John of Ephesus describes the Justinianic plague

John of Ephesus was a monophysite bishop who worked for Justinian and was instrumental in destroying the Montanist holy places at Pepuza, including the grave of Montanus.  He wrote a Chronicle, much of which is lost.  But he was also an eye-witness of the outbreak of plague, known as the Justinianic plague, which affected the Eastern empire.  He wrote an account of it, which he then incorporated into Part 2 of his Chronicle.  This is the longest account of the plague known to us.

Sadly Part 2 is lost, but it is quoted extensively in Syriac by Pseudo-Dionysius of Tell-Mahre, and the opening portion of John’s account, which Ps.-Dionysius accidentally omitted, appears in Michael the Syrian.

I’ve turned Chabot’s French translation of the opening section into English (vol. 2, p.235-238, column 1),[1] and, as few will have access to it, followed it by the translation of Witold Witakowski, “Pseudo-Dionysius of Tel-Mahre, Chronicle…”, Liverpool University Press, 1996, p.74-98.  (Other fragments were edited by Land in his Anecdota Syriaca, vol. 2, but these I have not looked at).  The translation of Witakowski is very cheap, and really should be on everyone’s shelves.

Let’s start with Michael the Syrian.  This is undoubtedly abbreviated from the lengthier account of John of Ephesus (whom he calls John of Asia), but probably in a good way.  John seems prone to religious musings, of no especial value.

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In the book of John of Asia, he speaks amply of the great plague which occurred in the year 855, which is the year 16 of Justinian, a (plague) unequaled since the beginning of the world. The whole world was struck by this cruel scourge. It began at first among the peoples inland of the countries of the south-east of India, that is, of Kush, Himyarites, and others; then to the regions of the West, which are called “upper”, the peoples of the Romans, the Italians, the Gauls, and the Spanish.  It was learned that men became enraged, like dogs, became mad, attacked one another, went into the mountains and committed suicide. These things were only considered as like signs of evil omen, but the scourge progressed, and reached the lands of Kush, on the confines of Egypt, and from there it spread to Egypt itself.  Like the two edges of the reaper, it successively passed across the earth, and progressed without stopping.  When the greater part of the people had perished, to the extent that Egypt was deprived of its inhabitants, ruined and deserted, it fell upon Alexandria, and consumed a multitude of people. Those who escaped a quick death were struck with a terrible disease: that of tumours of the groin; some on one side, others on both sides. The groin swelled, swelled again, filled with water, and then there were great and deep ulcers, which leaked blood, pus, and water, night and day. By this plague the scourge fell upon them, by which they were promptly removed.

The mercy of God showed itself everywhere towards the poor, for they died first: on the one hand, in order to make the zeal of the inhabitants of the cities appear, and to procure spiritual advantages for them, by the burial of the poor; on the other hand, because if the calamity had confounded them with the others, how could their putrefying corpses and their bare bones have been removed from the middle of the public places, since there was no one left to do this? So they died first, while everyone was still healthy enough to take them away, carry them away and bury them. There was this sign, that if the evil began with the youngest of a house, the house were reduced to despair by this sign: because all of them would die also.  It happened that up to twelve darics were given [to bury the dead], and scarcely anyone was found to carry them away and throw them out like dogs.  It happened that a stretcher being carried by four carriers, they fell and perished. One fell as he spoke, the other ran away; another died while eating; every man lost hope of living, and was afraid to go out, saying: “I shall perish in the middle of the house”. When they were obliged to go out, the one who went out, either to accompany or to bury (the dead), wrote a tablet with these words that he hung on his arm: “I am such a one, son of such at one, and of such a neighbourhood; if I die, for God’s sake, and to show his mercy and goodness, let them know at my house, and let my people come to bury me”.  This great city reached exhaustion and was ruined; men feared to go into the streets because of the stink of corpses and of bodies being eaten by the dogs.

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Michael then continues with “When the chastisement had been fulfilled…” the plague spread beyond Egypt.  But Ps.Dionysius, although he omits the above, does preserve some of John’s long-winded musings on the plague.  So he begins as follows:

The year 855 (A.D. 543/4) of Alexander:  there was a great and mighty plague in the whole world in the days of the emperor Justinian.

Now, for the beginning of this narrative the blessed prophet Jeremiah has proved most helpful to us, being versed in raising songs of lamentation amid groans over the afflictions and the ruin of his people. Thus he would be a model for the present writer—or lamenter—in (putting down) the story of this terrible and mighty scourge with which the whole world was lashed in our days; though this time not over the afflictions of one city, Jerusalem, or of one people only, the Jews, would he have to weep and lament, but over (those of) many cities which (God’s) wrath turned into, as it were, a wine-press and pitilessly trampled and squeezed all their inhabitants within them like fine grapes.

(He would have to weep and lament) over the whole earth (upon) which the command went out like a reaper upon standing com and mowed and laid down innumerable people of all ages,  all sizes and all ranks, all together;

—over corpses which split open and rotted on the streets with nobody to bury (them);
—over houses large and small, beautiful and desirable which suddenly became tombs for their inhabitants and in which servants and masters at the same time suddenly fell (dead), mingling their rottenness together in their bedrooms, and not one of them escaped who might remove their corpses out from within the house;
—over others who perished falling in the streets to become a terrible and shocking spectacle for those who saw them, as their bellies were swollen and their mouths wide open, throwing up pus like torrents, their eyes inflamed and their hands stretched out upward, and (over) the corpses rotting and lying on comers and streets and in the porches of courtyards and in churches and martyria and everywhere, with nobody to bury (them);
—over ships in the midst of the sea whose sailors were suddenly attacked by (God’s) wrath and (the ships) became tombs for their captains and they continued adrift on the waves carrying the corpses of their owners;
—over other (ships) which arrived in harbours, were moored by their owners, and remained (so), never to be untied by them again;
—over palaces which groaned one to the other;
—over bridal chambers where the brides were adorned (in finery), but all of a sudden there were just lifeless and fearsome corpses;
—over virgins which (had been) guarded in bedchambers and (now) there was nobody to carry them from (these) bedchambers to the tombs;
—over highways which became deserted;
—over roads (on) which (the traffic) was interrupted;
—over villages whose inhabitants perished all together;
—over many things of this kind, which defeat all who have the power of speech in (their skill with) words and stories.

