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!

Natural Disasters in Byzantine History

Posted by Powee Celdran 

During the whole year (536) the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, and it seemed extremely like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it emitted were not clear nor like those it usually makes.” -Procopius, Byzantine historian on the “dust-veil” of 536


Welcome to another article by the Byzantium Blogger! This month, I have just finished 3 extremely long, complex, but interesting articles on all the Byzantine emperors and their personalities and with so much information and stories about them and their actions, I had to make not one article on it but 3! Now that I’m done with the 3-part series on the Byzantine personality through the emperors’ lives, it’s time to move to another topic which will be on Disasters in Byzantine history, which are mostly acts of God. After writing such a long scholarly series on the emperors, it’s time for a break and for this, I will here an article less serious and focus more on Byzantine historical trivia. This article will once again be based on the book A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities by Anthony Kaldellis and specifically on Chapter XVII which is “Disasters- Mostly Acts of God”. When it comes to natural disasters, they are considered as “Acts of God” and therefore are events that cannot be foreseen and in legal terms these are called Fortuitous Events and these unforeseen disasters I will write about in this article include tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, extreme weather events or the “dust-veil”, plague, ice, and fire. Meanwhile many of these events were acts of God like earthquakes, floods, and tsunamis but some fortuitous events can be acts of man as well like fire and plague in the sense of not being able to control it. The quote I used above is from the 6th century Byzantine historian Procopius who discusses what the extreme weather events of the year 536 when the sun was blocked by a thick layer of ash known as the “dust-veil”. This article will be written in a chronological form of disasters from the beginning to end of Byzantine history which is from the foundation of Constantinople in 330 to the fall of it in 1453 covering the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd ages of Byzantium, also it will only stick to these kinds of events in Byzantine history and not on these kinds of events that happened in the Roman Empire before Byzantium such as the Eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii in 79AD; and each paragraph will be made per year of the disaster. This article will feature specific highlighted years which had a major disaster in Byzantine history and will not cover every natural disaster in Byzantine history as it will be too much to write about, also all the disasters I will mention here are those that had only taken place within the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire between 330 and 1453, which means that if a location was no longer under Byzantine control but faced some of these natural disasters, it will not be mentioned. Also, the article will continue what was discussed the last time which was on the personalities of the emperors as it will mention who the reigning emperor was during the time of these disasters as well as in some parts how these emperors based on their personalities dealt with these disasters. In the last 3-part series I wrote, I have discovered that the personalities of the emperors do affect the turn of events in Byzantine history, now since I am writing about natural disasters, these events also did a more major rile in turning Byzantine history itself and both the articles on the imperial personalities and this one would be something I write to learn more about the turn of events in Byzantine history, as the final year ender article will be the “Turning Points in Byzantine History” and will be mostly based on the information of this one and the past 3 as the personalities and disasters did in fact play a big role in the changing of Byzantium’s history itself. Apparently, the Byzantine Empire who’s reign saw the most natural disasters was Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565) and many of the disasters that will be featured here took place during his reign, also because his reign was the most recorded by Byzantine historians such as Procopius as well as it was the most eventful reign out of all the Byzantine emperors. During Justinian I’s reign, the Byzantine Empire faced extreme weather events, a massive plague, a large flood, 2 tsunamis, and 3 major earthquakes but earthquakes on the other hand were the most common disaster in the Byzantine Empire as the empire itself was located in an area which is Anatolia and the Mediterranean that is prone to earthquakes. In fact, Constantinople, for all its greatness in architecture had one major flaw, which was that it was located in an active seismic zone, meanwhile other parts and major cities of the empire including Antioch and many parts of Asia Minor were in active seismic zones too. In Byzantine history, earthquakes were one of the major factors for turning points in their history not because it destroyed cities but affected people forcing them to migrate as seen with a major earthquake in 1354 which destroyed most of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Thrace forcing people to move out allowing the Ottomans from Asia Minor to make their first move into Europe, thus beginning their conquest of the Balkans and the Byzantine Empire itself. The Byzantine people were however superstitious and many of them judged these disasters to be God’s way of punishing them, and some emperors even took action on these disasters by using them as a way to repent such as Leo III in 726 after the eruption of Thera seeing this as the reason for icons to be banned as he saw that the icons had no power to stop these calamities from happening, therefore the Iconoclast movement began. The other disaster most common in the Middle Ages was plague and throughout Byzantine history, there were 2 major devastating recorded plagues first being the Plague of Justinian from 541-542 and the Black Death in the 1340’s and both created such a decline in population and a weakening of the empire and its resources, meanwhile both these plagues too have mysterious origins coming all the way as far as from China. Now since Byzantine history went a long way and changed itself so much that things were no longer the way they were in the 6th century in the 14th century but one thing that never changed for the Byzantines were natural disasters, but at least they at times knew how to prepare for them. Anyway, let’s begin with the article featuring key years of natural disasters having some bizarre stories about them!

Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols
Map of the Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent, 555 during the reign of Justinian I
“A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities” by Anthony Kaldellis

Note: This article’s information comes from various Byzantine historians from the ear of the Byzantine Empire (330-1453). Facts come from A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities by Anthony Kaldellis 


Other Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

The Complete Genealogy of the Byzantine Emperors

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

The 94 Emperors of Byzantium

Byzantine Science and Technology

Crime, Punishment, and Medical Practice in the Byzantine World

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

A Guide to the Byzantine Empire’s Themes

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part1

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part2

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part3


358- Earthquake of Nicomedia


Nicomedia (known as Izmit today) was a major city of the Eastern Roman Empire in Asia Minor located in the region of Bithynia just along the Sea of Marmara on the Asian side very close to Constantinople. Before the transfer of the Roman Empire’s capital to Constantnople and the founding of the Byzantine Empire, Nicomedia was the center of the persecutions of Christians beginning in 303 under the emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305). In 358, the 2nd Byzantine emperor Constantius II (r. 337-361), the son of the empire’s founder Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337) proposed to hold a Church council at the cathedral in Nicomedia, although Constantius II was an Arian in belief and probably wanted to hold the council to make Arian Christianity the religion of the empire. However, on August 24, 358 which some days before the council could be held, a massive earthquake struck the city at dawn destroying almost everything, including the cathedral. Since the city was built on a slop descending to the sea, houses built along the slope tumbled down crushing each other creating a cascade. The Byzantine historian at that time Ammianus Marcellinus describes the devastation of the earthquake, as when the sun rose the damage was so bad that houses tumbled down on top of each other, people were crushed by the damage, others buried up to the neck in the debris, and some were skewered on sharp points and beams. Worse than this, the damage trapped people in their homes leaving them to starve to death, including the governor Aristainetos. The semi-Arian bishop Cecropius too was found dead from the earthquake, although surprisingly the number of the deaths from this earthquake was only 15 and one of the people killed apart from the bishop and governor was the Persian soldier/ philosopher Arsacius who previously predicted the event but was ridiculed, though after the earthquake, strangely he was found dead in his tower which remained undamaged. This earthquake was held to be an act of divine judgment by Arian opponents believing that God caused this earthquake to punish the Arian heretics, which included the bishop. After the earthquake that brought so much destruction, Nicomedia would eventually be rebuilt but in a smaller scale until in the 6th century when Justinian I built it at the level of an imperial city again.

