Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe” as Want to Read:
Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

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

3.68  ·  Rating details ·  1,628 ratings  ·  246 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
Hardcover, 367 pages
Published December 31st 2007 by Brécourt Academic (first published January 1st 2007)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Justinian’s Flea, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about Justinian’s Flea

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
3.68  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,628 ratings  ·  246 reviews

Sort order
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
Dec 01, 2008 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 13, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Carol Smith
May 18, 2012 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, history
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
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
Apr 04, 2013 rated it liked it
If you like (and I do) the Simon Winchester approach to historical events, i.e., lots of tangents and background before the actual kickoff, then you would like Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe. It starts out with Constantine and the transfer of Roman rule to Constantinople, the various migrations and invasions of the Goths, Visigoths, Huns, Vandals, etc. A chapter on the destruction of the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) cathedral and designing/building the structure we see t ...more
Oct 05, 2007 rated it liked it
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
Aug 27, 2012 rated it it was ok
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 pa
Kaethe Douglas
Mar 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
So, wow, I hadn't realized that I knew pretty much nothing about the Roman empire. I wasn't expecting cavalry, for example.


A more appropriate title would have been The Final Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was an interesting stroll through the demise of the Roman empire and the creation of medievalism and European nationalism. Educational and fun, because Rosen shares his digressions and random bits he picked up. There is a really good section on the Persian Empire. But plague, not so m
Jennifer (JC-S)
May 01, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: librarybooks
‘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
Kimba Tichenor
No cohesive argument or narrative thread. The author simply strings together everything he knows about Justinian's reign: from his military campaigns, to the sexual exploits of his wife, to the theological questions of the age to architectural challenges of the day. Yes, some of the information presented is interesting, but without a central argument or unifying theme, it simply does not work.
I was very impressed with this book. Focused exclusively on the reign of Justinian the Great, the author provides an in-depth look at the Byzantine empire from the loss of its western provinces to the beginning of the rise of Islam. Even more remarkable was the extensive discussion of the plague that devastated the Mediterranean area for approximately 200 years which began during Justinian’s early reign. The author provides several chapters of bacteria discussion, epedemiology, human migration, ...more
Elliott Bignell
Apr 12, 2015 rated it really liked it
Long fascinated with the staggering speed at which early Islam expanded, I found that this book fills in several empty tiles in the puzzle. While historians, including those sympathetic to Islam, tend to focus on decisive battles like Badr and Yarmuk, it seems strange that a small cadre of converts from a remote desert fastness could by force of arms alone have conquered lands from the Atlantic to the Chinese border, almost as fast a one can walk the distance, against the resistance of Byzantine ...more
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
Jul 08, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2010, biography, death, history, war
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
Susan (the other 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.
Oct 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
En esta investigación William Rosen, confiesa que su profesión original era la edición de libros. Después de muchos años decidió que, tal vez, podría investigar y redactar lo investigado, como tantos otros, y este es el resultado, pero yo digo, que todo escritor necesita de un editor y, es obvio que un editor no puede editarse a sí mismo, es por eso que este libro resulta demasiado largo.
No quiero intentar discurrir sobre las primeras 200 páginas, que se refieren al Imperio Romano un poco antes
Aug 29, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
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
Sep 22, 2008 rated it it was ok
Well. I've learnt some things from this book. More than I bargained for, perhaps. I didn't hate this book. It's just not at all what it was advertised to be.

I will begin by adjusting the title of the book somewhat. Perhaps A History of 5th and 6th Century Rome: Empire and the Birth of Europe with a dash of Plague. I picked this book up several years ago, intrigued by the idea, as set out in the introduction, that an outbreak of Plague could have been the thing that tipped the Roman Empire over
Sep 22, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 07, 2009 rated it liked it
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
Jan 20, 2012 rated it did not like it
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
Jul 18, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A compelling volume on Justinian era, dealing with the emperor's achievements in reuniting the empire in the context of the interactions between the Roman, Mediteranean, and Eastern World at the time, the building of Hagia Sophia, Justinianic Code and the plague influence in the collapse of the classical civilization.
Full of facts, ideas and very readable, jumps from one theme to another sometimes in surprising directions. The in-depth description of the bacterium evolvement feels like another b
Oct 17, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
A book that is more a bunch of vignettes than a cohesive history. The book has a ton of interesting asides but it the primary subject which is the title of the book just never really comes through. I love the time period and the history and it was still a grind to get through. Not the best book.

This book desperately needs the application of an editor's red pen to cross out all those pointless side tangent paragraphs that have nothing to do with anything, and to insert all those missing full stops! The author seems to be competing with Charles Dickens on who can write the longest sentence.

The writing is rather dull interspersed with lots of relevant asides that don't have anything to do with the subject. The Nika riots and Theodora's impassioned speech are written with the same exciteme
Oct 22, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Nov 04, 2014 rated it it was ok
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
Jun 17, 2011 rated it liked it
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
The book's flaws (and successes) have been covered by many former reviewers so let me add just a few notes that may be of interest to someone at some time:

For anyone who slept through their world history class when it was covering the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Alans, Suevi and Vandals, the first 1/4 of this book will give you the review you need...and some cute tricks for remembering who was where. (The Vandals were the sailors who made it to Sicily.) Ultimately, "Italy was ruled by Ostrogoths, Spa
Sep 09, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned
You might think a book titled "Justinian's Flea: The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire" would be about...well, plague. That's why I read it, because I'm interested in microbiology and historical epidemic nonfiction. Sadly, plague doesn't even make an appearance in the book until 160+ pages into the book. The first half of the book is a broad, sweeping account of several hundred years of European history. Which is fine, if the book had been marketed as a European History book, bu ...more
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »
  • The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History
  • Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World
  • Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations
  • The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization
  • Mosquito: A Natural History of Our Most Persistent and Deadly Foe
  • Byzantium: The Apogee
  • The Black Death
  • Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World
  • Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome
  • The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C.
  • Black Sea
  • Plague's Progress: A Social History of Man and Disease
  • The White Death: A History of Tuberculosis
  • Empires of Trust: How Rome Built--and America Is Building--a New World
  • The Enemies of Rome: From Hannibal to Attila the Hun
  • The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World
  • Pagans and Christians
  • Terry Jones' Barbarians
William Rosen was 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 lived in Princeton, New Jersey.

From recent obituary

William Rosen PRINCETON JUNCTION Author William Rosen, 61, whose works of narrative nonfiction include "Justinian's Flea" and "The Most Powerful Idea in the World: The Story of
“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” 1 likes
“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
More quotes…