Thus over these things the prophet might weep and say, “Woe upon me not ‘because of the destruction of the daughter of my people,’  but because of the desolation of the entire habitable earth of humanity, which has been corrupted by its sins; and because the world in its entirety has already been made desolate for some time and has become empty of its inhabitants”. He might, I imagine, use the words of the prophecies of his fellow prophets to bring forward and say to the remnant among humanity who had survived, “‘Lament, wail, O ministers of the altar. Go in, pass the night in sackcloth, O ministers of my God, not only ‘because the cereal offering and the drink offering are cut off from the house of your God’,  but because (God’s) wrath, due to sins, has suddenly turned the holy house of God into a tomb for dead corpses and it reeked of dead bodies instead of living worshippers”. Again he might also repeat these words, “The earth shall sit in sorrow and all its inhabitants mourn”.  Also not very remote (from the case) is this, “Call for the mourning and lamenting women, ”  that together they may make lamentation, not over one corpse, or over one people, or over an only-begotten son, or over a young man who was snatched away by death, but over (whole) peoples and kingdoms, over territories and regions and over powerful cities which were seized (by the plague) and their dwellings groaned over the rotten corpses (lying) in them.

Thus when I, a wretch, wanted to include these matters in a record of history, my thoughts were seized many times by stupor, and for many reasons I planned to omit it, firstly because all mouths and tongues are insufficient to relate it, and moreover because even if there could be found such that would record (at least) a little from among the multitude (of matters), what use would it be, when the entire world was tottering and reaching its dissolution and the length of generations was cut short? And for whom would he who wrote be writing?

(But) then I thought that it was right that through our writings we should inform our successors and transmit to them (at least) a little from among the multitude (of matters) concerning our chastisement. Even if together with us they are knocking on the gate of the consummation, perhaps (during) this remainder of the world which will come after us they will fear and shake because of the terrible scourge with which we were lashed through our transgressions and become wiser through the chastisement of us wretches and be saved from (God’s) wrath here (in this world) and from future torment.

It was upon us that (the chastisement) came at that time (and so now) it is time that we should weep together with the prophet saying, “Death has come up into our windows, it has entered our gates, and made our palaces desolate”. Perhaps the eye of the prophecy watched these present events and prophesied concerning us, especially since in very deed it has appeared that, “My sword will be drawn forth out of its sheath and will destroy both righteous and sinners”, so that it also happened that at a single sign they became a single wine-press, and corpses which were split open, were eaten by dogs and exposed, having been cast about in great terror.

Now when the chastisement had been fulfilled (in Alexandria), it began to cross the sea to Palestine and the region of Jerusalem; furthermore some terrible shapes also appeared to people at sea.

When this plague was passing from one land to another, many people saw shapes of bronze boats and (figures) sitting in them resembling people with their heads cut off. Holding staves, also of bronze, they moved along on the sea and could be seen going whithersoever they headed. These figures were seen everywhere in a frightening fashion, especially at night. Like flashing bronze and like fire did they appear, black people without heads sitting in a glistening boat and travelling swiftly on the sea, so that this sight almost caused the souls of the people who saw it to expire.

In this way they were seen proceeding to Gaza, Ashkelon and Palestine and simultaneously with their appearance the beginning (of the plague) took place there. Also (horrors) exceeding by far those previously narrated about the city of Alexandria took place from now on in the whole of Palestine, with the effect that villages and cities were left totally without inhabitants.

Now (we shall speak about) another sign of menace and of God’s just sentence. Since in this way the riches of many people were left unguarded, gold, silver and other things,—the pearls of the world—gates standing open and treasures abandoned, houses full of all (kinds of) objects and everything one could desire in the world, so if it happened that somebody wished to take and gather something in order to take possession (of it), thinking that he would escape, on the very same day the sentence would come upon him.

Thus it was told about one city on the Egyptian border (that) it perished totally and completely with (only) seven men and one little boy ten years old remaining in it. The (men) having made common cause with each other went around the whole city and saw that there was nobody alive in it but themselves, the corpses of the rest (of the people) being mixed together in a decaying state. And when after one, two, and as much as five days, these (seven) were (still) alive, they took counsel among them(selves) and said:

“Perhaps we shall escape (from death), but since now it is easy for us—come, let us enter the large houses and gather for ourselves gold, silver and whatever (of other riches) is in them (so that) we shall (be able to) fill one house. Perhaps we will survive and so it will be ours.”

In fact as they had said so it was. They dared to enter the houses which were rich and empty of inhabitants. For three days they gathered only gold and silver and with it filled one large house. On the third day (when) they were carrying (the booty) and entering the house, there, inside the house, (God’s) wrath came upon them. Immediately they fell and all of them except that little boy within one hour perished on top of (the booty) they had gathered.

And so that boy alone survived. Seeing that all of them had died and from that time on there were no living persons in the whole city he intended to go and leave the city. He went, but when he reached the gate of the city something in the shape of a man seized him, brought him back and set him in the doorway of the house filled with what the (seven men) had gathered. Many times it treated him in this way.

A certain rich man who had previously left his property (in that) city on hearing that it had become desolate, took fright and stayed away from (the city) saying: “Perhaps God will have mercy upon me and let me live.” While he was persevering in prayer, repentance and supplications he heard news that the entire city had perished totally. A few days later he (could) not restrain himself (any longer) from sending to find out about his household and about the whole city. He sent an agent together with other servants saying: “Come, go and find out the truth about what has happened to my household and to the whole city.”

So these people went to the city, entered it and went around in it, but they found nobody alive at all except that boy sitting and weeping, his soul (being) close to expiring from weeping. On finding him they asked him: “Why are you sitting here and have not fled?”

He told them of all that had happened and of those seven men and of everything they had gathered and of what had happened to them. He also showed them their corpses and what they had collected. When the agent saw that great amount of gold, its sight excited him too, and he said to the assistants accompanying him: “Let us take some of this gold.” They, however, being frightened said: “We shall not approach it. But you do as you wish.”