Byzantine era Nicomedia


365- Earthquake and Tsunami of Crete


On July 21, 365, a massive earthquake occurred with its epicenter at the large island of Crete in the Eastern Mediterranean and the effects of it were so strong it reached as far as Sothern Greece, Northern Libya and Egypt, Cyprus, Sicily, and Southern Spain. Modern geologists say that this earthquake had a magnitude of 8.5 or above as it was so strong enough to trigger a tsunami that devasted Crete and went as far as Alexandria in the south killing thousands and pushing ships 3km inland. The massive tsunami and its aftermath that came from the powerful earthquake of Crete is described in detail by the same historian Ammianus Marcellinus who writes that the sea was pulled back from its bed exposing numerous sea animals stuck in the land where ships were also left stranded, also underwater valleys and mountains were seen for the first time by the people and as the sea was pushed back, the people ran to this “new land” to scavenge the ships that were stuck and to collect sea creatures but soon enough, the sea came back at them killing all of them as it rushed quickly into the land. When the tsunami hit the land, thousands were killed by drowning in the sea water, cities were flooded by the water, and ships were carried inland and were even stranded above buildings from the tsunami’s effects. The earthquake’s epicenter may have been in the middle of the sea but it was so strong that it created a tsunami powerful enough to destroy nearly all the towns in Crete and permanently lift parts of the island out of the water, and today the effects can still be seen with some parts that were submerged no longer buried underwater including sea caves that were lifted by 9m.

Meanwhile, the tsunami caused by the earthquake did not only hit Crete, it travelled south directed towards Alexandria, the largest city of Byzantine Egypt. According to a later legend written in the Chronicle of the 7th century Egyptian Coptic bishop John of Nikiu, the powerful and energetic bishop of Alexandria who was strong opponent against Arianism and Church Father, St. Athanasius (296-373) faced the sea charging towards the city with a Bible in his hand and said “Oh God, you never lie, and you promised after the flood of Noah that you will not again bring a flood of waters upon the earth” and with the help of Athanasius, the water of the tsunami stopped and the city was saved, though many parts of the coast of North Africa were devastated by the tsunami at the same level of damage as Crete, but at least Alexandria was saved. However, even if the earthquake and tsunami took place in 365 during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Valentinian I (364-375), some Christian authors predate the event by 2 years to 363 as a way to interpret the tsunami as God’s anger against the emperor Julian the Apostate (r. 361-363) for rejecting Christianity and returning to Paganism. Meanwhile, the Pagan writer and philosopher Libanius who was a fan of Julian included this event as one of the events caused by the earth to mourn Julian’s passing, as in June of 363 Julian was killed in battle against the Sassanid Persians. From 366 up to the late 6th century, July 21 would be commemorated by the Byzantines as “The Day of Horror”.

Map of the range of the Earthquake and Tsunami of Crete, 365
Summary of the Crete and Alexandria earthquake and tsunami, 365


525- Flood of Edessa


Now fast-forward to the early 6th century and in 525 during the reign of Emperor Justin I (518-527)- the uncle and predecessor of Justinian I the Great- the Daisan (or Skirtos) River in Southeast Asia Minor which is a tributary of the River Euphrates flooded so suddenly at an extreme level that the waters of the river poured through the doors of a bathhouse and drowned those bathing in it. According to the Chronicle of John Malalas, within a couple of hours the flood filled up the entire city and since the city was surrounded by walls, the flood turned it into a lake until the water’s pressure made the walls collapse releasing the flood to the plains outside, and as the flood subsided and the city was being rebuilt, the Shroud of Turin also known as the Image of Edessa or Mandylion was allegedly discovered hidden in a wall hidden above one of the gates as a cloth with the facial features of a man believed to be Christ. This event became known as “The Anger”, which was God’s anger.


526- Earthquake of Antioch


Just one year after the great flood of Edessa and still during the reign of the aging Justin I who started life as a simple peasant, a massive earthquake struck the city of Antioch in Byzantine Syria which is today in southern Turkey and was one of the Byzantine Empire’s major cities in the first age of its history before the city was lost later on to the Arabs and later to the Crusaders. This powerful earthquake with a magnitude of about 7 struck Antioch sometime between May 20 and 29 of 526 at mid-morning killing about 250,000 people and afterwards it created a fire destroying most of the city’s already fallen buildings. As it turns out, Antioch is located in a major earthquake prone zone as it is right where the Eastern Anatolian Fault and Dead Sea Transform intersect, where the Anatolian, Arabian, and African plates border each other. One of the many killed in the great Antioch earthquake was the Patriarch of Antioch Euphrasios who’s house apparently was located above a tanners’ workshop and because of the earthquake, the house collapsed and according to the Chronicle of Dionysios of Tel-Mahre, he died falling straight into a vat of boiling pitch in which he was cooked in, his body was then melted from hit only leaving his head untouched so at least a part of his body was found. The buildings destroyed by the earthquake included Constantine’s the Great’s octagonal church on the city’s island along the Orontes River and the great church too was destroyed but from the fire after the earthquake, while only houses along the mountain slopes survived. Meanwhile at Constantinople, when the emperor aged Justin I heard of it, he panicked but sent money and people to reconstruct the city as well as had the church rebuilt and appointed a new patriarch who was a military leader named Ephraim, who is actually known as St. Ephraim of Antioch. Antioch however still suffered 18 more months of aftershocks and in November of 528, another major earthquake hit the city but killing less this time. Then to appease divine anger, the city of Antioch was renamed “The City of God” or Theopolis in Greek.

Overview of Roman era Antioch
Location of Antioch (red circle) at the intersection of the East Anatolian Fault and Dead Sea Transform, between the Arabian, Anatolian, and African plates
Summary of the Antioch Earthquake, 526
Modern day Antioch (Antakya, Turkey)


535-537- The Dust-Veil


It is said that the worst year to be alive was 536 not so much because of constant invasions but because of strange extreme weather events that caused a drop in temperatures creating crop shortages and famines that lasted the whole year. This strange case of extreme weather events was recorded by the Byzantine court historian Procopius of Caesarea (500-570) who documented the reign of Emperor Justinian I (also known as Flavius Petrus Sabbatius), Justin I’s nephew. Although from 535-536, Justinian I’s reign was strong and a golden age was on its way for the Byzantine Empire, but this did not stop nature from getting in the way as Procopius described the whole year of 536 with the sun not giving its usual brightness, instead only giving its light at the same level of brightness of the moon as the sun’s beams were not clear because of the fog that covered the sky. For the entire year of 536, it may have looked like the sun was eclipsed, but in fact there was no eclipse, it was just that a thick layer of a dust-like fog- which was actually ash- that covered the sky and the causes of this back in time of the Byzantines were unclear making many believe it was supernatural, as this thick fog which blocked the sun resulted it crop failures as the crops did not get enough sunlight. In fact, not only Procopius writes about this event, sources all the way to Ireland and China mention it as well, which means places as far as Ireland and China experienced this “dust-veil” as well. In Ireland, the Gaelic chronicles only mention that beginning 536 because of a thick fog preventing the sun to shine strong, there was a failure of bread up to 539 while in China it was recorded that temperatures dropped so low that snow fell in August of 536 creating crop failures and a delay in harvest. The dry fog extended throughout China, the Middle East, and Europe as well and even as far as Peru, drought affected the Pre-Inca Moche civilization there. The causes of this “dust-veil” are either the impact of a meteor on earth or more possibly because of a series of volcanic eruptions all over the world. Volcanic eruptions are the more the credible source for this weather event because the darkening of the sky was most likely caused by the ashes from these volcanoes that drifted really far making this kind of event a “volcanic winter”. Just recently, evidence for this event have been proven; first in 1816, this kind of event happened again as this year was known to be “a year without summer” and it was discovered that the cause of it was the ashes created by the eruption of Mt. Tambora in the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia, then in 1984 it was discovered that the Rabaul Volcano in the island of New Britain near Papua New Guinea erupted sometime in the 530’s, then in 1999 it was suggested that the volcano of Krakatoa in Indonesia erupted sometime between 535 and 536, in 2010 it was discovered that a massive volcanic eruption happened at the Ilopango caldera in El Salvador at around the same time which made it suggested in 2015 that a volcanic eruption in Central America was a major cause for the dust-veil, and lastly in 2018 it was suggested that the most possible cause of this event was a volcanic eruption in Iceland that also took place in 536. Although in 2009 it was suggested that multiple meteor impacts in Greenland created the haze in the sky as the air grew cold possibly because of the cold debris from space. It is seems very unusual that volcanic eruption taking place in lands far away that no Roman has ever known of before caused the sky of the Eastern Roman Empire and lands around it to darken, but this is possible because the ash that erupted out of these volcanoes were very thick and because of the speed and strength of the wind, the ashes could be carried as far as possible, also probably because there was a chain reaction of volcanoes in that year, the sun was able to be covered by a blanket of ash for an entire year. The Byzantines were superstitious about this event also because they had no idea where these far away volcanoes were and their eruptions were not recorded or discovered up to the modern day. This event where the temperature dropped because of the ash covering the sky became known as a Little Ice Age in the early Middle Ages and since this event caused many crop failures in Europe, this could have been one of the causes for the Norsemen to start migrating out of Scandinavia, for the Mongols to start migrating west, for the civilization of Teotihuacan in Mexico to collapse, and also for the Gupta Empire in India to collapse. For Byzantium, modern historians suggested that these extreme weather events from 535-537 caused the great plague of 541-542 and for the Arabs to begin their conquests in the 7th century beginning their attacks on Byzantium as crops grew short in their region. Nevertheless, the Byzantines still moved on with their lives despite having the whole year of 536 with the sun dimmed as the general Belisarius began the Roman reconquest of Italy that year, and it was here where Procopius wrote about these events, also the Hagia Sophia cathedral at Constantinople was being completed at this time. This had turned out to be the most severe and short-term episodes of cooling in the Northern Hemisphere in the last 2000 years and since the Byzantines among others didn’t understand it was because of volcanic eruptions from far away that they had no idea of it, they thought that these events were supernatural and could have been the end of the world itself.

