By Steve A. Hamilton
“So the first went and poured out his bowl upon the earth, and a foul and loathsome sore came upon the men who had the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image.” (Rev. 16:2)
The date was 541 A.D. Roman Emperor Justinian was reigning in his 14th year from Constantinople when the plague struck the empire. By the year 542 A.D., the entire empire was fully engulfed by this horrific disease. Historian Procopius (c. 500 A.D. – c. 554 A.D.) gives this firsthand commentary about the disease that later became known as the Justinian plague:
“[542 A.D.] During these times there was a pestilence, by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated. Now in the case of all other scourges sent from Heaven some explanation of a cause might be given by daring men, such as the many theories propounded by those who are clever in these matters;… But for this calamity it is quite impossible either to express in words or to conceive in thought any explanation, except indeed to refer it to God. For it did not come in a part of the world nor upon certain men, nor did it confine itself to any season of the year, so that from such circumstances it might be possible to find subtle explanations of a cause, but it embraced the entire world, and blighted the lives of all men, though differing from one another in the most marked degree, respecting neither sex nor age. For much as men differ with regard to places in which they live,… in the case of this disease alone the difference availed naught. And it attacked some in the summer season, others in the winter, and still others at the other times of the year… I shall proceed to tell where this disease originated and the manner in which it destroyed men.
“It started from the Aegyptians who dwell in Pelusium. Then it divided and moved in one direction towards Alexandria and the rest of Aegypt, and in the other direction it came to Palestine on the borders of Aegypt; and from there it spread over the whole world, always moving forward and travelling at times favourable to it. For it seemed to move by fixed arrangement, and to tarry for a specified time in each country, casting its blight slightingly upon none, but spreading in either direction right out to the ends of the world, as if fearing lest some corner of the earth might escape it. For it left neither island nor cave nor mountain ridge which had human inhabitants; and if it had passed by any land, either not affecting the men there or touching them in indifferent fashion, still at a later time it came back; then those who dwelt round about this land, whom formerly it had afflicted most sorely, it did not touch at all, but it did not remove from the place in question until it had given up its just and proper tale of dead, so as to correspond exactly to the number destroyed at the earlier time among those who dwelt round about. And this disease always took its start from the coast, and from there went up to the interior. And in the second year it reached Byzantium in the middle of spring, where it happened that I was staying at that time. And it came as follows… They had a sudden fever, some when just roused from sleep, others while walking about, and others while otherwise engaged, without any regard to what they were doing. And the body shewed no change from its previous colour, nor was it hot as might be expected when attacked by a fever, nor indeed did any inflammation set in, but the fever was of such a languid sort from its commencement and up till evening that neither to the sick themselves nor to a physician who touched them would it afford any suspicion of danger. It was natural, therefore, that not one of those who had contracted the disease expected to die from it. But on the same day in some cases, in others on the following day, and in the rest not many days later, a bubonic swelling developed; and this took place not only in the particular part of the body which is called “boubon,” that is, below the abdomen, but also inside the armpit, and in some cases also beside the ears, and at different points on the thighs.
“Up to this point, then, everything went in about the same way with all who had taken the disease. But from then on very marked differences developed; and I am unable to say whether the cause of this diversity of symptoms was to be found in the difference in bodies, or in the fact that it followed the wish of Him who brought the disease into the world. For there ensued with some a deep coma, with others a violent delirium, and in either case they suffered the characteristic symptoms of the disease. For those who were under the spell of the coma forgot all those who were familiar to them and seemed to be sleeping constantly. And if anyone cared for them, they would eat without waking, but some also were neglected, and these would die directly through lack of sustenance. But those who were seized with delirium suffered from insomnia and were victims of a distorted imagination; for they suspected that men were coming upon them to destroy them, and they would become excited and rush off in flight, crying out at the top of their voices. And those who were attending them were in a state of constant exhaustion and had a most difficult time of it throughout. For this reason everybody pitied them no less than the sufferers, not because they were threatened by the pestilence in going near it (for neither physicians nor other persons were found to contract this malady through contact with the sick or with the dead, for many who were constantly engaged either in burying or in attending those in no way connected with them held out in the performance of this service beyond all expectation, while with many others the disease came on without warning and they died straightway); but they pitied them because of the great hardships which they were undergoing. For when the patients fell from their beds and lay rolling upon the floor, they, kept patting them back in place, and when they were struggling to rush headlong out of their houses, they would force them back by shoving and pulling against them. And when water chanced to be near, they wished to fall into it, not so much because of a desire for drink (for the most of them rushed into the sea), but the cause was to be found chiefly in the diseased state of their minds. They had also great difficulty in the matter of eating, for they could not easily take food. And many perished through lack of any man to care for them, for they were either overcome by hunger, or threw themselves down from a height. And in those cases where neither coma nor delirium came on, the bubonic swelling became mortified and the sufferer, no longer able to endure the pain, died. And one would suppose that in all cases the same thing would have been true, but since they were not at all in their senses, some were quite unable to feel the pain; for owing to the troubled condition of their minds they lost all sense of feeling.
