536: The worst year for mankind?
Updated: Jul 24, 2020
Due to the events of 2020 including the infamous Coronavirus, some people can't stop saying that 2020 is the worst year in recorded human history. But scientists and historians like to think otherwise, and say that the worst year was 536, but why is that?
“The sun gave forth its light without brightness, and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear.” - Byzantine historian Procopius, Circa 536 A.D.
In the year 536 A.D. a mysterious haze enveloped the European continent blocking the sun for around 18 months. The haze would later help coin the term: "The Dark Ages" due to the decades-long cold spell that came following the incident. Thanks to carbon dating of ice core samples, we now know this was due to a volcanic eruption on the island of Iceland, and due to the fact that no one inhabited the island at the time, there was no written evidence of the eruption itself.
Effects on the weather and food supply
The volcanic eruption didn't just affect Europe, worldwide temperatures plunged on average around 1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celcius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). That year the summers were recorded to be about 17 degrees Celcius (30 degrees Fahrenheit) cooler. In China, snow was reported in August which means that all of the fall crops were ruined and could indicate this was similar for most parts of the Northern Hemisphere.
Effects on Empires
World Map at the beginning of the 6th Century
At the time, the largest European empire was the Eastern Roman Empire (a.k.a. the Byzantine Empire). During the year 536, the empire's most famous emperor Justinian ruled over and the famine did no good for his public image, many people within the empire at this time viewed the event as if God himself had turned his back onto the empire. However, it did not prevent his desires for the reconquest of the former rest of the Roman empire, they even managed to recapture Rome in the Fall of the year 536. It is also theorized that the weather may have had a role in the emergence of the Plague of Justinian not long after.
Although not much is known about the extent the events had on the Visigoths (who controlled Spain and France at the time), the Ostrogoths (who held most of Italy) were not severely weakened and for a time, actually managed to hold of the Byzantines.
The weather events occurred during the Second Golden Period of the Persian Sassanid Empire, but the lasting effects on the empire are unknown although we do know that it did lead to some civil unrest due to food shortages and this may have been a key factor in the empire's decline and dissolution a century later.
Meanwhile in India, the Gupta empire saw its demise. Prior to these events, the empire started to experience decline after it was invaded by the nearby Hephthalites to the northwest. Although they were able to drive them out the empire really just didn't recover in time before the famine struck. This combined with declining central authority eventually lead to the collapse of the empire 7 years later.
One society that most likely benefited from this event was the Göktürks, who saw an immense period of expansion throughout the Asian steppe managing to throw both the Hephthalites and the Rouran's (who resided in Mongolia) into disarray which most likely contributed to the dissolution of the two nations.
In China, the events struck during the period of Northern and Southern Dynasties. In the North, the recently tweaked Wei dynasty was split in two (Western Wei and Eastern Wei) due to a skirmish in the royal family. This weakness was only was made worse due to the ensuing famine and allowed for the Northern Zhou and Northern Qi dynasties to rise. Meanwhile, in the South, the ensuing unrest would lead to several revolutions that fractured the Liang dynasty into the Chen dynasty and the Western Liang dynasty.
In Korea, it is unclear whether or not the event helped lead to the decline of Baekje and Goguryeo a century later. We do know however that the Gaya Confederacy was absorbed by the Silla 2 decades later but it is still unclear about if the weather events had a role to play in this.
Japan also experienced the end of the Kofun period surprisingly close to the year 536, but historians largely attribute the switch to the introduction of Buddhism to Japan, as there was no switch in the ruling family directly after the event. So yet again, we don't know if the events of 536 had a profound impact on the nation
Not many known civilizations exist in the period, although we do know that the Early Classic Period of the Mayan civilization ended not long after, we still cannot attribute any of these events to the events of 536.
We also know that the city of Teotihuacan (not to be confused with Tenochtitlan) began its decline around this time period although we don't know if it can be attributed to the events of 536.
The events of 536 seemed to have brought an end to serval notable nations in the Northern Hemisphere and although we don't really know the extent to which the Volcanic eruption had in the declination of these empires we certainly know that it most likely played a role. Due to the fact that for a lot of people they starved, shivered, and witnessed the end to their society, it was a pretty bad year for most. This wouldn't be helped by another similar eruption in 540, so maybe we should be grateful we don't live in the 530s.