Rejecting Catastrophe: The Case of the Justinianic Plague

Lee Mordechai*, Merle Eisenberg

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

56 Scopus citations


Recent research has increasingly argued that the Justinianic Plague was an unparallelled demographic catastrophe which killed half the population of the Mediterranean world and led to the end of Antiquity. This article re-examines the evidence and reconsiders whether this interpretation is justified. It builds upon an array of interdisciplinary research that includes literary and non-literary primary sources, archaeological excavations, DNA research, disaster studies and resilience frameworks. Each type of primary source material is critically reassessed and contextualized in light of current research. By drawing upon this interdisciplinary foundation, the article demonstrates that the evidence for the catastrophic maximalist interpretation of plague is weak, ambiguous and should be rejected. The article also makes use of the Third Pandemic as a comparative case study, and considers how the metanarratives of plague in contemporary society influence research on the subject. It concludes that the Justinianic Plague had an overall limited effect on late antique society. Although on some occasions the plague might have caused high mortality in specific places, leaving strong impressions on contemporaries, it neither caused widespread demographic decline nor kept Mediterranean populations low. Any direct mid-or long-term effects of plague were minor at most.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)3-50
Number of pages48
JournalPast and Present
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Aug 2019
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 The Past and Present Society, Oxford, 2019.


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