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Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe [Hardcover]

William Rosen
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)

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Book Description

3 May 2007

In the middle of the sixth century, the world's smallest organism collided with the world's mightiest empire. Twenty-five million corpses later, the Roman Empire, under her last great emperor, Justinian, was decimated. Before Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that carries bubonic plague, was through, both the Roman and Persian empires were easy pickings for the armies of Muhammad on their conquering march out of Arabia. In its wake, the plague - history's first pandemic - marked the transition from the age of Mediterranean empires to the age of European nation-states - from antiquity to the medieval world.

Justinian's Flea is the story of that collision, a narrative history that weaves together evolutionary microbiology, architecture, military history, geography, rat and flea ecology, jurisprudence, theology, epidemiology, and the economics of the silk trade. The climax of Justinian's Flea - the summer of 542, when Constantinople witnessed the death of 5,000 of its citizens every day - is revealed through the experiences of the remarkable individuals whose lives are a window onto a remarkable age: Justinian himself, of course, but also his doppelgänger, the Persian Shah Khusro Anushirvan, whose empire would be so weakened by plague that it essentially vanished; his general Belisarius, the greatest soldier between Caesar and Saladin, whose conquests marked the end of imperial rule in Italy and Africa; his architect, Anthemius, the mathematician-engineer who built Constantinople's Hagia Sophia (and whose brother, Alexander, was the great physician of the plague years); Tribonian, the jurist who created the Justinianic Code, the source of Europe's tradition of Civil Law; and, finally, his empress Theodora, the one-time prostitute who became co-ruler of the empire, the most politically powerful woman in European history until Elizabeth I.

Melding contemporary accounts with modern disciplines, Justinian's Flea is a unique account of one of history's great hinge moments.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 377 pages
  • Publisher: Jonathan Cape; First Edition edition (3 May 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0224073699
  • ISBN-13: 978-0224073691
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 15.6 x 3.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 775,504 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"Ambitious and exciting, witty and elegant, this is a big book in every sense, and packed with big ideas. William Rosen takes one of history's great cause-and-effect problems and turns it into a work that is entertaining and illuminating in equal measure. Along the way he comes up with interpretations of a little-understood era that delight and sometimes dazzle. From the theological puzzles of Gnosticism, neo-Platonism and the Arian heresy through the pathology of a flea-bite to the appropriate use of heavy cavalry, the complicated and the convoluted become comprehensible... and fun." (Phil Craig, Co-Author Of Finest Hour: The Battle Of Britain, And Trafalgar: The Men, The Battle, The Storm)

"William Rosen doesn´t just give us the most believable, the most human and the most fully rounded Justinian ever. He also conjures up a vivid picture of the age, in a compelling style that makes his weighty learning light." (Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Author Of Millennium And Civilizations)


What a richly detailed and thought-provoking book! I got stuck into

William Rosen's fascinating chronicle with all the appetite of a flea

settling on the brawny arm of one of Justinian's cataphracts.

" (Robert lacey, co-author of The Year 1000)

"We live at a time when the Pope's quotation of a Byzantine emperor can cause an international incident. William Rosen's fascinating new book offers a timely portrait of the greatest Byzantine emperor of them all - and explains, in compelling detail, how the golden age of Constantinople was blotted out by a catastrophe as momentous as any in history." (Tom Holland, author of Rubicon and Persian Fire)

"Justinian's Flea is narrative history writing at its best. Breathtaking in its scope, the book presents a confident mix of history, science, architecture, theology, military strategy, law, engineering and medicine to tell the story of how plague transformed the classical world and gave birth to mediaeval Europe. William Rosen's canvas stretches from China to Spain, and Britain to Arabia, and his intriguing cast of characters includes emperors, priests, soldiers, and engineers as well as rats, fleas and silkworms. Justinian's Flea transforms our understanding of many key events in the history of the last two thousand years, from the decline of Rome to the rise of Islam and beyond." (Karl Sabbagh, author of The Riemann Hypothesis)

Book Description

Popular history at its best: an epic story in which the newly united Roman Empire under Justinian is decimated by bubonic plague.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Simply doesn't do what it claims 10 Dec 2010
By Jeremy
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
"Justinian's Flea" is subtitled, "Plague, Empire & the Birth of Europe". It is about no such thing. It is simply a selective account of events during the reign of the Emperor Justinian, and a pretty uneven one at that.

The opening chapter is an introduction to the Byzantine empire, concentrating on the reign of Constantine the Great. The second chapter skates over the following two centuries very unsatisfactorily, seemingly in an attempt to get to Justinian as quickly as possible; but if that's the intention, why bother with such a superficial account of Constantine at all?

Much of the rest of the book stays with Justinian, but while some events from his reign are covered in great detail (there's a fairly good account of Belisarius, for instance), others are passed over in a mere sentence or not mentioned at all, and one searches in vain for any objective selection criteria. There are much better accounts of this period: John Julius Norwich's superb "Byzantium" triology, for example, manages to leave one with a much better appreciation of Justinian's life and times despite using far fewer words.

