Georgia’s Trade & the First Great World Pandemic: the Bubonic Plague of AD 541-544

As the world continues to experience deep negative effects of the novel Coronavirus, it is interesting to look at various global pandemics which affected Georgia.

The first great pandemic, which is well documented in historical sources, is the bubonic plague, also referred to as the “Plague of Justinian” or the “Justinianic Plague” which occurred in AD 541 and essentially had several consecutive outbreaks throughout next several centuries. It is thought the plague originated in the territory of modern day Ethiopia and then spread to the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) reaching Constantinople (the capital of the empire) in 541, before moving out into the rest of the Empire.

We have a detailed account of the suffering and the extent of the plague written by 6th century historian Procopius of Caesarea. In one of the sections of his History of Wars, Procopius described the symptoms of the disease in the following manner:

“But with the majority it came about that they were seized by the disease without becoming aware of what was coming either through a waking vision or a dream. … They had a sudden fever, some when just roused from sleep, others while walking about, and others while otherwise engaged, without any regard to what they were doing. And the body showed no change from its previous colour, nor was it hot as might be expected when attacked by a fever, nor indeed did any inflammation set in, but the fever was of such a languid sort from its commencement and up till evening that neither to the sick themselves nor to a physician who touched them would it afford any suspicion of danger. It was natural, therefore, that not one of those who had contracted the disease expected to die from it. But on the same day in some cases, in others on the following day, and in the rest not many days later, a bubonic swelling developed; and this took place not only in the particular part of the body which is called boubon, that is, “below the abdomen,” but also inside the armpit, and in some cases also beside the ears, and at different points on the thighs.”

The “Justinianic Plague” impacted the whole Byzantine Empire. As this was the period of great conquest of North Africa, Italy and parts of Spain led by Justinian’s generals, the empire constantly needed fresh troops to be sent for the defense of newly-recovered territories. The plague killed the population in their tens of thousands, and many scholars suspect an even bigger impact. It is also likely that food production across the empire was severely damaged. The disruption led to the military and economic weakening of the Eastern Roman Empire.

The modern day Georgian territory represented one of the primary regions of competition in the 6th century. The great war of 541-562 was waged in/over Lazica, what is nowadays western Georgia. Surprisingly, we do not have written sources indicating the spread of the pandemic on the eastern Black Sea shore. However, it is plausible that the disease would have entered the region via the high mobility of people transferring the infection, among them Byzantine troops.

Moreover, the modern western Georgian territory also represented an important trade outpost, and as the history of major pandemics shows, trade ports and vessels, along with merchants, represented the easiest way to spread diseases. Various written sources indicate that Lazic merchants had close contacts with ports in Asia Minor.

Trade was indeed the easiest and quickest way to spread infections, in this case the bubonic plague. Moreover, Georgia of the time was also one of the economic outposts between the Black Sea region and the Eurasian steppes, where the Byzantines had close economic contact with the Sogdian merchants, people living in Central Asia with a powerful merchant class spanning the northern Eurasian plains. There is even archaeological evidence of Sogdian products, found in the northern Caucasus and on the eastern Black Sea shore.

Thus, it is likely that the bubonic plague reached the western Georgian territory, as the latter was a focus of imperial competition as well as active trade relations.

By Emil Avdaliani

The “Justinianic Plague” impacted the whole Byzantine Empire. Image source:

09 April 2020 16:56