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Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe
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Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe

3.57 of 5 stars 3.57  ·  rating details  ·  892 ratings  ·  167 reviews
A richly told story of the collision between nature’s smallest organism and history’s mightiest empire

The Emperor Justinian reunified Rome’s fractured empire by defeating the Goths and Vandals who had separated Italy, Spain, and North Africa from imperial rule. In his capital at Constantinople he built the world’s most beautiful building, married its most powerful empres
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Hardcover, 367 pages
Published May 3rd 2007 by Viking Adult (first published January 1st 2007)
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Ben Babcock
Can you say “bait and switch”?

Justinian’s Flea, as its title, description, and introduction are eager to announce, examines how the bubonic plague epidemic in the sixth century contributed to the demise of the Roman Empire. Already on shaky ground but no means down for the count, the empire was struggling to maintain a hold on its lands in western Europe—including Rome itself—even as the Persians and Huns intermittently harried its eastern borders. The plague ravaged the empire’s labour base, sh
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George
This was a challenging book to read, even though I have a keen interest in the subject matter. William Rosen makes a valiant effort to tie together the collapse of classical civilization with the emergence of the Black Plague in the mid-7th century, but what's lacking is a clear or coherent narrative flow or thesis.

Some of Rosen's prose is quite compelling, especially in the middle section where he describes the mechanics of the plague bacterium itself and how it could have such a devastating i
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Maria
Very well written, (almost unbearably) informative; reads like a mystery novel. Bubonic plague during Justinian's sixth-century reign -- much here to interest devotees of the place and period. Wonderful perspective, engagingly written -- self-deprecatory style, tongue-in-cheek erudition.

Drawbacks: eccentric organization of material, abrupt leaps and maddening changes of subject and times. Irritating when the reader is trying to navigate through unfamiliar names and battles.

That said, it's well w
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Jennifer (JC-S)
‘Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe’

It took me a while to get into the rhythm of Mr Rosen’s writing, but once I did I couldn’t put this book down. I was fascinated by the building of the Hagia Sophia, interested in the presentation of the life, times and achievements of the emperor Justinian during the 6th century and engrossed by the possible impact of the flea on the building of empires.

In this book, Mr Rosen provides a number of interpretations which can (and are) debated. People may argu
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Steve
As a rule it’s great getting recommendations from friends. An exception may occur if your friend is way more of an expert on the book’s topic than you are. In this case, said friend is a Roman history buff. To him, a book that assumes you already know the cast of characters in late antiquity, who conquered who, and how it all plays out in the end is just fine. That leaves more time for the smaller tiles of the mosaic instead. Unfortunately for me, a book with “Idiot” or “Dummy” in the title woul ...more
Dale
This could have been so much more.

The title of Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe promises so much - the last great Roman Emperor (or first Byzantine Emperor, if you prefer), the Bubonic Plague, how the plague helped create the series of nation-states that have made up Europe for centuries. Throw in the Silk Road and how the Europe was able to get its own silk worms, Justinian's multi-faceted wife Theodora, Belisarius and a discussion of how the Bubonic plague may have pav
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Maitrey
Don't be fooled (or afraid) by the grandiose title, most of the book is not about plague. In fact, it is a concise history of much of world in the 6th Century CE.

I didn't have much trouble with William Rosen's writing this time around. (I reviewed his book on the history of the Industrial Revolution here:The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention My main complaint there was that Rosen had bitten off more than he could chew, with topics ranging from history, pr
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Carol Smith
I try to only read good books and kinda knew I was taking a leap of faith with this one, but the title hooked into me good. I should have fought the line. This book fails on so many levels. Where to start?

First, the title is blatantly false advertising. This book is only nominally about the plague. The author sets forth a highfalutin thesis and methodology complete with interplanetary analogies and tapestry weaving metaphors that he then completely ignores until the last 5 or so pages of the boo
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Andrea Petrullo
I was pretty excited about this book because the plague of the 14th century gets so much more attention than Justinian's Plague, but I found Justinian's Flea rambeling and unfocused. The first half is a detailed history of Rome after it's split in two by Diocletian up to the reign of Justinian, and there's a chapter devoted to the scientific aspect of plague, but it's all downhill after that. I learned some interesting random facts about the Byzantine Empire, but not very much about Justinian's ...more
Marsha
Interesting but ultimately disappointing history of the Roman Empire during Emperor Justinian's reign in the 6th century. I was drawn to this book because I really knew little about the pre medieval political map of the Empire except that it had moved its focus and capitol east to Asia Minor. It did fill in some of the blank areas although I did get lost in the names of all the different non Roman groups, places and cities and the religious schools of thought which were the source of conflict an ...more
Susan
One of us, either the book or the reader, was unfocused. Probably me. It didn't help that the audiobook is narrated in a monotone.
Mike Russo
Appealingly nerdy in his conceit -- an ambitious mash-up of epidemiology and ancient history -- Rosen doesn't quite pull the thing off but is entertaining company all the same. The central idea of doing a guns-germs-and-steel case-study of how a new Byzantine golden age was strangled more by a roll of the bacterial dice than the traditional causal factors of military overreach, imperial paranoia, religious schism, and financial mismanagement, is a sound one.

