Thursday, September 29, 2016


Jonas Borsch, Laura Carrara (ed.), Erdbeben in der Antike: Deutungen - Folgen - Repräsentationen. Bedrohte Ordnungen, 4. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016. Pp. x, 278. ISBN 9783161541698. €59.00.

Reviewed by Jerker Blomqvist, Lund University (

Version at BMCR home site


As Borsch and Carrara point out in their introductory essay in the volume under review here, the advanced ancient civilizations of the Middle East and the Mediterranean area flourished in a region that, geologically speaking, is one of the most unstable ones of the earth. Plate tectonics explains the instability: The African continental plate is moving northwards, subducting under the Eurasian plate, and in Asia Minor and Greece with its islands two smaller plates, the Anatolian and the Aegean, with their independent movements, make the situation particularly complex. Earthquakes are common over the main part of the Mediterranean area but most frequent in Asia Minor, the Balkans and Italy, where the fault lines are dense and volcanism may, in some regions, add to the seismic instability.

These earthquakes are often powerful enough to have disastrous consequences for human lives, man-made installations and for the land itself. While the inhabitants of the rest of Europe are threatened to a much lesser degree by disasters of this sort, the peoples living around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East must adapt their way of life and their modes of thinking to the actuality of possibly imminent natural hazards and, when disasters strike, they must find strategies for controlling the consequences, practically and intellectually. Seismic events were part of life in antiquity as they are today, and that motivates the publication of a volume of studies on the ways in which the people of Greco-Roman antiquity reacted to major natural disasters of their time.

The volume contains the contributions to a conference at the University of Tübingen in March 2014 (plus a few additional items). The conference was part of a research project entitled Erdbeben als Bedrohung sozialer Ordnungen, in its turn affiliated with a comprehensive area of research on Bedrohte Ordnungen. The interdisciplinary character of the project is obvious. The interpretation of ancient texts on earthquakes belongs to classical philology, but societal consequences of these events can be fully understood only within the theoretical framework of today's social sciences, and modern seismology is both necessary for the interpretation of the texts and may itself profit from the study of historical earthquakes when it comes to assessing the risks for seismic events in the future. The possibility of mutual advantages for the humanities and natural sciences that a research project of this sort involves is emphasized in particular by Emanuela Guidoboni in the second introductory chapter of the volume. Descriptions of earthquakes in a pre-scientific era are useful in particular for the study of disastrous quakes in high-risk areas. In the last decades such interaction between seismologists and historians has become more common, according to Guidoboni, and has prompted the development of a new scientific discipline, historical seismology.

Professor Guidoboni's involvement in the project also demonstrates its international significance. Even if eleven out of fifteen contributors to the volume are affiliated with German universities and all contributions, except Dora Katsonopoulou's, have been written in or translated into German, scholars with a Greek and Italian background are represented among the contributors.

After two introductory chapters, the remaining contributions are arranged under three headings: Deutungen (scientific and unscientific ideas on the origin of quakes), Folgen (material destruction and other effects of quakes), and Repräsentationen (the thematization of earthquakes in literature).

Ulrike Ehmig introduces the first of these sections. She points out that a natural disaster never occurs in a vacuum but always affects human societies with their own ideas about nature, human and divine spheres and their interaction. Whereas earlier studies on invocations for divine assistance have focused on literary texts, Ehmig chooses to analyze Latin inscriptions that either invoke or thankfully acknowledge divine protection. Earthquakes and similar disasters that affect a whole community or society only exceptionally appear in these inscriptions. They normally concern the salvation of an individual or a small group of people from dangers of a more personal nature (sickness, imprisonment, perils of the sea, etc.) and are almost invariably addressed to specific gods. The literary evidence studied by others indicates that the Romans often collectively invoked divine assistance in the face of disasters and on those occasions applied to diis deabusque in general rather than to individual gods. Greek inscriptions, on the other hand, testify that Poseidon could be invoked as protector against earthquakes; according to the Latin inscriptions, Neptune never acquired a comparable function as a specialized earthquake god.

In the Roman Empire it was an apparently common idea that a natural disaster, in particular a devastating earthquake, was in some way connected to the death of a ruler that had occurred at approximately the same time. Stefano Conti studies how that idea reappeared with somewhat different nuances at different times and in the two halves of the empire. Conti uses predominantly literary evidence, and it is evident that the gradual establishment of Christianity as the dominant spiritual power exerted an influence in this context, too. Christian writers were in particular prone to explain a natural disaster as a sign of God's displeasure with a ruler whom the pagans would defend. Thus, when a series of severe earthquakes struck the eastern part of the Mediterranean in the mid-fourth century A.D., culminating with the devastation of 21 July 365, Libanios, in his funeral oration for Emperor Julian, claimed that the disasters occurred because the gods and Earth itself mourned the death of the defender of paganism, while Christian writers described the same events as punitive measures by God against the Apostate and his followers.