So he entered and carried out as much of that gold as he was able (to load) on his pack animals. Then he also took along that boy and tried to leave, but when he reached the gate of the city (something) resembling a man rushed after him, caught him, bound both him and the boy and brought them back. Being seized, he took thought that (all) this was happening because of that gold, while the others called out to him: “Come back and put it in its place and perhaps you will be released.” Then he and that boy came back to the house and when they entered (it) both of them perished. The rest of them fled and thus they were saved.

Again it was told that at the same time in another city on the border of Palestine, demons appeared to (its inhabitants) in the shape of angels. They deceived them saying that they should make haste to worship an idol of bronze which had been left like other bronze statues which now stand in cities. Previously it had been (one of) the idols of the pagans and also it had a name and it was even now secretly worshipped by those few who were caught up in paganism. Thus the demons made the entire city worship (the idol) saying: “If you first worship such and such an idol, death will not enter this city.”

So what is said in the psalm would also apply to these wretches: “they reeled and staggered like drunken men and were at their wits’ end”.  Thus since they “were drunk”, their devices “were at an end” and were of no effect through the vehemence of (God’s) wrath. To this they were led by their error, for (they thought) they would escape death. Knowing not the second death  after this one, all of them fell down and worshipped that idol. But because (of that) the divine power revealed itself on account of their error: when they (were standing) gathered before the statue, suddenly, in order that others might not yield to such error, a whirlwind as it were entered into this idol and lifted it about 1000 fathoms, as far up as the eye could see, and threw it down with force from all that height upon the surface of the earth. It was broken into pieces and scattered like water on the surface of the earth and was no more.

And the sword of death fell upon (these people) and towards evening no living soul could be found in the city, but it was as is written in the prophet, “Now all of them have perished since they did not remember the name of the Lord”.    So it befell them too.

Chapter two[2] On that bitter suffering and on the rest of the cities in all the regions.

We are incapable of telling not only (about) those (events) which took place in Egypt and Alexandria but (also) about those many times as numerous (which) took place (in) the rest of the cities and regions of Palestine, of the whole North and the South and the East as far as the Red Sea.

At the same time that in the region of the capital these things were as yet known (only) by rumour, since they were still remote, and also before the plague (reached) Palestine, we were there. (Then) when it was at its peak we went from Palestine to Mesopotamia and then came back again when the chastisement reached there also, as well as (going) to other regions—Cilicia, Mysia, Syria, Iconium, Bithynia, Asia, Galatia and Cappadocia, through which we travelled in terror (on our way) from Syria to the capital (during) the height of the plague. Day by day we too—like everybody—knocked at the gate of the tomb. If it was evening we thought that death would come upon us in the night, and again if morning had broken, our face was turned the whole day toward the tomb.

In these countries we saw desolate and groaning villages and corpses spread out on the earth, with no one to take up (and bury) them;

—other (villages) where some few (people) remained and went to and fro carrying and throwing (the corpses) like a man who rolls stones (off his field), going off to cast (it away) and coming back to take (another stone) and again having thrown (it) upon a heap, returns to pull forth (the next one) and thus rolls (them) the whole day;
—others, heaping them up, dug tombs for them;
—(still) others who had totally disappeared, having left their homes void of (their) inhabitants;
—staging-posts on the roads full of darkness and solitude filling with fright everyone who happened to enter and leave them;
—cattle abandoned and roaming scattered over the mountains with nobody to gather them;
—flocks of sheep, goats, oxen and pigs which had become like [p. 88] wild animals, having forgotten (life in) a cultivated land and the human voice which used to lead them;
—areas that were tilled and full of all kinds of fruits (which) had become overripe and fallen for lack of anyone to gather (them);
—fields in all the countries through which we passed from Syria to Thrace, abundant in grain which was becoming white and stood erect, but there was none to reap or gather in;
—vines for which the time to be stripped of their fruits had come and passed: the (following) winter being severe, they shed their leaves while the fruit still remained hanging on the vines, there being no one to pick or press them.

How is one to recount or to write anything about this sight full of terror, the appearance of which was bitter, and the lament over it painful, which we met day after day on our journey, unless he who saw (it) should say together with the prophet, “the earth will sit in sorrow and all its inhabitants will mourn”.  And not only this but also another passage, which reads, “The earth mourned and sat in sorrow, the world mourned and sat and made lamentation, the height of the earth mourned …”, and so on.

At the sight of these things we had occasion also to recall what had previously been said by the blessed prophet when he prophesied saying, “The earth shall be laid utterly waste and be utterly despoiled”,  and “the earth shall be utterly stirred up and shall utterly totter and shall be utterly shaken and shall quiver like a hut, and its iniquity shall prevail over it”,  and, “it shall be burned again like a terebinth or an oak, which fell out from its acorn cup;”  all these things were completely fulfilled in our days, not over a long period but in a short time.

However, in the year preceding the plague, earthquakes and heavy tremblings beyond description took place five times during our stay in this city.  These which occurred were not rapid as the twinkling of the eye and transient, but took a long time until the hope of life expired from all human beings and was cut off, as there was no delay after the passing of each of these earthquakes. And thereafter they ceased, (or), as is written in the prophecy, after “the earth had been violently shaken”.

But three years before the plague, and even in the fourth, until this year, the whole Western land was stirred up and the wars multiplied and grew violent in the city of Rome and in Ravenna which is beyond it,  as well as in Carthage which is in the land of Africa.  Again powerful, innumerable peoples to which this empire is opposed—some of them indeed with God’s help—were subdued by this empire, that is Rome and Africa and their countries and their kingdoms. Also their kings were led (in triumphal procession) and brought in to this city.  Until their end we had watched how they, as well as the rest—everyone of their chieftains together with the captives of their countries—were enslaved.

These are barbarian peoples, which, as is written, “were stirring from the farthest parts of the earth”,  waxed strong and conquered, laid waste, set fire and plundered. Also they came up to the wall of the city when we were there. They carried off booty from suburban farms and abducted some of its inhabitants, not for one year only but for three, one after another. Because of their power nobody could withstand them.

They held this empire in such light esteem that they sent by their envoys the (following) message: “Prepare your palace for us, for [p. 90] behold we are coming thither.”

