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2. Bacteria in history > The plague

The plague

Justinian I, 6th-century ruler of the Byzantine Empire, devoted himself to spreading Byzantine architecture from his throne in Constantinople, along the Mediterranean rim, up the Nile, and deep into Europe. To prepare for his fleet’s voyages, Justinian ordered continuous stocking of the massive granaries on the city’s outskirts. The grain sustained the ships, but also fed an exploding rat population.

By 540 CE Justinian had succeeded in expanding Constantinople’s influence. But at each new port, residents fell nauseous and developed chills, fever, and headache, some within only two days of a ship’s arrival. Their abdomen would swell with pain and bloody diarrhea followed. Their lymph nodes (or buboes) clogged with necrotic tissue and by six days of the first discomfort, many had died, the skin covered with dark purple lesions. The same occurred in Constantinople where deaths grew to 10,000 daily. Many who felt the first symptoms of illness panicked and fled to the countryside. Within days the fatalities rose in those rural places, too.


  

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