Procopius’ description of the “dust-veil”


541-542- The Plague of Justinian


Following the extreme weather conditions or “dust-veil” of 535-537, a massive plague struck the Byzantine Empire beginning 541 in Egypt and in 542 it hit Constantinople itself very badly. The plague was said to have started in Egypt coming from merchant ships but the bacteria of this plague known as Yersinia Pestis transmitted by fleas carried by small animals such as rats came from the Tian Shan mountain range at the border of China, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan and travelled by both land and sea. The same historian Procopius of Caesarea who described the “dust-veil” also describes the plague and its symptoms in death; the symptoms for this plague included it being started with a light fever that did not do so much harm but if it continued to develop it would cause people to start falling into a deep coma or develop an acute dementia causing them to run in fear, and because of developing a mental illness these people start throwing themselves into water. Doctors of that time on the other hand were not familiar with the symptoms of the plague but many doctors weren’t affected as well because the disease was not transmitted from person to person, rather from fleas carried by animals such as rats to persons; meanwhile the most odd thing about this plague happened to pregnant women as 3 were still able to give birth despite having the plague but their babies died but one woman died while giving birth but the baby survived. As the plague hit Constantinople in 542, the mortality rate went from 5,000 to 10,000 a day, mass graves were created across the Golden Horn at the district of Pera but when the winds blew south the stench reached the city, groups had also searched homes to find any corpse they would see and would sometimes even find parents died while their children still alive and babies were even seen suckling the breasts of their dead mothers which apparently shows that the plague kills people that quick, and also people put on name-tags so they could be identified if they died away from home. Since the death rate grew so high and the mass graves could no longer fit them, bodies were stored inside forts all the way until the corpses reached the ceiling, but 4 months after the plague arrived in Constantinople, it subsided although killing up to 25-50 million people all over the Byzantine Empire and those who survived it still remained strong and could speak well except being unable to articulate some indistinct words. Among the people who were contracted by the plague but survived was the emperor Justinian I himself as he was probably inspecting the dead outside and the fleas probably transmitted the disease to him, the plague then almost killed Justinian but surprisingly he survived it after waking up from a long coma. Justinian’s wife, the empress Theodora however managed to not be affected by the plague and while the emperor fell into a coma, she ran the empire but in the east, the generals already believed the emperor to be dead so they made their move to take the throne but it failed as Justinian recovered but his full recovery still took some time. Other than Theodora, the historian Procopius, the generals Belisarius and Narses, and the finance minister John of Cappadocia did not contract the plague but one of the most notable people to die from it happened to be the jurist Tribonian who famously made the Codex of Justinian back in 529; another survivor who contracted the plague other than the emperor was the church lawyer and historian Euagrios who was still a child at elementary school at that time. Meanwhile, another contemporary historian of Procopius, John of Ephesus writes a more emotional story of the plague which is different from Procopius’ precise details as John of Ephesus describes the horrors caused by it such as scenes of corpses slit open in the streets leaking puss everywhere, ships drifting at sea with dead crews, houses with inhabitants rotting in their beds, villages where only one child survived, herds that ran off to the wild with no one to look after them as these people were killed by the plague too, and highways that were deserted. John of Ephesus also writes that a rumor went around Constantinople that monks were causing the plague, so people would flee from them on sight. This plague though lasting for less than a year killed people so quick that 13-26% of the world’s population was killed and not only was the Byzantine Empire affected, the Sassanid Persian Empire was heavily affected as well and since both empire were hit by the plague, the war between the two that was supposed to happen did not push through. This plague had also spread so quick across the Mediterranean affecting almost every place under Byzantine control including North Africa and Italy which have been recently reconquered but since the plague hit them, Byzantine control all of a sudden went out of control and for the next years after the plague, Justinian had to put everything back together again in a way repeating his hard-worked reconquest of Italy. Soon enough the empire was stable again as the plague subsided but this though happened to be the first continental scale plague to strike as plagues before that were smaller, the next large scale plague as big as this to happen would be the Black Death some 800 years later in the 14th century when Byzantium was already weakened. Because of the “dust-veil” that happened a few years before the plague, the wind carrying volcanic ashes may have affected the fleas causing them to fly out of control due to the absence of the sun which makes the fleas live and breathe more due to colder air. Overall Justinian I’s reign may have accomplished so much for the Byzantines, but it was met with the worst disasters.

Map of the spread of the Plague of Justinian, 541-542
The Plague hits Constantinople, 542 (from Total War: Attila)
Map of the Byzantine Empire next to the Sassanid Empire and the Rashidun Arab Caliphate, early 7th century


547-548- Flooding of the Nile


Only 6 years after the great plague hit Constantinople and a decade after the “dust-veil”, the Byzantine Empire faced another great natural disaster, this time it was the flooding of the Nile from 547 to 548. Egypt was probably the richest and most important province for the Byzantines as it produced the most grain despite being a dry dessert land but with the many tributaries of the Nile River, it was fertile. In 547, the Nile flooded more than it usually did in some places along it and as it flooded, the waters refused to recede up to 548 destroying many crops and causing a famine. The people of Egypt thought that the famine caused by the waters no receding was a bad omen but the historian Procopius comes back again and says that when people do not understand the present they like to find portents regarding the future and when they worry themselves to death about things that confuse them, they make groundless predictions about what will happen. Procopius would rather think about the present rather than what is to come and for him the flooding of the Nile and swamping of land had only become a great misfortune in present time but afterwards nothing bad happened anymore there.