Terror fell even upon the emperor and the nobles, and from now on the gates of the palace were covered with iron and made secure; (it was) as if the whole (of the rest) of the city had (already) been taken by them, and (the authorities’) only concern was to make secure the palace. Thus something unheard of happened (now), which had not happened ever since this city was built.

Being frightened they ordered that all the trees up to 100 cubits around the city should be cut down and, since it was the capital, all its contents were faithfully and securely guarded between one wall and the other on the western side, because only there was the wall of stone and elsewhere (there was) the sea.

Tall and strong trees, cedars, cypresses, nut and fig trees, as well as vineyards and gardens, had grown there for one hundred years previously. Now all of them were cut and felled, and people were not able to remove them from their places because of their (great) mass. This destruction of the trees struck everyone with terror, and all were astonished and said:

“Had they not been unaware that (something) evil was decided, things would not have come to this point.” But (the authorities) replied and pressed on in confidence, as well as (their) opponents.

Thereafter also the wind of the East, that is the kingdom of Persia, awoke, gathered its strength and made itself ready (for war) together with all the mighty peoples of the whole East.  It stirred up all the kings of the land of the East and they went straight to this land of the Romans. They conquered, marched across (it) [p. 91] and subjugated (all the territory) as far as the great city of Antioch which they besieged.

And because it was gathering its strength to resist (the Persian king),  he overcame it, ravaged, captured, burnt, plundered and destroyed it to its foundations. He even carried off marble slabs with which the (outer) walls and the houses had been overlaid. He drove all (the inhabitants) into captivity. He also (did) other things, whereupon he turned back to his country in order to …

Now, what am I to tell about things which exceed (the power) of narrative …  is the challenge  of the story, but in order that we may know the words of the prophecy, which every day sound like trumpets in our ears, yet we do not want to listen, so that one after another all of them now show us in practice the power of their explanations, (and) not at a distance. And this one (chastisement) exceeds all others and is also the most terrible of them all. It arrived and devoured and surpassed all others.

Nothing else was known about it but only this. Like that species of wretched cows which appeared to Pharaoh, and having devoured the good ones were recognized only for being bad,  so this chastisement surpassed and devoured not (only) the previous good (events) but also the bad ones. Like the previous scourges also  (this) by its power caused suffering to those who were scourged.

Chapter three. (On) when this plague of pestilence arrived at the capital, Constantinople.

Thus returning to the story and to the series of afflictions, which because of our sins came upon us, we shall now, omitting other matters, tell with sighs and in bitter lamentations about what happened to the city of the emperors, because these (events) are more than anything worthy of lament. Not only we, the miserable, should make lamentation for them, but if it be possible (also) the heavens and the earth.

(The signs of plague) were still too few for the measure of sorrow (meted) against (the people) to be judged to be fulfilled.

Who then, O brothers, would describe this hideous and cruel sight! From whose heart, on hearing of these things which happened there, would not sighs break out, and (whose) limbs would not melt as wax melts in front of fire? Leave then those who with their (own) eyes watched that spectacle of misery, destruction and groans, those about whom there is nothing else to say except the word of the prophet whose question should be asked by everyone who saw these things, “Who gave water to my head, and to my eyes—fountains of tears? I wept day and night  and did not cease, over the destruction and ruin of Babel the great, which up to now has been roaring in the kingdom, but now, behold, her kingdom is humbled and defeated and it is only an angel of wrath who has been made king and destroyer over all her inhabitants.”

 Now when the chastisement came upon that city, in truth the abundance of the benignity and grace of God appeared in it. Although this (chastisement) was very frightening, grievous and severe, it would be right for us to call it not only a sign of threat and of wrath but also a sign of grace and a call to repentance. For the scourge used patience and moderation until it should arrive at the place.  Just as when a king prepares to go to battle and gives orders to the commanders of his army saying, “Prepare yourself, make your arms ready and take care of your provisions, for, behold, you will proceed with me to war on such and such a day”, and likewise he sends a message in writing to the neighbouring cities, “Now I am coming; be prepared, for when I have come there will be no lingering”, so this scourge of the benign grace of God by its silence sent as it were numerous messengers from one country to another,  and from city to city and to every place, just as if somebody were to say, “Turn back and repent and beg for (forgiveness of) your wrongdoings, and make ready for yourself provisions of alms from your possessions, for behold I am coming, and I am going to make your possessions superfluous.”

 God’s providence informed (us) about it in such a way that (news) was sent to every place in advance, and then the scourge arrived there, coming to a city or a village and falling upon it as a reaper, eagerly and swiftly, as well as upon other (settlements) in its vicinity, up to one, two or three miles (from it). And until what has been ordered against (one city) had been accomplished, (the scourge) did not pass on to enter the next. In this way it laid hold on (cities and villages) moving slowly.

 This is what (also) happened to this city: the visitation came upon it after (the city) had been perceiving the movement  of the visitation by hearsay from all over the place for one or two years; (only) then did it reach (the city). But (God’s) grace towards it was both eager and encouraging and in some people here it was truly active.

As in the days of Noah, when that blessed man together with his family heard the message of the threat and of perdition, he grew afraid and did not disregard (it) but took care to build the ark which became (a salvation) for him, for his own life and for all he had, so also in this time in like manner as did that blessed man, many people managed in a few days to build ships for themselves consisting of almsgiving, that these might transport them across that flood of flame; others in pain of tears (achieved it) by almsgiving and also by distributing their possessions to the needy; (still) others by lament and humility, vigils, abstinence and woeful calling upon God. In this way many people who feared and trembled were able to buy for themselves the kingdom.

 Then the onslaught came upon them. Those, however, who neglected and refused to send their riches in advance, left them to others and themselves were snatched away from their possessions, whereas the possessions remained. Both (misfortunes) happened to many people in this city very often.

Chapter four. Again on the same matter, how, once the plague had arrived at the capital, Grace descended  first upon the poor to gather together and to encompass them in honour not mixed with wrath.

When thus the scourge weighed heavy upon this city, first it eagerly began (to assault) the class of the poor, who lay in the streets. It happened that 5000 and 7000, or even 12,000 and as many as 16,000 of them departed (this world) in a single day. Since thus far it was (only) the beginning, men were standing by the harbours, at the crossroads and at the gates counting (the dead). Thus having perished they were shrouded with great diligence and buried; they departed (this life) being clothed and followed (to the grave) by everybody.