Gerhard Waldherr also elucidates the effects of Christianity on the understanding of natural disasters. Even before the advent of the new religion, ancient peoples tended to interpret those events as punishments sent by their gods. But gods also cared for the welfare of their worshippers and would send them signs that warned them not to continue an on-going enterprise that displeased the gods or could lead to unfortunate consequences. Thus, earthquakes were not only interpreted as punishments but also not infrequently as indicators of the will of gods. This latter, positive interpretation becomes more apparent in the Christian world: earthquakes and other natural disasters became the tools of divine providence and served the purpose of converting mankind to belief in the one and only God and to leading a life in accordance with His commandments.

In the second section of the volume Wolfram Martini addresses a problem often met with by excavators of ancient sites in seismologically active areas, viz., the distinguishing of destruction caused by earthquakes and other natural phenomena from deliberate demolition of buildings and other installations when a city was conquered by enemies or a new edifice was to be erected. Martini's discussion is mainly based on material from the excavations of Perge in Asia Minor, Samos, and Munigua in Spain. Perge flourished throughout antiquity but was eventually, after an unusually violent quake (or a series of them?), abandoned by the residents, and the remaining, virtually undisturbed destruction layer illustrates directly the impact of the final catastrophe. But cities were normally restored after earthquakes and, in order to understand what had happened in such cases, it is necessary to identify the primary damage caused immediately by the movements of the terrain and to distinguish them from those that were caused by secondary effects of the quake, e.g., land-slides and tsunamis. Martini shows how archaeological material could be used for such a distinction. He describes—modestly—his results as only tentative and emphasizes the need for a more systematic study of Schadensbilder at earthquake sites.

Richard Posamentir discusses the long-term effects of earthquakes. It has sometimes been assumed that series of devastating earthquakes have caused or been essentially contributive to the decline and eventual demise of whole civilizations, e.g., at the end of the Bronze Age or in late antiquity. With examples from Asia Minor, Posamentir demonstrates how difficult it is to link a specific quake attested by literary or epigraphic texts with archaeological evidence. His analysis of the development of Syrian Anazarbos supports the conclusion that an earthquake in itself rarely causes the collapse of a community but that political, social and economic factors in combination with one or more natural disasters may have that effect.

The earthquake, followed by a tsunami, that struck the Achaean cities of Helike and Boura in 373/2 B.C. is discussed by Dora Katsonopoulou, the director of the excavations there. The literary evidence testifies that Helike was never restored but ceased to exist as an independent city-state and as a member of the Achaean League. Katsonopoulou offers an account of the archaeological enterprise and its results. The Helike archaeologists claim to have identified and pinpointed chronologically a series of severe earthquakes ranging from c. 2000 B.C. onwards.

In the Roman Empire one of the duties of the emperor was to care for victims of natural disasters and other calamities. Philipp Deeg focuses on the activities of Nero in this field. This emperor's aid was, according to Deeg, not in the first place motivated by his caring for the unhappy victims but by the ambition to surpass his predecessors on the throne in his role as the benefactor of the citizens. Victims of earthquakes often sent their representatives to the imperial court in order to secure the ruler's assistance. The intervention of the famous orator Aelius Aristeides on behalf of Smyrna and Rhodes in the mid-second century is discussed by Christian Fron, who concludes that cities that were shrewd enough to engage an efficient ambassador could be fairly certain that their appeal would be successful.

Book VI of Seneca's Naturales quaestiones is the longest surviving discussion of seismicity in ancient literature. Two contributions in the third section of the volume are devoted to that text. The overall objective of Seneca's book was to liberate mankind from the terror induced by earthquakes. Claudia Wiener argues that Seneca's discussion on the origin of seismic events and his detailed account of the naturalists' theories serve that purpose: if men become aware that they have natural causes, the quakes will seem less frightening. Antje Wessels arrives at a different conclusion. According to her, Seneca emphasizes the inevitability of earthquakes, which differentiates them from other calamities, which may or may not happen. A scientific understanding of their causes will not reduce the terror, but it is the philosopher's task to console men and teach them resignation to the inescapable conditions of life.

Aelius Aristeides' Μονῳδία ἐπὶ Σμύρνης inspired Libanios to compose his own monody on Nikomedeia when that city was struck by an earthquake in 358 AD. That text is subject to a detailed analysis by Carlo Franco in his contribution to the volume. Apart from elucidating the historical background of the text, Franco, by applying both traditional and more recent analytical methods, clarifies its position in the literary tradition and its dependence on the model provided by Aristeides.

The last chapter of the volume provides a glance at earthquake literature outside the Greco-Roman world. Justine Walter compares the accounts of earthquakes in the Roman historians with corresponding narratives in ancient Chinese chronicles of the Han dynasty. The comparison reveals a number of differences, as might be expected, but also similarities, e.g., the tendency to associate seismic events with astronomical and meteorological phenomena and the understanding of earthquakes as portents of significance to the ruler.

Martini's, Posamentir's and Katsonopoulou's texts are illustrated by informative gray-scale photos or plans. The volume is supplied with seemingly complete indexes of ancient personal names, toponyms and text passages (and a shorter one of topics). There is no comprehensive bibliography but all contributions contain copious references to relevant literature in footnotes.

As is apparent from this survey, the contents of the volume are of a mixed character; the individual contributions cannot easily be subsumed under a common heading. However, most of them report on competent and, in some cases, innovative research. The book undoubtedly has something to offer to anyone interested in the ways in which humans react to the natural disasters that have an impact on the world we live in.

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