551- Earthquake and Tsunami of Beirut


In 551, with Justinian I still reigning as emperor, though his empress Theodora had already been dead since 548, another great disaster struck within the empire, this time it was the massive earthquake and tsunami at Beirut in Byzantine Phoenicia (today Lebanon). The earthquake took place on July 9, 551 off the coast of Beirut which in Byzantine times was called Berytus with a magnitude of 7.5 but the bigger devastation did not come from the earthquake, rather from the tsunami. This earthquake could be felt all the way from Alexandria in the south to Antioch in the north but the coastal cities of Lebanon such as Tyre and Tripoli suffered the most but in Beirut alone, it was reported that about 30,000 people died from the earthquake and tsunami. Beirut was also where one of the 3 major law academies up by Justinian were found but because of the earthquake and tsunami, the academy had to be moved to Sidon. Meanwhile, at the time the Beirut earthquake happened, the historian and lawyer Agathias was still studying at Alexandria and there he heard of the disaster and when returning to Constantinople also in 551, he passed by the island of Kos in the Aegean Sea and apparently the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami reached there. In Kos, Agathias writes in his Histories that he found the city at Kos in a pile of rubble, broken pillars and beams were sticking out everywhere, haggard people were scavenging the ruins, and the tsunami from the sea also contaminated the city’s water supply.


552- Tsunami of Boeotia


Only a year after the 551 earthquake and tsunami of Beirut, the reign of Justinian I saw a strong tsunami that flooded parts of the region of Boeotia in Central Greece. According to the same historian Procopius, as the waters from flood caused by the tsunami receded, certain unfamiliar sea creatures were left behind in the muck and the locals with their first instinct decided to grill them but when the fire touched these creatures which were probably sea cucumbers, they dissolved into a gross smelly liquid.


557- Earthquake of Constantinople


Constantinople was at a major earthquake zone and this was one of the city’s flaws; Constantine the Great chose Constantinople then Byzantium to be his capital in 324 seeing that it was in a perfect location that would be hard for enemies to invade but he did not see its major flaw that it was built in an area that was an active earthquake zone. After the plague of 542, the next major disaster Constantinople saw also within Justinian I’s reign was the major earthquake of 557, though earlier in 533 there was another major earthquake but it did not have any real casualties then in 540, 545, 547, 551, and 555, Justinian’s reign saw minor earthquakes in these years. In 557, there were 2 earthquakes that struck the city, one in April and the other in October but both had no real damage, however it was the earthquake that hit the city on the night of December 14, 557 that hit the capital very bad almost destroying it. Historians including John Malalas, Theophanes the Confessor, and Agathias again record this event and according to the Chronicle of Agathias, many people were asleep when the earthquake struck but when they felt it they ran out their houses refusing to return as their roofs would fall on them, although the only ones who didn’t run outside were those seeking refuge inside the churches, but since the city was so built up there were only a few open spaces where people could be safe but even though they were there, there was cold rain falling from the sky as winter had started. This earthquake had a magnitude of 6.4 and brought damage to many buildings that debris started falling on people as there wasn’t so much empty space around the city anymore, but at the end there were not that much casualties from the earthquake, and the only senator to die from it was the corrupt Anatolios as his bedroom walls were lined with sculpted marble panels and because of the earthquake it fell on him killing him in his sleep. Many people then believed the earthquake was sent to punish the unpopular Anatolios for his corrupt life but Agathias thinking more scientifically said that the earthquake did not distinguish between good and bad people but as the earthquake ceased by dawn of December 15, people were overjoyed. It was not mentioned though what the now 75-year-old Justinian himself- now that his wife Theodora had been long dead- was doing when the earthquake struck except in response to it afterwards, he went into a period of mourning for the city refusing to wear his crown for 40 days in respect for the people and also he made sure they helped each other. Agathias also mentions there was a short-lived positive effect on the people’s attitude from the earthquake that was very rare in Constantinople in which all the people were caring for each other, the wealthy turned to charity, doubtful people began to pray again, and even the most vicious people turned to virtue all probably as an act of repentance because of the fear of God’s wrath but soon enough, Agathias mentions they returned to their old ways. The major damages caused by this earthquake was the weakening of the dome of the Hagia Sophia which soon fully collapsed in May 558, the capital’s Walls of Theodosius II too were severely damaged that in 559, the Huns raiding into the city were able to pass through the cracks. This was probably the last major disaster in Justinian I’s reign but despite facing so many disasters in his long reign, the Byzantine Empire managed to survive and grow again and Justinian himself never gave up and continued to strongly lead his people in times of disasters as after the earthquake, despite at an old age, Justinian made sure the city and the Hagia Sophia’s dome was rebuilt into the way it once was. Even up to his old age, Justinian never gave up on his imperial ambitions to make Byzantium the world power it should be and despite facing so many natural disasters throughout his reign, Justinian was persistent to make sure everything will go back to normal, he then died in 565 8 years after this major earthquake.

Artwork of the Earthquake of Constantinople on December 14, 557


726- Eruption of Thera


Fast-forward to 726, the golden age of Byzantium saw under the reign of Justinian I in 6th century which also saw many natural disaster was long over, now the second age of the Byzantine Empire had begun, 22 years of anarchy with a change of emperor 7 times made it grow very exhausted; now Byzantium was no longer controlling the rich provinces of Egypt and Syria as those had fallen to the massive invading Arab armies in the 6th century, and even Constantinople itself became a dangerous position having survived to Arab sieges that almost succeeded. In 726, Byzantium was under the emperor Leo III the Isaurian (r. 717-741), the former Strategos or general of the Anatolic Theme who had brought order back after 22 years of anarchy successfully defeated a major Arab siege of Constantinople in 718 but on July 15, 726, disaster struck as deep beneath the Aegean Sea, a large volcanic eruption coming from the caldera of the island of Thera (now Santorini, Greece) forced boiling lava and stones as big as hills to burst out from under the sea being so strong enough to create the new volcanic island of Nea Kameni between Thera and Therasia. Back in around 1500BC, this same volcano of Thera erupted which caused the destruction of the Minoan civilization in Crete but this way long before Byzantine times, as in the era of the Byzantine Empire, this was the only time the underwater volcano of Thera erupted and in this article this will the first of the second age disasters that took place. The effects of the volcanic eruption lasted for about 45 days with the ashes covering the sky just like the “dust-veil” of 536 except not lasting that long, but when the superstitious emperor Leo III saw the ashes darkening the sky, he thought of it as a warning from God against the use of icons. Leo III was originally a Syrian and being from there, he was exposed to the ideas of the Arabs and their belief in not using any forms of images for worship and as emperor, he wanted to impose this belief on the Byzantines. Seeing that the people’s closeness to icons and veneration of them did not do anything to protect Byzantium against the constant invasions of the Arabs and the ash cloud from the volcano of Thera, Leo III saw it as the right time to ban the veneration of icons and beginning 730, the first Iconoclast movement of the Byzantine Empire began resulting in the destruction of icons all over the empire. After the banning of icons, the Byzantines started winning wars against the Arabs taking back most of the lands they lost, Leo III chose to continue his policy in outlawing the veneration of icons.

converted PNM file
Map of the islands of the Thera Caldera in the Aegean Sea


763-764- Extreme Winter Weather Conditions


Also, within the 8th century, another natural disaster struck the Byzantine Empire, and in fact Constantinople itself, this was the extreme weather conditions of the winter of 763 to 764. During this extremely cold winter, temperatures in the Black Sea area dropped so low that icebergs floated all the way down to the Bosporus and struck the seawalls of Constantinople shaking houses that were built along them. The ice grew so bad that it even grew higher than the walls itself; this is recorded in the Chronicle of the Iconodule St. Theophanes the Confessor who actually witnessed this event himself remembering that at that time when he was a child, he and 30 playmates went out to climb and play on the ice. When this natural disaster struck, the reigning emperor was Constantine V (r. 741-775), the son of Leo III who was an event stronger supporter of Iconoclasm that he event went as far as killing and torturing monks who supported the veneration of icons, although nothing is said about how Constantine V dealt with the ice that struck and froze the Bosporus.