Thus the (people of Constantinople) reached the point of disappearing, only few remaining, whereas (of) those only who had died on the streets—if anybody wants us to name their number, for in fact they were counted—over 300,000 were taken off the streets. Those who counted, having reached (the number of) 230,000 and seeing that (the dead) were innumerable, gave up (reckoning) and from then on (the corpses) were brought out without being counted.

When those for whom the enshrouders and grave-diggers were (too) few had been removed and (put) in a large common grave, He stretched His destructive hand over the rulers of the world and the renowned in the realm of earthly men, the mighty in riches and those resplendent in their power. From now on the common people, together with the nobles could be seen to be smitten by a single great and harsh blow, and suddenly to fall, apart from a few. Not only those who died, but also those who escaped sudden death (were struck) with this plague of swellings in their groins, with this disease which they call bouboes,  and which in our Syriac language is translated as ‘tumours’. Both servants and masters were smitten together, nobles and common people impartially. They were struck down one opposite another, groaning.

As to God’s sentence, it was explained (as being decreed) so that the people should be astonished and remain in amazement about His righteous judgements which cannot be understood, nor comprehended, by human beings, as it is written, “Thy judgements are like the great deep”.

Also we saw that this great plague showed its effect on animals as well, not only on the domesticated but also on the wild, and even on the reptiles of the earth. One could see cattle, dogs and other animals, even rats, with swollen tumours, struck down and dying. Likewise wild animals could be found smitten by the same sentence, struck down and dying.

This terrible sign came upon the people of this city suddenly after removal of the poor.

Another sign would separate those to be snatched away from those who would survive and remain (waiting) for either death or life. It appeared in this way: three signs became visible in the middle of the palm of a man’s hand in the form of black pocks which did not depart (from the skin) but (remained) deep (in it). They were like three drops of blood deep within. On whomsoever these appeared, the moment they did so the end would come within just one or two hours, or it might happen that (the person) had one day’s delay. These (signs) were (to be found) on many (people).

To others however, neither this (happened) nor that, but as they were looking at each other and talking, they (began to) totter and fell either in the streets or at home, in harbours, on ships, in churches and everywhere. It might happen that (a person) was sitting at work on his craft, holding his tools in his hands and working, and he would totter to the side and his soul would escape. It might happen that (people) came to the bath to bathe as usual and they would not be able to take off their clothes, but would fall and expire. It might happen that (a person) went out to market to buy necessities and while he was standing and talking or counting his change suddenly the end would overcome the buyer here and the seller there, the merchandise remaining in the middle together with the payment for it, without there being either buyer or seller to pick it up.

And in all ways everything was brought to nought, was destroyed and turned into sorrow alone and funeral lamentations: everyone’s hands were weakened, buying and selling ceased and the shops with all their worldly riches beyond description and moneylenders’ large shops  (closed). The entire city then came to a standstill as if it had perished, so that its food supply stopped. There was nobody to stand and do his job, with the result that food vanished from the markets and great tribulation ensued, especially for the people prostrate with exhaustion from illnesses. Only a few were strong (enough) to bring to any bazaar anything worth one obol, but if they wished they took a dinar for it. Thus everything ceased and stopped.

What was most pressing of all was simply that everybody who was still alive should remove corpses from his house, and that also other (corpses) should disappear from the streets by being removed to the seashore. There boats were filled with them and during each sailing they were thrown overboard and the ships returned to take other (corpses).

It would be seemly for the hearer of these things to shed tears for us rather than for the dead and to lament with sighs for what our eyes saw. Alas, my brothers, for this cruel sight! Alas for those corpses (worthy of) lamentations at that time!

Standing on the seashore one could see litters colliding with each other and coming back to carry and to throw upon the earth two or three (corpses), to go back again and to bring (further corpses). Others carried (the corpses) on boards and carrying poles, bringing and piling (them) up one upon another. For other (corpses), since they had rotted and putrefied, matting was sewn together. People bore them on carrying poles and coming (to the shore) threw them (down), with pus running out of them. And they would return bringing (corpses) again. Others who were standing on the seashore dragged them and threw them down upon boats, piling them up in heaps of two or three and (even) of five thousand (each). Innumerable (corpses) piled up on the entire seashore, like flotsam on great rivers, and the pus flowed, discharging itself down into the sea.

With what tears should I have wept at that time, O my beloved, when I stood observing those heaps, full of unspeakable horror and terror? What sighs would have sufficed me, what funeral laments? What heart-break, what lamentations, what hymns and dirges would suffice for the suffering of that time over the people thrown in great heaps torn open one upon another with their bellies putrefying and their intestines flowing like brooks down into the sea? How too could the heart of a person who saw these things, with which nothing could be compared, fail to rot within him, and the rest of his limbs fail to dissolve together with him (though still) alive, from pain, bitter wailing and sad funeral laments, having seen white hair of the old people who had rushed all their days after the vanity of the world and had been anxious for gathering (means) and waiting for a magnificent and honourable funeral (to be prepared) by their heirs, who (now were) struck down upon the earth, (this) white hair (now) being grievously defiled with the pus of their heirs.

(With what tears should I have wept)  for beautiful young girls and virgins who awaited a joyful bridal feast and preciously adorned (wedding) garments, (but were now) lying stripped naked, and defiled with the filth of other dead, making a miserable and bitter sight, not even inside a grave, but in the streets and harbours, their corpses having been dragged (there) like those of dogs;

—(for) lovable babies being thrown in disorder, while those who were casting them onto boats seized and hurled them from a distance with great horror;
—(for) handsome and merry young men (now) turned gloomy, (who were) cast upside down one under another (in a) terrifying (manner); —(for) noble and chaste women, dignified with honour, who sat in bedchambers, (now with) their mouths swollen, wide open and gaping, (who) were piled up in horrible heaps, all ages lying prostrate, all statures bowed down and overthrown, all ranks pressed one upon another, in a single wine-press of (God’s) wrath, like beasts, not like human beings.