But Rosen doesn't appear to have foun
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Dave
WONDERFUL! One of my favorite books is Hans Zinnser's "Rats, Lice and History: Being a Study in Biography, Which, After Twelve Preliminary Chapters Indispensable for the Preparation of the Lay Reader, Deals With the Life History of Typhus Fever", which introduced me to the wondrous intersection of science, art and history. Justinian's Flea evokes the feelings I experienced reading Zinnser's book for the first time when I was in high school. Rosen weaves the threads of the life of the late empero ...more
Jason
A damned interesting sort of a seven layer burrito of a book, wherein an intelligent and extremely well-read first-time author walks us through one of the less-examined tipping points in history. In spite of its very modest length, the book discusses early Christian theology, architecture, cultural history of the Huns, Chinese, Persians, Goths, Vandals and Franks, political intrigue and sports hooliganism(!) in the Eastern Roman Empire, military history, and thumbnail biographies of several of t ...more
Jenn
What a disappointing book. I really had to choke it down and by the fifth chapter without so much as a sentence devoted to the topic of plague I was actually double checking the description on the inside cover flap to make sure I didn't have the wrong book. It would've been better off titled "The Life and Times of Justinian, Rome's Last Great Emperor." While there is some mention of plague, it isn't actually brought up till nearly half way through the book. There is no real direction or point th ...more
Richard Williams
It's a worthwhile reading on several levels. First, it's a plain good read, as an adventure detective story. It's oddly organized, in a good way, 1st a biography of justinian the emperor, 2nd the story of the history of the black plague in those times, lastly a study on serial effects, what happens when something pushes somewhere like a pool ball bounding around the table.

It's a bit like the series connections, showing how the plague depopulated areas, raising wages for those remaining, weakeni
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Cari
An excellent read, but if you're expecting a straight narrative regarding the earliest known plague epidemic, look elsewhere. Rosen weaves in history from many different aspects: architecture, mathematics, burgeoning medical science, biographic summaries of many of Justinian's contemporaries, art, philosophy, religion, wars, etc. This is more of a wide-ranging look at the gradual move from antiquity to the medieval period, with the plague casting a shadow over the entirety. Meanders a bit, espec ...more
Colleen Clark
Jan 29, 2012 Colleen Clark rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Colleen by: Family member - geographer, historian, polymath.
Shelves: history
A great read beginning to end. Justinian was "the great" in many ways. He reigned the Roman Empire, from Constaninople for 38 years (527-565) and lived a very long life - 482-565. He oversaw the codification of Roman Law which serves as the basis for all law on the continent of Europe - the Civil Law. The Common Law from the British Isles is the other big legal system.

Justinian oversaw the building of Hagia Sophia, which still stands. He was emperor through the first pandemic of plague spread fr
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J.M.
Though this book is more of an anthropological background history on Rome and its neighbors than on the plague outbreak in the mid-500's that left Rome decimated, I really enjoyed reading it. At times it got bogged down with battle lore, and the author often strayed from the book's main premise, but the text was approachable, written in clear, concise, layman's terms to present an accessible glimpse at the final days of the Roman Empire and its surroundings. I would've liked more on the plague, ...more
Justin Tapp
Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe
This book is primarily about the reign of Justinian (482-565 A.D.) with the bubonic plague ("The Devil") as a key world-changing component in the second half of the book. There is a lot of contextual history provided, which some critics have argued is unnecessary and detracts from the book. I was looking for wider regional context, so I enjoyed much of it. The author gives a helpful summary of the history of the decline of Rome as governme
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Andrew
For a book about one of the most important plagues in European history (including the Black Death), the plague takes up surprisingly little of the actual historical narrative. William Rosen's emphasis is on the context of the Plague of Justinian: the rise of the Byzantine empire and its relationship with its neighbors. Rosen takes his time, recounting the lives of the period's most famous people, detailing the events of Emperor Justinian's reign, the wars with Persia, and even delving into the l ...more
Randy
Y. Pestis, the bacterium that felled an empire

