William Rosen, Part Two: An interview by Bob Morris


William Rosen


William Rosen is an historian and writer as well as the author of the award-winning history Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe and the recently published The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. Previously, he was an editor and publisher at Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and the Free Press for nearly twenty-five years. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Morris: Before discussing Justinian’s Flea, a few general questions. First, what was your formal education and to what extent did it prepare you for a career in publishing?

Rosen: In the first act of Macbeth, Malcolm says of the title character’s predecessor as Thane of Cawdor, “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it.” If I were feeling flip, I’d say that nothing in college so helped my career like the leaving of it: My formal education – UCLA; history and economics – ended pretty informally when I dropped out in 1977 to pursue a career as a writer. That pursuit was delayed for more than thirty years, as the first job I found was working as a copywriter for a local Los Angeles publisher. Three years later, I moved to New York, got a job at John Wiley & Sons, and subsequently worked at Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster (again; they bought Macmillan in 1994) and The Free Press.

I’m not, of course, in the business of advising anyone to drop out of college (and if any of my children who haven’t yet graduated are reading this: don’t even think about it). I have been extraordinarily lucky, not least in my choice of career. The book publishing business, both when I entered it and – sort of – departed it, isn’t especially credential-happy: it is known, to its initiates, as the “accidental profession” for a reason. Academic training is unquestionably valuable; over the years, I hired a dozen editors with impressive assortments of postgraduate initials after their names, and most worked out brilliantly. But so have those with little or no formal education. The key measure, I think, is the ability to retain an enthusiasm for learning new things. Publishing nonfiction, to say nothing of writing it, is an educational activity, and it’s a lot easier to serve readers who want to learn new things if you share their desire.

Morris: You worked at three of the largest houses and worked with a number of prominent authors. What did you enjoy least about that work? What did you enjoy most? Please explain.

Rosen: Tough question. I loved editing…or, more accurately, I loved line editing manuscripts in which I thought I could actually improve the rhythm of the work. On the other hand, a lot of manuscripts are, sadly, incurable cases, and an editor’s best efforts can only transform disaster into mediocrity. Frustrating stuff. Then there were the people: I spent more than ten years as either an editorial director or publisher, and thoroughly enjoyed managing others: Hiring them, training them, communicating a strategy in a manner that others could understand and execute. For that matter, I enjoyed the company of almost everyone with whom I was able to work, colleagues and authors both. The only thing that everyone in book publishing has in common is affection for books, which is a pretty good place to start.

The most difficult aspect of the job was, for me, an unfortunate-but-unavoidable aspect of modern trade publishing. Since every house publishes many more titles than it can actively promote, editors, editorial directors, and even publishers are not just forced to decide which projects to support, and which to abandon; they must also compete with their own colleagues for the finite resources of the larger enterprise, including advertising and publicity budgets, sales department time, and even production department attention.

Last thing: Because the difference between a successful year and a failure– for an editor, anyway – usually comes down to only a few titles that outperform expectations, an awful lot comes down to luck…

Morris: Of all the changes that have occurred in the publishing industry over recent years, which do you consider to be most significant?

Rosen: When I started in publishing, Borders and Amazon didn’t exist and Barnes & Noble was a NY-based mini-chain that specialized in college textbook sales. The biggest accounts in the country were still department stores, and large publishers maintained dozens of local sales reps to call on independent booksellers. A big hardcover bestseller might hit 100,000 copies. Now more books are sold than ever – virtually all of them to three or four accounts – and every year dozens of hardcovers sell in the millions. It’s a big book business now, for good or ill.

Another, unrelated development: When I started in publishing, the single most profitable category was books-as-information, also known as reference publishing: everything from travel guides to dictionaries to encyclopedias. The Internet – not Internet retailing; the net itself – killed it.

Morris: Opinions are divided about whether or not the bound volume has become an endangered species since the emergence of electronic reading devices. What do you think?

Rosen: I’ve been told that e-books will represent more than half of all book sales in less than five years. The economic advantages are just too great; not just the elimination of printing, paper, and binding costs, which don’t really amount to more than a few bucks per copy at most, but the disappearance of returns, which are a huge and wasteful cost to publishers. This doesn’t mean that bound books will vanish completely, at least not for quite a while. But they will become economically insignificant.

Morris: Have you decided what to write about in your next book?

Rosen: Yes. But I’m superstitious about sharing just yet.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Justinian’s Flea. Why did a bubonic plague in the early 540s during the reign of a Byzantine emperor, Justinian (483-565), initially attract your interest and, eventually, a substantial commitment of time and effort to conduct research?