And what shall we say about (all) them (if not) to call out upon (God’s) mercy with the words, “Right are Thy judgements, O Lord!  Thou didst not wish that these things should befall Thy creation but through the abundance of iniquity and through our erring from Thy commandments and Thy wish, Thou hast delivered  us (to the cataclysm)”.

And again in our same clamour we shall speak about and say together with the prophet, “O Lord, in Thy wrath remember Thy mercies”.  “Have pity for Thy name’s sake, O Lord, over Thy people and renounce not Thy inheritance.”

Thus when the bearers became few, the whole city, (once) rich in inhabitants, splendid with power, and opulent, suddenly became a gloomy and putrid tomb for its inhabitants, so that now also the graves were insufficient. And this was more painful than anything, for the (corpses) from the city collected together in tribulation were cast down on boats (and having been transported) from this side across (the bay), were thrown there like dung on the earth and nobody would gather (them).

Also “the empire was sitting in sorrow”, as it is written,  for (the authorities) learned that the hands of the people who were bringing out the corpses grew weak because they also became fewer and (began to) disappear. The city stank with corpses as there were neither litters nor diggers and the corpses were heaped up in the streets.

Thus when the merciful emperor, in whose days these things took place, learned of it, he stirred himself up with zeal and showed diligence, giving orders for 600 litters to be produced. He appointed a man, his referendarius,  whose name was Theodore,  who was also zealous in good deeds, and gave him instructions to take and spend as much gold as should be necessary for supervising these matters and for encouraging people with great gifts not to be negligent but to dig large ditches and to fill them by piling up the corpses. This man proceeded with application. He crossed (the bay) northward to the other shore called Sykai  and climbed the mountain which was above the city. He took along many people, gave them much gold and had very large pits dug, in every one of which 70, 000 (corpses) were put. He placed there (some) men who brought down and turned over (corpses), piled them up and pressed the layers one upon another as a man might heap up hay in a stack.  Also he placed by the pits men holding gold and encouraging the workmen and the common people with gifts to carry and to bring up (corpses), giving five, six and even seven and ten dinars for each load. So also he walked around in the city urging (people) to bring out (the corpses). He himself was ordered to fill every grave he could find, to whomsoever it might belong. Thus by his application the city was gradually rid of the corpses. Everyone who had many corpses (to be buried) went to inform him and he would have them removed.

When this man was walking around in the city, a deacon from our (people) appeared who also was very zealous in these matters. (The referendarius) became aware of him and took him up and now appointed him in charge of the matter of the gifts and (general) custody together with himself.

When they went about they came and found a house all closed up and stinking, while people trembled at its smell. They entered and found in it about twenty people dead and rotten, with worms creeping all over them. Although terror seized them, they brought people, who having received large payments, picked them up in cloaks and removed them bearing them on carrying poles.

Others were found all dead but with babies alive and crying; other women were dead in their beds  but the babies, their children, were alive sleeping beside them, holding and sucking their breasts although (the mothers) were dead.

In (some) palaces life expired totally, in others, one remained out of a hundred (nobles), each of whom had been attended by many servants, but (now) had remained alone, or perhaps with few (servants only). But sometimes neither he nor any of his people (remained). Also those who (once) had been served by a multitude of servants, (now) stood and served themselves and the diseased in their homes.

The (imperial) palace was overwhelmed and overcome by sorrow. The emperor and the empress to whom myriads and thousands of commanders and the whole great senate had bowed and paid honour every day, (now) were miserable, and like everybody sank into grief, being served only by few.

(We omit) the rest of these matters which cannot be reported by people at all, (which took place) when devastation and destruction befell this (city), coming upon innumerable people of all kinds, upon many times as many as anywhere else, including the great city of Alexandria. Only now the hearts of people were numb and therefore there was no more weeping or funeral laments, but people were stunned as if giddy with wine. They were smitten in their hearts and had become numb.

What however was painful was that corpses should be dragged out and thrown down, people dealing with other people—with (their) dead—as with dead beasts: they dragged and threw, dazed and upset, (fulfilling) thus what was called in the Scripture “the burial of an ass”.  It befell everybody here. From now on, as in Alexandria,  nobody would go out of doors without a tag (upon which his name was) written and which hung on his neck or his arm.

Chapter five.  Again on a lamentable matter—on wills and inheritances.

There was nobody to tell about wills and inheritances, and if it happened that somebody required it according to the secular (law), or appointed heirs, these might quickly precede (their) benefactors (in death). Whoever they may have been, no matter whether poor or rich, or (whatever) open treasure (was involved), or large shop, or whatever one might desire, (the moment that), in hope that perhaps he would escape (death) and come into possession, he put his hands upon it to take (it), immediately the angel of death would appear, as if standing behind the man, and he would faint and be struck down. Therefore the needy did not give heed to  any gifts which someone might wish to grant them, and they would not accept (them) from him. Those who did accept, perished.

There were, however, (some) needy people (who) having survived until then thought:  “Perhaps we shall escape (death), so if a man (is willing to) give, let us ask and accept the gift. Without having to enter someone’s house and take something from those who have died, let us just ask for a favour.”

And they came to one big shop belonging to a moneylender. They found an old man sitting on his door(step) in whose family everybody had perished. They approached him and said:  “Grant us a gift. Perhaps we shall live and (so) we will be able to commemorate you.”

And he said to them: “My sons, behold, the whole shop (is) before you. Enter and carry off whatever your soul desires and go, and do not fear. Take as much as your hands are able to carry, and go in peace.”

If somebody said that in that shop there were only 1000 pounds of gold and silver, it would still be (as if) nothing. So these people entered and took freely. They looked and were astonished. They cast their eyes on many things, especially on gold, and took (it) and wished to leave. When (one of them) crossed the threshold and the other came along to go out, (it was) as if a sword came between them and cut both of them, one here and the other there. They fainted and fell and their souls fled and their load was scattered. Thus great terror fell upon the rest of them; from now on gold, silver and also all material goods were despised in everybody’s eyes. A frightful and zealous power laid hold of everything and therefore from now on nobody relied on either gold or other riches, but the faces of all were turned toward and prepared for the grave.

