The Tribes’ Sheepish Request

In Numbers 32, two of the Israelite tribes expressed their desire to stay on the eastern side of the Jordan River. The Reubenites and Gadites, who had very large herds and flocks, saw that the lands of Jazer and Gilead were suitable for livestock. So they came to Moses and Eleazar the priest and to the leaders of the community, and said, “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo and Beon, the land the Lord subdued before the people of Israel, are suitable for livestock, and your servants have livestock. If we have found favor in your eyes,” they said, “let this land be given to your servants as our possession. Do not make us cross the Jordan.”

Later in the same chapter, Moses grants the tribes of Gad, Reuben and half of Manasseh territories east of the Jordan. The territories granted are described differently here and in Deuteronomy 3. But in sum, Reuben and Gad received the territory from the River Arnon gorge, opposite the middle of the Dead Sea, which was earlier described as the northern border of Moab, north to the region of Gilead, opposite of the Jordan River. Reuben’s territory lay to the south of Gad’s territory. Manasseh received territory from Gilead north to Bashan, an area stretching opposite the Sea of Galilee running north to include the Golan Heights region.

A look at the climate and geography of the region can explain the tribes’ choice. Israel and Jordan are located in the subtropical region, between the tropical zone to its south and the temperate zone to its north, where cold winters and hot summers predominate. Starting at the Mediterranean coast of Israel, and moving west to east, the coastal zone of Israel experiences wet winters and dry summers. The rainfall amounts are higher in the north, while the south is drier. East of the hill country, the lands falls into the arid Jordan Rift Valley, also known as the Syro-African Depression. There, the Dead Sea shore is the lowest point above water on the surface of the earth.

Continuing east, the land rises sharply to a plateau that is cut by river gorges, such as the Arnon River and the Jabbok River. This plateau has a Mediterranean climate, and just as in Israel, the north receives more precipitation than the south, which explains why the southern range of this promised territory ends at the Arnon River gorge. The land then turns drier as it moves east into the Syrian desert and northern Arabian desert.

The photo above, taken in the Jordanian plateau, shows why the tribes of Reuben and Gad would have felt that the land they were presently in was “suitable for livestock.”

To get a feel for this land and lifestyle, feel free to enjoy nine hours of relaxing sheep watching:

Early Moabite Royalty

In Numbers 26, Israel found itself on the plains of Moab, east of the Dead Sea: After the plague the Lord said to Moses and Eleazar son of Aaron, the priest, “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by families, all those twenty years old or more who are able to serve in the army of Israel.” So on the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho, Moses and Eleazar the priest spoke with them and said, “Take a census of the men twenty years old or more, as the Lord commanded Moses.”

Running from south to north, the path the Israelites took, the Jordanian plateau is cut by a series of rivers that all flow west into the Jordan Rift Valley between Israel and Jordan. The Bible’s Zered River is today’s Wadi al-Hasa, opposite the southern end of the Dead Sea. The Arnon River, Wadi al Mujib, flows into the center of the Dead Sea. To the north, the Jabbok River flows into the Jordan River, which then drains into the Dead Sea.

For archaeologists, Moab lies in the region directly to the east of the Dead Sea. The land rises from the valley to a plateau. Moab is bisected by the Arnon River, as evidenced by inscriptions in the region.

In Numbers 21, Moab’s northern border ends at the Arnon River, opposite the center of the Dead Sea. “The Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites. That is why the Book of the Wars of the Lord says ”…Zahab in Suphah and the ravines, the Arnon and the slopes of the ravines that lead to the settlement of Ar and lie along the border of Moab.”

An early sign of royal control of Moab is in evidence on the Balua’ Stele. It is so named due to its discovery at Balua’, a southern access point to the Arnon River.

Dating of the Balua’ Stele is inexact, with a timeframe ranging from 1400 BCE to 800 BCE, but more likely from the Late Bronze to Early Iron Age, between the late 14th century and mid-12th century.

The stele shows an image of three characters. The image is of an Egyptian style god and goddess separated by what appears to be a king. This unknown king is shown wearing a Shasu headdress, a head covering associated with the Shasu, a nomadic group with possible connections to the Israelite God. The god is handing the king his scepter, indicating that the king ruled by divine right. The language on the stele is indecipherable, limiting what can be known from it.

