Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The End of the Classical World: The Second Answer

The Second Answer
The fall of the Classical World is being pegged to the partial-collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire (called by historians the Byzantine Empire) that prevented them from regaining the Western Roman territories, and assured that there would be a break in the continuim of classical Greek and Latin thought in Western Europe.  Their capital, Constantinople did not fall until 1453, and when it did fall it allowed the Ottamn Turks to invade into the Balkans remain a viable threat to Western Europe as late as at least 1683 with the final seige and battle of Vienna.
The second cause of the collapse was the first wide spread appearance of what was to later be known as the Black Death (Bubonic Plague).  As we will see there are some reasons to link our first answer (Volcanic Eruption and temporary climate change) and the onset of the Black Death.   In this first onset it was referred to as The Plague of Justinian.
At one point there was some argument as to whether this plague was the same as the latter.  That has been proven (NYT Story) fairly conclusively.

Nicholas Wade, The New York Times, 31 October 2010

The great waves of plague that twice devastated Europe and changed the course of history had their origins in China, a team of medical geneticists reported Sunday, as did a third plague outbreak that struck less harmfully in the 19th century.
And in separate research, a team of biologists reported conclusively this month that the causative agent of the most deadly plague, the Black Death, was the bacterium known as Yersinia pestis. This agent had always been the favored cause, but a vigorous minority of biologists and historians have argued the Black Death differed from modern cases of plague studied in India, and therefore must have had a different cause.
One team of biologists, led by Barbara Bramanti of the Institut Pasteur in Paris and Stephanie Haensch of Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany, analyzed ancient DNA and proteins from plague pits, the mass burial grounds across Europe in which the dead were interred. Writing in the journal PLoS Pathogens this month, they say their findings put beyond doubt that the Black Death was brought about by Yersinia pestis.
The Justinian plague occurred in the Mediterranean region in the 6th century AD and caused an estimated 100 million deaths” source

The epidemic of Justinian (AD 542): a prelude to the Middle Ages (pdf)

Justinian I (482-565 AD), who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) from AD 527 to 565, a century after the fall of Rome and the Western Roman Empire, was the most able of the Byzantine emperors. Supported by his dynamic wife, Theodora, and two outstanding generals (Narses and Belisarius), he succeeded in briefly rekindling the glory of the ancient Roman Empire. He also made a lasting contribution to the law by codifying the existing Roman legal principles in his Corpus Juris Civilis, which would continue to influence the practice of law even into modern times.

The plague was to afflict Constantinople on four more occasions during Justinian’s life. In 552 there was a severe epidemic among animals (including reptiles and mice).   Further epidemics among human beings occurred in 553/4, 555/6 (when children were particularly affected) and 558, when the plague was as devastating as that of 542, although it affected more men than women.

After Justinian’s death, epidemics struck the capital in 568/9, 570, 572/3, 580/1, 583/4 and 585/6. According to Euagrius, the greatest loss of life would always occur in the second year of a plague. The 7th century was relatively free of the plague until 687 and 697, when the final significant epidemics occurred.

The pandemic of 542 was a serious blow to Justinian, to the Eastern Roman Empire, and to nascent Europe. In Constantinople, economic decline and famine followed on the temporary collapse of agricultural activity. In 546 there was another shortage of grain and wine, and in May 556 (after a further epidemic) a three-month-long shortage of bread led to extensive rioting. In 560 it was rumored that the emperor was dead, and once again serious “bread riots” followed.

Justinian’s eventual inability to reunite the area around the Mediterranean under Roman control, despite very effective military actions by Belisarius in particular, may be blamed largely on the enervating effects of the plague. The Middle Eastern population decreased significantly during this time, and Allen (1979:17) notes that the victories of the Persian military by the year 573 may be directly attributed to depopulation and debilitation of the Byzantine army. There is little doubt that the swift victories of the armies of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries were also largely due to the destructive pandemic of Justinian.

It may also be speculated that the demoralizing and impoverishing influence of the plague delayed the development of Europe during a crucial phase after the demise of Graeco-Roman civilization, thus precipitating the “Dark” period of the Middle Ages.

