Justinian's Flea And Related Musings


book, review, Rome, plague
I did it. And, I did it sooner than I had expected. I wanted to finish the book I had been reading, Justinian's Flea, by the end of the year (2017). I finished it before Thanksgiving. This post isn't the first time I've mentioned this book, so read "Books, Life, and Punchlines" to get a little bit bigger of a picture about the book and my thoughts on it.

*It took you all year to read this book?*

Pretty much. If this is the first post of mine that you're reading and/or you haven't heard me mentioning this, here it goes. I actually read quite a bit. I just don't devour books. I'd love to be the kind of person that does, but I just never have been. Maybe someday. It's something I at least think about doing more of. So, in the meantime, I choose a book and then read it when I can. For the last two years or so, that time has been in the wee early hours of the morning before I head to my place of work. It's quiet, my family isn't up, and my mind is fresh and ready to be a sponge. I'll leave it at that. If you want to know more, then you should familiarize yourself with the rest of my posts. Maybe, you'd like to read a post I wrote about two other books entitled, "Exit Music, Enter Early?"

*Since you've finished the book, what have you spent your time doing? Did you start another book?*

Excellent question!

Well, I wrote this post for one. I had a harder time keeping pace with one post a week last year, unlike in 2016 after I restarted my blog. I don't feel that one new post per week is necessary, but I also don't want to fall into a trap of not posting regularly or there's always the chance I won't post very often or at all. Not doing something is often the path of least resistance. Wait. It IS the path of least resistance, literally. So, yeah. I usually feel that I have plenty to write about, but the time to do so is not so plenty. There seems to be too many things I want to do. Unfortunately, my brain needs breaks, too. ANYWAY. What I meant to say was that I wrote a little more, and I also spent extra time laying in bed trying to wake up by looking at the social blackhole on my phone.

As I've mentioned before in the past, the next book I'm reading is one a friend of mine, J. Thomas Richards, has written. It was my goal to purchase it in December, and I'm happy to say that I accomplished that goal and am now a few chapters in. I suppose I should tell you a little about this book, eh? It's called The Black River Players, and it's a modern noir-style story that is set in an area near where he and I both grew up. Please take an opportunity to learn more about this book and consider buying it on Amazon.

...And now back to Justinian's Flea, but first...

I generally lounge with a book as opposed to devouring it, as I partially mentioned the devouring part earlier. This isn't always the case, but I'm not afraid to meander through a page only to go back and meander through it again. Maybe, I want to absorb as much information as I can and there happened to be a lot on that page. Maybe, there was a paragraph or sentence that I really liked and I wanted to soak in, roll around in, and enjoy its brilliance. Maybe, my brain was too sleepy to comprehend what I read and I had somehow managed to go through multiple sentences without grasping context. Maybe, I drifted off into a daydream and forgot where I was physically at. All of those reasons are valid at some point in time. Plus, when I watch or read anything, I don't plan to ever visit it again. There's SO much media out there to consume! I'm going to make the most of the experience by absorbing as much of its information and essence as I can.

One of the reasons I liked Justinian's Flea, compared to most other books I've read, is that there were many times I looked for more information beyond the book. That takes extra time, too, and that, in turn, makes the consumption take longer. While the book does go into great detail with its subject matter, a book can never give all of the information available. Sometimes, it was a matter of looking up Latin words to capture the full meaning of the author's explanation. Other times, it was to look up maps of late antiquity's ever-changing territory boundaries, city locations, paths of military campaigns, and the like—things that a map can show a person. There were occasions where I sought out more detail about a particular historical figure or event or piece of architecture, like the Hagia Sophia.

One aspect that I really enjoyed about the book was the stories that humanized the people of late antiquity. Maybe it's just me, but the further back one goes in time, the more mythical people seem to become. It doesn't help that fictional character's personalities, ticks, and whatnot are often presented more thoroughly in books than most factual persons from reality—biographies being the most likely exceptions. The more a book can connect the reader to the humanity of its characters, its story, the more real and impactful it can become to the reader. While this book isn't necessarily a golden example of showing historical figures' personalities, it does cut through some of the numbness that the facts of history can emanate. The book does humanize these historical characters, even if it's not always in obvious ways, and on occasion, it shares anecdotes. Also, any book that talks of plague is going to humanize it a bit. Death is very real.

