Worst year to be alive? Try 536 AD, not 2020

When asked which year was the worst in history to be alive, many historians are quick to mention 536 AD. It might seem surprising that these historians can pinpoint a specific year as a clear winner, considering how fraught human history is with suffering.

Perhaps it is less surprising, however, when the events of 536 are described. Due to a heavy fog, many portions of the world were cloaked in darkness for approximately eighteen months. The sun was reported to exhibit a bluish color during this time. Scientists now believe that this fog may have been volcanic ash from an eruption in Iceland at the start of the year. This eruption, in addition to leaving the sky dark both day and night, caused temperatures to drop to their lowest levels in two millennia. The global temperature drops were so significant that they are often referred to at the Late Antique Little Ice Age. Subsequent eruptions in 540 and 547 exacerbated the effects, causing the cold spell to carry through multiple decades.

Lower temperatures and an absent sun caused crop failures to spiral out of control, leading to famine throughout Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. This was compounded by another problem causing outsized mortality: the first bubonic plague, which broke out in 541. Between one-third and one-half of the Eastern Roman Empire was extinguished by the disease, destabilizing Justinian’s reign and causing untold suffering.

People in the modern age are quick to dismiss prior generations’ fears of the world’s imminent collapse, but it is not difficult to see why there was widespread belief that the end was nigh. A deadly cocktail of darkness, starvation, and disease had thrust a large portion of the world into despair. It is possible that some years of pre-recorded history were worse. It likewise seems to be the case that the “worst year in history” did not severely impact Africa, the Americas, or Australia. However, even with these caveats in mind, 536 certainly marks a watershed year that led to cascading suffering for several decades to come.

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