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Investigating a Murder: The Case of the Justinianic Plague in Scythia Minor
By Dragoș Mitrofan
Journal of Ancient History and Archeology, No. 2:1 (2015)
Abstract: The study beforehand applies a logical scheme of analysis over a possible presence of the Justinianic plague in the province of Scythia Minor. Following a logic borrowed from the criminalistics, we tried to apply this scheme in order to see if the theory of presence of the epidemic is viable in the given region. Although we have not come with decisive pieces of evidence, a great deal of research is still necessary in order to confirm or infirm this theory. We therefore aim to open a discussion, considering the problem plausible, for the disease had the means and opportunity to affect the province. As previously stated this study is merely a plan of study that shall be developed in a forthcoming work.
Introduction: Let us presume we are to investigate the simple scheme of a crime. Such a scenario must have a set of elements. Firstly, there is the crime per se, in our case, a murder. Secondly, there must be a victim. Thirdly, there ought to be a perpetrator. Generally, a suspect may be considered guilty once he or she meets the three aspects of a crime: means, motive and opportunity. Needless to say, a rather large amount of evidence must back up such a theory if we are to convict somebody.
For the sake of the argument, let us try to apply this scheme to a disease. Obviously, we have to cross out the motive, assuming that any pathogen seeks only to replicate or multiply as much as possible. Taking into account that we are considering a human disease, we also have a victim. The crime to which we refer is therefore attempted murder or murder. Apart from singular cases, the murderer will leave behind a set of evidence, which will be used to identify and prevent him from leaving behind more victims. Therefore, either we incapacitate the pathogen somehow (with modern medicine) or we try to limit its means or opportunity. For example, wearing a simple mask will significantly reduce the rate of infectivity of any given individual, negating the aerial mean of spreading. On the same note, raising one’s immunity will make him less prone to an infection. On this line, it is the case of modernday diseases that are endemic in certain parts of the world (e.g. Ebola in the West Africa or the MERS virus in the Middle East) and which alarm the world population.
However, as historians and archaeologists, we do not study contemporary epidemics or pandemics. Therefore, some evidence may have disappeared in time. This may lead to difficulties in identifying a specific pathogen or the presence of a disease in a given area. A good example is considered the Spanish flu pandemic. Because the majority of the countries have chosen not to report these deadly cases of influenza (in order to not lower the morale of the combatants), the total death toll is still unknown, estimations ranging from 50 to 100 million.
In this article, I will try to enunciate a scheme of study, applying it on the province of Scythia Minor during Justinian’s plague. In tone with my previous murder example, one should try to understand the active period of the killer, in my case, the chronology of the plague. Most historians agree on a general span from the middle of the 6th century, starting from Pelusium in 541 AD to the middle of the 8th century. In Scythia Minor, the situation is a bit more complicated as most cities are deserted during the first half of the 7th century, most likely due to the multiple barbarian attacks.