Those who remained healthy lifted and carried the corpses, some for more pay than others, some for little (remuneration) as they scorned it; some, on the other hand, did not accept any payment at all. Whoever was strong and desired gold was able to collect up to a pound of gold a day and up to 100 dinars, because having no fear for God they took as it pleased them.

There were two strong young men who carried stoutly and demanded greedily, without fear. In the end they requested from the emperor’s referendarius (payment for) one, two and three days (more). When he realized how much they took from him alone he said to them: “Go, my sons, it is enough for you. For how much are you arguing? Go, keep what you have earned. Do not be a bad example for others.” But they said to him:  “We shall not be idle.”  He did not press them to, but said to them:  “You know.”  Then those wretches rushed off to carry (corpses) and reached those ditches into which the corpses were cast. When they arrived there both of them suddenly fainted, fell and died. Then the man seeing (it) wept over them and said:  “Woe to thee, covetousness of Adam, whose mouth is stopped this hour!”  Then he ordered one of his servants:  “Come near, and see if there is upon them anything which they have collected. Take it and give to others (who) come bringing (corpses). And as for those (two), throw them in, to go down together with the rest.”

Again three others gathered 450 dinars and finally said to each other: “It is enough for us. Let us take this and leave this city.” They went off taking (the money) along to divide (it) between themselves. Sitting on a marble slab they counted 150 dinars for each of them, but when they had divided their shares and each was about to stretch out his hand to take his portion, each twisted round to his side, fell and died. Thus their shares were found before them, divided up and placed there with their owners prostrate in front of them.

Such was the message of that angel who was ordered to fight people with this scourge until they should spurn all matters of this world—if not of their own will, then against it—so that everybody who might incite his mind to revolt, and still covet things of this world, was by him quickly deprived of life.

Thus now in this city, once mighty in (the number) of its inhabitants, desolation and emptiness increased from one day to another.

What more is there to say?—also on those pits into which people were thrown and trodden upon, while men stood below, deep as in an abyss, and others above: the latter dragged and threw down (the corpses), like stones being thrown from a sling,  and the former grabbed and threw them one on top of another, arranging the rows in alternative directions. Because of scarcity (of room) both men and women were trodden upon, young people and children were pressed together, trodden upon by feet and trampled like spoiled grapes. Then again from above (other corpses) were thrown head downwards and went down and split asunder beneath, noble men and women, old men and women, youths and virgins, young girls and babies.

How can anyone speak of or recount (such) a hideous sight, and who can watch this burial, even though his soul should remain in his body and not waste away from bitter lamentations over so much iniquity which would suffice to destroy the children of Adam? How and with what utterances, with what hymns, with what funeral laments and groanings should somebody mourn who has survived and witnessed this ’’wine-press of the fury of the wrath (of God)”?

Those who trampled stood (below) and when a man or a woman or a young man or a child was put (down) they would tread (them) with their feet to press them down and to make place for others. The (corpse) which was trampled sank and was immersed in the pus of those below it, since it was after five or as much as ten days that (the corpses) reached (this place of) pernicious prostration.

What mind could bear and endure this suffering of white hairs of old age which were not even, as is written, buried “by the burial of an ass”?  Whom would compunction of heart, terror and sadness not seize as he stood (there) and in great terror and bitter sadness disconsolately watched lovely young men like flowers being seized by their hair, dragged and cast from above into the depths of lowest Sheol: as they fell their bellies were split asunder, and the sight of their youthfulness was laid bare down there: (it was a matter) of great horror, shattering and bitter, with no (hope of) comfort. How can any eye endure seeing these heaps of little children and babies piled up in mounds like dung on the earth? Who would not weep more over us, who behold the sight to which our sins have brought us, rather than over the dead? Even if we shall later be blamed for deficiency of mind by the wise, it becomes us, confronting this sight, O brothers, to raise wailing and lamentations for ourselves and not for those (dead) and say: “Woe to you, our eyes, for what you see! Woe to you, our bitter life, for the destruction you have encountered, which has come upon the kindred of your body, while your eyes look on.” It would be much better for us who saw (it) to be mingled with those who drank the cup of wrath,  who ended their journey and did not experience that destruction; or with those whose heart is darkened together with their eyes, mind and thought.
What words or what mouth, tongue, voice and word would suffice a man to tell about (all this)? How can I, miserable, who have wanted to recount (it), not resemble someone who has fallen into the depths of the sea and, being buffeted hither and thither by  waves, can neither touch the bottom, nor is close to reaching the shore, but (instead) is battered and dashed by the heavy and powerful waves and therefore is close to perishing by drowning?

And what more is there to say or tell about the unspeakable things which befell this city more than any other, to the extent that even the wise lost their mind and “the stratagems of the crafty”,  as it is written, were dissolved and brought to nought? Therefore it was not easy to find anyone who was firm in mind, but, as it is written, “they reeled and staggered like drunken men, and were at their wits’ end”.  It happened in this way: being stupefied and confused each talked to his friend like men drunk as a result of liquor, thus through drunkenness resulting from the chastisement people were easily led to madness of mind.

(The latter) happened indeed in this city: the demons wanted to lead people astray and to laugh at their madness. A rumour from somebody spread among those who had survived, that if they threw pitchers from the windows of their upper storeys on to the streets and they burst below, death would flee from the city. When foolish women, [out of their]  minds, succumbed to this folly in one neighbourhood and threw pitchers out …  The rumour spread from this quarter to another, and over the whole city, and everybody succumbed to this foolishness, so that for three days people could not show themselves on the streets since those who had escaped death (in the plague) were assiduously (occupied), alone or in groups, in their houses with chasing away death by breaking pitchers.

Again it was effected by demons who deceive people that when those who had acted so foolishly by breaking pitchers (started) to lament that they had failed in what they imagined their deception (would achieve, but instead) were drawing closer each day to utter perdition, (the demons then) appeared to them, wishing to mock the garb of piety, that is the (monastic) habit of the “shorn”—of the monks and of the clerics. Therefore when either a monk or a cleric appeared the (people) gave a yell and fled before him, supposing that he was death (in person) who would destroy them. Thus this foolishness was manifested in (the idea) that death would come in the likeness of the “shorn” ones. It befell simple people especially and the populace of the city, so that hardly anybody wearing the monastic habit would appear on the streets, for on seeing him they fell upon each other, fled and huddled together crying: “Where are you going? We belong to God’s Mother! We belong to such and such a martyr (patron)! We belong to such and such an apostle!” This foolishness persisted with some even longer, for as long as two years: on seeing a monk or a cleric they cried, “We belong to God’s Mother!”

