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Updated on December 11, 2010


Plague has been the greatest pandemic which has decimated societies, shattered civilizations and changed the course of history. Down the centuries, four such pandemics haunt collective memory for its virulence, scale and devastation. All were all turning points in history.


The Plague of Athens was the first major pandemic which though well described by Thucydides in his ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ still remains one of the great medical mysteries of antiquity. That it is a fact is evident from the discovery of a mass grave in 1944, but there are no clear statistics available of this great calamity.  It is believed that in the summer of 430 BCE it killed more people than the Archidamian war and nearly a third of the Athenian population had perished by then.

The outbreak began in 427 BCE and lasted till 430BCE. It is believed that the plague first broke out in Ethiopia from where it spread to Egypt, Syria and Persia. As Greece had strong trade links with Egypt, the pandemic spread to Athens and by the third year the plague decimated Athenian population. Thucydides very vividly describes the plague but gives no explanation of how it is caused apart from narrating the symptoms and course of the illness. It is therefore sometimes described as the ‘Thucydides syndrome’.

Its aftermath was the end of the Age of Pericles and the Golden age of Greece.


Principal sources

The plague of Justinian was the first known pandemic about which there are extensive records available. Emperor Justinian’s court historian and archivist Procopius had meticulously compiled all details of this great scourge of mankind.

The Outbreak

In a surprisingly similar pattern as in the Plague of Athens, the first outbreak of this pandemic was in Ethiopia and later Egypt.  The city of Constantinople imported large quantities of grain from Egypt. As the large granaries and ships were infested with rats these grain ships carried the disease to Constantinople in 541 CE from where it spread rapidly to other parts of the empire. When the pandemic was at its peak Procopius claims that nearly 10,000 people were dying every day. Entire towns and villages were wiped out, and Justinian’s invincible army was a pale shadow of its original self. Most of his Generals and soldiers perished and the problem was no different in his court too. Administration came to a grinding halt and emergency measures had to taken to handle problems like a glut of inheritance suit following death due to plague.  Desperation set in when it was found that traditional healing methods just could not contain the disease. Many looked upon it as divine retribution and turned to religion. Justinian too did likewise and tried to find solace in solitude and prayer.


The impact of plague was cataclysmic.  For five decades, that is starting from 540 CE to 590 CE nearly a third of the population perished.  In fact Procopius described it in these somber words: , “there was a pestilence by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated...It started among the Egyptians. Then it moved to Palestine and from there spread over the whole world...In the second year it reached Byzantium in the middle of the spring.”   And this was to have tragic consequences. The plague weakened the Empire, Justinian’s powerful army was decimated, and nearly 40% of the inhabitants of Constantinople succumbed to plague. Though the plague of Justinian was supposed to have killed nearly 25 million people, plague continued to strike throughout the 7th and 8th century too.  According to Josiah C Russell, between 541 and 700 nearly 50 to 60% of the population perished. The consequences of this were profound.  After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Italy was fragmented and harassed by the Lombard tribes.   Justinian’s plan to strengthen it never materialized and the polity was weakened to such an extent that it later helped the Arabs become victorious a few generations later.  The other less obvious impact was the regression of medical sciences, which lasted centuries.  Many believed that plague was the result of vice and sin and not due to filth and poor hygiene.  This naturally hindered the progress of medical sciences.


Principal sources

Though the Plague of Justinian was the first major cataclysm which is recorded not much research has been done about this period. The Black Death however was different. There are copious sources and much study has been done. One of the primary sources of information is Giovanni Boccaccio’s THE DECAMERON. It is the story of ten young noblemen and women, living in a villa on the outskirts of Florence in order to escape from the ravages of plague. Bocccio described the speed and vehemence of the pandemic in this haunting words, victims ‘..ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise’.

The Outbreak

The first outbreak of the plague was in China during the early 1330’s. Owing to the brisk maritime trade that China had with the rest of the world, it spread by October 1347 to Sicily from where it spread to the hinterlands. Realizing that a great calamity has struck them, people evacuated from cities and went to live in the villages.  But death came calling. All Europe came under the vice like grip of the disease which spread like wild fire. By August plague had spread to distant England, but surprisingly by winter the plague abated.  This was because the flea which was the carrier of the disease became dormant during winter, and returned by spring with greater vehemence. Within five years nearly 25 million people died which was nearly one-third of Europe’s population. But the disease did not abate.  Again and again plague struck not just for years but centuries until 1600 CE.


Like the plague of Justinian, Black Death as this medieval pestilence was called, seriously affected medieval society.  There was serious labor shortage and peasant revolts in England, France, Italy and Belgium. Along with political turmoil, the plague had also jolted the medieval psyche. Serious introspection was done to find answer to the question, why their prayers for deliverance from the disease went unheeded. The general belief was that plague was the punishment for human sins. So to show man’s repentance groups of hooded men in white robes marked with the Red Cross in front and back travelled from village to village and performed a strange ritual in public.  Sobbing and singing hymns they flogged themselves with whips studded with iron spikes. They were known as the Flagellant Braharen.  All over Europe this ritual took place daily sometimes even twice a day.