The photo above is of the Dead Sea, as seen from the Jordanian side. An image of the Balua’ Stele can be seen via the link below:

Tech Savvy Philistines

In Numbers 19, God gives the Moses and Aaron instructions for how to purify someone who has come in contact with a dead body.

“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: This is a requirement of the law that the Lord has commanded: Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without defect or blemish and that has never been under a yoke… the heifer is to be burned: its hide, flesh, blood and intestines. The priest is to take some cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool and throw them onto the burning heifer…A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and put them in a ceremonially clean place outside the camp…For the unclean person, put some ashes from the burned purification offering into a jar and pour fresh water over them.” The water containing the ashes would then be sprinkled on the ritually impure individual.

The Bible recognizes that the Philistines were more technically advanced than the Israelites. In 1 Samuel 13, the Philistines controlled metal production: Not a blacksmith could be found in the whole land of Israel, because the Philistines had said, “Otherwise the Hebrews will make swords or spears!” So all Israel went down to the Philistines to have their plow points, mattocks, axes and sickles sharpened. The price was two-thirds of a shekel for sharpening plow points and mattocks, and a third of a shekel for sharpening forks and axes and for repointing goads.

Archaeology bears out the Philistines’ technical superiority. Pottery is an important artifact in archaeology. It can be used for relative dating across different locations. It can point to origins of a group of settlers. And it can be used to indicate how technically advanced a society was.

The Israelites who inhabited the central hill country of Canaan in Iron Age I, between roughly 1200 BCE and 1000 BCE, were poorer than the Philistines who lived in the southern coastal plain of Canaan. Israelite jars, such as the one referenced in the purification ceremony  of the ashes of the red heifer, were typically Canaanite in form, but of lower quality.

Philistine jars by contrast were more ornate and came in a wider variety of shapes and forms. It points to their being richer and more technically advanced than the early Israelites. The Philistine pottery in Iron Age I marked a peak in Philistine artistic and technical ability in pottery design.

The Philistines appear to have arrived in the coastal plain in the first half of the 12thcentury BCE. Their early sites are in part identifiable by their use of Philistine 1 pottery, also known as Philistine Monochrome.

By roughly 1150 BCE, the Philistines began to use even more ornate pottery, known as Philistine 2 or Philistine Bichrome. This pottery predominated in Philistine cities until roughly 1000 BCE.

The Philistines’ greater technical and artistic skills relative to the Israelites are on display in the Philistine Bichrome ware. Philistine Bichrome typically featured a decoration in red and black on a white slip or darker background. The designs were a blend of lines, geometric shapes, vegetation, animals, fish, and sailing vessels. The designs reflected a mix of Aegean, Egyptian and Cypriot influence.

A common Aegean theme that appeared on the pottery was birds. These bird figures also appeared at Ramesses III’s mortuary temple at Medinet Habu in Thebes. In the scene of the battle between Ramesses III and the invading people of the sea in 1175 BCE, the invaders’ ships feature figures of birds.

Philistine Bichrome was used in a variety of forms that resembled those of Philistine Monochrome, including in bowls, jars and jugs, but it also appears in newer forms of jars and bottles.

The technical skill is on display in the jar shown in the image above. It features a mix of colors, is narrow, with a tilted spout, all of which would require greater technical skill to produced than a simple cooking pot. The photo was taken at the Corinne Mamane Museum of Philistine Culture in Ashdod.

New People, New Home, New Pots

In Numbers 16, Korah, Dathan and Abiram contested Moses’ role as leader, and Moses responded to the challenge with a test of pots.

Korah son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and certain Reubenites, Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth, became insolent and rose up against Moses. With them were 250 Israelite men, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council. They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” When Moses heard this, he fell facedown. Then he said to Korah and all his followers: “In the morning the Lord will show who belongs to him and who is holy, and he will have that person come near him. The man he chooses he will cause to come near him. You, Korah, and all your followers are to do this: Take censers and tomorrow put burning coals and incense in them before the Lord. The man the Lord chooses will be the one who is holy. You Levites have gone too far!”

A censer is a container in which incense in burned in religious ceremonies. In archaeology, censers and other pottery are an important part of determining ethnicity.