(All in all) not many (people) but (only) few in number could now be seen in this great city, the queen of the world, out of (once) innumerable (inhabitants), thousands and tens of thousands.

Although at the beginning we desisted from recording the memory of these events, three years later, arranging in a story the lamentations one after another, we recorded those matters for the remembrance of the sorrow and afflictions which happened before our eyes.

Also the eastern regions were overwhelmed by the same (horrors) which have not yet come to an end.

We have left these matters for the remembrance of other (people) who will come after (us), in order that when they hear about the chastising of us, fools and provokers, and about the sentence for our sins, they may “become wise”, as it is written,  and that they may cease to anger that One for whom everything is easy to do, and that they may repent and ask mercy continually, lest this chastisement also be thrown upon them.

The story of the violent plague as was written by the holy John, bishop of Asia, is finished.

    *    *    *    *

John writes: “The mercy of God showed itself everywhere towards the poor, for they died first…”  How awful!

  1. [1]Chabot’s version: “Dans le livre de Jean d’Asie on parle amplement de la grande peste qui survint en l’an 855, qui est l’an 16 de Justinianus, (peste) qui depuis l’origine du monde n’avait eu, et n’aura jamais sa pareille. L’univers absolument entier fut frappé du cruel fléau. Elle commença d’abord par les peuples intérieurs des contrées du sud-est de l’Inde, c’est-à-dire de Kous, Himyarites et autres ; ensuite par les régions de l’Occident, qu’on appelle « supérieures », les peuples des Romains, des Italiens, des Gaulois, des Espagnols. On apprit que les hommes devenaient enragés, comme des chi’ens, devenaient fous, s’attaquaient les uns les autres, s’en allaient dans les montagnes et se suicidaient. Ces choses n’étaient encore considérées que comme des échos de mauvais augure, mais le fléau progressa et gagna les contrées de Kous, sur les confins de l’Egypte, et de là il se répandit en Egypte même. — Comme la faux recourbée1 du moissonneur, il s’emparait successivement2 de la terre et progressait sans cesse. Quand la plus grande partie du peuple eut péri, au point que l’Egypte en arriva à être privée de ses habitants, ruinée et déserte, il s’abattit sur Alexandrie et consuma une foule de gens. Ceux qui échappèrent à une mort prompte furent frappés d’une terrible maladie : celle des tumeurs des aines ; les uns d’un côté, les autres des deux côtés. Les aines se gonflaient, se tuméfiaient, s’emplissaient d’eau, puis survenaient des ulcères grands et profonds, qui laissaient couler du sang, du pus  et de l’eau, nuit et jour. — Avec cette plaie fondit sur eux ce fléau par lequel ils étaient promptement enlevés.

    La miséricorde de Dieu se montra partout à l’égard des pauvres, car ils moururent les premiers : d’une part, afin de faire paraître le zèle des habitants des villes et de leur procurer des avantages spirituels, par l’ensevelissement des pauvres; d’autre part, parce que si la calamité les avait confondus avec les autres, comment aurait-on pu enlever du milieu des places publiques leurs cadavres en putréfaction et leurs ossements dénudés, puisqu’il n’y aurait eu personne pour s’occuper d’eux? Ceux-ci moururent donc les premiers, alors que tout le monde était encore en bonne santé pour les enlever, les emporter et les ensevelir. On avait ce signe  que si le mal commençait par le plus jeune d’une maison, cette maison en était réduite au désespoir d’après ce signe : car tous mouraient pareillement. Il arriva qu’on donnait jusqu’à 12 dariques, et à peine trouvait-on quelqu’un pour les emporter et les jeter dehors comme des chiens. Il arriva qu’une civière étant placée sur quatre porteurs, ceux-ci tombaient et périssaient. L’un succombait en parlant, l’autre en courant; un autre mourait en mangeant; chacun avait perdu l’espoir de la vie, et craignait de sortir, disant : « Je périrai au milieu de la maison ». Quand ils étaient contraints de sortir, celui qui sortait, soit pour accompagner soit pour ensevelir (les morts), écrivait une tablette ainsi libellée qu’il suspendait à son bras : « Je suis un tel, fils d’un tel, de tel quartier ; si je meurs, pour Dieu, et pour manifester sa miséricorde et sa bonté, qu’on aille le faire savoir dans ma maison, et que les miens viennent m’ensevelir ». — Cette grande ville arriva à l’épuisement et fut ruinée; les hommes craignaient d’aller dans les rues, à cause de la puanteur des cadavres et des corps qui étaient dévorés par les chiens.”

  2. [2]Ps.Dionysius has left the chapter divisions of John of Ephesus in the middle of his quotation.

5 thoughts on “John of Ephesus describes the Justinianic plague

  1. I am not sure how it works in Monophysites, but for Orthodox Fathers of the Church death is a good thing because you go to a better place.

  2. There is an English translation of Michael the Syrian made directly from the Syriac: The Syriac Chronicle of Michael Rabo (The Great): A Universal History from the Creation, translated by Matti Moosa (Teaneck, New Jersey: Beth Antioch Press, 2014). ISBN: 978-1-939682-09-3. It is available from http://syrianorthodoxchurch.org/2016/01/the-chronicles-of-michael-rabo/ for $75 (which is cheap for 827 folio pages).

    The Justinianic plague is described in Book 9, chapter 28 on pages 349-352.

  3. I know about that book. Dr Moosa even gave me a copy. But … infuriatingly … I have managed to lose it. Shipping to the UK is a further $50, so it is pricey but very necessary. Thank you for identifying the relevant pages tho!

  4. re “Pseudo-Dionysius of Tell-Mahre”

    This overall work is more accurately named The Zuqnin Chronicle, whose author called himself Joshua. Besides John of Ephesus, the chronicler is also a primary source for his own era: the late Umayyads and the early ‘Abbasids.

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