927-928- Extreme Winter Weather Conditions


The next time Constantinople experienced brutal winter weather conditions was at the winter of 927-928, which was mentioned in the Chronicle of Theophanes Continuatus that the winter was so bitter that the ground froze for 120 days killing the crops causing what was known as “the worst famine in Byzantine history”. The famine caused by the winter caused so many deaths that there was more dead than the living could bury and snow fell so heavily in Constantinople itself. Fortunately, the Byzantine Empire at this time had an energetic, creative, and thoughtful but also an unsophisticated and power-hungry emperor who began from nothing which was Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944) from the Macedonian Dynasty and to deal with the harsh winter, he had the porticos of the capital boarded up so that the snow and cold air could not easily reach the homeless and poor living beneath them as the city’s streets were partly protected by porticos made out of the protruding upper floors of houses. The emperor also made charity programs for those affected by the winter by inviting the poor to eat in the palace coming in small groups.

Cold Constantinople
Extreme winter in Constantinople (Ottoman era)


Late 10th century- Floods Outside Constantinople


According to this History of Leo the Deacon, sometime in the late 10th century, though not giving an exact date but probably during the early reign of Basil II (r. 976-1025) from the Macedonian Dynasty, huge waves caused by gales toppled a seaside column in the Eutropios District south of Chalcedon across the Bosporus from Constantinople. Above the column toppled by the waves lived a stylite saint whose name isn’t mentioned but when the column was knocked down, Leo the Deacon mentions that the saint fell into the waves and died from drowning.


1063- Earthquake of Constantinople


In 1063, during the ineffective reign of the emperor Constantine X Doukas (r. 1059-1067), a powerful earthquake struck Constantinople on September 23 which is recorded by the politician, monk, and philosopher Michael Psellos. Here, Michael Psellos writes about himself showing an example of how he was strong enough to lecture priests and monks that earthquakes have nothing to do with divine wrath. Michael Psellos was a well-educated scholar who believed in science and that divine nature was entirely outside the universe, meaning that what caused the earthquake was the natural movement of the earth’s crust. Psellos though believed that disasters such as earthquakes was a way for God to remind people, they must repent but he warned the monks and priests that the churches seem to draw a greater measure on divine wrath and had offered no protection during the earthquake itself. If Constantinople though was still under Byzantine control in the 16th century, it would face a major devastating earthquake in 1509, which destroyed a lot of Constantinople which was at that time the Ottoman Empire’s capital. On the other hand, other Byzantine authors, especially from the first age of Byzantine history call earthquakes “mysteries of God’s love for mankind” as some earthquakes revealed pregnant women having given birth to healthy babies when removed from the rubble after being trapped beneath it for 20-30 days.


1203- Fire of Constantinople


This now will be the first disaster to be an act of man on this list and also the first one from Byzantium’s third age to be mentioned, which was a massive fire that travelled swiftly through Constantinople when the army of the 4th Crusade launched their attack on the city in 1203. Before 1203, the 4th Crusade was launched in Venice with the young Byzantine price Alexios Angelos asking for the help of Venice and the crusader army to force his uncle, the weak emperor Alexios III Angelos (r. 1195-1203) out of power and to put him in power. When the ships of Venice and the Latin army of the 4th Crusade arrived at Constantinople to attack it, they set fire to the city. In Constantinople, the main paved street was called the Mese which was 25m wide having colonnades, porches, and shops on either side and above it was porticos created by the protruding upper floors of the houses. When the Crusaders burned the city as they attacked it, the Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates records that the flames from the Crusaders’ attack travelled swiftly along the rafters of the porticos resembling “rivers of fire” and since most of Constantinople’s porticos were connected, it was a chain reaction of fire that spread all over city. While the attack was happening, the emperor Alexios III cowardly fled the city and the young Alexios IV was put in the throne together with his blinded and deposed father, the ex-emperor Isaac II Angelos (r. 1185-1195) who was Alexios III’s younger brother. However, Alexios IV was not able to keep his promise to pay the debts he owes to the Crusaders as the empire did not have that much funds, so he melted down icons to create coins, but the people of the city turned against him starting a revolution that deposed and executed him and his father in January of 1204, and since the Byzantines did not yet fully pay of their debt, the Crusaders sacked the city and captured it in April of 1204.

Top view of the Mese street in Byzantine era Constantinople


1347- Black Death Plague


The next large-scale plague epidemic after the Plague of Justinian from 541-542 was the Black Death from 1347-1351 devasting not only Europe but Central Asia and North Africa as well and at the end killing about 200 million people in every place combined. The scale of disaster of the Black Death was just as large as the Plague of Justinian some 800 years before it but the death toll of the 14th century Black Death was much higher killing millions as it reached farther compared to Justinian’s plague as the Black Death itself spread all across Europe, also it was more devastating than 542 Plague because the Black Death lasted for about 4 years. If the Plague of Justinian which swept across the Mediterranean affecting both the Byzantine and Sassanid Persian Empires originated from fleas in Central Asia, the Black Death had also started somewhere in the same area, although not in the Tian Shan Mountains of Central Asia but in the Eurasian Steppes in today’s Russia and travelled so quick through ships affecting all the ports they pass from the Crimea, to Constantinople, to Greece, to Egypt, to Italy, to France and reaching as far as Spain, Germany, England, Scandinavia, and the Baltics. The cause of the Black Death was the same as Justinian’s Plague, it started from fleas in Central Asia except that in the 14th century, climate changed in Asia making the land more dry causing the fleas to escape through mammals such as rats which ended up travelling the Silk Route and boarding the merchant ships docked at the Crimea which was split between the control of Genoa and the offshoot Byzantine Empire of Trebizond. In 1347, the plague travelled by boat from the Crimea and from there made a landfall into the ports of Europe, first at Constantinople when at that time, the Byzantine Empire thought at least being returned to Constantinople after taking it back from the Latins in 1261, had already been so impoverished, weakened, and reduced in size after a deadly civil war fought from 1341-1347 between the imperial family faction supporting the young emperor John V Palaiologos, the son of the late emperor Andronikos III (r. 1328-1341) and John Kantakouzenos who was a friend and high ranking minister of the late emperor. However, in 1347 John VI Kantakouzenos won the civil war and was crowned senior emperor but his reign began bad as Black Death hit Constantinople and many ports of the Byzantine Empire, although at least it did not affect the rest of the inland parts of the empire as it was the merchants and their goods containing the fleas only got off at the ports. On the other hand, there is not really any much details described on how the Black Death hit the Byzantine Empire except that it heavily affected the major ports of the empire, especially the port of Constantinople and killed many but it is not said how many were killed by the Black Death in Constantinople or the Byzantine Empire itself, except that it was one of the disasters the emperor John VI faced during his reign. The impact of the Black Death epidemic happened to be stronger in Western Europe after the ships arrived in Sicily on October of 1347 rapidly spreading across Southern Italy and on January of 1348, the plague hit Genoa as the ships dock there and from the fleas quickly spread infesting on people bringing the death rate up to the thousands. From Genoa it rapidly spread to France, Germany, and England and only in 1351 did the plague subside. The death rate in Western Europe from the plague was extremely high as 75-80% of the population of France and Spain combined was killed while in Germany and England it was only about 20% but in Egypt which was under the Mamluk Sultanate, 40% of the population too was killed. The symptoms of this plague were the same as the ones during the Plague of Justinian, except that doctors were already familiar with it but the plague’s impact was too strong and as it spread too fast, the death toll was too large that it left Europe depopulated for the next decades. Meanwhile in Byzantium, the Black Death did not seem to affect it much as in the next years things went as usual but disaster struck again in March of 1354 when a powerful earthquake hit the Peninsula of Gallipoli in Thrace which is at the entrance to Europe right across the Dardanelles Strait from Asia Minor and because of this earthquake, almost all villages and towns in this part were destroyed forcing the Byzantine Greeks living there to flee inland giving the perfect opportunity for the Ottomans from Asia Minor to seize the area making their first conquest into Europe. Meanwhile, the emperor John VI tried to pay off the Ottoman sultan Orhan to back away but Orhan refused saying that he deserves it as he helped John VI take the throne back in 1347. By December of 1354, John VI was deposed from power as the young emperor and heir to the Palaiologos Dynasty John V returned to power with the help of Genoese pirates, John VI then retired and became a monk.

