzantine Empire a lot undoing the great plans the Emperor Justinian had in mind, while the third which was the Black Death was said to be the most deadly in the Middle Ages because it spread all over Europe and took years to disappear and at the same time the Black Death hit the Byzantine Empire too when it was in its final years and therefore was one of the factors that severely weakened the Byzantine Empire in the 14th century. In a previous article I made which was on Natural Disasters in Byzantine History, I have also mentioned the Plague of 542 and the Black Death as part of the many natural disasters but since this is a time of another epidemic like these ones and is worldwide, I thought that it would be best to write an article on historical epidemics particularly those that took place in Byzantine history, and repeat some topics from the former articles I wrote but also as a way to learn from these pandemics and to show you all that this one right now would end like those did and back then it was even much scarier as people had no idea what it was or what caused it. Aside from writing about the stories of these pandemics in Roman/ Byzantine history, I will also discuss medical science in the Middle Ages and how Byzantium was quite advanced in medicine for their time but still could not stop the rise of plagues. Also, this article will have some interesting amount of trivia including some absurd medieval cures for the plague and how the idea of quarantine began. Now this article will be divided in 3 sections, 1 per epidemic but will also mention a bit of story. Also for this article, I am using as much sources as possible including some books that have detailed and interesting information on these plagues in history such as A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities by Anthony Kaldellis in which I have made many articles out of topics from that book and here I am using it for some information on the 6th century Plague of Justinian while for the 14th century Black Death, some information will come from another interesting book, Horrible Histories: Measly Middle Ages, but of course these pieces of information come from historians of those respective time periods.

Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols
Reminder from a Byzantine empress to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus


Other Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

Natural Disasters in Byzantine History

The Sieges of Constantinople

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium

Byzantine Science and Technology

Crime, Punishment, and Medical Practice in the Byzantine World

12 Turning Points in Byzantine History


I. The Antonine Plague (165-180)


In the 2nd century, the Roman Empire was at its height controlling a massive amount of land north to south from Britain to Egypt, west to east from Portugal to Iraq. For a long time (96-180), the Roman Empire was ruled by what is known as the “5 good emperors” which were Nerva (r. 96-98), Trajan (r. 98-117), Hadrian (r. 117-138), Antoninus Pius (r. 138-161), and Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180) in which none of them were biological sons of the former. At this point in time, the Roman Empire was at a time of stability as its legions successfully protected the empire’s northern borders from the Germanic tribes and eastern borders from Rome’s mortal enemy, the Parthian Empire. However, the one foreign thing the legions couldn’t protect the empire and its people from was plague and in fact it was even the soldiers that brought the pandemic to the Roman Empire after a fighting a long war in the Middle East against the Parthians (the Persian Empire at that time). The name of the pandemic meanwhile which is “The Antonine Plague” is associated with the dynasty of the Roman emperors then, the Antonine Dynasty and not with the emperor Antoninus Pius as he had already been dead by the time of the plague. This plague began in the Middle East in 165 and in the next years spread across the Roman Empire by the legions marching through it and came to an end in 169, however 9 years later the plague returned and turned out to be even worse but by 180 it completely ended. This plague was documented by the historian Cassius Dio and the physician Galen which is why it is also called “the Plague of Galen”. According to Cassius Dio, in Rome itself there were 2,000 deaths a day which makes up to ¼ the population, therefore the mortality rate of this pandemic was 25% and at the end the total deaths in the Roman Empire was about 5 million, meaning 1/3 of the Roman Empire’s population was wiped out. Till today, the cause and exact kind of disease it is still remains undetermined but modern scientists suspect it was either measles or small pox but back then without much knowledge on how to stop it, it spread fast and especially since roads and sea routes connected the entire Roman world, travelers and soldiers who had easier access to travel the empire carried it around. Meanwhile, not only the Roman world was affected but the major empire in the east too, which was China.

Watch this to know how the Romans dealt with the Antonine Plague (from Invicta).

The Roman Empire at its height, 117
The 5 Good Emperors of the Roman Empire
The Antonine Plague in Rome