At the end of the Late Bronze Age and into early Iron Age I, two new population groups appeared in the southern Levant, the region of Canaan. The Peleset, the Sea Peoples who gave us the name Philistines, settled in the southwestern corner, in Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod and in cities running north and east of there. The Israelites settled in the Central Hill Country, along the spine of the mountainous chain running from north to south, in the area of Judea and Samaria, today’s West Bank. In the Bible, the border zone between the two became the site of conflicts.

In the archaeological layer linked to the first half of the 12th century at Philistine sites along the southwestern coastal plain, archaeologists unearthed locally produced “monochrome pottery” or Mycenaean IIIC:1b pottery. The pottery is a major cultural marker for the first wave of Philistine settlement.

The monochrome pottery is typically white, light brown or pink in color, with either a brown, red or black design on it – a design in one color as indicated in the name monochrome. Most of the monochrome pottery that has been found from the early 12th century is in various forms of bowls and jugs. These bowls differ in design and make from the Canaanite pottery found outside of the Philistine areas.

The exact origin of the Philistines is disputed. They appear to have migrated during the Late Bronze Age Collapse in either the late 13th century or early part of the 12th century. Monochrome pottery bears similarities to pottery found in the eastern Mediterranean, including pottery found in Cyprus, Crete and western Anatolia. Its similarities to other Aegean pottery is the source for its identification as Mycenaean IIIC:1b. As the Philistines would likely be producing pottery similar in design to where they originated, this does not help pin down their exact origins, but does indicate that the Philistines were not indigenous to Canaan. So with their move of these new residents, to a new home, they brought their new pottery design with them.  

The image above is of Philistine monochrome pottery, light brown with a design in a monochrome, a single color.

Eilat, Alot of Miles from Canaan

In Numbers 13, God tells Moses to send spies to scout Canaan before Israel would enter the land. The land the spies traversed does not entirely match the map of modern day Israel and the Palestinian territories.

In Numbers 12, Israel left Hazeroth and encamped in the Desert of Paran. The exact location of the Desert of Paran is not known today. Some place it in the modern northeastern Sinai Desert, others place it further east in the Transjordan, southeast of the Dead Sea.

In the Book of Joshua, God performs a miracle and holds the waters of the Jordan River so that Israel can cross into Canaan. South of the Dead Sea, no such miracle is required. The Sea of Galilee spills out into the Jordan River. The Jordan River is further fed by the Yarmouk River and the Zarqa River, which is identified with the Jabbok River in the Bible. These waters run south and empty into the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. While water may drain into the Jordan Rift Valley, no water from the Dead Sea flows south and uphill to the Red Sea. Thus there is no miracle needed to cross the Rift Valley.

Later in the biblical account, Israel traveled from the Sinai and crossed into Edomite territory, then headed north to the territories of Moab and Ammon, eventually crossing back west with Joshua across the Jordan River.

In Numbers 13, the Israelite spies took the following route: “So they went up and explored the land from the Desert of Zin as far as Rehob, toward Lebo Hamath. They went up through the Negev and came to Hebron, where Ahiman, Sheshai and Talmai, the descendants of Anak, lived. Hebron had been built seven years before Zoan in Egypt. When they reached the Valley of Eshkol, they cut off a branch bearing a single cluster of grapes. Two of them carried it on a pole between them, along with some pomegranates and figs. That place was called the Valley of Eshkol because of the cluster of grapes the Israelites cut off there. At the end of forty days they returned from exploring the land.”

In Numbers 14, when the spies declared the land to be too difficult to conquer, the Israelites angered God by complaining. So God punished them: “as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the Lord fills the whole earth, not one of those who saw my glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times, not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their ancestors. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it.” Moses was later punished similarly for striking the rock, and was also denied the right to enter Canaan. But both Moses and the nation of Israel crossed from the Sinai through the territory between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea, an area that is part of modern day State of Israel, in order to reach Transjordan, while still under God’s punishment that they would never enter Canaan. Thus the biblical land of Canaan did not extend as far south as the areas Israel crossed and certainly the biblical land did not include a city on the Red Sea. 