Rosen: The best advice I ever saw an editor give an author was this: “Don’t write what you know; write about something you don’t know, and tell the reader how you learned it.” Well, I hadn’t even heard about the Plague of Justinian until an author mentioned it, in passing, in a book I was then editing. Arguably the most destructive event in human history, and almost completely unknown. At the time, I thought it would make a fine next project for an author of mine…and when he declined, I put the idea on hold until I was determined on writing a book of my own.

Morris: At least 25 million died. Briefly, please describe the process that begins when a person is infected and soon concludes with death.

Rosen: Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague when it is transmitted via the bite of an infected flea, is one seriously evil organism, and can kill in half-a-dozen ways. Two of the bacterium’s proteins, for example, interfere with the body’s ability to clot blood, and therefore simultaneously create both thromboses and hemorrhages – the syndrome is called DIC, for Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation — causing gangrene, followed by a painful death. The blackened extremities, chiefly toes and fingers, of late-stage plague victims would give a later pandemic its best-remembered name: the Black Death.

Even when the body survives DIC, the bacterium travels to the lymph nodes, where it breeds rapidly, producing the nodes to swell, eventually producing edema…the swellings known as “buboes” hence “bubonic” plague.

Not enough yet? Eventually, the bacterium blows itself up, like a suicide bomber, releasing a powerful endotoxin in the form of fatty acids known as Lipid A. The result is shock, sometimes fatal. The diabolical beauty –there is no other word – of the system is the bacterium’s ability to delay release of its cargo of Lipid A until its arrival in the lymphatic system that can carry it throughout the body. Frequently, the system works so well that by the time the first symptoms – “chills, rigor, high temperature” – appear, the body is saturated in bacteria; the liver, for example, is more bacterial than human.

Sometimes, the bacterium short-circuits the lymphatic system entirely, entering and traveling through the lungs: “pneumonic” plague, which is so contagious and so virulent as to result in mortality rates of 100% (untreated bubonic plague is deadly “only” 30-70% of the time). Between five and thirty-one days after exposure to Y. pestis, infection occurs. A day’s moderate fever would be followed by a week of delirium. Buboes would appear under the arms, in the groin, behind the ears, and grow to the size of melons. Edemas – of blood – infiltrated the nerve endings of the swollen lymphatic glands, causing massive pain. Sometimes the plague would become what a modern epidemiologist would describe as “septicemic”; those victims would die vomiting blood from internal hemorrhages that formed even more rapidly than the buboes. In the absence of antibiotic treatment, death is only a matter of time, on average seventeen days.

Morris: In Part I, you discuss Justinian as emperor. What is your assessment of (a) his abilities and (b) his performance?

Rosen: Brilliant politician and statesman; gifted strategist though not any kind of general. It’s pure speculation, of course, to suggest what his legacy would have been in the absence of a world-shattering event like the plague – the first pandemic in human history – but it’s not small even so: He (briefly) reconquered almost all the territories of the Roman Empire lost to barbarian invasions during the previous century; built antiquity’s greatest church, the Hagia Sophia, and hundreds of other historically important structures; and directed the codification of Roman Law – the so-called Justinianic Code – which is still the foundation of the civil law tradition used throughout Europe and much of the world.

Morris: Next, in Part II, you review various military victories. Here’s a hypothetical question. Given the situation at this time (roughly 530-540), what do you think Justinian and his brilliant commander, Belisarius, could next accomplish had there been no plague?

Rosen: My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the western conquests of Belisarius – essentially North Africa, Italy, southern France, and much of Spain – would have remained part of a single political entity, rather than fragmenting into what would, eventually, become the proto-European states of the medieval world. The “Byzantine” empire, after all (it was never called that during its heyday; Justinian and his successors called themselves Roman emperors for centuries) lasted until the 15th century. Is a plague-free eastern Roman Empire able to resist the Lombard invasions of Italy? Why not; Belisarius had already defeated the Lombards once.

Even more speculative: Had the plague not weakened both Constantinople and the Persian Empire to the east so dramatically, both would have been in a far stronger position to resist the Arab invasions of the 7th and 8th centuries…and, had they done so, the various Islamic Caliphates never appear.

Morris: Part III focuses on the plague and the process by which it reaches Constantinople and begins to expand its contagion. When conducting your research on this period, were there any head-snapping revelations or at least surprises in what you learned?