The Spread of the Plague and its Symptoms  

The epidemic was said to first appear in the winter of 165-66 in the Roman siege of Seleucia on the west bank of the Tigris River in today’s Iraq as Roman soldiers contacted it there probably from the enemy, the Parthians. The Parthians though could have got the disease from further east from traders coming possibly from China as around the same time, outbreaks of the same kind of epidemic were happening in China which was then the Han Empire. In China meanwhile, a scholar named Ge Hong describes the symptoms of this epidemic as similar to the symptoms of smallpox in which people who are infected develop a fever and later have scares on their bodies. In China however, according to the modern historian Rafe de Crespigny, the outbreaks happened in different years and not all at the same time which were in 151, 161, 171, 173, 179, 182, and 185 during the reigns of emperors Huan (146-168) and Ling (168-189); de Crespigny also suggests that this plague led to the rise of cult faith healing movement led by Zhang Jue who’s movement started the disastrous Yellow Turban Rebellion (184-205). De Crespigny also came up with a theory that the ambassadors from Daqin which is what the Chinese called the Roman Empire brought the plague to it from China, however where the plague began was most likely in Central Asia and from there it spread east to China and west to the Roman Empire. In 166, the plague was already present in the Roman Empire and in that same year, the famous Greek physician of that time Galen of Pergamon (real name: Klaudios Galenos) travelled west to Rome from his native Asia Minor. Now the physician Galen is famous for being one of the first to systematize medicine in general and to study how body parts cooperate with each other, and it was in this plague that Galen made more discoveries on the human body. In 168, he arrived in Rome summoned by the emperor Marcus Aurelius and his co-emperor Lucius Verus (both adopted sons of the former emperor Antoninus Pius) and at that time he was present in the outbreak of the plague among the troops in the Roman city of Aquileia in Northeast Italy. Here, Galen mentions in detail the symptoms of this disease and how the whole body is affected; here he mentions that its duration is long and the symptoms include fever, diarrhea, pharyngitis or sore throat, skin eruption, and sometimes pus oozing out in the 9th day of the illness. Galen however describes the symptoms clearly but did not state what is, so up to this day it is suspected that this kind of disease that spread across the Roman Empire was smallpox. From Italy, the plague spread further north along the River Rhine, the frontier of the Roman Empire infecting not only the inhabitants of the empire but the Gallic and Germanic people beyond the river as well stopping their attacks on the Roman borders. It is unclear if this plague had even spread to Britain, Spain, or North Africa but it was heavily present in Gaul, Italy, the Danube borders, and the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire.


The Effects of the Plague

This plague not only depopulated the Roman Empire by killing off a third of its population but it had also weakened the empire’s defenses. First of all, in the east, when the emperor Lucius Verus led the attack against the Parthians in the east, the troops succumbed to the disease and the defenses were weakened. In the north meanwhile, the other emperor Marcus Aurelius was in a campaign against the Germanic Macromanni people beginning 167 but in 169 he had to postpone it due to the outbreak of the plague among his troops there stationed along the Danube. Lucius Verus too was with him in this campaign and was among those who contacted the plague and in early 169 when returning to Italy, he died of the plague leaving Marcus Aurelius as the sole ruler of the empire. The plague thus killed many Roman legionnaires in the frontiers and this weakened the defense of Danube as the emperor had to call off the war with the Macromanni. However, when the disease subsided, Marcus Aurelius now as sole ruler returned to the Danube frontier and spent almost his entire reign fighting the Macromanni, but the end he was successful but however he died in 180 while on the Danube frontier and not in Rome. While in his campaign against the Macromanni, Marcus Aurelius as the “philosopher king” wrote his famous philosophical work Meditations saying “even the pestilence around him is less deadly than falsehood, evil behavior, and lack of true understanding. Here, even Marcus Aurelius makes a point that what is deadlier than the spread of the disease is how people perceive it, which is true even today because the spreading virus is not as bad as how people see or how the media portrays it.The plague on the other hand returned in 178 and Rome was badly hit as Cassius Dio mentions about 2,000 people died each day though in 180, the same year Marcus Aurelius died, the plague disappeared. This plague however was not the kind of plague we all know caused by fleas transported by rats but it spread the same way as a plague did, and this one like the Coronavirus right now was also spread when humans make contact with each other, and back then the Romans probably had no idea of what social distancing was despite them being more hygienic people than the barbarians beyond their borders. On the other hand, this plague heavily affected and slowed down the Indian Ocean trade between the Roman Empire and India as a number of traders were killed by the plague as well and the plague was also mainly transmitted by people travelling.

In the next century, another pandemic broke out in the Roman Empire and this was one of the factors that severely weakened the strength of the Roman Empire during the 3rd century crisis. This major epidemic happened between 249 and 262 known as the “Plague of Cyprian” named after St. Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage who witnessed and described this plague. According to St. Cyprian, the symptoms of this plague were similar to the Antonine Plague being something similar to smallpox except in this one, people who were infected suffered a viral hemorrhagic fever similar to the E-bola virus. This plague on the other hand took a very long time for it to die out lasting for 13 years but its place of origin was unknown and in Rome itself it was said that there were about 5,000 deaths each day, worse than the Antonine plague. The Plague of Cyprian occurred during the reigns of 6 Roman emperors: Philip (244-249), Decius (249-251), Trebonianus Gallus (r. 251-253), Aemilianus (253), Valerian (253-260), and Gallienus (260-268). During the reign of Decius, Christians were blamed for causing the plague leading Decius to declare a massive persecution of Christians. This plague on the other hand heavily affected the Roman army killing off many soldiers thus making the army have to downsize, many workers too were killed so there was not enough man power anymore to maintain the empire, also prices had increased due to a decrease in workforce. The Plague of Cyprian too happens to be one of the reasons the Roman Empire declined in the 3rd century wherein the army had to downsize while at the same time the empire was at a succession crisis with takeovers and changes of emperor very frequently which led to the eventual formation of the Roman Diarchy in 284 and eventually the Tetrarchy in 293 both by Diocletian to stabilize the chaotic empire. In the 3rd century, the Roman Empire fell to its knees too not only because of plague and succession crisis but of constant wars as well with the Goths in the north and with the new Sassanid Persian Empire in the east which replaced the Parthians, thus a lot of spending was needed for these campaigns and with the plague, a large amount of the army was gone to protect the empire.

