Could You Survive the Black Death, the Sack of Rome and Other Historical Catastrophes?

A new book advises readers how to successfully navigate deadly disasters of the past

Illustration of plague doctor, assault on Constantinople
Just because history is the most dangerous place to visit doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. It’s also the most interesting. You just need a guide. Illustration by Emily Lankiewicz / Photos via Wikimedia Commons under public domain

History is the most dangerous place on Earth. The past is when the deadliest predators ever seen roamed the planet. It’s when hellacious climates and natural disasters of unimaginable scale swept across Earth. Then humans evolved, and the perils became even worse. People sparked pandemics, wars and economic catastrophes far more extreme than those we experience today.

But just because history is the most dangerous place to visit doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. It’s also the most interesting. You just need a guide.

How to Survive History: How to Outrun a Tyrannosaurus, Escape Pompeii, Get Off the Titanic, and Survive the Rest of History's Deadliest Catastrophes

Using hindsight and modern science, Cassidy gives you a detailed battle plan for survival, helping you learn about the era at the same time.

Hindsight and modern science have provided the insights needed to survive history’s most spectacular catastrophes. We now know how humans could have lived through the fallout of the asteroid that drove the dinosaurs to extinction, the chill of the Ice Age and even the Black Death. Here’s how would-be time travelers could successfully navigate four of history’s worst disasters.

How to survive the Black Death

Let’s say you travel to London in June 1348, the same time a sickened sailor arrived at a port to your south. You’ve arrived on the eve of one of the deadliest disease outbreaks to ever befall humankind: the Black Death. In 1349 alone, more than 40 percent of London’s residents died of the bubonic plague.

You might think you should run to one of England’s small villages, away from the densely packed medieval city. Don’t. While fleeing the city would be a wise choice when faced with most pathogens, human density doesn’t dictate the bubonic plague’s spread. Instead, it’s the ratio of fleas to humans that matters most. The result is that most rat-infested farming villages had higher mortality rates than England’s cities. Unless you knew a wealthy person with a rat-free countryside manor, you’d be better off staying in London.

An engraving of the Black Death in Florence in 1348
An engraving of a bubonic plague outbreak in Florence in 1348 Wellcome Collection under CC BY-SA 4.0

Some London neighborhoods were safer than others. Food trash covered the streets of the city, particularly in poorer districts, and detritus attracts rats. You might think you should adopt a cat to further deter the rodents or set out rat traps, but both would be a mistake. The only thing more dangerous than a live rat is a dead one. A rat’s death forces its fleas to find a new host.

Check yourself for fleas frequently and bathe regularly. Medieval doctors believed pore-opening activities like bathing provided an entrance for the disease, so they advised Londoners against the practice. Do the opposite. In fact, don’t see a doctor at all. At best, their treatment will be ineffective and excruciating. Your best hope is to avoid the plague entirely. That means avoiding flea bites. Cover up as much skin as possible. Wear long-sleeve shirts and pants. Tuck in your shirt and put your pant legs under your socks.

By the beginning of 1350, the bubonic plague had killed or immunized nearly every person and rat in London, mercifully bringing the Black Death to an end (although the disease resurfaced periodically over the next several centuries). Fortunately, in a city that lost almost half of its population, the future was far brighter than you might expect. The pandemic decreased competition among laborers, raising wages and putting the oppressive system of serfdom in a death spiral. So stick around. If you can survive and endure a rather bleak 18 months, you might find the vivacious medieval vacation you came for.

How to survive the sack of Rome

In the year 410, you travel to Rome on August 24, eager to take a walking tour of the city. You take in a show at the Colosseum, gamble a few denarii in a game of dice, buy sausage and fish at the local markets, and rest your tired legs in one of Rome’s famously luxurious bathhouses. Then you hear the long blast of a horn announcing the arrival of 40,000 Visigoth soldiers.

Led by the Visigoth chief Alaric, the men break in through the Porta Salaria gate in northern Rome, which means if you’re in the Baths of Alexander in western Rome, you’ll have a head start. But you’re also close to the Temple of Saturn, where the Roman Empire houses the treasures sought by the Goths, so you’ll need to move quickly.

Joseph-Noël Sylvestre's 1890 painting of the sack of Rome
Joseph-Noël Sylvestre's 1890 painting of the sack of Rome Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

You have two options: run out of the city or run to a church. Your choice depends on who you believe. According to many contemporary Christian philosophers, Alaric spared Romans who sheltered in the city’s churches. That suggests you could hide in Old St. Peter’s Basilica in what is now Vatican City. But should you trust these accounts? Perhaps not.

After the sack, the event became a point of dispute between Rome’s pagans and Christians. The empire had recently converted to Christianity, and many pagans believed the sack was the gods’ revenge for this religious treachery. Christian philosophers, meanwhile, responded by downplaying the sack’s severity.

The safest course of action is to leave the city entirely, and the fastest way out is west, past the Colosseum and toward the city’s western gates. While you’re running, stick to the lowlands, and avoid wealthy neighborhoods in the hills. The sacking army tortured the rich for their gold, so if you’re caught in a wealthy neighborhood, the Goths may think you’re worth torturing.

With any luck, the soldiers guarding the gates will have joined in the looting and abandoned their posts, enabling you to escape and hide. When the Goths depart after their three-day sack, you can return to the city.