Justinian's Flea is an imaginative book that explores the first great outbreak of the Black Plague in the Mediterranean world in the 6th Century. The most interesting parts of the book to me are the sections tying together climate changes in the 530s and the northward migration of the Y. pestis bacterium, which resided in fleas that resided on rats, which traveled around the Mediterranean on grain ships. The arrival of the plague corresponded with th
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Larry
And I return to Middle Ages history. I liked this book and think it gave a good overview of Constantinople and its history as well as that of Justinian and the times. It also gives a good discussion of the Plague and where it came from, etc. For those interested in the middle ages, it is worth the time.
Emily
Mr. Rosen argues that the bubonic plague was a significant contributor to the downfall of Rome in late antiquity. Okay. That was one sentence. What about the other nine hours? (I listened to the audiobook.) We begin with Justinian leaving a hick town in the Balkans to join his uncle in Constantinople and, after a jump, and he's emperor. His wife Theodora ascends from theatrical prostitute to empress along an equally obscure path. There's loads of topics: the rise of Christianity, the Aryan heres ...more
Panayoti Kelaidis
I have always been curious about Justinian and Theodora, and derived most of my knowledge about them from Procopius' two very different histories: Rosen offers a good balanced view. The book eventually IS about Justinian's flea--namely the carrier of Bubonic Plague--which decimated the Justinianic empire, and essentially made Islam possible (rats and their attendant disease bearing fleas don't survive for long on Berber caravans in Arabia). The premise that a robust, non-bubonic Arabic horde was ...more
Natacha P
I just had to read this book given my fascination with Byzantium—that era of transition from a pagan to a Christian Rome (although suffice it to say things hardly ever change overnight). Moreover, I’m always interested in hearing about contributing factor(s) to the demise of a great empire. I found the style to be pretty scholarly but enjoyable. Although far from dry, its substantial data does not render it a ‘quick read’, and in some ways it could be seen as a crash course on the end of the cla ...more
Rob Atkinson
A good account of the reign of Justinian, the end of the Roman world, and the birth of medieval Europe. Rosen's thesis attributes this break to the recurrent ravages of the bubonic plague beginning c.540; while Justinian went a long way towards reunifying the empire, reconquering North Africa, Italy, and much of Spain and codifying its laws and religion, the empire's resources and population were simply too diminished to maintain his gains after his death. It's a fascinating historical 'what-if' ...more
Willowwind
The author includes in a nice two part summary, the events leading up to Justinian's reign as the last of the great Roman emperors. This is goo but fairly standard work. Part III begins the real meat of the book - the evolution, pathology and spread of Yersinia pestis - the Bubonic plague that ravaged the Mediterranean and Europe beginning in 452, just at the height of Justinian's reign. The emperor himself nearly died from it. Along the way, Rosen gives us a very good picture of the overall all ...more
Xina Uhl
Not as much to do with the plague as the title would indicate, this is nevertheless a fascinating look at early Europe and Asia Minor. Good narration; rather unremarkable.

Summary: The Emperor Justinian reunified Rome's fractured empire by defeating the Goths and Vandals who had separated Italy, Spain, and North Africa from imperial rule. At his capital in Constantinople, he built the world's most beautiful building, married its most powerful empress, and wrote its most enduring legal code, seemi
...more
Roland Allnach
Typically, I don't favor history books that try to center a period of history around one event. The course of humanity isn't a simple system and, when one tries to define a complex situation by a single aspect, the resulting interpretation is often obscured, in the least. Not so with 'Justinian's Flea'. In this handy volume (by history book standards), the reader is given a rich scope of a historical period that is, for the most part, sadly lacking in our educational system. William Rosen's acco ...more
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William Rosen is an historian and author who previously was an editor an publisher at Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and the Free Press for nearly twenty-five years. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
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“In 531, Tribonian authored a regulation that required that before any trial or hearing could begin, everyone, including litigants and officials, was obliged to swear an oath of Christian faith while placing a hand on a copy of the Gospels…a requirement made easier by another regulation that ordered a copy of the Gospels placed in every courtroom.” 0 likes
“And not merely slogan-shouting, but debate. The Chronicle of the courtier Theophanes faithfully records a debate—perhaps disputation is the better word—between Justinian (through his herald, or mandatus) and the chosen representative of the Green faction. The dialogue is startling on a number of grounds. First, the Green “debater” addresses the emperor, the viceroy of Christ on earth, practically as an equal. He addresses Justinian respectfully—as “Justinianus Augustus”—but registers his complaint precisely as if he were doing so before a small claims court, informing the most powerful man in the world that “my oppressor can be found in the shoemaker’s quarter.” For his part, Justinian, though clearly aware that he holds what might be called a preemptive advantage (“Verily, if you refuse to keep silent, I shall have you beheaded”), still debates both the truth of the Green claims and the theological position that he suggests informs those claims. Justinian tells his interlocutor, “I would have you baptized in the name of one God” only to receive the response, “I am baptized in One God,” evidently an attempt to contrast his Monophysite sympathies with the emperor’s orthodoxy. The Green spokesman accuses the emperor of suppressing the truth, of countenancing murder, and when he has had enough, he ends with “Goodbye Justice! You are no longer in fashion. I shall turn and become Jew; better to be a pagan than a Blue, God knows…”14 The most telling part of the entire dialogue, however, is that it was” 0 likes
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