Map of the Black Death’s spread across Europe, 1347-1350


Before reaching this article’s conclusion, one more thing I have to mention in Constantinople is the large column at the Forum of Constantine which had a colossal statue of Constantine the Great as the god Apollo above it and the column was regarded as a kind of talisman of the city since it experienced almost every disaster that struck the empire. Out of all the landmarks in Constantinople, the porphyry Column of Constantine survived the whole history of Constantinople even predating the Hagia Sophia as the column was built ever since the city’s inauguration in 330 and till today even if Constantinople has been under the Ottomans for centuries since 1453, the column still survives. This column was burned by the great fires of 464 and the one caused by the Nika Riot in 532, though both fires left the porphyry of the column blackened and in need of reinforcements using ugly iron bands. After the Nika Riot’s damage during Justinian I’s reign, these iron bands were already wrapped around the column and because of an earthquake, though it is not dated, the spear of the statue fell and embedded itself in the forum’s pavement. In 1097 during the reign of Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118), the column was struck by lightning according to the History of Michael Attaleiates; then in 1106 according to the daughter of Alexios I and historian Anna Komnene, the statue of Constantine the Great was toppled by a powerful gale squashing a number of people in the ground; and afterwards the statue was replaced by a tall cross by the emperor Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180). The column survived the attack of the 4th Crusade in 1204 where the Crusaders melted the other statues surrounding it, the occupation of the Latins afterwards, the return of the Byzantines from 1261 to 1453, and even under the occupation of the Ottomans up to the 20th century, although when the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453, the cross was removed from the column. Today, this column still survives even if the forum around it is gone, though the column remains shorter today but still 35m high and still having the metal bands around them. Today the column is best known as the “Burned Column” as it still looks burned but on the other hand still intact, though in Turkish this column is called Çemberlitas meaning “stone with hoops” and today this column is very visible and an easy location to reach as it is in the entrance to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.

At the time of the Byzantine Empire, the column was at the center of one of the capital’s major squares, the Forum of Constantine founded by Constantine the Great himself as one of the landmarks he inaugurated when he founded the city in 330. When it was built, the column was 50m tall made up of 7-11 large porphyry blocks and below it was stored important relics both of Christian and Pagan origins such as items used in Christ’s life and important relics from Ancient Greece and Rome, and most importantly above the column, the Nails of the Crucifixion and a piece of wood from the True Cross were held within the orb of Constantine’s statue until it fell in the 12th century. In the 10th century, an apocalyptic vision offers a sad image of the End Times where Constantinople would be flooded except for the tip of Constantine’s Column as it bore the Nails of the Crucifixion, although even with the nails gone this kind of flooding did not take place, or it hadn’t happened yet. Today, the column is one of the few remaining intact Byzantine landmarks in Constantinople (Istanbul) and one of the most important examples of Roman art and architecture in the city, also it is one of the oldest landmarks in the city being older than the Hagia Sophia itself and still stands to this day. The Byzantines too have calculated that the world was created in what we call today 5508BC and believed that the world would end 7000 years after its creation which would be the year 1492. However, the Byzantine Empire fell in 1453 but if it still lived on for 39 more years, their prediction would have been right. The end of the world prediction for the Byzantines may have been the year they believed their empire would end, but their end came earlier than they expected, but if 1492 was marked as the year the world would end, it could have also meant the year when an old era would die and a new one would be born. True enough, 1492 was when the Middle Ages had died out and the Renaissance grew and was also the same year when the Genoese Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic and discovered the New World, making the discovery of a new continent a big moment of change for the world’s history.

Forum of Constantine, Byzantine Constantinople


Alright, so this is about it for this article. Now since the Byzantine Empire’s history spanned such a long time having 3 eras, it was bound to face so many natural disasters, most especially earthquakes. The location of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire itself was in an area of great seismic activity, and for all the greatness of its imperial cities like Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria, being in an active earthquake zone was their major flaw. Meanwhile, other than earthquakes floods and fires were common disasters in the Middle Ages and even to this day these are still common. However the big difference between disasters back then in the time of the Byzantines and in this day is the way we see it, back then many saw earthquakes, floods, eruptions, and disease as an omen or even a sign that the world is ending, but now with more scientific evidence behind them, there is not much to be scared of about them anymore. Out of all the 90+ Byzantine emperors, the emperor whose reign was marked by the most natural disasters was Justinian I (r. 527-565), though being Byzantium’s greatest ruler, he knew how to handle these disasters and survived all of it including the mysterious “dust-veil” of 536, the Plague of 542 which even affected him, and the major earthquake of Constantinople in 557. Justinian I did not give up even if being hit by the plague, and yet he survived and lived all the way till old age and was never overthrown; now if this were a weaker emperor like Alexios III (r. 1195-1203), he would have given up and as the Crusaders attacked Constantinople and burned it in 1203, he did nothing to help and instead fled. Also, why many disasters happened during Justinian’s reign was because there was a lot recorded about it by historians like Procopius and Agathias who described them in detail. The next centuries of Byzantine history too faced many natural disasters but historians did not describe them as much as the historians of Justinian’s time did. It so happened that one of the rarest weather events in the past 2000 years which was the 536 “dust-veil” happened during the time of the Byzantine Empire where volcanic ash from far away which was only proven later blocked the sun’s light creating a darkness in the light and the Byzantine empire too faced the greatest plague epidemics in history, which was the Plague of Justinian from 541-542 and the Black Death in 1347 but Byzantium survived them both, although these plagues brought many consequences to the empire; the Plague of Justinian weakened Byzantine control in their newly conquered provinces and the Black Death weakened the Empire by killing off many allowing the Ottomans to start making their move into Europe beginning the conquest of the Byzantine Empire itself. Although, if the Byzantine Empire lived up to the 16th century, Byzantine Constantinople would face yet another great disaster, which was the 1509 earthquake, though at that time Constantinople was still an imperial city but under new management, by the Ottomans. Even if the Byzantine Empire is long gone now, there are at least some structures of it that remain intact which is not only the Hagia Sophia but the Burnt Column of Constantine in Constantinople which has been there ever since the capital was founded by Constantine the Great in 330. Now one thing I learned in writing this article, is that the personalities of the emperors, which I discussed last time also do have an impact on the aftermath of these disasters, such as that skilled rulers like Justinian I would know how to handle these disasters while superstitious ones like Leo III (r. 717-741) would think of it as an omen and a time of repentance. The Byzantine Empire lived for more than a thousand years and has changed so much going from the imperial Roman to a medieval Orthodox Greek state, but no matter how much language, fashion, art, and culture has changed in the empire, the one thing that did not change were natural disasters and its effect. Even today, natural disasters and their effects are no different from back then and yet many of these events remain still unforeseen, and the only difference between that time and ours is the way we see them, especially with science to prove it, there is less to worry about unlike back then when nothing could prove where the ashes came from in 536, which then creates total fear and anxiety among people. Now this concludes my article on natural disasters in Byzantine history and together with my previous articles on the Byzantine emperors and their personalities, this will be one of the articles that will lead up to the ultimate year ender article of this year which are turning points in Byzantine history, and after this I will take a break for a bit on writing articles as for the past 2 months, I have just written a bit too much. Now, this is it… thanks for viewing everyone!

