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Systems Change Without Demographic Collapse? Trans-Mediterranean Trade and the Justinianic Pandemic

Henry Gruber

Harvard University

Analysis of the social impact of the Justinianic Pandemic has addressed two scales: the local or personal, especially the phenomenological impact of the arrival of Y. pestis in the Mediterranean on individuals and communities; and a Mediterranean-wide scale in which the driving question is the so-called end of antiquity. Recent skeptical approaches (e.g., Mordechai et al. 2019 in PNAS) question the severity of plague on both literary-cultural and archaeological-historical grounds: compared with other events, like earthquakes, plague is rarely memorialized, and that a range of material proxies show no major shift, demographic or otherwise, in the middle of the sixth century.

Scholars with a “maximalist” interpretation of the Justinianic Pandemic, however, argue less for the impact on individual communities than for a change in the structure of Mediterranean society—systems collapse. This differs from the interpretation of the disease by human actors in their own communities, which skeptics rightly note were already disease-burdened and for whom the introduction of a “new” disease may not have been particularly important or noticeable. It also differs from demography. Systems collapse is apersonal, and need not be correlated with local mortality or perceived disaster. The proxies that represent it would show breakdown of the system rather than local impact.

One proxy for Mediterranean economic unity is Eastern Mediterranean ceramics in Western Mediterranean contexts. I have studied over 1,400 late antique ceramic deposits in the Iberian Peninsula, comprising both transport amphora and well-dated fineware ceramics (primarily Late Roman C/D). This dataset shows a dramatic drop in the presence of these ceramics beginning in the middle of the sixth century—an approximately 90% drop from pre-Pandemic highs. This drop is striking not only because of its magnitude, but because it occurs during the Justinianic conquest of Spania, when we might expect increased trans-Mediterranean activity. It also differs from the numismatic evidence, suggesting that networks of exchange operated under logics that differed from imperial activity, like paying soldiers. This new data should challenge views that the plague cannot be associated with material change.

Environmental history has long drawn on pandemic disease as a causative historical force. Foundational texts, especially on virgin-soil epidemics in the Americas, have led to the expectation that disease events that alter social and political relations should be obvious to those who experience them. The case of the Justinianic Pandemic, purportedly transmitted along sea-routes and therefore disproportionately damaging economic integration, challenges us to imagine a disjunction between the phenomenological experience of disease and its causative power.

A reading of those sources deemed most catastrophist—Procopius, John of Ephesus, and in our case the chronicle that refers to bubonic plague striking “almost all” of Hispania—shows that they highlight the wide spread of the disease as much as its severity. By separating the question of plague’s local phenomenological impact from its impact on Mediterranean systems of exchange, we can reconcile laconic accounts of individual outbreaks with demonstrable material evidence for collapsing Mediterranean trade.

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New Environmental History: Promise and Pitfalls

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