“Now some of the physicians who were at a loss because the symptoms were not understood, supposing that the disease centred in the bubonic swellings, decided to investigate the bodies of the dead. And upon opening some of the swellings, they found a strange sort of carbuncle that had grown inside them.
“Death came in some cases immediately, in others after many days; and with some the body broke out with black pustules about as large as a lentil and these did not survive even one day, but all succumbed immediately. With many also a vomiting of blood ensued without visible cause and straightway brought death. Moreover I am able to declare this, that the most illustrious physicians predicted that many would die, who unexpectedly escaped entirely from suffering shortly afterwards, and that they declared that many would be saved, who were destined to be carried off almost immediately. So it was that in this disease there was no cause which came within the province of human reasoning; for in all cases the issue tended to be something unaccountable. For example, while some were helped by bathing, others were harmed in no less degree. And of those who received no care many died, but others, contrary to reason, were saved. And again, methods of treatment shewed different results with different patients. Indeed the whole matter may be stated thus, that no device was discovered by man to save himself, so that either by taking precautions he should not suffer, or that when the malady had assailed him he should get the better of it; but suffering came without warning and recovery was due to no external cause.
“And in the case of women who were pregnant death could be certainly foreseen if they were taken with the disease. For some died through miscarriage, but others perished immediately at the time of birth with the infants they bore. However, they say that three women in confinement survived though their children perished, and that one woman died at the very time of child-birth but that the child was born and survived.
“Now in those cases where the swelling rose to an unusual size and a discharge of pus had set in, it came about that they escaped from the disease and survived, for clearly the acute condition of the carbuncle had found relief in this direction, and this proved to be in general an indication of returning health; but in cases where the swelling preserved its former appearance there ensued those troubles which I have just mentioned. And with some of them it came about that the thigh was withered, in which case, though the swelling was there, it did not develop the least suppuration. With others who survived the tongue did not remain unaffected, and they lived on either lisping or speaking incoherently and with difficulty.
“Now the disease in Byzantium ran a course of four months, and its greatest virulence lasted about three. And at first the deaths were a little more than the normal, then the mortality rose still higher, and afterwards the tale of dead reached five thousand each day, and again it even came to ten thousand and still more than that. Now in the beginning each man attended to the burial of the dead of his own house, and these they threw even into the tombs of others, either escaping detection or using violence; but afterwards confusion and disorder everywhere became complete. For slaves remained destitute of masters, and men who in former times were very prosperous were deprived of the service of their domestics who were either sick or dead, and many houses became completely destitute of human inhabitants. For this reason it came about that some of the notable men of the city because of the universal destitution remained unburied for many days.
“And it fell to the lot of the emperor, as was natural, to make provision for the trouble. He therefore detailed soldiers from the palace and distributed money, commanding Theodorus to take charge of this work; this man held the position of announcer of imperial messages, always announcing to the emperor the petitions of his clients, and declaring to them in turn whatever his wish was. In the Latin tongue the Romans designate this office by the term “referendarius.” So those who had not as yet fallen into complete destitution in their domestic affairs attended individually to the burial of those connected with them. But Theodorus, by giving out the emperor’s money and by making further expenditures from his own purse, kept burying the bodies which were not cared for. And when it came about that all the tombs which had existed previously were filled with the dead, then they dug up all the places about the city one after the other, laid the dead there, each one as he could, and departed; but later on those who were making these trenches, no longer able to keep up with the number of the dying, mounted the towers of the fortifications in Sycae, and tearing off the roofs threw the bodies in there in complete disorder; and they piled them up just as each one happened to fall, and filled practically all the towers with corpses, and then covered them again with their roofs. As a result of this an evil stench pervaded the city and distressed the inhabitants still more, and especially whenever the wind blew fresh from that quarter.
“At that time all the customary rites of burial were overlooked. For the dead were not carried out escorted by a procession in the customary manner, nor were the usual chants sung over them, but it was sufficient if one carried on his shoulders the body of one of the dead to the parts of the city which bordered on the sea and flung him down; and there the corpses would be thrown upon skiffs in a heap, to be conveyed wherever it might chance. At that time, too, those of the population who had formerly been members of the factions laid aside their mutual enmity and in common they attended to the burial rites of the dead, and they carried with their own hands the bodies of those who were no connections of theirs and buried them. Nay, more, those who in times past used to take delight in devoting themselves to pursuits both shameful and base, shook off the unrighteousness of their daily lives and practised the duties of religion with diligence, not so much because they had learned wisdom at last nor because they had become all of a sudden lovers of virtue, as it were–for when qualities have become fixed in men by nature or by the training of a long period of time, it is impossible for them to lay them aside thus lightly, except, indeed, some divine influence for good has breathed upon them–but then all, so to speak, being thoroughly terrified by the things which were happening, and supposing that they would die immediately, did, as was natural, learn respectability for a season by sheer necessity. Therefore as soon as they were rid of the disease and were saved, and already supposed that they were in security, since the curse had moved on to other peoples, then they turned sharply about and reverted once more to their baseness of heart, and now, more than before, they make a display of the inconsistency of their conduct, altogether surpassing themselves in villainy and in lawlessness of every sort. For one could insist emphatically without falsehood that this disease, whether by chance or by some providence, chose out with exactitude the worst men and let them go free. But these things were displayed to the world in later times.