Rosen: Too many to count, but the best one is the puzzle with which the book began: Why, despite the long history of infectious disease, and even local epidemics, did it take until the 6th century for a pandemic – essentially an epidemic in numerous locations, simultaneously – to occur? The reason, I think, is that only then did a set of conditions line up that simultaneously allowed a disease vector to travel fast enough to infect local populations hundreds of miles apart, and to gestate slowly enough to keep from burning out in a single location, as was the case with dozens of earlier outbreaks of smallpox, or typhus, for example. The combination of infected fleas, traveling on rats with a taste for grain, in the one location on the planet with a huge seaborne grain trade was the magic formula…and mapping plague outbreaks with the Mediterranean’s port cities (also, along Roman oxcart roads, though less so) was like a big light bulb going off.

Morris: You cover the full impact of the plague in Part IV. Here are two separate but related questions. First, in your opinion, what were the worst consequences of the plague?

Rosen: I assume you mean the worst historical consequences (obviously the worst overall consequence was 25 million corpses) and I’m not sure how to answer. The end of Roman rule in Europe was a mixed blessing, to be sure; it’s fashionable to deny that the European Dark Ages were, actually, all that dark, but I’m not sold.

Morris: Here’s the second question. Were there any beneficial consequences of an otherwise horrific experience?

Rosen: The population decline certainly resulted in far higher incomes for the survivors; the proportion of land to farmers, for example, turned favorable for centuries. Depending on what you think of my notion that the growth of Islamic rule over a territory stretching from southern France to central Asia was a collateral result of plague weakening both the Roman and Persian empires, the Golden Age of Islam is a pretty beneficial consequence. Similarly, I’d argue that the modern idea of the nation-state – a coherent territory with a shared language, history, and culture – is a direct consequence of the fall of Roman influence in Europe, since the idea really never caught on anywhere else (Neither south Asia, most of east Asia, Africa, and the Americas have strong histories of such national entities, and most of what they now have is the result of maps drawn by European colonialists). If you like nation-states more than empires, this is beneficial; if not, not.

Morris: It has been more than a decade since you began research on a book published in 2007. Of all that you learned about Justinian, the plague, and the era they shared, what do you still find most interesting now, today? Why?

Rosen: While I still make a point of reading anything published about Y. pestis (including the recent paper that finally showed, pretty definitively, that the bacterium first evolved in China…not, as I argued from more limited evidence, east Africa) and never visit a domed building without thinking about the Hagia Sophia, the thing that still seems most relevant to me is the codification of Roman law. Partly because our own legal history is dominated by another tradition – the common law – I remain fascinated by the nature of the civil law, particularly its huge significance in later European history.

How’s that for wonkiness?

Morris: So far, my questions have tracked the narrative’s chronology. Now I wish to bounce around a bit. First of all, what did it take so long for those in authority to explain where the plague came from and how it was delivered?

Rosen: This is the early 6th century; more than a thousand years before Jenner and even more before Pasteur. No one had any idea about the germ theory of disease. Even more daunting: bubonic plague isn’t really a human disease at all…one that only occasionally, and for still mysterious reasons, jumps from a rodent population to humans.

Morris: At the beginning of the book, you quote Ernest Renan: “The two greatest problems in history are how to account for the rise of Rome, and how to account for her fall.” How do you explain both?

Rosen: I’ve no special standing to argue about the rise of Rome, but am always prepared to argue that the “fall of Rome” didn’t occur, as most histories have it, with the barbarian invasions of the 5th century, since a) such crises had been occurring since at least the 3rd century; and b) Justinian pretty much undid their effects by the 6th century. I’ve been taken to task, with some justice, for arguing that the plague was what caused the final fall of Rome, at least in the west – all simple explanations are suspect – but it’s even less likely that the plague had no part in the story.

Morris: I found your discussion of Justinian’s articles of religious faith very interesting. Which had the greatest influence on his decisions as Emperor?

Rosen: The most exotic thing about late Antiquity, I think, was its obsession with the fine points of Christology…and I do mean fine. Justinian probably was happiest pondering the incorruptibility of the flesh of Christ, or whether Jesus had only one nature – human subsumed in divine – or two: simultaneously human and divine…the first heretical, the second orthodox. Justinian’s own beliefs were apparently quite orthodox, but he ruled significant numbers of subjects who were technically heretics – Arians, Monophysites, and so on – including many of his bishops and his own wife. There is absolutely no reason to think that Justinian, or any of his contemporaries, were anything but sincere in their faith; but he was pragmatist enough to permit a far more pluralistic religious culture than, for example, the rulers of five centuries later.