Byzantine Life- Crime, Punishment, Heresy, and Medical Practice

Posted by Powee Celdran 

In front of the palace, the emperor ordered the criminal’s hands to be cut off and his eyes put out. I enquired why they did not put him to death, and they replied that the emperor could not order his soul to be destroyed.” -Pero Tafur, Travels Volume 17, 1437


Welcome to another Byzantine article by The Byzantium Blogger! In this article, I will heavily cover some elements of Byzantine life, particularly crime and punishment and how it was dealt with by the law. Medicine too was another important aspect of Byzantine life and in the empire, there were many doctors with sophisticated medical techniques but also the law had made some punishments for medical crimes committed by doctors. If the Byzantines were sophisticated and highly educated medieval people, they were advanced in science, mathematics, and philosophy as I have mentioned in the previous article on Byzantine science and technology but aside from science, being sophisticated and very literate meant that the Byzantines must have also had a strong code of laws and advanced and systematic ways of medical practice such as performing surgeries and developing remedies for diseases. True enough, the Byzantines did have a strong code of laws which was developed by Emperor Justinian I in 529 as he codified Roman Law and reformed it so that it could be consistently practiced throughout the empire. Aside from making a systematic code of laws, this article will also cover the more obscure and graphic aspects of Justinian I’s life and reign. Over the centuries, the laws of Byzantium have been altered by emperors either making them more just or more unjust. However, even if the Byzantines were more civilized when it came to the law, they were also brutal and quite uncivilized when it came to punishments and tortures for criminals. Byzantine criminals were often subjected to cruel and unusual public executions, severe conditions in prisons, and mutilation while prisoners of war were often blinded while heretics were usually exiled. Anyway, the subject of punishments in Byzantium is very intriguing because no matter how civilized and sophisticated their empire was, they remained barbaric and unpractical when it came to punishing enemies of the state that sometimes some of these stories of punishments in Byzantium turn out to be funny and at the same time very graphic (for those with a dark sense of humor). Almost all the information in this article is from the book “A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities” by Anthony Kaldellis, just like in the previous article, but this time on an all new different subject and the primary sources of all the information in this article come from several Byzantine historians during the era of their empire. This article will begin with covering crime and some unusual punishments including the punishments for heresies and heretics, and then Byzantine medicine and the law regarding it. With the topics covered from crime and punishments to medical practice, hopefully this would be a good interesting read for those who want to be lawyers, doctors, or Byzantine scholars like myself, or if you have nothing to do during the day and want something interesting and at the same time bloody and graphic to read. This article will be written in the same format as the previous one in several paragraphs and will be divided into 2 parts; first on crime and punishment, then about Byzantine medicine. Another thing though is that there are not much pictures in this article depicting surgeries and Byzantine punishments as the Byzantines have not really produced as much illustrations of their life in their time other than the Madrid Skylitzes, so if you want to know more about these unusual tortures and stories, you must read all this.

Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols

Note: This article’s information comes from various Byzantine historians in their era and has some graphic content, as if Byzantine history is the setting of a Tarantino movie. So prepare yourselves!  

Other Byzantine Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

Byzantine Science and Technology 

The 94 Emperors 

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium 

The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire


I. Crime and Punishment


The laws of Byzantium, as mentioned in Justinian’s 6th century code of laws (Corpus Juris Civilis), later repealed and translated from Latin to Greek by Leo VI the Wise in the late 9th century was as simple as “an eye for an eye”. For example, men who castrated other men were to be castrated in return, men who blinded other men were to be blinded in one eye in return, and whoever falsely accuses someone else would be convicted the same way. Sometimes, criminals were subjected to humiliation either by being paraded through town or put in a show. Men who were pilloried had their heads shaven off, stripped off their clothing and dressed in rags if they were rich and in women’s clothes if they were men, according to the Histories of Niketas Choniates. According to the 7th century Sophronios of Jerusalem, sometimes, convicted criminals would be smeared in pitch to let them suffer the horrible smells, draped around with animal intestines, and made to sit facing on a donkey facing backwards having to shout out “I am an idiot!” and people watching the criminals would shout insults at them and their parents and would even throw blood or their faeces at them and sometimes even wood and stones. Worse than that, jesters would mock the convicted criminals by performing an act of the crimes they committed. One story of public humiliation takes place in 765 when Emperor Constantine V punished the monks who opposed his religious policies (possibly Iconoclast policies) by forcing them to walk around the Hippodrome of Constantinople holding women as the crowds jeered at and spat on them.

Public humiliation sample


Some punishments for certain crimes in the Byzantine world were very unusual yet were said to be “innovative”. During the reign of the first Byzantine emperor, Constantine I the Great (306-337), he increased the number of capital crimes and punishments for them such as having the hands cut off for corrupt officials as their hands symbolize their greed and if a nurse assists in seducing someone, molted lead should be poured down her mouth and throat. As a warning for others, emperors would place the amputated limbs of criminals on the streets of Constantinople and the Hippodrome; these included the limbs of Emperor Phokas who was deposed by Heraclius in 610 and the limbs of Emperor Leo V who was deposed and mutilated by the conspirators of Michael II in Christmas of 820. One emperor, Andronikos I Komnenos who was deposed in 1185 by Isaac II Angelos was slowly mutilated by the people of Constantinople until he was torn up to many pieces. Another story of an unusual punishment revolves around the Iconoclast emperor Theophilos (829-842) of the 2nd Iconoclast period in Byzantium and the brothers Theodore and Theophanes of Jerusalem who defended the veneration of icons opposing the policies of the emperor. To punish them, the emperor made a bad quality poem and had it tattooed on both of their faces making them known as the “Graptoi brothers” or “The Inscribed Ones”. The poem was later written in the Chronicles of a certain Symeon:

In that fair town whose sacred streets were trod by the pure feet of the Word of God- the city all men’s hearts desire to see- these evil vessels of perversity and superstition, working foul deeds there, were driven forth to this our city, where, persisting in their wicked and lawless ways, they are condemned, branded on the face as scoundrels, and hounded back to their native place.”

Other than that, Emperor Theophilos after hearing that the icon painter Lazaros Zographos had been painting icons in his prison cell, had hot plates be applied to Lazaros’ hands as his punishment. Lazaros died shortly after and became a saint; this scene where the emperor has the hot plates applied to Lazaros’ hands are depicted in the Madrid Skylitzes. Another unusual punishment depicted in the Madrid Skylitzes is when the admiral Niketas Ooryphas in 873 ordered that the Christian defectors he captured from the Arab fleet he defeated be skinned alive; in order to do this, he had them boiled in pitch to remove them from the baptism they have renounced. According to the 12th century Armenian historian Matthew of Edessa, the abdicated Armenian king Gagik II was offended that Markos, the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia named his dog “Armen” thinking it as an insult to his people. When dining with the bishop, the bishop said he named his dog that because the dog was powerful like a soldier (most of them being Armenians), though Gagik did not believe it until it was proved. In order to prove that the dog was powerful, he had the bishop and the dog placed in a bag where the dog was beaten many times causing it to maul the bishop into bits, and as a result the bishop was dead. The story of the bishop Markos being mauled by his dog may possibly be a legend, although another legend about Ignatios, the architect of the Hagia Sophia is as strange as the previous one. Emperor Justinian I feared that Ignatios would be more popular than he was, so when Ignatios was working on Justinian’s equestrian statue above the column next to the massive church he previously built, the scaffolds were removed leaving Ignatios trapped above. However, the architect had a smart plan by cutting his clothes into pieces and tying them together which he sent to his wife below who was told to dip a rope in pitch and swinging it up to let him down. The rope was then burned to show no signs of his escape and Ignatios escaped to live as a monk only to be recognized by Justinian 3 years later who then agreed to spare him for being able to brilliantly escape. On the other hand, in December 1204, after Alexios V Doukas, the last Byzantine emperor before the fall of Constantinople to the 4th Crusade in 1204 was deposed, his Latin captors debated about executing him in front of him. Alexios V had already been blinded by his rivals but to kill him off, the Latin leaders of the crusade including Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice thought that the ex-emperor could not be killed as an ordinary criminal by beheading or hanging, so the best method of execution for him was to see if he could fly and they did this by throwing him off from the Column of Theodosius I in Constantinople resulting with Alexios V being smashed into pieces as he hit the ground.