To get a clear sense of the geography, the following map of the tribes of Israel from the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs should make it clear that the land south of the Dead Sea, especially the modern city of Eilat, was outside of Israel’s ancient borders:

Ark Support

Numbers 8-10 centers around the Israelites’ desert Tabernacle. It addresses setting up the lamp in the Tabernacle, the Levites who would serve in the Tabernacle, the cloud that shielded the Tabernacle and the silver trumpets that would be sounded before travel with the Tabernacle. In Numbers 10, the Israelites departed from the Sinai, and they led with the ark of the covenant from the Tabernacle for their protection.

In 1 Samuel, the Israelite tribes sought to use the ark of the covenant for their own protection in battle, but the plan backfired. The Philistines captured the ark and took it back to Philistine territory. The inhabitants of the Philistine cities were struck with hemorrhoids, and to remove the source of the problem, they sent the ark to Beit Shemesh.

In 1 Samuel 6, “the Levites, meanwhile, had taken down the ark of God and the box beside it, with the golden articles, and had placed them on the great stone…The golden mice, however, corresponded to the number of all the cities of the Philistines belonging to the five leaders, including fortified cities and open villages. The large stone on which the ark of the Lord was placed is still in the field of Joshua the Beth-shemite at the present time.”

The Philistines pentapolis of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath were all situated on the coastal plain. The Israelite strongholds were in the central hill country of Judea and Samaria. Beit Shemesh was situated in the Shephelah, the Judean Foothills, along the border between to the two rival groups. This would have made it a natural location for delivering a captured ark. 

Digging in the 12th century layers at the Tel Beit Shemesh archaeological site did not reveal Philistine pottery, marking the site as either Canaanite or Israelite, but not Philistine. Archaeologists did unearth a 12th century BCE temple structure. The building was identifiable as a temple based on its dimensions, orientation and prevalence of animal bones.

Within the structure, there was a large rock slab resting on two smaller rocks. The placement of a large stone on top of two stones is rare for the region. But it hints at the description of 1 Samuel 6, of the ark being placed on the great stone. This stone alone does not confirm the biblical account, but does place it within the realm of possibility.

The stone placement at Beit Shemesh is significant for its relation to the biblical story of supporting the ark, but it is less impressive than a similarly designed stone structure in England, pictured above.

Pillar of Strength

In Numbers 6, God tells Moses of the Nazirite: The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite, they must abstain from wine and other fermented drink and must not drink vinegar made from wine or other fermented drink. They must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins. As long as they remain under their Nazirite vow, they must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, not even the seeds or skins. During the entire period of their Nazirite vow, no razor may be used on their head. They must be holy until the period of their dedication to the Lord is over; they must let their hair grow long.”

In Judges 13, an angel directed a woman to designate her unborn son a Nazirite: A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was childless, unable to give birth. The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, “You are barren and childless, but you are going to become pregnant and give birth to a son. Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean. You will become pregnant and have a son whose head is never to be touched by a razor because the boy is to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb.”

That son would be Samson. And his uncut hair would become his pillar of strength.

At the time, the Philistines were said to be under Philistine control. Samson tormented the Philistines, and in one instance the Bible says he killed a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey. “With a donkey’s jawbone I have made donkeys of them, with a donkey’s jawbone I have killed a thousand men.”

Samson fell in love with Delilah, but the Philistines conspired with her to get him to betray the secret of his strength, his uncut hair. Delilah cut the braids of his hair as he slept. Sapped of his strength, the Philistines subdued him and gouged out his eyes. In the climactic scene, the Philistines brought him to their temple. Samson prayed to God for one last gasp of strength, and he collapsed the two central pillars of the Philistine temple, killing the rulers and people in the temple.

The five major Philistine cities were Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath. Archaeologists have determined that today’s Tell es-Safi is the most likely site of the ancient city of Gath. At Gath, archaeologists found a Philistine temple, identifiable as such by ritual items, dating to the 10th century BCE. This temple was supported by two central pillars, similar to the design described in Judges 16.

An image of the base of the two pillars can be seen in the following link:

Counting Crowds

In Numbers 1, God instructs Moses to take a census of the tribes of Israel: The Lord spoke to Moses in the tent of meeting in the Desert of Sinai on the first day of the second month of the second year after the Israelites came out of Egypt. He said: “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and families, listing every man by name, one by one. You and Aaron are to count according to their divisions all the men in Israel who are twenty years old or more and able to serve in the army. One man from each tribe, each of them the head of his family, is to help you.

