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.
There are flaws however, often sins of omission rather than commission, for example as I recall off the top of my head:
- In discussing the Visigoths and their relationship to Rome, Rosen makes no mention whatsoever of the battle of the Frigidus in 394, which can be considered one of those turning points of history. The Visigoth army helped Theodosius defeat the usurper Eugenius, ensuring the continuation of Christian Rome, and Catholic at that, and the loss of 10,000 Visigoths, half their army, in the service of Rome, for little reward and still no homeland, certainly sowed the seeds of bitterness leading to the events of the early 5th century with Alaric and the sieges of Rome. To omit mention of this seems shockingly poor.
- When discussing the collapse of the first dome of Justinian's Hagia Sophia, Rosen does not mention that it was first weakened by an earthquake and then collapsed after a second quake. He seems to imply as a result that it simply collapsed of its own accord.
- In his biological discussion, he thinks that "metazoans" comprises all multicellular life - this is not the case, but rather corresponds roughly to what we call "animals".
Looming in the background are two theses, that a) Rome and China went along parallel paths until the plague came to Rome, and b) the plague is responsible for the creation of mediaeval Europe (by assisting in the permanent breakup of the West, and conquest of the East, Africa & Spain by the Arabs).
These theses seem somewhat debateable. Is Rosen implying that without the plague there might still today be some sort of gigantic political superpower covering Europe, North Africa and the Near East to match modern China? Seems unlikely to me. The ultimate causes of the lasting fragmentation of Rome were as much political, religious, military and 'racial' as medical.
Despite the flaws, this is a book worth reading.
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