“During that time it seemed no easy thing to see any man in the streets of Byzantium, but all who had the good fortune to be in health were sitting in their houses, either attending the sick or mourning the dead. And if one did succeed in meeting a man going out, he was carrying one of the dead. And work of every description ceased, and all the trades were abandoned by the artisans, and all other work as well, such as each had in hand. Indeed in a city which was simply abounding in all good things starvation almost absolute was running riot. Certainly it seemed a difficult and very notable thing to have a sufficiency of bread or of anything else; so that with some of the sick it appeared that the end of life came about sooner than it should have come by reason of the lack of the necessities of life. And, to put all in a word, it was not possible to see a single man in Byzantium clad in the chlamys, and especially when the emperor became ill (for he too had a swelling of the groin), but in a city which held dominion over the whole Roman empire every man was wearing clothes befitting private station and remaining quietly at home. Such was the course of the pestilence in the Roman empire at large as well as in Byzantium. And it fell also upon the land of the Persians and visited all the other barbarians besides.”[i]
Procopius describes a worldwide plague that matches the first bowl of wrath. “A foul and loathsome sore came upon the men.” His graphic detail of what is believed to be the bubonic or black plague leaves the reader with the amazement that such horror actually took place just as John had prophesied in the book of revelation.
Another historian who lived during the Justinian plague was a Syrian known as John of Ephesus. He too writes a rather lengthy firsthand narrative of the plague. What follows is a portion of his writings that describes the number of victims and the symptoms of the plague:
“When thus the scourge weighted heavy upon this city, first it eagerly began (to assault) the class of the poor, who lay in the streets. It happened that 5000 and 7000, or even 12,000 and as many as 16,000 of them departed (this world) in a single day. Since thus far it was (only) the beginning, men were standing by the harbours, at the crossroads and at the gates counting (the dead). Thus having perished they were shrouded with great diligence and buried; they departed (this life) being clothed and followed (to the grave) by everybody.
“Thus the (people of Constantinople) reached the point of disappearing, only few remaining, whereas (of) those only who had died on the streets – if anybody wants us to name their number, for in fact they were counted – over 300,000 were taken off the streets. Those who counted, having reached (the number of) 230,000 and seeing that (the dead) were innumerable, gave up (reckoning)and from then on (the corpses) were brought out without being counted.
“… Not only those who died, but also those who escaped sudden death (were struck) with this plague of swelling in their groins, with this disease which they call boubones, and which in our Syriac language is translated as ‘tumours.’ Both servants and masters were smitten together, nobles and common people impartially. They were struck down one opposite another, groaning.
“… Another sign would separate those to be snatched away from those who would survive and remain (waiting) for either death or life. It appeared in this way: three signs became visible in the middle of the palm of a man’s hand in the form of black pocks which did not depart (from the skin) but (remained) deep (in it). They were like three drops of blood deep within. On whomsoever these appeared, the moment they did so the end would come within just one or two hours, or it might happen that (the person) had one day’s delay. These (signs) were (to be found) on many (people).”[ii]
John of Ephesus provides an additional identifying description that correlates the Justinian Plague to the bowls of wrath. The pandemic as described resulted in dead bodies in such numbers that the living were unable to keep up with the burial of the dead. Putrefied bodies lay everywhere. After all available burial space was utilized, the dead were either buried at sea or disposed in mass graves. John of Ephesus describes how an appointed government official named Theodorus organized the mass burial:
“He took along many people, gave them much gold and had very large pits dug, in everyone of which 70,000 (corpses) were put. He placed there (some) men who brought down and turned over (corpses), piled them up and presses the layers one upon another as a man might heap up hay in a stack. Also he placed by the pits men holding gold and encouraged the workmen and the common people with gifts to carry and to bring up (corpes), giving five, six and even seven and ten dinars for each load.”[iii]
“What more is there to say? – also on those pits into which people were thrown and trodden upon, while men stood below, deep as in an abyss, and others above: the latter dragged and threw down (the corpses), like stones being thrown from a sling, and the former grabbed and threw them one on top of another, arranging the rows in alternating directions. Because of scarcity (of room) both men and women were trodden upon, young people and children were pressed together, trodden upon by feet and trampled like spoiled grapes.”[iv]
“How and with what utterances, with what hymns, with what funeral laments and groanings should somebody mourn who has survived and witnessed this “wine-press of the fury of the wrath (of God)?”’
