536 AD: Justinian, The Arrival of the Black Plague and The End of Antiquity

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.”

Atlas Obscura:

“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.

About Hunter Wallace 12380 Articles
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  1. we’re experiencing a plague in the last century of “Anglo” writers .
    They pick an issue and always exaggerate and/or distort it for some reason, like the so called Justinian plague.
    They only should be focused in the last two centuries and only about events in their area.

    Because they don’t have a clue about something that happened 1500 years ago and in the Mediterranean basis.
    The real plague in Italy in the VI century that caused the massive depopulation of the cities was caused by the opportunistic invasion of a savage horde of illiterate autists, taking advantage of of a very old crumbling empire and a worn out disarmed population.

    Totilla, Gothic king, in December of 546 AD considered the burning down of Rome’s magnificen buildings ( Rome had at that time only around 20.000 inhabitants) and “turn the city into a sheep pasture.”
    When Belisarius heard of this intention he sent a letter to the dumb savage asking him if he would choose to appear in history as the “destroyer of the noblest city in the world or honored as as it preserver.”
    The messengers that bore the letter reported that Totilla read it over many times, and decided that his little army of autists wouldn’t burn the city.
    Belisarius it seems saved the city.

    When reading this stuff ones starts wondering who the real enemies are.

    • Nemo,

      I see you are still active. One of the books I read said the Dark Ages began with the Lombard invasion in 568 AD. Hard to tell. There is a lot of information out there some of it contradictory.

      Still, this was a fascinating article. I never knew about the sun not shining for a year and how cold it was. It would have been interesting to see if the Roman Empire could have been completely restored. It would have stood against the Islamic invasions better than it did.

    • It was Justinian’s Gothic War that devastated and depopulated Italy, not so much the Goths who had conquered Italy decades before. The war was prolonged and made worse by both the plague and the sharp downturn in the global climate

      • Mr. Wallace,

        Yes, our history class and the books we have said that the Ostrogoths (eastern Goths) were mild rulers in Italy. History is my favorite subject. Math the least.

  2. Ha, I thought you’d gone megalomaniac on us with that first sentence. I first read at as you addressing “Justinian” and boasting about your world dominating. To see what I mean, read what you wrote as “Justinian, I…” The comma makes all the difference

  3. I’m guessing it was during the 6th and 7th centuries that Egypt turned into a worthless desert and the Pyramids were buried in sand. Once that happened Greco-Roman whites abandoned the region and those dirty, swarthy Arabs, recently united under the banner of Islam, moved in.

    • That scenario works for me. But don’t forget the slow ‘drip’ of miscegenation among the Greco-Egyptians, and the lowered IQ from race-mixing that hastened that demise. NO Nigs in a civilization.
      Not even as slaves. Because some idiot male is gonna find a Beyonce, Lena Horne, or Halle Berry at some point, and there you go, spilling your racial potential into a foreign uterus. Idiocracy has a name.

  4. Good article, covers a time when the Church fell into idolatry, and the judment that came upon it.

    Justinian is the key figure. The fifth council, the Second of Constantinople, was held in 553 I believe, going from memory. What emerged is a religion very much different from of the Old or New Testament.

    Protestants accept the first four councils. At the fifth council Mariolatry was not only endorsed, but any refusal to engage in it was condemned as heresy. This was Justinian’s council.

    The judment upon the idolatrous church proceeded, as detailed in this excellent post, it might as well have come straght out of Deuteronomy 28.

    There was no repentence however, over the next century. So God raised up an Iconoclastic scourge, Islam, with which to chastise Israel, the Church of God. Islam eventually conquered most of Chrustendom.

    There was no recovery at all, only decline until Luther. But now we are back in the pit of unbelief, and under a new time of judgment.

    • Justinian himself was a vile heretic who married the lewdest actress and the most notorious prostitute of Constantinople. That the said prostitute is a venerated “saint” in the “Orthodox” church is all you need to know about “Orthodoxy”.

      • Well, Christianity was originally a religion of slaves, outcasts and prostitutes in the decaying Roman empire. It’s natural that Christians should celebrate them as saints.

