Earthquakes in Ancient times

Former beliefs about earthquake

In the dim and distant past people didn't know the scientific explanation of earthquakes. Because of this, they tried to explain the earth's fearful shaking with the stranges ideas.

The Roman Empire

There were several scientific theories to explain earthquakes. These were incorrect in most cases. They weren't able to predict quakes. It is no wonder, that the inhabitants placed all their trust in gods, and then in God. The Greek regarded Poseidon as the cause of the earthquakes, the Roman regarded Vulcanus, but we have evidence, that they directed their prayers and sacrifices to "sive deus sive deá" (whether god or goddess), after the earthquake, because you never knew, which deity caused the earthquake. In the times Anno Domini, they even blamed the Christians for earthquakes.

Kashima and Namazu with the stone (Click to enlarge)


The Japanese thought, that earthquakes were caused by an enormous catfish, called Namazu, who he lived in the interior of the earth. A fighter, called Kashima, had to hold the fish at rest with an enormous stone. Sometimes Kashima left his watch-post, and Namazu started to throw himself, which shook the earth.

The missing notes from Antiquity

In the whole basin of the Mediterranean Sea, and especially in the eastern areas, the seismic activity is big. The coastal region of Anatolia (Asia Minor) doesn't have such cities, which aren't threatened by earthquakes. This wasn't otherwise in historical time, but we still have few writings from classical antiquity.

Records of earthquakes can firstly be found in works of natural scientists, geographers (Strabon /B.C. 64 - A.D. 19/ and the older Plinius /A.D. 23 - 79/).

Catastrophes between Antiquity and the Middle Ages

The largest earthquake-catastrophes overtook Syria's capital and Antiokhia (now Antakya in Turkey). The most monstrous catastrophe was the earthquake in 526, which struck the city and the whole of Anatolia. The earthquake occured late in the evening at Easter, when the majority of the citizens were having their dinner. The settlement was stuffed with pilgrims. Because of the earthquake almost the whole city was ruined, which was increased by a six-day conflagration. Three days after the catastrophe, supposedly the shape of the crucifix appeared over the city, and praying people could see it for an hour. The aftershocks finally reached their peak in 528 with a new significant quake. This quake claimed 5000 fatalities. Thereafter came such an arduous winter, which covered that Mediterranean city with a snow-blanket. They changed the name of the city to Theupolis: God's town.

Old defences against earthquakes

The citizens tried to protect their inhabitation with magic tools. In Antiokhia, after the earthquake of A.D. 37 established "telesma" against earthquakes: a column, with a text: "unshakable, immovable". They set a bust to the top of the column. It should be destined for protecting the city from the earthquakes - as we can see, with a bit of result.

Divine and man-made help after the earthquake

After all, of the more serious catastrophes of the imperial period, the emperor gave financial help for the reconstruction. He sent legates to the location to assess the losses, it was happened, that the legates themselves donated from their own property. The centre wasn't able to respond as fast as nowadays, because of this the emperor helped in rebuilding rather than rescuing. Besides the direct donation, it was frequent, that they released some taxes. In the earthquake in A.D. 17, the mostly aggrieved Sardeis got 10 million sestertius, and they released the city's debt towards the public purse. The cities, which had less damage, guaranteed a 5 year-old tax exemption. It happened, that the emperor paid the reconstruction of civic buildings.