Indian Ocean trade route between the Roman Empire and China
Map of the divided Roman Empire in the 3rd century
Division of the Roman Empire under the 1st Tetrarchy, 293


II. The Plague of Justinian (541-542)


Watch this to learn more about the Plague of Justinian (from Voices of the Past).

In the 4th century, Roman history took a very big turn when the capital was moved east to the new city of Constantinople in 330 by Emperor Constantine I the Great and in 395, the entire Roman Empire was divided between east and west, the western half became the weaker one gradually loosing territory until it fell in 476 once the Romans lost control of Italy while the Roman Empire in the east based in Constantinople stayed strong becoming the Eastern Roman Empire which we know as the Byzantine Empire. In the 6th century, the Byzantine Empire reached its height of power under the emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565), the second ruler of the Justinian Dynasty who succeeded his uncle Justin I (r. 518-527), who was of humble origins and so was his nephew Justinian who was born Flavius Petrus Sabbatius in what is today’s Republic of Macedonia. It was under Justinian I the Great that the Byzantine Empire was at its largest in terms of territory stretching north to south from Ukraine to Egypt and west to east from Southern Spain to Syria but before the 550s when his empire was this large, his empire suffered one of history’s worst pandemics which was “the Plague of Justinian” named after him who ruled at that time and had even been a victim of the plague but survived it. Before the reign of Justinian I, the Byzantine Empire suffered yet survived a couple of epidemics but none of them were recorded as much as the 541-42 plague. In fact, one of the Byzantine Emperors before Justinian I, being Leo II died of an epidemic which was not recorded, although he was only a child when he became emperor and died. Leo II was only 7 years old when he became emperor in 474 succeeding his grandfather Leo I (r. 457-474) after his death, although 7-year-old Leo II only ruled for a couple of months as before the year 474 ended he died of an epidemic and since he was only a child, his immunity to disease wasn’t strong; the mortality rate on children from epidemics were really high back then as children before age 7 were bound to die from any disease no matter who they were since their immunity hasn’t yet been built up, even if they were rulers like Leo II. After his untimely death, Leo II was succeeded by his father as Emperor Zeno (r. 474-491) who was married to Leo II’s mother Ariadne, daughter of Leo I; here is one strange case in history where a father succeeds his son as ruler. Now back to the plague of Justinian, this happened to be significant in not only Byzantine history but world history as well not only because it was written about but because it finished off a large percent of the world’s population. This plague was said to have originated in the port city of Pelusium near Suez in Egypt according to the contemporary historian Procopius of Caesarea (500-570) but modern scholars suggest it actually originated in the Tian Shan mountain range located in Central Asia found along the borders of China, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Back in the 6th century, no one knew what was the cause of the plague and only in 2013 it was discovered that it was caused by the bacterium Yersinia Pestis, the same one responsible for creating and spreading the Black Death plague of the 14th century. Wherever it was where the disease started, its first appearance was first recorded in the Egyptian port of Pelusium which was then part of the Byzantine Empire and from there spread across the ports of the Mediterranean before arriving in Constantinople in 542 in which people back then say it was brought there by grain shipments from Egypt, which is most possibly true because the disease was transmitted by fleas carried by small mammals especially rats in which many were on these grain ships. This plague was not transmitted from person to person like many viruses such as the Coronavirus but rather transmitted by fleas infecting people when these fleas cling on to them which is why doctors were not affected more than others. In 542 the plague was at its worst killing thousands each day in Constantinople only, though in that same year its spread all over the ports in the Mediterranean including Antioch and parts of Spain along the coast while in 543 it arrived in Rome which had been reconquered by the Byzantines and from Rome it spread north around Italy, while in the same year it arrived in Marseilles and travelled north around Gaul (France) which was then part of the newly formed Frankish kingdoms. The plague was reported to have spread as far north as Britain in 547 as it was said that the king Maelgwn of Gwynedd in Wales had died from this same plague. Meanwhile not only the Byzantine Empire was hit hard by this plague, their neighbor and mortal enemy the Sassanid Persian Empire was hit even worse than Byzantium that the war between both empires was put on hold. Why Sassanid Persia was hit worse with more people dead was probably because their cities were more populated. At the end, this plague had wiped out 10% of the world’s population in the year 542 and in the next years it reoccurred, it finished off 13-26%. This plague would have recurrences up until the year 750.

Byzantine Constantinople
Byzantine Empire at its height (555) under Emperor Justinian I
Spread of the Plague of Justinian
The Plague of Justinian, 542
Plague of Justinian basic facts


