The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan.
When we last left Frankopan’s history of the Silk Roads at the time of the middle of the seventh century, Christianity was on the eastward march. There was soon to be a new sheriff (or is thatSharīf) in town.
But first, the bubonic plague. The year is 541:
It moved like lightning, so fast that by the time panic set in, it was already too late. No one was spared. The scale of death was barely imaginable.
This is known today as the Plague of Justinian:
The Plague of Justinian (541–542) was a pandemic that afflicted the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, especially its capital Constantinople, the Sassanid Empire, and port cities around the entire Mediterranean Sea. One of the deadliest plagues in history, this devastating pandemic resulted in the deaths of an estimated 25 million (at the time of the initial outbreak that was at least 13% of the world’s population) to 50 million people (in two centuries of recurrence).
The plague is believed to have begun in China; it was brought west through trade – grain ships carrying rats, etc. (And Americans complain about the devastation brought on by NAFTA!) In addition to death, the plague brought chronic economic depression; returning to Frankopan:
…fields denuded of farmers, towns stripped of consumers and a generation scythed down in their youth naturally altered the demography of late antiquity, and caused a severe contraction of the economy.
A Byzantine treasury already depleted before the plague could not withstand the demands after the plague. Justinian was left with the option of buying off his neighbors, as he did not have the means to fight them…