Demographic Shocks and the Factor Proportions Model: From the Plague of Justinian to the Black Death, Ronald Findlay, Matt Lundahl

As often noted, the nomads of the Arabian Peninsula escaped the ravages that the plague wrought on the more settled Byzantine and Sassanid empires. After the unification of the tribes under the Prophet and his early successors, the ‘rightly guided’ Caliphs, at the beginning of the seventh century, the Arabs rapidly captured Syria, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa and western Mesopotamia from the Byzantines. Sassanid Iran was conquered later by the Arabs under the Ummayad Caliphate. The Byzantine emperor Heraclius (610-641) and his successors could not match the √©lan of the Arab onslaught with the depleted resources at their command. They retreated to the Anatolian plateau behind the security of the Taurus mountain range and then successfully resisted successive Arab attacks on Constantinople from the sea.
So we have the collapse of the Classical Era, and the eventual arrival of Europe of the Middle Ages.  You also have a collapse that leaves a vacume of power into which the Islamic Arabs moved into.

Why is that particularly important to us.  Well part of the problems is that the plague seems to be set off by unusual weather patterns.  In the case of the Justinian Plague, you would have had droughts and crop die offs, followed by a recovery period.  But rodents have a shorter birthing cycle than their preditors, and with the return of better weather their population tends to explode, spreading the plague. 

On the off chance that you might think this all just a bunch of hand waving by global warming panickers, The phenomena are with us today, in Africa:

Invasive Rats and Bubonic Plague in Northwest Uganda, Borcher, Mach, Linder, Ogen-Odoi, Santos Angualia
Weather, food presence (including periods of harvest), natural rodent mortalities (epizootic) and excessive human fleabites influence this enzootic cycle. Throughout Africa, excessive rodent population outbreaks often occur after periods of excessive rainfall, especially after periods of drought (Fiedler 1994, Leirs et al. 1996), which promotes excessive growth of vegetation, decreased competition, increased reproduction rates, and increased cover. It is believed that epidemics in some areas of Africa follow an unusually prolonged drought in the area, which may force many field rodents to seek food within human dwellings, thus passing infection to peridomestic and commensal rodents, domestic animals and humans. Observations in this region indicate that nearly allhuman epidemics are preceded by moderate to massive epizootics in rodents and excessive fleabites to humans (Ogen-Odoi, personal communication). These observations are yet to be studied in detail.

Cycles of Plague in Uganda

And on the off chance that you might be thinking it is only a problem in Africa, there are reported cases within the United States:

Human plague in New Mexico The first three cases were reported in 1949; the total through 2009 is 262, of which 34 (13%) were fatal. Since 1970, slightly more than half of U.S. cases have been reported from New Mexico. Most of the remaining cases come from Arizona, Colorado and California. Although plague in wild animals or their fleas has been found in every New Mexico county except one (Hidalgo), 213 of 262 human cases (81%) have occurred in seven northern N.M. counties (Bernalillo, McKinley, Rio Arriba, San Miguel, Sandoval, Santa Fe and Taos).

Plague occurs in a cyclical nature for reasons not completely understood, but probably related to favorable weather (above average rainfall and moderate temperatures) which leads to increased food abundance for rodents, thus supporting higher rodent populations and an increased risk for disease. Moderate temperatures and adequate humidity are also necessary for survival of fleas. Certain highly to moderately susceptible rodents and their fleas maintain Y. pestis in ongoing rodent-flea-rodent transmission cycles. A high population density among these susceptible rodents increases the rodent-flea transmission cycle and may result in amplification of plague over a wide geographic area. This is called the epizootic cycle of plague. Epizootic hosts in New Mexico include ground squirrels (especially the rock squirrel, Spermophilus variegatus), prairie dogs and woodrats.

Pandemics of bubonic plague have occurred in Eurasia since the sixth century ad. Climatic variations in Central Asia affect the population size and activity of the plague bacterium’s reservoir rodent species, influencing the probability of human infection. Using innovative time-series analysis of surrogate climate records spanning 1,500 years, a study in BMC Biology concludes that climatic fluctuations may have influenced these pandemics. This has potential implications for health risks from future climate change...
Using innovative time-series analysis of surrogate climate records spanning 1,500 years, a study in BMC Biology concludes that climatic fluctuations may have influenced these pandemics. This has potential implications for health risks from future climate change.

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