The Plague According to Procopius and its Effects in Constantinople

The famous historian of Justinian’s reign, Procopius of Caesarea, who had documented the reconquest of Justinian’s armies of North Africa and Italy had witnessed the plague but remained careful to not get in contact of it, which is why he survived it and in his book Wars he writes in detail. Procopius mentions that the first symptoms shown on those who get the plague are a light fever in which those who get it or doctors who treat them do not worry about it thinking it will pass, however if the fever persists those who have it would fall into a deep coma, or strangely develop an acute dementia where they would imagine people attacking them causing them to scream and flee; the dementia is probably because people did not know what to do with themselves when being afflicted. Because of developing some sort of dementia, victims of the plague would throw themselves into water as soon as they see it, and this is what worried doctors more because these symptoms were unfamiliar to them. Procopius further explains that the plague’s symptoms include fever, headache, chills, swollen or tender lymph nodes, abdominal pain, and gangrene. The doctors meanwhile studied the plague by cutting up the buboes of the dead victims discovering a kind of malignant carbuncle had developed inside, then doctors had also predicted that many would die after they were freed from the bacteria due to blood loss and true enough it did happen, though doctor had also claimed that many would survive the illness although still die shortly afterwards. Women who were pregnant on the other hand would die if they were taken with the disease but unusually, if they gave birth, they would survive the plague but their newborns would not but also there were instances that the newborn infants would survive but their mothers did not. Now those who had survived the plague would still live normally and speak normally except the only difference would be that they would be talking with a lisp for life and barely be able to articulate some indistinct words. On the other hand, according to the other contemporary historian John of Ephesus, a rumor spread around Constantinople that monks were causing the plague, so people would flee from them on sight.

Only in Constantinople itself, the mortality rate reached to 5,000 deaths a day and its worst up to 10,000 deaths a day according to Procopius. With the crisis on going, people were assigned to be posted at gates to count the dead being brought out risking their lives. Later on, with the death toll rising so high, mass graves had to be created in the less populated Pera district across the Golden Horn from the city center of Constantinople but there they were poorly covered and when the south wind blew towards the city center, the stench of death blew all over the city. Some more dead bodies were stacked into rooms within fortresses with so much dead to fill up the rooms all the way to the ceilings. With so much deaths each day, groups were formed to search each house in the capital to take out any corpses they found and sometimes they even saw parents dead and their children still alive and even infants still suckling the breasts of their already dead mothers. People too were told by the city administration to wear nametags so that they could be identified if they died away from home. Procopius also mentions that the disease carefully picked out the worst people and spared them, which is probably a reference to the empress Theodora, wife of Justinian who Procopius despised, yet she did not get infected by the plague. The emperor Justinian I who at that time was around 60 however was one of the plague’s victims and had fallen into a comma for a long time, though not specified but at the end with proper medical treatment he survived. It is not clear how Justinian himself got the plague despite remaining most of the time at the palace, but most likely he had been inspecting the situation in the city, and that way he got in contact with the plague as the fleas got to him. In the eastern frontiers of the empire, the generals hearing that Justinian was infected by the plague had already brought up rumors saying he had died leading them to plot and take the throne for one of them but when hearing of Justinian’s recovery, their plans failed. Justinian however had recovered but took time to heal while his wife Theodora, the generals Belisarius and Narses, the tax reformer John of Cappadocia, and historian Procopius luckily did not get infected, but among the famous personalities of this time, Justinian’s jurist Tribonian who had codified the laws in 529 to create the Corpus Juris Civilis was another victim of the plague and he died of it in 542.

Transmission of the Plague


The Aftermath of the Plague 

The plague of 542 though lasting quicker was more deadly that the 14th century Black Death because only within months this one had killed up to 10,000 each day, although modern estimates say only 5,000 but still that was a lot of deaths in medieval standards when the world’s population wasn’t as much as it is today and the deaths per day of today’s Coronavirus isn’t yet at that level. However, the worst thing about the Plague of Justinian was it had undone all the great work Justinian had already been doing. Before the plague of 542, Justinian on track in expanding the Byzantine Empire by the reconquests of Italy and North Africa and creating grand monuments all over the empire most notably the church of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople but because of the plague a lot of his progress had been undone. First of all, the plague had killed off many farmers across the empire meaning less grain was produced for its inhabitants which meant Justinian had to increase the grain tax. Also, the plague had affected the soldiers badly killing many of them meaning the conquests had to be postponed including the Lazic War against the Sassanid Persians in the east. Before the plague broke out, Byzantium’s eastern borders were threatened as the ambitious Sassanid king Chosroes I (r. 531-579) had invaded Byzantine Syria however it was the general Belisarius who had recently reconquered North Africa and came to close to reconquering Italy who was sent to the east and stop Chosroes I’s invasion the same time the plague broke out. Here, in one story Belisarius is said to have tricked the Persian army of Chosroes I that if they continue marching west, they would get the plague although Belisarius made it clear he and his army were not affected by the plague. Although when the plague had already devastated the Byzantine Empire and began killing its soldiers, the war with Persia had to be put on hold as not only Byzantium was heavily affected, the Persians too were. Now that the plague had heavily devastated Byzantium, Justinian had to put his projects, both military and construction projects on hold due to lack of funds from taxes as many people who pay those taxes had been killed. The Byzantine reconquests then had to be delayed for some years later but while it was delayed, this gave time for the Ostrogoths in charge of Italy under their new king Totila to regroup and begin retaking Italy again one by one after being previously defeated by Belisarius. Now onto the construction projects, one evidence of it is seen today with a partially completed basilica in Thrace which was one of Justinian’s works, today it still remains incomplete where its construction is believed to be halted because of the plague. Meanwhile trade in the Mediterranean had also collapsed with plague killing off many traders and also having to be stopped because the plague was spread commonly by sea trade.