For a book which is supposed to show the impact of the plague on European life, it takes an astonishingly long time to get on to its subject matter. There are 325 pages of text, yet plague isn't mentioned until page 167, more than half way through the book. Plague then receives only two short chapters (much of the material here being in too much scientific detail to be able to hold the interest of the average history reader), before dropping out of the account other than for occasional afterthoughts. The book simply doesn't cover the material it claims to. There are laws against this kind of thing, you know.
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
Justinian's Flea tells you about the decay of the Roman Empire, its gradual drift towards its eastern limits, the rise of Justinian, Justinian's accomplishments in expanding the empire and developing culture, the rise of the Persian Empire, the Bubonic Plague that ravaged the Roman and Persian empires, and the challenges that the expansion of Islam brought for the Roman and Persian empires. Mr. Rosen uses that information to argue that independent European nations developed sooner than they might have otherwise due to the combined effects of the plague and Islamic military expansion.

Most people know about the Black Death (caused by Bubonic Plague) that devastated Europe in the Middle Ages. But fewer people know that the earlier sixth century version was even more deadly. The sixth century Bubonic Plague also returned in 15 to 20 year cycles, wiping out vast segments of the young people. While the overall loss of life was about one-third of the population from the first incidence alone, the effect on sailors and those who lived in close communities (such as monasteries) was even more dramatic . . . affecting commerce and learning for some time to come.

Mr. Rosen draws generously on the latest scientific research provide a meticulous account of how the plague came to have such wide effects. I thought that it was fascinating and provided many new thoughts about the disease risks of having temperatures fluctuate more than usual.

That material, however, doesn't occur until the second half of the book. Unless you always wanted to know more about the fall of the Roman Empire and Justinian, you may get more information than you planned on for that aspect of the book. That was certainly true in my case having studied Roman history and Justinian in detail before.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A pleasure to read 9 July 2007
A most interesting point in history, beautifully detailed and superbly researched; if rather light on the intricasies of the political and demographic situation surrounding the fall of the Western Empire, with which it was so intertwined. Considering the profuse details which cast, to me at least, a vast light into the sad, slow submerging of the system Justininian thought he had built as a bastion against exterior and interior enemies, this is a but a personal interest being given. There are limits to what can be included without clogging a book in details of course, suffice to say that I found it a fascinating and highly informative book which was engrossing from cover to cover.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars History books 17 Feb 2010
I must concur with Mr Bernard O'Sullivan's concise critique of this book. I was looking forward to reading this as I am interested in the extraordinary impact that the plague of this era had both on the receding Empire(s) and that of the filling of a vast vacuum by Islam of its own neighbourhood and that of Egypt and Morocco. Oh boy, did this disappoint! A feeling of "cut and paste" (the chop and changing and content of the style a personal style)pervades the book and leaves one with a feeling of mediocrity especially when compared to the extraordinary books by eminent writers such as Norwich and Lewis (Bernard). It is disappointing to read such mediocrity on a topic that is potentially so interesting and so vital to world history.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good attempt, but does have flaws 2 July 2008
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The blurb inside the front cover says that Rosen used to be head of a publishing house, and this is his first book. Implication: he's not a professional historian. Looking at his notes at the back, his historical sources seem to be based largely around just a few works; Gibbon looms large, plus some of the other usual suspects like A. H. M. Jones and J. B. Bury. On the medical aspects of the plague, Google seems to have been his friend here.

Despite what on the face of it might seem the work of an amateur, this is actually quite a good, wide-ranging work, well written in spite of some occasionally odd usage of metaphor and digressions. It's not just about the plague but also considers the events of the couple of centuries leading up to Justinian, and within the reign of Justinian itself has such diversions as chapters about the construction of Hagia Sophia and the codification of law in the Institutes.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Gift for my mother!
This was a gift for my mother - she was thrilled with the condition of the book and even better the price was too good to miss!
Published 3 months ago by Kaz
3.0 out of 5 stars An interesting account - with some serious flaws
William Rosen was a senior executive at Macmillan and Simon & Schuster publishing houses for more than twenty-five years. The title of his book is "Justinian's Flea. Read more
Published 13 months ago by Torben Retboll
4.0 out of 5 stars Justinian's Flea
I have nearly finished reading this book by William Rosen. I have found it a very readable yet scholarly book. Read more
Published on 5 Oct 2010 by Suzie
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, but how accurate?
I'm not sure about this. Yes, it's a cut-and-paste job, but it's not bad, of its kind. There's a fair bit of entertaining, gossipy stuff from 'The Secret History' by Procopius in... Read more
Published on 17 May 2010 by Holofernes
4.0 out of 5 stars justinian's flea
I found this well written Histoical book to be both enlighting and entertaining. It is easy to follow and not just written for scholars.. Read more
Published on 11 Mar 2010 by Terence R. Hellier
1.0 out of 5 stars An unnecessary book
Mr Rosen has collected a ragbag of facts, more or less related to Justininian, and assembled them in more or less chronological order, with major detours to pockets of modern... Read more
Published on 12 July 2009 by Mr. Bernard A. O'sullivan
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good attempt, but does have flaws
The blurb inside the front cover says that Rosen used to be head of a publishing house, and this is his first book. Implication: he's not a professional historian. Read more
Published on 2 July 2008 by E. L. Wisty
5.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable and educating
A great read, and full of interesting facts and figures.
Amazingly entertaining
Published on 7 Jun 2007 by Reader
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