Last Updated on September 16, 2023 by Vladimir Vulic
You may have heard about a more recent eruption of Mount Kratatoa in 1883 but there has been one major eruption during Roman Empire. In 535 AD Mount Krakatoa (in the Sunda Straight between the islands of Sumatra and Java, Indonesia) exploded. Vast quantities of volcanic ash was thrown high up into the earth’s atmosphere with disastrous effects.
It is established fact that this occurrence, let to a darkening of the skies and a diminished amount of sunlight as, over a period of many years, the very fine ash slowly settled down again. The overall temperature dropped by several degrees centigrade. Furthermore the impact for the people was such of less rain, extreme droughts, and on the other hand, flash floods.
If the Eruption of Krakatoa was in 535 AD, then the first ever appearance of the Bubonic Plague in Europe in 542 AD is believed to be directly related to it.
The Monk Evagrius wrote a chronicle of the occurrence in Constantinople of an awful, until then unknown disease which over a frighteningly short period of time killed over 250,000 of the city’s inhabitants, until alas one stopped counting the dead.
It was the arrival of a disease which should wreak havoc on Europe for centuries to come. Evagrius believed the illness to have come from Ethiopia. Modern scientists believe this a distinct possibility, as such illnesses incubate in the area of the great lakes of Africa.
The inclination to seek new sources for fresh blood of the flea which spreads the disease increase enormously once the temperature drops below a certain point (the flea’s gut gets blocked and it desperately seeks blood as its own intestines starve it to death).
It is therefore believed that once Krakatoa erupted, the Plague spread at phenomenal speed in the area of the great lakes in Africa.
Constantinople at the time entertained a thriving ivory trade with those very areas. The flea therefore travelled either on a human or vermin host in ships to the Gulf of Suez across the isthmus and then via ship across the Mediterranean to Constantinople. Once the horrific disease began claiming thousands of victims in Constantinople, many of its citizens fled, spreading the flea and the disease all across the Roman Empire.
But the effects on the Romans are believed to be yet greater than drastically diminishing their population figures.
Far away in the steps of Mongolia a yet even more murderous threat was brewing.
Once again Krakatoa plays a prominent role. The steps of Mongolia and parts of Siberia were inhabited by a hardy tribe known as the Avars.
Known to the Chinese as disgusting people who never washed and who cleaned their plates by having their womenfolk lick them dry, they were, too, a supreme force of fighters and superb horsemen. In fact, they are believed to be the inventors of the stirrup and their sophisticated type of bridal pieces are still used in some parts of the world today.
Up until the mid sixth century AD they dominated their territory through the sheer supremacy of their martial skill. The Turks of the Kazakh steps, previously living under Avar rule, then in a short space of time utterly defeated their erstwhile masters.
It is believed that the primitive, horse-based Avar economy simply collapsed as the Mongol steps became too meager to sustain them after the drastic climatological change caused by Krakatoa.
There are even some theories comparing the digestive system of cattle (which the Turks herded) and that of horses (kept by the Avars) which suggest that the greater efficiency of the cattle’s digestive system might have made it possible for the Turkish cattle herds to survive the suddenly more barren conditions, whereas the horse herds perished.
Whatever the specific reasons may have been, it appears that the change in climate did result in the collapse of the Avar empire. However, as always in history, empires do not simply collapse without any further a do. Tens of thousands of Avars moved west as refugees, all the way through Kazakhstan to emerge in Carpathia in the late 550’s, and on the very doorstep of the Roman Empire.
They might have arrived as humble refugees, but their supreme fighting skills soon set them apart from the local tribes. It wasn’t long until they actually obtained leadership of the likes of the Huns.
Their military skill and particularly their horsemanship gave them the edge over the Roman legion and soon had them blackmailing Constantinople with the threat of war. Phenomenal amounts of gold were paid by the Romans to the Avars in order to save Constantinople from any war with them. However one views it, the eruption of Mount Krakatoa appears a significant piece in the force that brought the Roman Empire to its knees, either by depleting its population with the plague and ruining its economy, or by delivering barbarians to its borders who possessed superior knowledge of warfare.
Historian Franco Cavazzi dedicated hundreds of hours of his life to creating this website, roman-empire.net as a trove of educational material on this fascinating period of history. His work has been cited in a number of textbooks on the Roman Empire and mentioned on numerous publications such as the New York Times, PBS, The Guardian, and many more.