Now if Procopius writes about exact details on the plague, the other contemporary historian John of Ephesus (507-588) writes the dramatic effects from the plague all over the empire. In his Chronicle he mentions that corpses laying all over the streets split open leaking puss everywhere, ships stuck at sea with their entire crews dead from the plague, houses that have become tombs where plague victims were rotting in their beds, villages where only one child survived, herds of cows that ran off to the wild now that the people to look after them were dead, and highways completely empty. If the world may be dead now because everyone is in their homes, back then in 542 the world was dead because people were dead. Another account of this plague was written by an actual survivor of it, the historian Evagrius Scholasticus (536-594) who was a child in Antioch by the time the plague broke out and he got in contact with it developing buboes yet he survived it and lived his entire life surviving the recurrences of this plague which at the different times it came back killed his wife, daughter, grandchild, his other children, and servants, and farmers on his estate. After the plague, it took years for Constantinople to recover, yet this did not stop Justinian from fulfilling his dream as by 553, the Byzantine reconquest of Italy had been completed not by Belisarius though but by the older and more experienced Armenian eunuch general Narses. The empress Theodora however died in 548, 6 years after the plague possibly because her immunity had been slowly weakened by it while Justinian survived her for 17 years dying in 565 at age 83. By the time Justinian I died, the Byzantine Empire had already completed its reconquest of Southern Spain leaving it at its largest territorial extent, which would not last for a long time. In his reign, Justinian I had faced many natural disasters including the plague yet he survived all of them and knew how to handle his empire in times of these kinds of situations wherein another less capable emperor, in which Byzantium had a lot of would not know how to handle a plague situation.


III. Black Death (1347-1351)  


About 800 hundred years after the Plague of Justinian came another epidemic as deadly as it, the well-known Black Death also known as the “Bubonic Plague” and the “Great Plague” which killed more in total than the Plague of Justinian, killing about 200 million in total in every place it spread. Justinian’s Plague was said to be worse because more people died in a short amount of time but Black Death raged for 4 years nonstop affecting almost all of Europe as whole as well as the Byzantine Empire which at that time had already been so reduced and weakened by war, yet it had still been alive at that time. The Byzantine Empire apparently lived through 2 of the world’s greatest pandemics in the Middle Ages and have suffered heavily from both, although the 14th century Black Death affected the European continent much more than it did to Byzantium. Apparently, Black Death began the same way the Plague of Justinian did and was transmitted by the same bacterium Yersinia Pestis which is carried by mammals particularly rats and infects people. Like the plague of Justinian, the Black Death mostly likely began in Central Asia as well as historical records say the plague had already been spreading in China and India in the early 1340s. A theory about how Black Death moved to Europe was because of climate change in Asia that dried out the grasslands causing the rodents to flee to more populated areas bringing the fleas with them. How it got to the Byzantine Empire and to the rest of Europe was through ships that came from the trading ports in the Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea which was close to the steppes of Central Asia and at that time was held by the Republic of Genoa in Italy and the breakaway Byzantine Empire of Trebizond. Apparently, the ships that later brought the plague had come from the port city of Kaffa (known to the Byzantines as Theodosia) in the Crimea which had been previously besieged by a Mongol army that catapulted bodies into the city infected by the same disease. However, the trade along the Silk Road from China to Europe had also transmitted the plague. From there, the ships sailed and had docked in the ports of the Byzantine Empire including Constantinople spreading it there and later in 1347, the ships had arrived in the ports of Europe including Sicily, Genoa, and Marseilles. In 1348, the plague had spread to the rest of the Byzantine Empire from Constantinople including Greece as well as to Byzantium’s neighbors, the Serbian and Bulgarian Empires in the Balkans while in the west it spread all over Italy, Switzerland, France, and Eastern Spain. In 1349, the plague had gone even further reaching Western Spain and Portugal, Germany which was then the Holy Roman Empire, Hungary, and England and later that year, the plague had travelled to Ireland and Northern England as well as deeper into Germany. By 1350, the plague had reached Scotland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Poland and by 1351 it began to subside but spread further to Lithuania, the Baltic countries, Finland, and Russia. While Europe had been heavily affected by it, North Africa and the Middle East too were hit as badly as well going as far as to Mecca in the Arabian Peninsula hitting it badly. The plague was most commonly brought around Europe by ships along trade routes and it was always the port cities that were affected at first which is why isolated mountain areas such as the Basque region between France and Spain and the inland parts of Poland were barely affected. At the end, the plague had extremely reduced Europe’s population within its 4 years of spreading killing off 75-80% of the population of France and Spain combined, 40% of Mamluk Egypt’s population, and much less in England and Germany which was only about 20% of it. The cities in which its populations were most affected by the plague include Paris, Florence, Hamburg, Bremen, and London where more than 100,000 of its inhabitants had died at the end of it Meanwhile, the economic effects of this plague were far worse than in 542 as a large percent of Europe’s population was killed and the workforce had been reduced which led to increased wages for peasants and laborers as well as reforestations in some areas due to the deaths of people there. Afterwards, it took 200 years for Europe to recover in population to the same level it was before the plague.

The spread of Black Death (1347-1351)
Map of the Silk Road in the Middle Ages
Spread of Black Death across the world


Black Death in Byzantium 

Watch this to learn about the Black Death situation in Byzantium (from Eastern Roman History).

