Saturday, February 16, 2013

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

Rating: 4/5
Publisher: Viking
367 pages
Source: Library book

Description: In the middle of the sixth century, the world's smallest organism collided with the world's mightiest power. Twenty-five million corpses later, the Roman Empire, under her last great emperor Justinian, was decimated. Before Yersina pestis, the bacterium that carries bubonic plague, was through, both Rome and Persia were easy targets for the armies of Muhammad on their conquering march out of Arabia. In it's wake, the plague~history's first pandemic~marked the end of a multinational Mediterranean imperium and the birth of the European  nation-states... the transition from late antiquity to the medieval world. (Copied from the book jacket.)

Review: I found this book to be fascinating, but a little disappointing.

The author goes into a great deal of background on the Roman empire leading up to Justinian's reign, Justinian's reign, and the background of various areas and people as they come up in the narrative. We even get a section which explains in a great deal of detail how Y. pestis came to be, how exactly it spreads, and what it does to a humans. (You probably don't want to read that last bit while you're eating.)

I just had three problems with the book. First, the book lacks a proper bibliography, so one has to search through the foot notes for book information. A minor issue, but annoying.

Second, the side trips the author makes to fill us in on the background of various situations tend to disrupt the flow of the text. I'm not sure there was a better way for him to insert this information, but it slowed down my reading and once or twice I had to backtrack a bit to remember why he'd made that particular aside.

Lastly, the coverage of the plague's effect on sixth century Rome and the surrounding areas, and the reasons this helped form Europe as we know it today, felt a bit glossed over. The information is there, but I was left with the impression that the author was far more interested in writing a history of Justinian and added the bits about Europe to help sell the book.

Maybe I was expecting too much from a three hundred and twenty five page book, but the last third of the title felt like more of an afterthought.

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