Episode 27 – The Walking Dead

Hand necrosis caused by plague (from Wikipedia)

Hand necrosis caused by plague (from Wikipedia)

The Plague arrives at Pelusium and spreads to Alexandria where it rages for four months. By Spring 542 the Egyptians have to begin sending out the grain fleets. They export the Plague with them and Constantinople endures a nightmare summer of death and dislocation. Out in the provinces there is psychological and spiritual torment too. We then explore where the Plague came from, what it did to the body and how it spread around the Empire.

Period: 541-543

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Categories: Podcast | 40 Comments

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40 thoughts on “Episode 27 – The Walking Dead

  1. Take my money already!

  2. Dan

    Two things:

    (a) The detailed description of the plague went on FOREVER; and
    (b) It was brilliant! So much context for the story, and just,… fantastic. Probably my favourite episode of THoR & THoB to date.

    You’ve really hit your straps, Robin.

  3. Gesh

    Fantastic episode.
    One thing though… Wikipedia quotes this article in Nature genetics that found evidence that both the Justinian and Black Death pandemics were caused by a strain of Yersinia pestis that originated in China not in the mouth of the Nile.

  4. Josh

    Robin, Great job covering the history and the science behind the plague of Justinian. Based on my own readings, it appears that the plague led to a decrease in population that made the empire vulnerable to Avars, Persions and ultimately the Arabs. Beyond that it seems the pandemic represents a change from the classical world to the medieval world for the Byzantine Empire. With less people, the cities shrank and commerce decreased. Therefore less tax revenue to pay for the state and army. Is it any wonder then that in the seventh century the Byzantine Empire would find itself unable to fend off the Arab Conquests of its eastern lands? I know I’m getting ahead of the story and there were many other factors that contributed to the losses in the seventh century but I thought I’d add my two cents on the fallout from the pandemic.

  5. @Mike\Dan – thank you so much 🙂
    @Josh – absolutely, all things we will definitely get to
    @Gesh – As I mentioned on the podcast there remains debate about almost every aspect of the plague. I too saw the evidence suggesting a Chinese origin. India is another potential source. Our problem with connecting the dots is that we don’t have a record of a Plague outbreak along the Silk Road which would normally have connected a Chinese infection to the West. So the question would then become did this strain of Yersinia make its way from China to India and then through toward Red Sea trade which could have reached Pelusium. Or indeed some other route we don’t know about. The reason I presented the Nile theory is just that William Rosen’s conjecture was the easiest to tell as a story. But it is only conjecture…

  6. Sam

    A chilling narrative brilliantly told. I’m sure everyone will agree and get behind THoB in the way that’s needed. Excellent work Robin.

  7. Thomas

    Wow. I must say, I was very impressed by this episode. The stylistic decision to narrate things from the bacterium’s point of view – over millenia, waiting to strike at the heart of the Roman Empire – well, it was risky, but you really pulled it off. Gripping and dramatic narration of something that would generally be sidelined as “Oh, yeah, there was a plague and a lot of people died.”

  8. Thomas

    I’ll also chip in and say that I’m happy to pay whatever for the next episode. And you should definitely consider getting a PayPal donation button, if at all possible, so the sudden bursts of generosity people may experience can be exploited…

  9. Absolutely fascinating episode! I was a history major in college and did a 20 page paper on the 13th century plague. I didn’t talk much about the biological aspects of it, so I really enjoyed this in-depth explanation. Thank you!

  10. I’m delighted to pay–just wonder what the logistics are. BTW I’m writing from Florence, just back from Ravenna (again!) and San Vitale–visiting himself and herself in the most beautiful architectural jewelbox I know of.

  11. Really good episode. Great description of plague, etc.. Btw, found some links to two radio programmes about the Sassanid Empire for anyone who might be interested:



  12. Sorry, bit of a mix-up; I thought it hadn’t posted!

  13. HI Robin – all you r episodes are great, but this one particularly superb I think; it’s so difficult to tell such a well trodden story like the bubonic in a new way, and you really nailed it here. I’ve been loving the Belisarius stuff to boot – one of my favourite historical characters.

  14. Thank you all so much for the positive feedback.

  15. Iain

    Awesome episode, I really loved the in depth explanation of the plague, that’s certainly something Mike would never have done, and shows you’re really getting a voice of your own.

  16. Rich

    What a GREAT description with the start of the plague. One of the best podcasts I’ve heard. Thanks!

  17. dmac

    Thank you Simon.
    I really enjoy the podcast and look to each episode. The comments above reflect the regard people have for your work. I hope you continue and complete this huge task.

  18. I’m halfway through it but it’s already a great episode!
    Fantastic job!

  19. I’m a bit behind with the episodes, having just listened to this one, but this was absolutely brilliant! Best one so far. Keep it up!

  20. Reblogged this on M. Cargal's and commented:
    I rarely see disease presented in such fashion. What Robin Pierson presents in, “The Walking Dead,” is nothing short of making The Plague a central element of the narrative, if not its protagonist. It is informative, it is narrative, it is dramatic. If I were a teacher, I would point my students to the History of Byzantium, The History of Rome, and this episode in particular.

