Roman Empire did not fall because of plague, study claims

The Justinianic Plague was thought to have killed around 50 million people. - Getty Images
The Justinianic Plague was thought to have killed around 50 million people. - Getty Images

A bubonic plague which was thought to have wiped out half of the world’s population and helped topple the Roman Empire was far exaggerated by scholars, a new study claims.

The Justinianic Plague which preceded the Black Death by more than 800 years plague was thought to have killed around 50 million people across the Roman and Byzantine Empires between 541-750 AD.

The plague, spread in part by rats along trade routes, was believed to leave the Roman Empire vulnerable after the population loss hit its trade and military might across the Medeteranian, Africa and the East.

An international team of scholars led by researchers from the University of Maryland have now called into question the scale of the plague, as the available evidence paints a different picture.

Lead author, Lee Mordechai, from of Princeton's Climate Change and History Research Initiative, said: "If this plague was a key moment in human history that killed between a third and half the population of the Mediterranean world in just a few years, as is often claimed, we should have evidence for it but our survey of datasets found none."

The researchers analysis ancient texts alongside, pollen samples, plague genomes and the archeology around graves to debunk previous consensus around the scale of the outbreak.

Several sources across antiquity that had attributed important world events to the outbreak of the plague, such as the fall of the Roman Empire.

However, the researchers found that previous scholars had focused on evocative written accounts, ignoring hundreds of contemporary texts that did not mention the outbreak.

“We found no reason to argue that the plague killed tens of millions of people as many have claimed," said co-author Timothy Newfield.

"Plague is often construed as shifting the course of history. It's an easy explanation, too easy. It's essential to establish a causal connection,” he said.

Analysis of evidence such as pollen samples and burial sites also found that the millions of supposed deaths did not quite add up.

Where there should be more mass graves and less pollen from the lack of farming as a result, the researcher’s findings showed no evidence of the mass deaths.

Co-author of the study, Janet Kay, said: "We investigated a large dataset of human burials from before and after the plague outbreak, and the plague did not result in a significant change whether people buried the dead alone or with many others.

"The Black Death killed vast numbers of people and did change how people disposed of corpses."