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29 X (4.45 Warsaw time): Merle Eisenberg (University of Maryland), Pandemics and History: the Plague Concept, Disease, and the End of Antiquity


Pandemics are increasingly used to explain great historical transformations. Current narratives argue that cholera helped develop modern attitudes to public health. According to others, the Justinianic Plague (c. 541-750 C.E.) led to the fall of Rome. Yet, pandemics alone do not cause societies to collapse nor do they inevitably lead to drastic change. As the current pandemic has made all too clear, the impact of a pandemic is a result of a dynamic interaction between human societies and the environments they occupy.

This talk will explore three themes about the Justinianic Plague. First, it will situate the study of the Justinianic Plague in the broader history of pandemics over the course of the last century. Second, it will reveal how the idea that the Justinianic Plague must lead to significant mortality holds sway over our imagination: an idea I call the plague concept. And, finally, it will sketch out the empirical evidence we do have for the Justinianic Plague to reveal its varied impact. This model recognizes that there were different effects across the Mediterranean world in particular outbreaks as a way to create a picture of how communities and states learned to live with the plague.