Justinian’s Flea

Ambitious historical narrative by first time author and autodidact

I stumbled over this book while reading The Economist’s literature section and, while getting a mixed review, was fascinated by what it set out to be: a detailed explanation (or study) of how the bubonic plague prepared the grounds for today’s Europe. Written by a first time author, this sounded too interesting to be ignored, and I wasn’t to be disappointed.

It is unfortunate that there’s almost nothing known about Rosen: the only thing we know is that he was an executive at Schuster & Schuster, a publishing company, and this is his first book. So whether Rosen has always been a passionate amateur historian or actually has a postgraduate degree in history is unknown. He nevertheless exhibits a gift for written word that is remarkable, as his prose is effortless and shows a decent sense of humour.

‘Justinian’s Flea’ is not the work of a historian, as it’s far to enjoyable to read. The guy was a publisher, and after editing thousands of works he knows what a reader appreciates. He tells us about the world that came before and after Rome’s last great Emperor, Justinian and the period in history during this fascinating man’s reign. This outstanding theologian, lawmaker and shrewd diplomat oversaw the expansion of his empire around the mediterranean, gave the world a first civil law codex and manifested the orthodox Christian church in the east of Europe. In constant war with numerous barbaric factions in the west and continuously threatened by the Persians in the east of his empire, his diplomatic skills and the military genius of his generalissimo Belisarius kept the empire together until Yersinia Pestis decimated his population by around 25 million and made way for the protonations of the middle ages.

The scope of this book is breathtaking: Rosen delves into theology, law, genetics, epidemiology, history and philosophy, but never breaks his effortless style, making the whole thing immensely readable. Mary Beard, the Sunday Times’ reviewer, critises his lack of depth. Thirty pages of literature references make this statement highly doubtful, but if Beard equals depth with classic academic unreadability, I know what I prefer.

Justinian’s Flea is an amazing book and belogs to sit proudly next to that other master of the scientific narrative, Jared Diamond. Just like Diamond, Rosen manages to write about a highly scientific subject with a verve and style that makes his book impossible to put away.

Highly recommended.

William Rosen: Justinian’s Flea. Johnathan Cape,pp367¬†

1 thought on “Justinian’s Flea

  1. I just came across this post…and wanted to say (in case you are wondering) that NO… I don’t equate depth with classic academic unreadability. (Try one of my books -0- I HOPE you wouldn’t find them unreadable). My problem was as I said the elarning didnt go very far down AND, as I tried politely to indicate, there were some pretty dreadful howlers in it.
    There IS a problem here: namely, what level expertise you expect to underlie a popular book on this kind of historical topic. I thought my Cambridge colleague Peter Sarris was too stringent in his review. But I see red when I see real errors (like the one I cited on Isidore, for example).

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