  5. We cannot forget the far-reaching political ramifications of the Code of Justinian which would be worthy of numerous posts in itself! The Corpus Juris Civilis, Scripture, and Aristotle are the sine qua non for understanding the rise of modern politics. Over time they were united to form the bedrock of all modern political ideas. It was not an ancient code that died with Justinian, but a body of doctrine that developed up to the 15th Century and Henry VII.

    At the time, private and public ‘rights’ were still partly undistinguished and the whole idea of the ‘nature of government,’ ‘contract theory,’ and ‘International Law’ had yet to be fully developed as it was to be when we reach into the Middle Ages and come upon Machiavelli and then Hobbes.

    These two brought into the open the ideas of the nature of political power, the relationship between princes and subjects, the nature of ‘the State,’ and the relationship between State and State. These would lead up to and become a part of one of the most significant happenings for our modern world- the 16th Century! This is the century where political modernity begins to announce itself!

  6. One book I like was Justinian’s Fleas, referring to the plague, although the author made it a study of Byzantium in general. I agree that although it might have been feel intended, the reconquest of Italy by Justinian was a disaster. The barbarians get a lot of blame for things they didn’t do, and in fact, Rome’s biggest problem…a peaceful means of imperial succession…made for a lot of wars and destruction.

    The volcanic eruptions remind us how frail everything is. If something like that happened today, at least we have knowledge of what’s happening, and what to do…if we would do anything. It’s easy to imagine a terrible disaster like this happening, and yet, the Congress would go on bringing witnesses against Trump until we lost a couple of cites and he said the hell with it and sent the Marines in to shut down Congress…which isn’t unlike what Rome was like.

    Cristina, a book you might enjoy is Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague Decamp. Written in 1939, it’s about an American archaeologist who travels back to Rome in this time and tries to save it…and although the book is a comedy, it offers a lot of problems to solve. The hero decides to invent a newspaper, but runs out of papyrus, and the world can only supply so much paper. He makes a telescope…and the Church is uneasy, as is several barbarian chiefs, because THEY want one. He also has to contend with Christianity, which is denouncing each other’s sects and leaders. He calls himself a Methodist, and buys peace…for a while.
    But it’s an enjoyable book to read, especially as the man discovers that for better or worse, he has to lead an army because that’s the only way power was kept then, and he has to butter up the Goths…and avoid getting caught by the Byzantines.

    A book I liked when I was younger was Lucifer’s Hammer, describing an asteroid hitting Earth and causing worldwide disaster. Chilling to read, and you realize we have no way of coping with anything like this.

    A minor break in world food supply would cause the deaths of millions.

    The loss of Egypt and Syria was terrible. They really were much more civilized then the north, and Alexandria was like the NYC of the ancient world. But again, Christian schism did a lot to wreck it. Hypatia, the last major pagan philosopher, was torn to pieces by a mob of monks in 525 A.D., and although a lot of knowledge remained as did philosophical schools, the drift to a one-party theocracy was set.

    • Yellowstone Supervolcano. It will go off again someday, and will be devastating for whoever or whatever lives in North America at that time. Maybe humans will be gone by then, who knows. Perhaps there will still exist some fools saying god did it to punish unbelievers.

    • Dargason,

      Thank you for the book recommendation. I looked up the author—L. Sprague de Camp. My brother said he wrote some Conan stories,. My brothers love reading about that fictional barbarian.

  7. Now let us bring the Justinian Code to our modern day after centuries of implementation! The Justinian Code is now a Justinian Deception!

    The ‘City of London’ is NOT London the city! Rome is also Babylon? The Latin meaning for Babylon(BABY-LON) is: Baby for long time. That is why the Infantry of the Roman Empire are called infantry- the children who have not grown up! The STATE has become father of the CHILD!

    Why do we have a ‘birth certificate?’ Why do we have a ‘Social Security number?’ Even your own name is made of two entities: 1-Your ‘Christian Name,’ and 2- Your SURNAME! That is TWO and not ONE! This is evident by the two forms of birthing certificates: 1- Certificate of Birth, and 2- State Birth Certificate

    This is the Corporate of Dead Governance! The Corpus Juris is explained by Justinian Deception himself here:

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