Unusual Historic Crises and Calamities
Unusual Historic Crises and Calamities

Unusual Historic Crises and Calamities

Khalid Elhassan - April 16, 2020

Unusual Historic Crises and Calamities
Emperor Hadrian. Encyclopedia Britannica

4. Two Emperors Caught a Lucky Break

When the earthquake struck Antioch, the Roman emperor Trajan and his chief deputy and successor, the future emperor Hadrian, were wintering in the city, overseeing preparations for a military campaign against Parthia. Because Antioch served as headquarters for the war against Parthia, the city and the surrounding region were even more crowded than usual. The presence of legions encamped nearby, as well as the camp followers and other civilians engaged in support activities for the Roman army, swelled Antioch’s population.

Trajan managed to escape via a window from the building in which he had been housed, and was fortunate to suffer only light injuries. As buildings and debris kept falling due to aftershocks, the emperor and his entourage relocated to the open hippodrome, or race track, where they erected tents and set up house. His deputy Hadrian also escaped with only slight injuries. Both oversaw the recovery and rebuilding process, which was begun by Trajan, and after his death in 117, was continued and completed by his successor, Hadrian.

Unusual Historic Crises and Calamities
Sunken Atlantis. History

3. The Calamity Behind the Legend of Atlantis

Sometime between 1642 – 1540 BC, Santorini in today’s Greece experienced one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in recorded history. It was about four times as powerful as the gigantic Krakatoa eruption of 1883. The explosion sundered the island of Thera, and wiped out the flourishing Minoan settlement of nearby Akrotiri and surrounding islands.

Known as the Minoan Eruption of Thera, the event gave rise to the legend of the vanished civilization of Atlantis, which was doomed by a natural catastrophe and swallowed by the sea. Beyond legend, however, the Minoan Eruption was one of history’s most impactful natural disasters, with consequences not only to its own era, but with knock-on effects and a chain of causation leading directly to the world in which we live today.

Unusual Historic Crises and Calamities
Excavation of Arkotiri on Thera. Wikimedia

2. Destroying a Civilization

In addition to the immediate devastation of Thera and surrounding islands, the Minoan Eruption produced powerful tsunamis. They struck and devastated Crete, contributing to the decline of its Minoan civilization, and paving the way for its extinction. The Minoans were the Mediterranean’s greatest naval power, as well as the dominant power of the Aegean, including what became Greece and the Greek world.

A trading power, the Minoans were oriented towards Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean, and were strongly influenced by those civilizations. While the Minoans flourished, the Aegean world in their thrall was by necessity oriented in the same direction, and strongly influenced by the Egyptian and eastern civilizations as well.

Unusual Historic Crises and Calamities
Santorini, before and after the eruption. Science Photo Library

1. History’s Most Impactful Calamity?

The Minoan Eruption weakened Crete and its Minoan civilization sufficiently to create a power vacuum in the Aegean. The emerging Mycenaeans filled it in mainland Greece. They went on to conquer Crete and destroy the Minoans, and became the dominant power of the Aegean. However, unlike the Minoans, the Mycenaeans’ energies were focused not on trade with Egypt and the Levant, but on colonizing the Aegean, the western coast of Asia Minor, the Black Sea coast, and the western Mediterranean.

That change of orientation significantly reduced Egyptian and eastern influences upon the Greeks, and the trajectory of their civilization when it flourished centuries later, long after the Mycenaeans had themselves disappeared. The Greeks ended up with civilization and culture distinct from Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, rather than becoming an extension and outpost of those civilizations. That had knock-on effects on western civilization, which is founded upon that of the ancient Greeks. An argument could be made that today’s western civilization and its impact on the modern world would not exist but for the Minoan Eruption of the second millennium BC.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Justinian’s Plague (541-542 CE)

Brewminate – The Antioch Earthquake in 115 CE

Cantor, Norman F. – In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World it Made (2001)

Centers for Disease Control – Plague Transmission

Crawford, Dorothy – Deadly Companions: How Microbes Shaped Our History (2018)

Earth Magazine – Benchmarks: November 13, 1985: Nevado del Ruiz Eruption Triggers Deadly Lahars

Encyclopedia Britannica – Black Death

Encyclopedia Britannica – Lisbon Earthquake of 1755

Encyclopedia Britannica – Mount Kelud

Friedrich, Walter L. – Fire in the Sea: The Santorini Volcano: Natural History and the Legend of Atlantis (2000)

Hurricane Science – 1839 Coringa Cyclone

Live Science – Mount Vesuvius & Pompeii: Facts & History

History Collection – Hell on Earth: 12 of History’s Most Destructive Natural Disasters

Listverse – 10 Scary Facts About the Justinian Plague

McNeil, William H. – Plagues and People (1976)

Medievalists Net – Yersinia Pestis and the Plague of Justinian 541-543 AD: A Genomic Analysis

National Geographic Magazine, September, 2007 – Vesuvius: Asleep For Now

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Global Volcanism Program – Kelut

Wikipedia – Armero Tragedy

Wikipedia – Black Death

Wikipedia – Minoan Eruption

Wired – Local and Global Impacts of the 1783-84 Laki Eruption in Iceland