From the Crimea, some of the Genoese ships docked there sailed to Constantinople bringing the plague there and from Constantinople, the plague was brought by ships to other Mediterranean ports. Meanwhile, the Black Death came at the worst time for Byzantium as the empire by this time had already been weakened after years of constant war, Constantinople falling to the Crusaders in the 13th century, civil wars between members of the Palaiologos imperial family, and the rising threat of the Ottomans from Asia Minor. 1347, the year the plague began in Europe was the same year a deadly civil war that severely weakened Byzantium ended and because of this, Byzantium was even weaker to protect itself from the plague. This civil war began in 1341 after the Byzantine emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (r. 1328-1341) suddenly died, apparently also because of disease, in this case it was malaria that he apparently had but did not know it until he suddenly was hit by an illness after attending a meeting and 4 days later, he died. Andronikos III in his reign brought some stability to the empire but his biggest mistake was not naming an official successor thinking he would live much longer but death came to him suddenly at only age 44 and without naming a successor, conflict broke out between his 9-year-old son John V who had a claim to throne and Andronikos III’s close friend and advisor John Kantakouzenos (1292-1383), who was also a Byzantine chronicler. The young John V however came to power after his father died but his claim to the throne was challenged once his mother Empress Anna of Savoy declared John Kantakouzenos a public enemy therefore starting a civil war where the nobles and landowners of the Byzantine countryside supported John Kantakouzenos as emperor while the people in the city and traders supported young John V and his mother. The civil war ended in 1347 with John Kantakouzenos victorious and crowned Emperor John VI (r. 1347-1354), although he won the war by asking the enemy, the Ottoman Turks to support him and giving them Gallipoli in Thrace in exchange. John VI winning the war with the support of the Ottomans married his daughter Theodora to the Ottoman sultan Orhan and giving Gallipoli to them came to power at the worst time possible as when Black Death had arrived in Constantinople, the empire was already heavily weakened by the civil war. Among the victims of the Black Death in Constantinople was Emperor John VI’s youngest son Andronikos who was still a child and back then the mortality rate for children were higher than it was with adults. Accounts on Black Death from Byzantium were written by the historian Nikephoros Gregoras (1295-1360) and by the emperor himself some years later when he became a monk describe swelling occurring all over people’s bodies which later led to their deaths, yet this plague killed anyone it in infected no matter if they were rich or poor, however John VI describes the plague the same way the ancient Greek historian Thucydides described the Plague of Athens in the 5th century BC. In Byzantium though with more advanced medical practice, the plague did not last as long as it did all over Europe but there is although no record of the death toll in Constantinople, Thessalonike, or other cities in the empire. Black Death had reduced around 2/3 of Constantinople’s population at the end further weakening Byzantium’s economy at that time; John VI however did his best to keep the empire strong again despite the plague and the Ottomans already in Europe, but all of this was too much for him to handle. In 1354, John VI was overthrown by his son-in-law John V returning to power after he was defeated in 1347, though after this Byzantium would never recover again and hundred years later, the Byzantine Empire itself ended after falling to the Ottomans.

Byzantine Empire at the beginning of the 14th century (purple)


Symptoms and Causes of the Black Death

The symptoms of the plague are described more accurately by western writers like the Italian Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) rather than by Byzantine writers. Boccaccio describes that the symptoms people develop are certain tumors growing in the groin or armpits, some growing the size of a small apple but growing as large as an egg, other than the swelling, the symptoms too include spots and rashes most likely caused by the flea bites. After the swelling, it was reported that the victims would develop an acute fever and later would vomit blood, and between 2-7 days of getting in contact with the disease, the victims would die. Another account on the plague written by the Flemish monk Lodewijk Heyligen describes that the plague had also mutated into a respiratory disease causing its victims to suffer an infection of the lungs causing a difficulty in breathing, which is how his master Cardinal Colonna had died after he was infected with the plague. Meanwhile monks and nuns had the highest risk of contacting the plague because they cared for the sick and dying patients, and true enough a lot of them had died from it as they did not have much means to protect themselves unlike doctors who were equipped with gloves, an entire face mask where only the eyes could be seen, and long cloak protecting them from head to toe.

Back in the Middle Ages, people were not familiar with what caused the plague, same thing in the 6th century Plague of Justinian and only modern research shows that both were caused by fleas brought in from different parts of Asia that were transmitted through rats and after infecting them, transferring to humans and infecting them with the rat’s blood too. Modern research meanwhile suggests that the fleas that caused the Black Death had originated in Southern China before reaching India and later Central Asia. However, in medieval Europe, no one knew it was caused by fleas that were carried by rats and instead believed that either God was punishing them or it was a miasma theory caused by bad air. In France, a medical faculty suggested to the king of France Philip VI (r. 1328-1350) that the plague was caused by bad air which was caused by a conjunction of 3 planets in 1345. On the other hand, what made the plague spread so quick affecting almost everyone more in Western Europe than in Byzantium was because of the differences in hygienic practices. In the Byzantine Empire, people had always been more hygienic than the people of Western Europe as the Byzantines- being descendants of the Greeks and Romans- knew how to wash their hands and bathe more while people of medieval Europe barely bathed and if they did, they would take a bath in rivers that were dirty, also people in medieval Europe did not also have toilets and toilet flushes which meant their waste was thrown into streets which suggests why the plague hit cities more, and also people had kept animals with them even in cities which made the transmission of this fleas more highly possible. On the other hand, children were more likely to be affected by the plague which is why children were easily affected by it more than adults basically because their immunities haven’t been built up yet. In the middle ages, people though did not understand why children were more vulnerable to the plague or other diseases which lead some priests to believe that children have it more as their punishment for being disobedient to their parents.


