Justinian I may have succeeded in reconquering the Western Roman Empire were it not for the eruption of volcanoes in Iceland and El Salvador that plunged the world into darkness for over a year which was shortly followed by the arrival of the black plague.
“Ask medieval historian Michael McCormick what year was the worst to be alive, and he’s got an answer: “536.” Not 1349, when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe. Not 1918, when the flu killed 50 million to 100 million people, mostly young adults. But 536. In Europe, “It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year,” says McCormick, a historian and archaeologist who chairs the Harvard University Initiative for the Science of the Human Past.
A mysterious fog plunged Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into darkness, day and night—for 18 months. “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year,” wrote Byzantine historian Procopius. Temperatures in the summer of 536 fell 1.5°C to 2.5°C, initiating the coldest decade in the past 2300 years. Snow fell that summer in China; crops failed; people starved. The Irish chronicles record “a failure of bread from the years 536–539.” Then, in 541, bubonic plague struck the Roman port of Pelusium, in Egypt. What came to be called the Plague of Justinian spread rapidly, wiping out one-third to one-half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire and hastening its collapse, McCormick says.
Historians have long known that the middle of the sixth century was a dark hour in what used to be called the Dark Ages, but the source of the mysterious clouds has long been a puzzle. Now, an ultraprecise analysis of ice from a Swiss glacier by a team led by McCormick and glaciologist Paul Mayewski at the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono has fingered a culprit. At a workshop at Harvard this week, the team reported that a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in Iceland spewed ash across the Northern Hemisphere early in 536. Two other massive eruptions followed, in 540 and 547. The repeated blows, followed by plague, plunged Europe into economic stagnation that lasted until 640, when another signal in the ice—a spike in airborne lead—marks a resurgence of silver mining, as the team reports in Antiquity this week. …”
“The sixth century was a rough time to be alive: Lower-than-average temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere triggered crop failure, famine, and maybe even the onset of bubonic plague. The ultimate culprit, scientists say, were two back-to-back volcanic eruptions—one in 536 C.E. and another around 540 C.E. The first likely happened in Iceland or North America. But the location of the second one has remained a mystery—until now.
Researchers studying ancient deposits from El Salvador’s Ilopango volcano knew that a massive eruption had taken place there sometime between the third and sixth centuries. That event, dubbed Tierra Blanca Joven (TBJ), or “white young earth,” sent a volcanic plume towering nearly 50 kilometers into the atmosphere. …”
The following excerpt comes from Lester K. Little’s book Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750:
“In the summer of 541 AD a deadly infectious disease broke out in the Egyptian port city of Pelusium, located on the eastern edge of the Nile delta. It quickly spread eastward along the coast to Gaza and westward to Alexandria. By the following spring it had found its way to Constantinople, capital of the Roman Empire. Syria, Anatolia, Greece, Italy, Gaul, Iberia, and North Africa: none of the lands bordering the Mediterranean escaped it. Here and there, it followed river valleys or overland routes and penetrated far into the interior, reaching, for example, as far east as Persia or as far north, after another sea-crossing, as the British Isles.
The disease remained virulent in these lands for slightly more than two centuries, although it never settled anywhere for long. Instead, it came and went, and is frequently the case with unwelcome visitors, its appearances were unannounced. Overall, there was not a decade in the course of those two centuries when it was not inflicting death somewhere in the Mediterranean region. In those places where it appeared several times, the intervals between recurrences ranged from about six to twenty years. And then, in the middle of the eighth century, it vanished with as little ceremony as when it first arrived.
Thus did bubonic plague make its first appearance on the world historical scene. Diagnosis of historical illnesses on the basis of descriptions in ancient texts can rarely be made with compelling certainty because all infectious diseases involve fever and the other symptoms tend not to be exclusive to particular diseases. Plague, however, is a major exception because of the unmistakable appearance of buboes on most of its victims, those painful swellings of the lymph nodes that appear in the groin, in the armpit, or on the neck just below the ear. Taken together, the dozens of epidemics of this disease that broke out throughout the Mediterranean basin and its hinterlands between the mid-sixth and mid-eighth centuries constitute the first historically documented pandemic of plague, the first of three.”
“THE MID-SIXTH CENTURY INSPIRES STRONG feelings, even today. Recent research has placed it among the very worst of times to have been alive in all of human history, partly because, in 536, the sun slid behind a haze that hovered over Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia—and stayed there for 18 grueling months. According to Byzantine historian Procopius, “the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year, and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear nor such as it is accustomed to shed.”
A year and a half without sunlight, it turns out, is a lot worse than just gloomy. Temperatures dropped, crops refused to grow, and people couldn’t eat. Heck—some draw a connection between this event and the first pandemic of bubonic plague, which began to course through the Eastern Roman Empire in 541. All told, temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere remained too cold for comfort until about 550; that first European summer of 536 was more than 30 degrees cooler than the average for the previous 30 years.
Scientists believe the chill was brought on by not one but two volcanic eruptions that sent ash and other particles flying into the atmosphere, where they deflected sunlight that could have otherwise nurtured crops. It is thought that the first eruption took place in 536, somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, maybe in Iceland. Now, researchers believe they have located the site of the second one, thought to have occurred in 539: Ilopango, just east of San Salvador, capital of El Salvador. They published their findings recently in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews. …”
“Procopius wasn’t the only scholar to note a chain of sudden catastrophic events in 536 CE and the years to follow. In addition to the plague, famine, and war that raged within the Mediterranean, historians around the globe were also documenting their own crises stemming from the scourge of unforeseen darkness.
In the Gaelic Irish Annals and the Annals of Inisfallen, an unknown author remarked of a “failure of bread” in 536 CE. That same year, a yellow dust that rained down like snow was seen in China, and a dense, dry fog descended upon the region between Europe and the Middle East. Further north, Old Norse literature chronicled the Fimbulvinter, or “notoriously long winter,” which is evidenced by hordes of gold sacrificial offerings and abandoned settlements. And across the Pacific Ocean, an unprecedented drought kicked off the toppling of Mesoamerica’s Teotihuacán, and brought down the mighty Moche civilization of Peru. …”
Just as Justinian began to reconquer Italy from the Ostrogoths, Europe experienced the coldest decade in 2,000 years including a year in which the sun was only as bright as the moon. The summer of 537 AD was 30 degrees colder than the previous summer. The eruption of the Ilopango volcano covered 10,000 sq km of Central America under 50 cm of ash and left the area uninhabitable for 150 years. Only a few years later, the plague arrived in Constantinople from Egypt and killed 25 million people in the Eastern Roman Empire. The Gothic War devastated and depopulated Italy and both the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia were weakened by the plague which left both vulnerable to the expansion of Islam.