Historically, pandemics have been one of the critical ways for dramatic socio-political and economic changes. Starting from labour market rupture to online mode of education to Amazon doing more trade than several markets put together, Covid-19 pandemic has changed many things in our times. ‘New Normal’ is a buzzword today. As a result of the pandemic, there has been a shift from geopolitics to geo-economics. Additionally, a range of socio-cultural methods and practices as well as modes of production are under structural revision.
Pandemics and occasions of civilizational rupture have been correlated. The Justinian plague of 541 CE was instrumental in one such rupture, namely, the demise of the Roman Empire or Pax Romana. This article attempts to look at Justinian plague and its impact on the Roman Empire. Using this lens, the article further attempts to briefly look at the decline of American hegemony in the international order.
Justinian plague is the popular name of a bubonic plague that first appeared in 541 CE, seen as the first plague pandemic. The plague originated in China and was carried to Africa via overland and sea trade routes (Horgan, 2014). It reached Constantinople, the imperial capital of the Eastern Roman Empire leading to 300,000 casualties in the city in just the first year (Statista, 2020). The plague continued in waves throughout the region for the next 200 years, ending in 750 CE.
At its peak (2nd century CE), the Roman Empire had governed distant regions of the globe from the Rhine to Euphrates and Sahara to Britain. But by the time of Pope Gregory the Great (CE 540-604), Rome had become but a Byzantine outpost, ruling few scattered territories from Constantinople. From housing of around one million people in the first century AD, Rome was reduced to around 20,000 inhabitants (Gray, 2020). Although several factors like military overreach, increasing reliance on slave labour, excessive spending and taxation, and the rise of Christianity have contributed to this decline, it was the pandemic that was responsible for the collapse of the empire.
End of the Roman Empire
By the 6th century the Roman Empire had built strong networks of connectivity for trade purposes and had densely populated urban habitats. The former aided in the quick spread of the plague within the empire, and the latter became the reason for higher death tolls. As the plague spread through the Empire, it contributed to the weakening of the Empire in its political and economic structures.
The population of the Empire drastically reduced due to the pandemic. Greek historian Procopius (500-570 CE) reported nearly 10,000 deaths afflicting Constantinople per day. Throughout the empire, nearly 25-50 million people died in total (Horgan, 2014). For an agrarian economy, this meant shortage of food and sharp drop in the amount of taxes paid to the state. The immediate result was famines that occurred in 542 CE, and then again in 545 and 546 CE (Roy Chowdhury, 2020). The collapse of the agriculture sector disrupted trade and further negatively affected the economy.
The decrease in population of the empire also significantly weakened the military. Although Rome had dealt with military threat before, such exogenous shocks were hard to deal with when the empire was domestically going through the turmoil of the pandemic.
Pandemic-induced civilisational changes would repeat again in the future: 14th century Black Death led to the end of serfdom in Europe, Bubonic plague of 19th century would be used by colonial officials to suppress resident population in India, Spanish flu of 20th century led to a nationalist awakening etc. History is replete with such examples of major disease outbreaks altering and overturning the ways in which societies and political structures function.
Covid-19 & American Hegemony
Since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 the global order was primarily shaped around the United States of America. However, the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08 heralded a major shift in this trend with the geopolitical order moving from unipolarity to multipolarity. Francis Fukuyama explains that, “source of American weakness and decline are more domestic than international” and “Covid-19 crisis served to deepen America’s divisions” (Fukuyama, 2021). Apart from huge domestic casualties, the US economy contracted by a record 19.2% in the first few months of the pandemic with unemployment rates as high as 15% (Reuters, 2021). Although the economy recovered in the latter months, how the US copes with subsequent waves of the pandemic remains to be seen. Moreover the failure to effectively manage Covid-19 at home has seriously dented American claims to global leadership.
Decline of US influence corresponds to leadership vacuum in the international order and a possible ‘Kindleberger Trap’ (Nye, 2017). Rise of China, India, EU, BRICS, AIIB et al. signal further American decline and possible irrelevance of American dominated Bretton woods system. As a result of this power vacuum, from Afghanistan to the Indo-Pacific, more of competitive power rivalry could be a possible reality in coming times and Covid-19 could be the last nail in the American coffin.
This article was written by Sonal Kuruvilla and Mohammed S. under guidance of Dr. R P Pradhan, CPPR Distinguished Fellow.
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
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