Archaeologists do not have the benefit of ancient censuses, and have to use other methods to estimate an ancient population. This can be done in a variety of ways.

One method of estimating an ancient population is to look at ancient records or monuments that mention population numbers. Some records make mention of the number of soldiers in an army, and using of rough estimate of soldiers to inhabitants of 1 out of every 6 could be used to estimate the population. However, ancient monuments can be given to exaggeration, and are not always reliable. 

Another method is to look at the city’s physical size, and estimate population density. Many ancient towns were built on hills for security reasons, limiting their size. Archaeological digs typically do not unearth an entire area, but concentrate the digging on a smaller area and then use that data to extrapolate to a larger area. Homes can be identified by layout and by the presence of a hearth, where the food was cooked. The layout of the home provides an indication of the sizes of the homes. The number of homes could then be estimated for a city, reduced by the areas required for defensive fortifications, roads, monumental buildings, royal buildings and public spaces that had lower population densities.

The next step would be to estimate the number of members per household. This would be based on size of home, number of families per home, children per family and mortality rates, to arrive at a density figure. Calculating a number of residents per home, multiplied by the total number of homes would produce an estimated population number.

In the Late Bronze Age, Hazor was one of the most important Canaanite cities. The archaeological site of Tel Hazor has a combined area of 205 acres. If each acre was on average home to 75 individuals, it could sustain a population of over 15,000 people.

Another method for calculating population is by looking at the carrying capacity, the number of people who can be supported by food production and water availability. The presence of rivers, rainfall amounts, the number of springs and wells, cisterns and water storage jars can all contribute to the number of humans that can survive in any given area. Scientists can sample the soil to determine the quality of the soil and the yield of food for the land. During peaceful periods, people could tend to fields further away from the city to produce more food, allowing the city to grow in size.

If a city had adequate water sources, and 2 acres of land could feed a single person for an entire year on a diet of wheat, barley, peas and beans, a city of 15,000 people would require 30,000 acres of farmland, roughly 47 square miles, 7 miles by 7 miles around. 

As archaeologists have not uncovered every ancient city and every surrounding village, they can calculate the size of a city and surrounding towns and then extrapolate from there to arrive at a population estimate for a larger region.

These methods are a starting point. There are often wide disagreements about the key inputs and therefore wide disagreements about the size of ancient populations. Not all agree about how many humans can be cramped into a confined space. But without the benefit of a biblical survey, they are at least a start.

When the Man Comes Around

In Leviticus 26, God tells Israel what will befall them if they do not follow God’s laws. “But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will bring on you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and sap your strength. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it. I will set my face against you so that you will be defeated by your enemies; those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee even when no one is pursuing you.”

The Crisis of the Third Century was a roughly fifty year period in the middle of the 3rd century CE in which the Roman Empire nearly fell apart under the weight of invasions, civil war, rebellions, economic crisis and plague.

The Plague of Cyprian struck Rome in mid-century, and may have lasted as long as one or two decades. Cyprian was a bishop in Carthage, modern day Tunisia. He wrote on theological matters, and described a plague that struck during his time. In ‘On Mortality,’ Treatise VII, he described the symptoms as follows: “This trial, that now the bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength; that a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces; that the intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting; that the eyes are on fire with the injected blood; that in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction; that from the weakness arising by the maiming and loss of the body, either the gait is enfeebled, or the hearing is obstructed, or the sight darkened;—is profitable as a proof of faith.”

The plague was described as killing 5,000 people in a day in Rome. Some claim the cause of death was smallpox. Others suggest that the description of “eyes are on fire with the injected blood,” is more typical of an ebola-like condition.

