365 Crete Earthquake
Early in the morning of July 21st, 365, the Roman world was rocked by a powerful earthquake registering at least 8 on the Richter Scale and epicentered on Crete. The earthquake, which shook the island and brought about widespread devastation, was the most powerful seismic upheaval to have struck the region in recorded history. In one gigantic push from below, coral reefs surrounding Crete erupted 33 feet upwards, clear of the water, and geologists estimate that the island was itself lifted by as much as 30 feet.
In addition to the immediate damage resulting from the earthquake, the tremors caused a powerful tsunami that wrecked not only much of the Cretan coast, but raced across the Mediterranean, wreaking havoc across that sea. The tsunami struck Greece to the north, Cyprus to the east, reached south to devastate coastal communities along the North African coast in Alexandria, Egypt’s Nile Delta and Libya, and raced westward to cause damage in Sicily and in far off Spain. The wall of water was high enough and powerful enough that it carried ships and hurled them up to two miles inland.
The earthquake and tsunami were described by many writers of the period. However, the quality of literary writing and intellectual discourse had significantly declined – the days of the high-quality prose of a Thucydides, Cicero, Caesar or Livy, were centuries past by then. Writers of Late Antiquity tended to describe events without paying as much attention to the details and actually describing them, as much as they did to ascribing their occurrence to divine displeasure and intervention from up above in response to political and religious events on earth.
Between that literary decline and religious antagonisms giving rise to intellectually dishonest descriptions, such as attributing the Cretan disaster to heavenly wrath, most of what we know is derived from archeological evidence, combined with numerous references to the earthquake’s occurrence and its massiveness.
The historian Ammianus Marcellinus‘ described the impact on Alexandria: “The solidity of the earth was made to shake … and the sea was driven away. The waters returning when least expected killed many thousands by drowning. Huge ships perched on the roofs of houses … hurled miles from the shore“.
Such descriptions however were rare, and the historical records lack a reliable contemporary narrative describing the damage elsewhere in the Mediterranean with the degree of attention that was common when Greco-Roman civilization and culture were at their height. There was no equivalent to Pliny the Younger’s description of the Vesuvius eruption of 79 AD. What is known is that the devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami was massive and widespread, and the loss of life high, with estimated casualties between 300,000 to half a million.