The Black Death around Europe

People all over Europe where Black Death had reached all had different perspectives of the plague but at the same time many events had happened at the same time of Black Death including the hundred-years’-war between England and France, however because both the people of England and France were affected by the plague, the war had to stop. In 1348 England, the people including soldiers had been suffering from the plague which gave an opportunity for the Scots in the north to invade England as its army was too weak to defend itself but the moment the Scottish soldiers marched into England, the plague struck them too and returning to Scotland they brought the plague there with them. Meanwhile in the Italian port city of Messina in Sicily, the people believed the plague appeared as a large black dog wiping out everything in its way and some people claimed to have actually seen, probably because of the dementia they suffer from the plague. In Scandinavia and Lithuania which had also been hit by the plague, people saw the plague in the form of a kind of maiden wherein Scandinavia they saw it come out from the breath of a person who died from the plague in the form of flame which would drift on to the next house infecting the people there while in Lithuania they saw the same kind of maiden waving a red scarf from a window waving it to let in the plague, though one story says a man sliced off the maiden’s hand and died after doing it thus saving his village. Around Europe, the plague had killed off thousands that there was not enough coffins or spaces to bury the dead so some had to be dropped into pits or even dumped in the river as seen in Avignon, France which made it even worse by contaminating the river. Without knowing how to cure the plague, some people had believed that the plague was caused by the devil possessing them so they thought they could get rid of it by whipping themselves and each other with spiked whips for 33.3 days (the number of years Christ lived on Earth). These people became known as the Flagellants and at first, they blamed the priests for giving them the plague but the priests fought back threatening to excommunicate them so the flagellants instead blamed an easier target, the Jews going as far as going to the Jewish communities and murdering anyone they could find. During Black Death, people especially in Germany had blamed the Jews for being the cause of the plague by poisoning wells since they were mysterious and only stayed amongst each other and mysteriously did not get the plague. In some places in Germany like Worms, Mainz, and Erfurt in 1349 the Jews who were blamed for causing the plague cheated on the flagellants and instead of being killed by them, they set fire to their houses as a form of mass suicide. At the end, 6,000 Jews died by mass suicide in Mainz and the entire 3,000 Jewish population of Erfurt did not survive. People had also thought the plague was caused by looking at victims, breathing bad air, drinking poisoned wells, but most commonly people blamed lepers for causing it. Since the Hundred-years’-war was happening then between England and France, the French and English blamed each other, in Spain they blamed the Arabs (Moors), and in Germany people had also nailed suspected poisoners into barrels and threw them off into rivers. One of the most famous things that came from Black Death and is well known till today is the nursery rhyme “Ring o’ Roses” which sings of people dying from the plague.

Illustrated map of Black Death in Europe


Medieval cures in Europe and Byzantium 

People in the middle ages had no idea on what caused the plague while at the same time, they also had no idea on how to cure it leading to doctors, especially in Western Europe to come up with all sorts of cures that never really seemed to work. Doctors suggested that people could be cured from the plague by throwing sweet smelling herbs or setting bonfires to clean the air, sitting in sewers to flush out the bad air of the plague by the bad air of the drains, drinking medicine of a 10-year-old treacle, killing all the cats and dogs in town, and for the rich to swallow powder of crushed emeralds, but worse than this one of the suggested cures was to shave a live chicken’s bottom and strap it to the plague sores, or like mentioned earlier to go around town whipping yourself. Some of the cures in the middle happened to be worse on patients such as making them eat arsenic powder or cutting them up to let out blood since medieval doctors believed people grew sick by having too much blood but at the end, these kinds of cures had ended up killing patients by poisoning them or by severe blood loss. The more effective solutions doctors had back then to test if people had the plague was to check their urine and if they saw blood in it, then there was no hope. Easier solutions though back then to avoid the plague was to do the same thing now and just stay at home but in the middle ages it was very much easy to catch the plague in the overcrowded cities so it was best to flee to your house in the countryside but only the rich who had country homes could do this while the poor especially those who were in the cities were left to die. A better solution to stop the spread of the plague was however only thought of after the Black Death by the Republic of Venice, this concept would become what we know today as “quarantine” which comes from the Venetian word quarantena meaning “40 days” though originally it was a 30 day period which in Venetian is trentine. The first mention of this quarantine period which was at first 30 days was in 1377 with the return of the plague and here in the city of Ragusa which is now Dubrovnik in Croatia, to avoid the plague or any disease from affecting the city, newcomers on ships had to dock at the harbor and stay on their ships or on the islands along it and not leave so that authorities would observe if they would develop any signs of the plague or not and if not, they were allowed into the city. The concept of quarantine we now know today thus was born in 1448 when the Venetians extended the period to 40 days, which proved to be more effective.