Christianity was born out of Judaism, and took many of its theological concepts. Just as Leviticus 26 shows the hand of God in plague and disaster, Cyprian, himself a Christian bishop, saw the hand of God in the plague. He wrote that “The kingdom of God, beloved brethren, is beginning to be at hand.” He said that believers need not worry because they would be entering a better world if they died. And he compared the situation to that of Job. “Thus Job, after the loss of his wealth, after the death of his children, grievously afflicted, moreover, with sores and worms, was not overcome, but proved; since in his very struggles and anguish, showing forth the patience of a religious mind, he says, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, naked also I shall go under the earth: the Lord gave, the Lord hath taken away; as it seemed fit to the Lord, so it hath been done. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

The image above is of a an electron microscopic image of the 1976 isolate of Ebola virus. To understand how Cyprian might have thought of this ebola-like plague, some Johnny Cash:


Out of Egypt

Leviticus 23 lists the annual festivals of Israel, and ends with the Festival of Tabernacles. The festival falls on the “fifteenth day of the seventh month, after you have gathered the crops of the land…Live in temporary shelters for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in such shelters so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt.”

If this agricultural related holiday recalls a time in Egypt, Egypt’s role as a breadbasket for the world positioned it to be the source one of the deadliest diseases in human history.

The Plague of Justinian struck in 541-542 CE. The disease erupted first in Egypt, first moving across Egypt, and then spreading to the rest of the Roman world. With the steady waters of the Nile River, Egypt had for millennia been the most important source of food in the world. This continued under the Roman and then Byzantine Empire. In all likelihood, it spread from Egypt via merchant ships, carried by rats and fleas infested with the disease.

The disease is known through the writings of ancient historians. Procopius of Caesarea catalogued the Byzantine Wars. Evagrius Scholasticus wrote Ecclesiastical History. Both of their works recorded a devastating plague during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian.

Procopius described the symptoms: “They had a sudden fever, some when just roused from sleep, others while walking about, and others while otherwise engaged, without any regard to what they were doing. And the body showed no change from its previous color, nor was it hot as might be expected when attacked by a fever, nor indeed did any inflammation set in, but the fever was of such a languid sort from its commencement and up till evening that neither to the sick themselves nor to a physician who touched them would it afford any suspicion of danger. It was natural, therefore, that not one of those who had contracted the disease expected to die from it. But on the same day in some cases, in others on the following day, and in the rest not many days later, a bubonic swelling developed; and this took place not only in the particular part of the body which is called boubon, that is, “below the abdomen,” but also inside the armpit, and in some cases also beside the ears, and at different points on the thighs…For there ensued with some a deep coma, with others a violent delirium, and in either case they suffered the characteristic symptoms of the disease…Death came in some cases immediately, in others after many days; and with some the body broke out with black pustules about as large as a lentil and these did not survive even one day, but all succumbed immediately. With many also a vomiting of blood ensued without visible cause and straightway brought death.”

Evagrius Scholasticus described similar symptoms: “The plague was a complication of diseases: for, in some cases, commencing in the head, and rendering the eyes bloody and the face swollen, it descended into the throat, and then destroyed the patient. In others, there was a flux of the bowels: in others buboes were formed, followed by violent fever; and the sufferers died at the end of two or three days, equally in possession, with the healthy, of their mental and bodily powers. Others died in a state of delirium, and some by the breaking out of carbuncles. Cases occurred where persons, who had been attacked once and twice and had recovered, died by a subsequent seizure.”

The descriptions of the symptoms and the progression of the disease as described by these historians have allowed scientists to positively identify the disease as bubonic plague.

Bubonic plague is caused by Yersinia Pestis, a highly virulent bacterium that can be carried by rodents and fleas. A similar variant of the bacteria was responsible for the Black Death in Europe in the mid-14th century CE. Studies of DNA extracted from skeletal remains from the early Medieval period demonstrated the presence of Yersinia Pestis, further confirming it as the cause of the Plague of Justinian.

The impact of the disease is uncertain. Byzantium later known at Constantinople and today’s Istanbul, was the capital of the Byzantine Empire. In Byzantium alone, Procopius claimed that the death toll reached as high as 5,000 and then 10,000 per day. A disease that virulent would have had a devastating impact on the Byzantine world. Some question Procopius’ figure and believe it to be an exaggeration. At the time of the outbreak, the Byzantines were locked in conflict with the Sassanian Persians and Justinian had attempted to reunify the Byzantine Empire with the lands of the Roman Empire in the west. If as devastating as described by Procopius the plague may have altered the course of history in both the west, the east, and in the rise of Islam less than a century later, when the Arabs defeated the weakened Byzantine and Persian Empires.