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hat’s often referred to as the first pandemic began in the city of Pelusium, near modern-day Port Said, in northeastern Egypt, in the year 541. According to the historian Procopius, who was alive at the time, the “pestilence” spread both west, toward Alexandria, and east, toward Palestine. Then it kept on going. In his view, it seemed to move almost consciously, “as if fearing lest some corner of the earth might escape it.”
The earliest symptom of the pestilence was fever. Often, Procopius observed, this was so mild that it did not “afford any suspicion of danger.” But, within a few days, victims developed the classic symptoms of bubonic plague—lumps, or buboes, in their groin and under their arms. The suffering at that point was terrible; some people went into a coma, others into violent delirium. Many vomited blood. Those who attended to the sick “were in a state of constant exhaustion,” Procopius noted. “For this reason everybody pitied them no less than the sufferers.” No one could predict who was going to perish and who would pull through.The New Yorker’s coronavirus news coverage and analysis are free for all readers.
In early 542, the plague struck Constantinople. At that time, the city was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, which was led by the Emperor Justinian. A recent assessment calls Justinian “one of the greatest statesmen who ever lived.” Another historian describes the first part of his reign—he ruled for almost forty years—as “a flurry of action virtually unparalleled in Roman history.” In the fifteen years before the pestilence reached the capital, Justinian codified Roman law, made peace with the Persians, overhauled the Eastern Empire’s fiscal administration, and built the Hagia Sophia.
As the plague raged, it fell to Justinian, in Procopius’ words, to “make provision for the trouble.” The Emperor paid for the bodies of the abandoned and the destitute to be buried. Even so, it was impossible to keep up; the death toll was too high. (Procopius thought it reached more than ten thousand a day, though no one is sure if this is accurate.) John of Ephesus, another contemporary of Justinian’s, wrote that “nobody would go out of doors without a tag upon which his name was written,” in case he was suddenly stricken. Eventually, bodies were just tossed into fortifications at the edge of the city.
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