In the sixth century the word’s smallest organism, Yersina Pestis, the bubonic plague bacterium, achieved its greatest growth spike. During the reign of Justinian (Emperor 527 to 565CE) the plague hit Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire. Almost every city of the Empire was devastated in an apocalyptic manner.
Gibbon (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) describes the effect of the epidemic as follows: Justinian’s reign is disgraced by the visible decrease of the human species, which has never been repaired in some of the fairest countries of the globe.
Cyril Mango, Professor of Byzantine Literature at Oxford University describes the apocalyptic effects in his book Byzantium, The Empire of the New Rome, in this way: it is possible that one third to one half of the population of Constantinople died in 542.
John Julius Norwich had this to say (Byzantium, The Early Centuries) about the plague: Beginning in Egypt it quickly spread across all the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean to Constantinople where it raged for four months, the toll rising to 10,000 a day and on one day 16,000, as many as the entire army in Italy…..Plague was succeeded by famine and the number of its victims was estimated at 300,000, two out of five of the population of the city.
Gibbon describes where the dead were taken as follows (Ch XLIII, The Decline and Fall): A magistrate was authorized to collect the promiscuous heaps of dead bodies, to transport them by land or water, and to inter them in deep pits beyond the precincts of the city.
Initially, burials would have taken place according to the normal Orthodox practices, anointing the body with oil, singing laments and burial in a grave. Burials of prominent individuals or clerics would have taken place in crypts or in consecrated land near great churches.
The Islamic successes of the seventh century, they quickly captured Egypt, Jerusalem and North Africa, were made possible, to a significant degree, by the devastation of constantly returning plagues at that time. The plague had returned to Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire, in 555, 558, 561, 573, 574, 591, 599 and again in the early seventh century. Waves of unrest followed across the Empire. Evidence for the collapse of cities is available. The psychological effect must have been appalling. In Constantinople, during some outbreaks, John of Ephesus wrote, “no one goes out without a tag with their name on it.”
It should also be noted that the Arabian desert was typically plague free during these years. If ever an Empire was set up for defeat it was the Byzantine Empire in that period. It could be said that most of our current conflicts are a result of the impact of disease at that time and the subsequent ascent of a new religion.
In Constantinople plague pits are likely to have been dug outside the great Theodosian walls, where parkland exists today separating the old city from its new suburbs. Many bodies were also reported to have been dumped into the sea. It is likely too that bodies were buried, at least in the initial phase of the outbreaks, in the complex of Hagia Sophia.
The Hagia Sophia complex we see today, completed in 537 just before the first of these major outbreaks, included the Samson Hospice and Hagia Eirene, all in the same enclosure and governed by the same clergy. The Samson Hospice was likely to have been overrun quickly during any outbreak, but some burials nearby were very likely to have taken place.
One of the reasons Mehmed the Conqueror may have left the ground generally undisturbed under Hagia Sophia was the fact that it contained plague pits. The Black Death visited Constantinople eleven times between 1348, when the epidemic surged again in the Mediterranean world, and 1453 when he took the city for Islam.
To this day excavations under Hagia Sophia are discouraged and no proper, wide ranging, modern archeological survey has ever been conducted of the underground areas directly beneath Hagia Sophia or Hagia Eirene. But why?
And where are the plague pits that mark the beginning of our world?
Under the Comnenian family, the ruling family of the Byzantine Empire who halted the decline of Byzantium from 1081 to 1185, Byzantine writers in Constantinople reintroduced the ancient Greek romance novel.
Their era, the era of the Crusades, was also reflected in these stories. These novels span the gap between the last surviving romance novels of late antiquity and the early medieval romantic revival.
Only four of these novels survive today, just one of which is written in prose. And only two have been translated into English. This post will focus on one of those, Drosilla and Charikles, by Niketas Eugenianos, (c 13th c) translated by Joan Burton (Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Inc., 2004)
The story of Drosilla and Charikles is interesting for many reasons. Here is the plot:
Belthandros, a Roman (Byzantine) prince and youngest son of king Rhodophilos, quarrels with his father and leaves his home to seek his fortune. After wandering in the hostile lands of Anatolia and dealing with Turkish bandits, he reaches Tarsus in Armenian Cilicia. There he sees a fiery star in the depths of a river (a metaphor for love) and follows it to the north. He finds a castle built of precious gems, which belongs to King Eros. It is full of magnificent statues and automatons.
Belthandros leaves his escorts outside and enters the castle alone. There he sees an inscription that tells of his predestined love between him and Chrysantza, the daughter of the king of Great Antioch. He is summoned by the lord of the castle, Eros, who announces to him a beauty contest at which Belthandros must give a wand to the most beautiful among forty princesses. The contest takes place and Belthandros gives the wand to the most beautiful princess, whereupon all that surrounds him suddenly disappears “like a dream”, leaving him alone in the castle. At this point he resolves to go out and seek his princess.
After a short journey he arrives in Antioch where he meets the king of the city, is accepted as his liegeman, and soon becomes an intimate of the royal household. There he meets the king’s daughter Chrysantza, whom he recognizes as the princess he chose at the Castle of Eros. Although Chrysantza has never seen him before, she too recognizes him, and the two fall in love. Two years and two months however pass before their first love meeting, which takes place secretly at night in the royal garden. The meeting ends suddenly when a jealous courtier discovers them and Belthandros is put in jail. In order to save her lover’s life, Chrysantza convinces her faithful chambermaid, Phaidrokaza, to take the blame by declaring that the prince had visited her instead. The king believes the story and a forced marriage between Belthandros and Phaidrokaza takes place.
The following days the couple continues to meet secretly, but soon the situation becomes unsatisfactory, and they decide to flee, together with the chambermaid and two retainers. On the way, they cross a flooded river, where Phaidrokaza and the two retainers are drowned, while the two lovers are separated and thrown up on the far bank. Chrysantza comes upon the corpse of one of the retainers, made unrecognizable from the river. Thinking it is Belthandros, she is about to fall on the dead man’s sword, when Belthandros himself appears to forestall her. The lovers reach the seacoast where they find a ship sent by king Rhodophilos in search for his son. The romance ends with their return to Constantinople, where a wedding ceremony is performed and Belthandros is proclaimed heir to his father’s kingdom.
I find this story interesting as it reflects the eternal truth about the difficult path to love. It also illustrates that the world of chivalry in medieval Europe was partly built on the solid foundations of Byzantine and Greek romance. I have read that love was invented in the age of chivalry, but for me the above link between Byzantine novels and antique Greek romances shows clearly that this is simply not correct.
My thanks to Wikipedia.