  21. Pingback: M. Cargal's | Episode 27 – The Walking Dead

  22. Jonathan Oren

    Just had to say that this episode was amazing. You did a really good job.
    Supporting you to 1453 and beyond!

  23. Dan

    For anyone interested in the plague, there was a good episode of “Rear Vision” on the ABC that dealt with this topic, including a bit on the Justinian plague. It can be found, with transcript here: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/rearvision/plagues-pandemics-and-ebola/5669870

  24. Fezziwig

    Thank you so much for this exquisite podcast! Your work is very much appreciated

  25. Dario Achury

    I enjoyed the episode immensely and yet a part of me cringed as I kept listening to first-person references to the bacterium, statements such as:

    “Yersinia dreamt of a better way”
    “Process was utterly ingenious”
    “ultra cunning transporatation system”
    “yersinia got greedy”
    “yersinia was staring at a gold mine and was no satisfied”
    “yersinia wanted a way to force the flees”
    “yersinia developed the necessary toxins”
    “The bacteria learned to keep its poisons”
    “In its search for the most efficient reproductive method”
    “It only cared about the rat”
    “This is were yersinia wants to be taken”
    “Two of its most deadly weapons”
    “yersinia had replicated enough to attack”
    “Feasting on untested victims”
    “yersinia had developed”
    “yersinia learned its trade”

    I understand it’s a literary device often used to describe the biological and evolutionary mechanisms at work, but I am not so sure that all your listeners would necessarily grasp this. Especially after the references are peppered throughout the episode.

    There is one uncontestable scientific fact: Bacteria and viruses don’t think, they don’t plan, they don’t have personalities, and they don’t exactly learn.

    The episode references a lot of very good science and a lot of interdisciplinary research that has cast a light on a very dark period and Robin’s narrative was very compelling. But let’s be clear about the evolutionary mechanism: Random mutation.

    There is no greed, no dreams, no desires, no wanting to be taken, no learning, no cunning, none of the above!

    The only mechanisms at work are random mutations, chance, and natural selection. Anthropomorphizing a micro-organism makes for a good story, but not good science.

    I can’t fault Robin too harshly for this. I hear the same type of literary device used to explain HIV or Cancer. But just as in the case of Yersinia, there no such first-person perspective at play. The pathogens are not self-aware –at least not in such human terms.

  26. Catching up, just listened to this. Riveting, really excellent, Robin. Bravo. I enjoyed hearing about the “strategy” of the bacterium. This is a very Dawkins-esque view of the genetic arms race, where the hosts are just convenient vehicles and can be discarded when no longer useful. As a scientist, I feel that you had all the bases covered: story-telling, human context, and science. Again, bravo.

  27. And just one more followup on the idea of anthropomorphizing… scientists do it all the time, and it’s very useful. I can’t count the number of quantum mechanics discussions I’ve been in someone said “How does the photon know which slit to go through” or “when does the cat decide if it’s really dead?”

  28. Konstantinos

    great episode Robin. catching you up quickly.

  29. Scott

    Latecomer here–finished the History of Rome and–having been fascinated by Byzantine history ever since reading Norwich’s three-volume set years ago–was delighted to move straight into this series. This episode was masterfully done, and actually a more engaging telling of the story than Justinian’s Flea, which I found interesting but a little flat for some reason (though admittedly comparing a podcast to a book-length treatment is an unfair apples-to-oranges comparison).

    Anyway: subscription bought immediately. Thanks so much for taking this project on.

  30. Pingback: Lessons of History, in 10 Podcast Episodes – Bello Collective

  31. On my way from the Mike Duncan podcast to here. Absolutely your best ep so far. I literally caught myself smiling when the long bacteria story caught up with the earlier eclipsed sun story.

    Greetings from Amikos (modern day Beykoz in… İstanbul!)

  32. Pingback: God’s education – the plague – r j robinson

  33. Copper

    Listening to this during covid times definitely puts a whole new edge on the details of a pandemic! The more things change, the more they stay the same, and all that.

    I just wanted to say that I’m enjoying this podcast immensely (as I did THoR) and am looking forward to how many episodes I still have to listen to! They keep me going doing boring tasks at work, and much to the surprise of my colleagues I’m always enthusiastic about doing things like cleaning equipment because it means I get to listen to more THoB episodes!. Thanks so much for all your hard work!

  34. Prior

    Hi, I know its been all of 8 years, but this episode has of course gained new relevance over the past 18 months. I was hoping you may be able to help out with something that has been niggling at me: about halfway through you quote “another historian” as saying “The world seemed returned to its primordial silence, for no voices rose in the fields, no whistling was heard of shepherds”. For the life of me I can’t find who said this, is it a primary source? It doesn’t sound like Rosen, but maybe it is? If you can remember where you quoted this from, and I totally get it if you can’t, would you be able to post a response with a reference?

  35. Prior

    For those who are interested, I did find the quote in Holland’s “Shadow of the Sword”, it is originally from “Paul the Deacon”, referring to the 565 Italian outbreak… It is in “History of the Lombards”. The archive.org version linked from the wikipedia entry on Paul translates it a bit differently: “You might see the world brought back to its ancient silence: no voice in the field; no whistling of shepherds….”. Thanks again to Our Gracious Host for getting me on the right track!

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