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

Some things I learned from reading William Rosen’s book Justinian’s Flea:

  • Justinian I was as unlikely to become emperor as Theodora was to become empress.
  • Theodora really did work in a brothel, most likely, but she had retired prior to meeting Justinian in her early twenties. That bit about covering herself in seed and letting a small flock of geese peck it all off was probably just a rumor, though.
  • Justinian I and Theodora really were in profound love with each other though he was old enough to be her father.  The two were the ultimate power couple, acting as co-rulers much of the time.
  • Justinian outlived Theodora by many years, Neither died of the plague.
  • The plague outbreak can be blamed for the ultimate decline of the Roman Empire.
  • The flea has evolved into hundreds, maybe thousands of different species, many of the specialized and specific to a single animal.  Dog fleas are not rat fleas.
  • Rabbit fleas do not lay eggs unless their host is pregnant.  They leap to the newborn rabbits once everyone is born.
  • Though they may prefer one species, fleas will leap to another if no other host is available.
  • What the Bible calls “leprosy” is almost certainly not Hansen’s disease.  It’s probably psoriasis or eczema.
  • While what the Bubonic Plague does to humans is terrible, what it does to the fleas that carry the Yersina Pestis virus is even more horrifying.

The actual plague makes up only a small portion of Justinian’s Flea, which was a bit disappointing for me since that was my main interest in picking up the book.  Mr. Rosen spends most of his book on the life and work of Justinian.  It’s an interesting life, to say the least and his work is darn impressive too.  While there were a few chapters that I skimmed, I’m not all the interested in the details of Justinian’s Code for example, I enjoyed most of the book quite a bit.

And learned a lot from reading it, too.