While we all try to understand the new reality imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, many look to the past for historical precedents such as the Spanish flu of 1918 and the Black Plague of the 14th century. The first historically attested wave of what later became known as the Black Plague (caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis) spread throughout the Byzantine Empire and beyond, in 541 CE. Known as Justinianic Plague, after the emperor Justinian who contracted the disease but survived, it caused high mortality and had a range of socio-economic effects.
Around the same time, an enormous volcanic eruption in late 535 or early 536 CE marked the beginning of the coldest decade in the last two thousand years (another volcano of similar proportions erupted in 539 CE). However, scholars disagree as to just how far-reaching and devastating the mid-6th century epidemic and climate change were. This scholarly debate is unsurprising considering that even today, leaders and policymakers around the world differ on the severity and correct response to COVID-19, not to mention climate change. One reason that hindsight is not 20/20 when it comes to ancient plagues is that ancient reports tend to exaggerate, or underrepresent, the human tolls, while archaeological evidence for the social and economic effects of plague are very hard to find.