Here's an anecdote from page 103 about a practical joke:

"Mirrors fascinated Anthemius his entire life. Years after the completion of the Hagia Sophia, the architect—now a wealthy and famous citizen of Constantinople—was the loser in a lawsuit brought by his upstairs neighbor, the equally famous orator Zeno. He took his revenge like a proper engineer, first simulating an earthquake with a steam line that he surreptitiously ran into Zeno's apartment, then exploding noisemakers to mimic the sound of a thunderstorm. Finally, he put his geometric talents to practical use—or, at least, practical-joke use—employing a pivoting parabolic reflector to shine light at all hours into Zeno's sleeping chamber. When Zeno asked Justinian to intervene, the emperor declined to punish his architect, writing that even he 'cannot intervene against Zeus the Thunderer and Poseidon the Earth-Shaker.'"

One thing you may not know that adds to the overall story is that Justinian was a devout Christian, not a pagan. Therefore, his response was a joke as well.

Here's a little tidbit from page 141 that I found amusing:

"The Vandal king's Moorish hosts were not as accustomed to civilization as his own people, and Gelimer, a man of some musical and literary pretension, actually spent part of the siege composing an ode bemoaning his lack of a sponge. When he finally surrendered, he evidently did so believing that it was preferable to be a clean slave of Justinian than an unwashed king of the Vandals."

History is also filled with much irony. One such irony this book discusses on page 212 is that Alexandria, Egypt was the "port of embarkation for both disease and doctor." The plague is thought to have originated from Pelusium, Egypt, but Alexandria—being a major (and local) port of antiquity—was where the rat-flea-plague team had its greatest opportunity to spread throughout Europe. Alexandria was also an educational center of this region, in fact, it was THE place to study for physicians. So, when the plague struck, the world's best doctors were called upon. Hence, both doctors and disease embarked from the same place.

book, review, Rome, plague
I love the title to this chapter. Perhaps I'll use it as a title to a song or album.

When I decided to start reading this book, I knew that it was going to be giving a lesson in history. What I didn't expect was to get a lesson in science, specifically biology, and a surprisingly long, in depth one as well. The author, William Rosen, explains the different aspects of this particular plague, such as how the bacterium, the flea, and the rat function biologically—both separately and then together—and how in turn it effects the human body. I'll give you a bit of a hint if you could call it that, the flea and rat are very good teammates to the plague bacterium, Y. Pestis. Ole YP, however, is kind of a jerk.

Plagues have come and gone throughout history. Some of the strains do make return visits over a short period of time as is the case with the time-frame covered in the book. The author also explains why it happened when it did. There are many different reasons and factors that determine how disease can be dormant for hundreds if not thousands of years and then "awaken" and terrorize populations for decades if not centuries. Many people have researched plagues in general and this one in particular. There's too much detail in the book to properly convey it in a post that's really just trying to give an overview of that book and highlight particular things that I found especially interesting. You're better off reading a book or piece dedicated to plague.

Justinian's Flea goes to great lengths to explain the effects of the plague, even though it's not hard to understand what effects a plague would have. The author does try and argue throughout the book that the plague wasn't the only variable at play but did help transform, if not speed up, the "known world" into something more recognizable today. To say that the plague was THE reason that finally ended Rome's reign of the Mediterranean would be to brush aside its many enemies and the cultural changes and economics already playing throughout the region. However, that's not to say that Rome wouldn't have survived longer and stronger without the plague. It certainly weakened Rome but also its enemies. There is no one, correct, easy answer.

book, review, Rome, plague
I enjoyed the book, but while I was looking around online for some reason, I came across a common complaint with it. Some people have felt the title is misleading. I can't say I disagree, but I also appreciate what the author was trying to accomplish. Yes, the title implies it is only about Justinian and the plague. However, me being me, I enjoyed all of the extra information, and I felt it gave the reader a better and clearer understanding of Justinian's reign and the plague.

Let's say I gave you a watch. You like this watch, but you aren't terribly concerned with it. It's a simple, cheap watch. Then, you later learn through a mutual friend that I had saved my money for a month to buy this watch. Everything extra I had went into it. This new information should make this watch more important, more special. You may be more grateful. I could have easily NOT saved my money and spent it on you. I didn't have to sacrifice, but I did. More information changes perceptions.

William Rosen didn't have to go to such great lengths to write a book, but he did. I appreciate all of the extras that went into it so that I could understand Justinian and his flea in the best way possible.



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