“Those who trampled stood (below) and when a man or a women or a young man or a child was put (down) they would tread (them) with their feet to press them down and to make place for others. The (corpse) which was trampled sank and was immersed in the pus of those below it, since it was after five or as much as ten days that (the corpses) reached (this place of) pernicious prostration.”[v]
The mass graves were dug outside the city of Constantinople in just the same manner as depicts a massive winepress but of human bodies. The bodies brought to the graves were in various states of decomposition. “People thrown in great heaps torn open one upon another with their bellies putrefying and their intestines flowing like brooks down into the sea.”[vi] These bodies were like busted grapes as they were pressed in a human winepress. Certainly, this historian made the connection between the events occurring in his time to those recorded by John in the book of Revelation!
John of Ephesus paraphrased a line from Revelation 14:19-20. The actual passage reads: “So the angel thrust his sickle into the earth and gathered the vine of the earth, and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trampled outside the city, and blood came out of the winepress, up to the horses’ bridles, for one thousand six hundred furlongs.” In fact, John of Ephesus reiterates the human winepress analogy at least three times in his testimony. This is strong evidence that correlates the bowls of wrath to the Justinian plague!
“Then the second angel poured out his bowl on the sea, and it became blood as of a dead man; and every living creature in the sea died” (Rev. 16:3).
The second bowl of wrath continues the same morbid depiction of human decomposition. “Blood as of a dead man” could only be an illusion to the decay of the human body. This time the plague was spread upon the sea.
The word “sea” is often used symbolically to mean people of the world in prophetic scriptures (Ref. Psm. 65:7; Isa. 17:12; 57:20-21). John writes that “every living creature in the sea died.” A literal translation from Greek into English reads, “every soul of life died, the things in the sea.”[vii] Though a vast number of people died in the plague, many physically survived the horror, but no one survived untouched. Procopius related how care takers suffered a greater burden then those who died. John of Ephesus claimed many survivors went insane. Survivors were demoralized to despair. Life would never be the same again. Perhaps in that sense, “every soul of life died.”
“Then the third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and springs of water, and they became blood” (Rev. 16:4).
The third bowl of wrath continues the same notion of blood signifying the same presence of the plague. The bowls are not differing plagues, as many assume, but the same plague being distributed to different locations. Commentaries on the Justinian Plague often express an amazement how fast this plague spread. After all, rodents that were believed to have spread the plague would need time to travel to the whole known world. Yet, this plague was everywhere in less than 2 years. The reason for the unusually fast spreading plague was the fact that God commissioned angels to pour out their bowls in different locations. It spread fast because God spread it!
This time the plague found its way inland from the coast. Rome itself lays inland along the river Tiberis. This certainly would alert Christians that the city of Rome was on the Lord’s radar. The third bowl signifies the idea that the plague was geographically everywhere in their water sources.
The Roman empire for some 400 years was thirsty for blood. “For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets.” In exchange, God has “given them blood to drink. For it is their just due.” (Rev. 16:6). The New American Standard Version says, “For they deserve it!” God literally gave them what they thirst for in a most appropriate manner. Their water sources were contaminated by the blood of their own people.
“Then the fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom became full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues because of the pain. They blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and did not repent of their deeds” (Rev. 16:10-11).
The sores reappear in the pouring out of the fifth bowl of wrath. This time the plague is poured upon the throne of the beast, assumedly the city of Rome itself. The intent of the punishment was to cause the Romans to repent. However, it caused them to blaspheme God while they gnawed on their tongues in pain. The gnawing on their tongues is likely an innuendo to the scarcity of food. The Romans did not repent so their punishment was not only due, but it was just!
Justinian’s Black Plague continued in earnest for 3 years followed by a famine (famine likely being the 4th bowl of wrath). It is believed that the city of Constantinople alone lost approximately 60% of their population. Many towns in the Roman empire became uninhabited. Though not entirely due to the plague, the city of Rome was deserted five years after the first bowl of wrath was poured out. The Roman empire along with the city of Rome were crushed in the winepress of God’s wrath.
[i] Procopius, History of Wars, vol. 1, XXII & XXIII, p. 451-473.
[ii] John of Ephesus, Pseudo-Dionysius of Tel-Mahre Chronicle Part III, Witold Witakowski, Liverpool University Press, 1996, p. 86-88.
[iii] Ibid, p. 91.
[iv] Ibid, p. 95
[v] Ibid, p. 96.
[vi] Ibid, p. 89.
[vii] The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, Alfred Marshall, Zondervan Publishing House, 1975, p. 1002.