                Plague continued to haunt Europe right up to 1665-1666 which is known in history as the Bubonic plague. In England the misery was compounded by the Great Fire of London in 1666 after which the specter of plague gradually faded away.


Plague is an infectious disease of rodents which is transmitted to man through the bite of infected ectoparasite (rat flea) caused by the bacteria YERSINIA PESTIS

Yersinia pestis is killed rapidly by heat, but it may survive in the soil for up to a year or more. plague basically infects rodents which include mice, skink, squirrels, and gophers. It is transmitted by rat flea which is medically termed XENOPSYLLA CHEOPSIS and it is describe as an insect vector.

Plague may afflict people of all ages and sex and occurs commonly in winter. However heavy rainfall stops its transmission due to the flooding of rat burrows. Plague spreads to man either due to the bite of an infected flea or by the inhalation of infected droplet. The incubation period of the disease is usually 1-12 days with a median of 2-4 days. There are three types of plagues:

  1. Bubonic plague
  2. Pneumonic plague
  3. Septicemic plague

Bubonic plague:

  • Abrupt onset of high fever, chill, headache and altered sensorium
  • Presence of bubos which are extremely tender
  • Person may bleed from nose, mouth, respiratory or urinary tract.
  • Death may occur during the ist week of illness

Pneumonic plague

This afflicts the respiratory system. The plague bacillus is secreted in sputum which is often blood stained.

Septicemic plague

This is a case of plague which is characterized by the absence of bubos. Here the organism invades the bloodstream,


It was Alexandre Yersin who found a method to treat this great scourge. This Swiss born French bacteriologist was a  disciple of Louis Pasteur. His first major contribution to medicine was to find an antitoxin for diphtheria. While working as a doctor for the French colonial service, he was instructed by the French government to find a cure for plague. Working in Hong Kong in a straw hut he discovered that plague was found in a bacteria living in rats and rodents.  It was transmitted to human beings by fleas.  Returning to France he worked in the Pasteur Institute to prepare an anti-plague serum. After he hit upon it Yersin went back to China and inoculated a very ill Chinese young man who recovered dramatically. In honour of his great discovery and cure the bacteria was name after him (Yersinia pestis )


                All the devastation caused in history by plague was due to natural causes. But with man creating biological weapons of mass destruction, bioterrorism is a serious threat in our strife ridden world. Imagine the horrors that could be unleashed by terrorists bent on wanton destruction using plague bacteria.  Though antibiotics tike streptomycin and tetracycline help in controlling the epidemic, the misuse of this bacterium can cause immense havoc.  A British team in Sanger center, Cambridge has reportedly decoded the complete DNA sequencing of Yersina pestis. According to   Dr. Julian Parkhill its team leader the genome sequence…. contains every possible drug or vaccine target for combating the organism


Owing to its cataclysmic impact plague has been a topic for many creative works. Some of the main books are:


1. The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

2. Journal of the Plague year by Daniel Defoe . Contains a shocking description of plague racked     

    London in 1665

3. Plague by Albert Camus. The tale of the horrors of plague afflicting a North African coastal town

4. The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni The story of two lovers in Lombardy battling plague and famine.

5. Last Man by Mary Shelley  This is another novel  by the author of Frankenstein about wars and plague killing the world population.


1. In the Wake of the Plague by Norman F Cantor This is a study of the myths and legends that grew around  the stark reality of Black death.

2. Fictions of Disease in Early Modern England by Margaret Healy Palgrave. A study of the periods disease-impregnated literature covering the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Heywood, Dekker and others.

3. Justinian’s Flea: The First great plague and the End of the Roman Empire by William Rosen . A scholarly study of the Plague of Justinian,  using evolutionary microbiology, economics, military strategy, ecology, and medicine (both ancient and modern.)

4. The Black Death: The great mortality of 1348 and 1350 by John Aberth . A detailed study of the black death ravaging Europe.

5. The Plague and the Fire. By James Leasor.

6. The Black Death, 1346 – 1353: The complete history. By Ole J Benedictow

7. The Black Death and the transformation of the West by David Herlihy



Submit a Comment

  • ram_m profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from India

    Thank you Micky, it is great to hear from you again.

  • Micky Dee profile image

    Micky Dee 

    7 years ago

    Very well done. Thorough. I liked the video too, with the theme of Gilligans' Isle.

  • ram_m profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from India

    Thank you Martie for your nice comments.I'm glad you liked it

  • MartieCoetser profile image

    Martie Coetser 

    7 years ago from South Africa

    Interesting topic, well researched and well presented


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