Posted by: Dominic | August 25, 2011

And the earth lose its chief characteristic, stability

On Tuesday (23 August) at about 2:00 pm, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake hit the east coast of the United States. The trembling was over before I even realized what it was that had happened, and everyone was more than a little confused, then slightly scared for a few seconds, which was compounded by faulty phone lines. Eventually indignation at interrupted cell phone service replaced fear of death and destruction. A few Californians in our midst sneered extravagantly at us easterners’ sensitivity. By the time we all got home from work and to our dinner tables, we were pleasantly amused with the day’s distraction once it was revealed that no one suffered any bodily harm. Facebook and twitter were deluged with our best witticisms about the event.

United States Geological Survey Shake Map for the 23 August 2011 earthquake

This, of course, I took as an opportunity to look at earthquakes in the ancient world!

The Mediterranean Sea and the ancient Near East are hotbeds of tectonic activity, so it’s no surprise that earthquakes figure into the history and imagination of ancient peoples. One of the earliest records of an historical earthquake appears in a 13th century BC Assyrian inscription. The Hebrew prophets Amos (1.1) and Zechariah (14.5) both mention an historical earthquake during the reign of Uzziah, an 8th century BC ruler of the Kingdom of Judah. But earthquakes were also thought to be evidence of divine activity. The earth shakes in the presence of Yahweh (Exod. 19.18; Ps. 18.17, 68.8). The judgment of God is accompanied by an earthquake in Isaiah (29.6). Conversely, and contrary to Elijah’s expectations of God’s frightful and awesome majesty, the Lord is not in the earthquake but passes by in a meek voice (1 Kgs. 19.11-12).

Earthquakes have also figured prominently in Greek history. In 465/4 BC, an earthquake struck the Peloponnese, the southern part of Greece, near the city of Sparta. Supposedly all but five houses in Sparta were destroyed, and a gymnasium fell and killed a group of young boys (Plutarch, Life of Cimon 16.4-5). The earthquake was accompanied by a revolt of Sparta’s slave class, the Helots (Thucydides 1.101-103; Pausanias 1.29.8).

A powerful earthquake in 373 BC quickly became infamous for submerging the entire city of Helice in Achaea, the northern coast of the Peloponnese (Strabo 8.7.2). Helice did not come to light again until excavations in the 1990s.

Earthquakes were long considered the domain of Poseidon, god of the sea. His Homeric epithet is Ἐννοσίγαιος, “the Earth-Shaker” (e.g., Iliad 13.43). There was a temple to Poseidon in Sparta, called Poseidon ἀσφάλειος, the Securer (Paus. 3.11.9; Inscriptiones Graecae V 1.559). Worship of Poseidon as the shaker and securer of earth was not limited to Sparta but is also found in Delphi (Fouilles de Delphes III 3.343), Epidaurus (IG IV(2)1.411), and Arcadia (IG V 2.454).

His cult is also well-documented for Athens and Attica – it is mentioned by authors from 5th century BC comic poet Aristophanes to AD 2nd century biographer Plutarch (Ar., Acharnanians 682; Plut., Life of Theseus 36.4). The Athenians even offer sacrifice to Poseidon the Securer in preparation for the evacuation of Attica during the Persian invasion of 480 BC in advance of the Battle of Salamis, where the Athenian fleet decisively defeated the Persians and chased their fleet out of Greek waters (Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum 22.274).

Destruction during the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

While many made earthquakes the subject of worship, others attempted to explain them as a natural phenomenon. These efforts began as early as the 6th century BC with the pre-Socratic natural philosophers of Ionia and Greece. Their theories sought an explanation within the paradigm of the four classical elements: earth, air, water, and fire. Thales of Miletus believed that the earth floated on an underlying ocean and therefore was liable to tremors and paroxysms. Anaximenes of Miletus hypothesized that variations in moisture and dryness caused the earth to crack. Still others believed that fire exploded within the earth. Pliny the Elder and Seneca the Younger, both AD 1st century Roman writers, believed that air filled up the cavernous regions below the earth’s surface, and that was the source of shaking and rumbling (Sen., Naturales Quaestiones 6; Pliny, Naturalis Historia 2.79-84); though they were certainly not the first ones to put forth this theory. Both seem to be motivated to write on the matter by a strong earthquake that shook the region around Pompeii in AD 62. As Pliny explains:

I suppose that without all doubt the winds are the cause thereof. For never beginneth the earth to quake, but when the sea is still; and the weather so calme withall, that the birds in their flying cannot hover and hang in the aire … ne yet at any time, but after the winds are laid, namely, when the blast is pent and hidden within the veines and hollow caves of the earth. Neither is this shaking in the earth any other thing …[but] … when the spirit enclosed within, struggleth and stirreth to goe forth at libertie. (Trans. Philemon Holland, 1601).

Seneca points out the source of our overwhelming fear of earthquakes.

For what can any one believe quite safe if the world itself is shaken, and its most solid parts totter to their fall? Where, indeed, can our fears have limit if the one thing immovably fixed, which upholds all other things in dependence on it, begins to rock, and the earth lose its chief characteristic, stability? … [T]his calamity of earthquake extends beyond all bounds, inevitable, insatiable, the destruction of a whole State.

But he is also quick to use the earthquake as yet another reason not to fear death but to steel one’s self with Stoic philosophy.

… Among nature’s righteous decrees this is the chief, that when we reach the end of life we are all on a level. It makes no difference, therefore, to me whether one stone wound me to death or I am crushed beneath a whole mountain; whether the weight of one house come down on me, and I expire beneath the dust of its humble mound, or whether the whole world descend upon my head; whether I yield up this breath in the open light of day or in the vast abyss of the yawning earth; whether I am borne down to those depths all alone or along with a great throng of perishing nations. To me it can make no difference how great is the turmoil that accompanies my death; the thing is everywhere just the same. Wherefore, let us raise high our courage against that disaster, which can neither be shunned nor yet foreseen.

Seneca the Younger from Antikensammlung Berlin

Sources: P.A. Cartledge and J.R. Sallares, “Earthquake,” Oxford Classical Dictionary, Third Edition; S. Maul and F. Krafft, “Earthquake,” Brill’s New Pauly; J.E. Lunceford, “Earthquake,” Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible.

Nota Bene: I don’t think it is recommended to stand outside of buildings during a quake, as many photos in the news show. If you are already outside, get away from buildings and into an open area. Parts of buildings may collapse and fall onto the sidewalks and streets. According to FEMA, drop to the floor, get under under a piece of furniture or into the corner of a room, and hold on (


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