Execution of Andronikos I, 1185
The “Graptoi” brothers St. Theophanes and St. Theodore of Jerusalem
Icon painter St. Lazaros Zographos before Emperor Theophilos, Madrid Skylitzes
Column of Justinian I recreation


Some bloody stories of Byzantine punishments involve the mutilations of body parts such as noses and eyes; blinding as it turns out was a capital punishment for enemies of the state and mutilating an emperor would disqualify him from regaining the throne as a disabled man was not fit to be emperor. In 695, after Emperor Justinian II was overthrown by the rebellion of Leontios, his nose was ordered to be cut off to disqualify him from retaking the throne. However, 3 years later Leontios was deposed by Tiberius III who also did the same thing to Leontios by having his nose cut off as well as his tongue before sending him to a monastery. Justinian II would retake the throne in 705 ordering the same thing on Tiberius III by having his nose removed and afterwards both the deposed Leontios and Tiberius III were executed. The process of having the nose removed was known as a “rhinotomy” and with Justinian II missing a nose during his 2nd reign being replaced by a golden prosthetic; he gained the nickname “Rhinotmetos” meaning “slit-nosed”. Another person in Byzantine history who had a mutilated nose replaced by a gold prosthetic was the general Tatikios who led the Byzantine army of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118) in the 1st Crusade in Asia Minor. Although earlier on, the short-reigned emperor Heraklonas (641) also had his nose cut off by orders of the supporters of his nephew Constans II who was proclaimed emperor. Blinding however was a more common capital punishment in Byzantium and blinding was done through several methods including gouging out the eyes, or by using tools such as kitchen knives, tent pegs, or candelabrum, but a more merciful way to blind people was by placing red hot cups over the eyes. One emperor who was blinded was Constantine VI (780-797) who first ruled with the regency of his mother Irene of Athens but when he was old enough, he began to quarrel with his mother possibly because he supported Iconcolasm while she did not. Irene ended up overthrowing her son and having him blinded so cruelly that he shortly died from the injuries leaving Irene to be the first woman to rule the Roman Empire (797-802) temporarily restoring the veneration of icons. With the defeat of the Bulgarian army in the Battle of Kleidion Pass in 1014, the Byzantine emperor Basil II becoming known as “the Bulgar Slayer” is said to have blinded 14,000 Bulgarians leaving 1 out of every group of 100 to be blinded in only one eye so that he could lead the rest back home; upon seeing this the Bulgarian tsar Samuil allegedly died of shock causing the fall of the Bulgarian Empire 4 years later as it was incorporated into Byzantium. After being defeated by the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes fought a civil war with the rival Doukas family from 1071-72 and lost but was promised to not be harmed, although the Doukas family violated their oaths and blinded the emperor. The blinding was done by an inexperienced Jew causing Romanos IV to die from blood loss a few weeks later. Years later in 1094, Nikephoros Diogenes, the son of Romanos IV was also blinded for plotting against the emperor Alexios I Komnenos, but even though blinded, Nikephoros was still able to learn with the help of someone reading the text for him according to the historian Anna Komnene who also said that the blind Nikephoros was interested in geometry. According to a tale by the historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles, when Byzantine Emperor Andronikos IV who deposed his father Emperor John V in 1376 was deposed by his father in 1379 retaking the throne, the latter was forced to blind his son by orders of the Ottoman sultan Murad I; John V then poured hot vinegar over his son’s eyes which did actually better to Andronikos IV making him able to see better later on. Other emperors who were blinded after being deposed included Leontios (695-698), Artavasdos (742-743), John IV Laskaris of Nicaea (1258-1261), as well as Isaac II Angelos (1185-1195) although Isaac II returned to power in 1203 being blind. Meanwhile, there is also evidence of tongues being cut off as seen with the Catholic subjects of North Africa in the 6th century conquered by the Arian Vandals and many of the victims whose tongues were cut off were holy men and despite losing their tongues they were still able to speak and were able to journey to Constantinople to display the miracle, although the historian Procopius of Caesarea adds that these people lost the ability to speak when visiting the city’s prostitutes.

Justinian II Rhinotmetos with a golden prosthetic nose


For many who have committed crimes in Byzantium, being imprisoned was a common punishment but for heretics, or those who have created false teachings on religious doctrines which are against the church teachings, their punishment was usually exile or house arrest to avoid spreading their false teachings. Unlike in medieval Western Europe where heretics were often burned at the stake, the Byzantines did not deal with them this way; although once according to the Alexiad by the historian Anna Komnene, her father Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118) threatened to burn the Bogomil heretics- who believed in one good and one evil god- at the stake. When the heretics were rounded up in front of 2 pyres- one for Christians and the others for the Bogomils- they had to decide and at the final moment those who have decided that they were Christians were spared and were given gifts by the emperor and those who stayed Bogomils were returned to prison while only their leader named Basil was burned. Now speaking about prisons in Byzantium, they were mostly very dark and prisoners could not tell if it was day or night and had to sleep without any space to move. Prisons were so dark that the 14th century writer Demetrios Kydones wrote that when prisoner were released, they were overjoyed seeing daylight and getting fresh air once again. If prisons turned out to be one of the worst places because of darkness, what more of mines? According to the Church Father and Patriarch of Constantinople St. John Chrysostom, those condemned to work in the mines are only given a lantern to avoid falling into clefts otherwise it is completely dark without the lanterns that they do not know anymore what time of day it is until the guard makes a loud noise to signal that it is time to eat. The prisoners in the mines can only be released after 10 if when they become disabled to work. Aside from mines and prisons, the monastery was another place to send criminals too, though rarely unless they’ve committed crimes with a sexual nature, which according to the laws of Justinian I, the penalty for sex crimes was to be confined in a monastery to improve the criminal’s morality. Otherwise, those who were sent to live their lives in monasteries were deposed emperors namely Michael I (811-13), Romanos I Lekapenos (920-944), the sons of Romanos I, Michael VI (1056-57), Isaac I Komnenos (1057-59), Nikephoros III (1078-1081), John IV Laskaris of Nicaea (1258-1261), Andronikos II Palaiologos (1282-1328), and John VI Kantakouzenos (1347-1354). If being sent to a monastery was the punishment for sex crimes according to Justinian I, the punishment for those who have committed homosexual acts would have their genitals completely amputated and they were paraded through the city. A later source even says that the punishments were more graphic as reeds were inserted through men’s genitals painfully. Among the victims of these punishments were bishops, meanwhile after Justinian I, these punishments were not continued by later emperors.

Prison mine sample from Minecraft
Monasteries- prisons for deposed emperor and