A Tangled Web

Marriage and Alliance in the Shadows of the Plague, 542–548





plague, marriage, alliance, Germanus, Theodora, Justinian, John the nephew of Vitalian, Justina


Few debates in modern academia are as heated as the one among scholars who consider the arrival of bubonic plague in Constantinople in the spring of 542 as a demographic and social disaster and those who argue for less tumultuous outcomes. Whatever side one stands on in the current discussion, the pandemic’s immediate impact on the administration, economy, politics, society and religious culture within Constantinople and the wider empire seems clear. In this article I will suggest that increased competition amongst Constantinople’s elites for a shrunken pool of suitable brides and grooms for their sons and daughters was one hitherto underappreciated result of the pandemic. The sixth-century eastern Roman historian, Procopius of Caesarea, offers ample evidence not only about the devastation wrought by the bubonic plague but also its impact on the political alliances in Constantinople. His digressions in Secret History concerning marital politicking amongst Constantinople’s elites provide evidence of this impact. Capitalizing on advances in our knowledge about Procopius both as an author and historical figure, I will analyze his writings on three levels: as history, literature and propaganda. By pondering what motivated Procopius to focus on these marital alliances and, moreover, pondering links between them, the paper offers some revisionist takes on these digressions, both as literary devices and as actual events.

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How to Cite

Stewart, M. E. “A Tangled Web: Marriage and Alliance in the Shadows of the Plague, 542–548”. Classica Cracoviensia, vol. 26, Dec. 2023, pp. 161-15, doi:10.12797/CC.26.2023.26.03.