Morris: Why was the Black Plague also known as “The Great Mortality”?

Rosen: Technically, the Black Plague (and “The Great Mortality” as it was contemporaneously known) refers to the second recurrence of plague, which entered Europe in 1348. It is the only worldwide pandemic that is comparable to the Justinianic Plague, though precise numbers are hard to come by; when I started researching Justinian’s Flea, the most quoted figure for total mortality was 100 million, which is clearly too high, and the same applies to the Black Death of the 14th century. However, the second outbreak is so much better recalled that I occasionally refer to the 6th century version as “my” plague.

Morris: What were the major barriers to the reunification of the Roman Empire? How did those efforts turn out?

Rosen: By the time Justinian took the throne in 517, the “Roman” empire he ruled was sovereign only from the Adriatic east to the Black Sea. The Italian peninsula was ruled by an Ostrogothic king; Spain and southern France by the Visigoths – both Gothic tribes had migrated west during the previous century, partly driven by the Huns under Attila – and north Africa by Vandals. Rome had been sacked by the Visigoths in 410, and by the Vandals (then based in what had been Carthage) in 453.

In the early 530s, however, Justinian’s truly remarkable general, a Thracian named Belisarius, began one of the most incredible campaigns in military history. In 533, he defeated and conquered the Vandal kingdom in North Africa. In 535, he took Sicily. And by the end of 536, sixty years after the overthrow of Romulus Augustulus (the last Roman emperor still sovereign in the eternal city) occupied Rome. Before Justinian died in 565, his general had delivered Malaga and Seville in Spain, all of Italy, and good-sized chunks of Arabia and Armenia.

And, while it is frequently argued that these conquests were unsustainable because the costs of maintaining them would always exceed the revenues they produced, the same could be said for every Roman territorial conquest since Julius Caesar. There is no reason to believe that Roman rule would not have survived the crises of the 6th century, when it had already survived similarly daunting ones in the 2nd and 3rd.

Of course, neither of them featured a Mediterranean-wide pandemic.

Morris: What do you find most interesting about Justinian’s relationship with his wife, Theodora?

Rosen: Theodora is a gift to any writer of history. Born into a family of circus entertainers, later an actress and (probably) a prostitute, Theodora was not just Justinian’s wife, but co-ruler…the most politically consequential woman in European history until Elizabeth I. Here’s what I wrote about her meeting with Justinian:

“However it occurred, it appears to have been a love-at first-sight thunderbolt. The middle-aged, balding Illyrian and the beautiful 25-year old ex-courtesan almost immediately began living together in Justinian’s residence at the Palace of Hormisdas on the southern shore of the city; and it is worth remembering that among the tons of invective poured over them in subsequent years by doctrinal opponents and political enemies, not a single word accuses either of betraying the other… their partnership was total, their love for one another complete.”

My next book is not a biography of this remarkable woman: a combination of sexual voraciousness, raw courage – when Justinian faced a city-wide rebellion and riot that had him considering escape and exile, only Theodora was able to stiffen his spine – and brilliant resourcefulness. But maybe it should be.

Morris: Near the book’s conclusion, you observe that “the three-thousand-body problem remains unsolved.” What is that problem and why does it remain unsolved?

Rosen: The “three-thousand body problem” is a literary conceit that plays off the classic three-body problem of mechanics: Using only Newton’s laws of motion, and two bodies of known initial position, direction, and velocity, you can calculate where they will be tomorrow, or a thousand years from now. Add a third body, though, and all solutions become approximate…a metaphor for historical counterfactuals, where the number of “bodies” (religion, demography, geography…and, of course, bacterial disease) can easily number three thousand, or more.

Morris: Was there a question you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Rosen: My favorite story in the entire book was actually the one about Justinian’s agents stealing the secret of silk-making from China in the 560s, which broke the trade monopoly by the Persian Empire that straddled what was not yet known as the silk road. Silk, at the time the most valuable commodity in international trade, featured in virtually all the conflicts between Justinian and his alter-ego, the Persian emperor Khusro Anushirvan for more than thirty years; and its removal from the strategic chessboard also removed Persian and Roman influence from the Arabian peninsula, just in time for the religion founded by Muhammad (born ten years after Justinian’s death) to emerge.

And no one ever asks me about silk. I even put the theft in The Most Powerful Idea in the World as part of the story of silk spinning in the Industrial Revolution. No one has asked me about it there, either, so don’t feel too bad.


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