In medieval Byzantium on the other hand, the medical situation was a lot more different wherein people had a better understanding of medicine and how to treat sick people since there, major cities like their capital Constantinople had actual hospitals as Byzantine emperors invested heavily on them. Byzantine hospitals had wards with bed for patients, practiced sanitation, and had actual trained medical doctors. Some hospitals in the empire were associated with monasteries where monks and nuns acted as nurses as part of their religious duties. One of the hospitals in Byzantine Constantinople which was the hospital of St. Sampson and associated with the Church was found between the 2 most important churches of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene. Another famous hospital of Byzantine Constantinople was part of the Pantokrator Monastery in which both the hospital and monastery were founded in 1136 by Emperor John II Komnenos (r. 1118-1143) and his Hungarian wife Irene; it had 50 beds and 5 wards, while one ward was for women, each ward had 2 doctors and assistants, also the hospital had a chief pharmacist. Byzantine hospitals were also required to have medical equipment such as lancets, cauterizing irons, catheters, and for the teeth forceps and were required also to have sharpeners for these tools in case they grew dull. The other medical tools in Byzantine hospitals included a tonsil knife, tooth file, a small scalpel for the eyelids, a rectal speculum, uterine dilator, rib saw, a clyster for irrigating genital passages, tweezers, various types of forceps, needles, and a kind of “skull breaker” which was something used to break a dead fetus and make its extraction easier. As part of Byzantine law which was decreed by Emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912) in 900 was that Byzantium needed female doctors to specialize in matters like childbirth and other medical issues only relating to women. It was also stated in the code of laws of Leo VI called Basilika that Byzantine law would punish with exile or death any doctor who cheated their patients or gave them the wrong drug that would end up killing the patients as this fell under the law of murder. Basically, Byzantium was medically more advanced because they kept with them the knowledge of the Greek and Roman medical sciences from Hippocrates and Galen which had been lost in the west, also the Arabs had learned the medical science of the Greeks and Romans possibly after their attempts to conquer Byzantium in the early Middle Ages.

Comic strip of medieval plague cures


Well, this now ends my special edition article on these 3 major pandemics in history, and hope you have all learned a lot especially in a time like this. Of course these 3 pandemics that had happened before were definitely much worse than what is happening now as back then medical science hasn’t developed yet and people were unfamiliar with what was happening, which led to thousands of deaths each day. Whatever is happening now, just remember people back than had it worse while emperors in charge had no way of containing the spreading virus and it was only later on that people came up with solutions like quarantines to slow down the spread of the plague. Although in the Middle Ages, a small difference can be seen in medical science and handling diseases such as in the Black Death where Byzantium and Western Europe handled it differently. The Byzantine Empire having suffered badly in the 542 Plague and after encountering many plagues had learned how to handle epidemics and over the centuries before Black Death have developed medical technology advanced for the Middle Ages while Western Europe during Black Death had no idea what it was and how to cure it leading them to come up with all sorts of remedies no matter how stupid or deadly it turned out. At the end however, the solution to stop the spread of the plague was actually quite simple which was to keep cities cleaner as medieval cities were terribly dirty with human waste thrown into the streets. Medieval people too had no idea on how to stop the plague by creating lockdowns in cities which is why the plague just kept spreading and people kept dying. The effects of these 3 major pandemics in history though were severe and if the coronavirus would affect the economy heavy today, these plagues in history have done even worse since it killed off thousands which was large percent of the world’s population back in the Roman era and Middle Ages. The 2nd century Antonine Plague was a hard hit for the successful Roman Empire as its death toll started the decline of wealth and military power of the Roman Empire while the 542 Plague of Justinian undid a lot of progress the emperor Justinian had planned and would be one of the factors for the quick decline of the Byzantine Empire after his death. The 14th century Black Death meanwhile had a lot more consequences than the 2 other plagues I mentioned since it killed off so much people not only in Europe but in Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East as well meaning the workforce was severely reduced and it would take 200 years for the population of the areas affected to recover to the number it was before the plague. In Europe, the Black Death’s major impact was that it had ruined the centuries old medieval feudal system as many peasants were killed and those who survived became so valuable as there were only so little of them that farms and landowners all over Europe needed them more, so this meant peasants were no longer part of the land of the feudal lords and instead could sell off their services to anyone. People in the Middle Ages were a lot more superstitious and did not know the science behind the plague until only modern science discovered what it was, however the superstitious medieval people also saw the plague as a sign that things needed to change and afterwards, people had learned to keep their cities cleaner and be cleaner as well. Before ending, as an honourable mention, ironically the patron saint of pandemics is St. Corona who had also ironically lived in 2nd century Roman Syria during the time of the Antonine Plague. Now with the coronavirus happening, it could also be a sign that the world needs to rest and recover from all the pollution we have left on it whereas after this is all over, the world would have also recovered and be much cleaner same thing with the Black Death, whereas many people died leading to reforestations. Well, this is all for now and I hope you are all safe from the virus as I am, and hopefully will remain this way. Anyway, up next will be an article I have always wanted to do which would be a Rome vs Byzantium comparison table. Well stay safe everyone and thanks for viewing!