A few weeks ago I was walking through Borders and saw Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe. This, frankly, is the kind of book I can't resist. I was expecting a book about a period of history I'm largely unfamiliar with (the early Byzantium era) with a twist. I wasn't disappointed.
Rosen tell's the story of the Emperor Justinian, the world that came before him, the world that came after, and the importance of the bubonic plague in shaping the course of Europe. The book combines a detailed look at history with a respectable understanding of biology and bits of religion, law, architecture, demographics, philosophy, and literature to make for a very interesting read. There are plenty of references for those wanting to follow a thread to its end.
Surely, the history of Europe, Rome, China, and Islam are more complicated than what can be explained by a flea and the bacteria it carries. Rosen acknowledges that. But he also makes an interesting case that the combination of events that resulted in the Eastern Roman Empire being devastated by the plague had a disproportionate effect on all of these nations.
The plague left Rome permanently crippled. After Justinian, Rome was never again to rise to greatness. At the same time, the plague caused a labor shortage in Europe that sparked a revolution in agricultural production, leading to large population increases in northern Europe. China and Rome had roughly the same population in the sixth century, but Rome was hit hard by the plague and China wasn't. Islam came to power against a Rome with a serious shortage of men, again because of the plague.
As I mentioned, the whole idea of Byzantium was a big black hole for me in between the Roman empire that we're all familiar with and the later Europe of the middle ages. This book filled in those gaps nicely.