How to survive the fall of Constantinople

A 19th-century painting by Stanisław von Chlebowski of Mehmed II's entry into Constantinople
A 19th-century painting by Stanisław Chlebowski of Mehmed II's entry into Constantinople Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s say you travel back in time to 15th-century Constantinople to defend it against Mehmed II, sultan of the Ottoman Empire. On April 6, 1453, you join the city’s 7,000 defenders against 80,000 Ottoman attackers. These might seem like poor odds, but you’ll be sitting behind the Theodosian Walls, the largest, strongest defensive structure in medieval Europe and one of the most imposing ever built. The moat is around 65 feet wide and fills a pit in front of three walls, the tallest of which rises some 40 feet. The fortifications allowed Constantinople to beat back sieges for more than a thousand years, including an attack by Mehmed’s father, Murad II.

Unfortunately for you, the 21-year-old Mehmed was determined to succeed where his father had failed. He commissioned what were then the most powerful cannons ever built and even constructed an entire castle to aid his assault. But during the first six weeks of the sultan’s siege, his attacks by land, sea, tunnel and tower were all repulsed. Desperate, with his army faltering and supplies dwindling, he launched a final all-out assault in the early hours of May 29.

A portrait of Mehmed II by Gentile Bellini
A portrait of Mehmed II by Gentile Bellini Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The attackers climbed the walls with ladders and grappling hooks. Stationed on top of the fortification, you may have to resort to hand-to-hand weapons, including the culverin, a rudimentary predecessor to the musket that’s nearly as dangerous to the recipient as it is to the user. You’ll fend off the first two waves, but just as the sun rises and you feel a glimmer of hope, someone forgets to seal a small port door in the wall, and the Ottomans rush through. During the subsequent sack, blood flowed in the streets “like rainwater in the gutters after a sudden storm,” as one contemporary account put it.

Fortunately, the attackers will be momentarily motivated by treasure, and their greed provides two options for escape. The first is leaving out of the city port, where a few ships successfully slip out of the unguarded inlet. These early boats provide your best means for escape, but if you miss them, there is one final option: You can try to fight your way out.

In the three towers nearest to the entrance of the Golden Horn estuary, a remarkable group of Cretan warriors barricaded themselves in the towers and successfully fended off the Ottoman attackers for more than eight hours, inflicting such heavy losses that the Ottomans allowed them safe passage out of the city. Pick up a shield and spear and join these Cretan soldiers. If you can survive the eight-hour battle, by late afternoon, you’ll be boarding the last ships to leave the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

How to survive the worst year in human history

If you want to visit the so-called Dark Ages at their blackest, you should travel back to what is now England on March 24, 536. There, you see the vestiges of Roman Britain, the empire’s Christian churches and fort-cities now under the control of the Celtic Britons. You observe their ramparts, their huge dining halls and their knights sitting at round tables. And sometime on that March day, you see the sun pass behind a cloud. It won’t reemerge for 18 months.

You have arrived not only in the darkest year of the Dark Ages but also the beginning of one of the darkest periods experienced by humankind. Michael McCormick, a historian at Harvard University and the co-author of a 2018 study on the subject, believes 536 is the single worst year in human history. Temperatures across Europe and Asia dropped by as much as 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Blizzards took place in the summer in eastern China.

Painting of Saint Sebastian pleading for the life of a gravedigger afflicted by the plague
The Plague of Justinian spread via the Silk Road in the mid-sixth century. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The source of the fog blanketing much of the Eastern Hemisphere was a massive volcanic eruption in Iceland that plunged Earth into thermal shock. Crops failed across the Northern Hemisphere, and Northern Europe suffered one of the worst famines ever recorded.

If you’re in one of Britain’s fort cities, the foods you’ll consume will follow a grimly predictable pattern that historian William C. Jordan calls the “strange diet” of medieval destitution. At first, you’ll eat animals that aren’t normally consumed, including, in rough order of desperation, milking cows, ewes, horses, pets and finally rats. When the animals are gone, you’ll turn to rotten food—rotten meat, rotten grain and rotten vegetable matter. When even the rotten food has been eaten—and if you haven’t yet succumbed to disease—you’ll eat inedible natural plants, such as roots, sprigs, leaves and even bark.

If you’re able to, leave the city before supplies start running out. As local villagers watch their crops fail and flock to the city, you should switch places. Try planting cold-resistant crops like rye or barley rather than emmer wheat; take up hunting and foraging in the woods.

Unfortunately, the cold had another, even more dire effect: It drove bubonic plague-ridden rodents out of the Tibetan Plateau and into the populated lowlands. In 541, travelers along the Silk Road brought the disease to Europe. By 700, the only remaining Britons were small Welsh and Cornish communities in Britain’s far west and north.

To survive, you need to switch sides. Abandon the Britons and join the invading Anglo-Saxons, whose smaller communities can better withstand famine and plague. They do speak English, but it’s as different from modern English as German is today, so you may need to learn a few phrases. Start with this one: “Forweorpan hlêg fæstnian winterstund nêarra gear,” or “Here’s to a better year next year.”

Excerpted from How to Survive History: How to Outrun a Tyrannosaurus, Escape Pompeii, Get Off the Titanic and Survive the Rest of History’s Deadliest Catastrophes by Cody Cassidy. Published by Penguin Books. Copyright © 2023. All rights reserved.

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