The History, 17.7

Ammian  translated by C. D. Yonge

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7This year also some terrible earthquakes took place in Macedonia, Asia Minor, and Pontus, and their repeated shocks overthrew many towns, and even mountains. But the most remarkable of all the manifold disasters which they caused was the entire ruin of Nicomedia, the metropolis of Bithynia; which I will here relate with truth and brevity.

2On the 23rd of August, at daybreak, some heavy black clouds suddenly obscured the sky, which just before was quite fair. And the sun was so wholly concealed that it was impossible to see what was near or even quite close, so completely did a thick lurid darkness settle on the ground, preventing the least use of the eyes.

3Presently, as if the supreme deity were himself letting loose his fatal wrath, and stirring up the winds from their hinges, a violent raging storm descended, by the fury of which the groaning mountains were struck, and the crash of the waves on the shore was heard to a vast distance. And then followed typhoons and whirlwinds with a horrid trembling of the earth, throwing down the whole city and its suburbs.

4And as most of the houses were built on the slopes of the hills, they now fell down one over the other, while all around resounded with the vast crash of their fall. In the mean time the tops of the hills re-echoed all sorts of noises, as well as outcries of men seeking their wives and children, and other relations.

5At last, after two hours, or at least within three, the air became again clear and serene, and disclosed the destruction which till then was unseen. Some, overwhelmed by the enormous masses of ruins which had fallen upon them, were crushed to death. Some were buried up to the neck, and might have been saved if there had been any timely help at hand, but perished for want of assistance; others were transfixed by the points of beams projecting forth, on which they hung suspended.

6Here was seen a crowd of persons slain by one blow; there a promiscuous heap of corpses piled in various ways—some were buried beneath the roofs of falling houses, which leant over so as to protect them from any actual blows, but reserved them for an agonizing death by starvation. Among whom was Aristænetus, who, with the authority of deputy, governed Bithynia, which had been recently erected into a province; and to which Constantius had given the name of Piety, in honour of his wife Eusebia, (a Greek word, equivalent to Pietas in Latin); and he perished thus by a lingering death.

7Others who were overwhelmed by the sudden fall of vast buildings, are still lying entombed beneath the immovable masses. Some with their skulls fractured, or their shoulders or legs cut through, lay between life and death, imploring aid from others suffering equally with themselves; but in spite of their entreaties they were abandoned.

8Not but what the greater part of the temples and buildings and of the citizens also would have escaped unhurt, if a fire had not suddenly broken out, which raged with great violence for fifty days and nights, and destroyed all that remained.

9I think this a good opportunity to enumerate a few of the conjectures which the ancients have formed about earthquakes. For as to any accurate knowledge of their causes, not only has that never been attained by the ignorance of the common people, but they have equally eluded the long lucubrations and subtle researches of natural philosophers.

10And on this account in all priestly ceremonies, whether ritual or pontifical, care is taken not at such times to name one god more than another, for fear of impiety, since it is quite uncertain which god causes these visitations.

11But as the various opinions, among which Aristotle wavers and hesitates, suggest, earthquakes are engendered either in small caverns under the earth, which the Greeks call σύριγγες, because of the waters pouring through them with a more rapid motion than usual, or, as Anaxagoras affirms, they arise from the force of the wind penetrating the lower parts of the earth, which, when they have got down to the encrusted solid mass, finding no vent-holes, shake those portions in their solid state, into which they have got entrance when in a state of solution. And this is corroborated by the observation that at such times no breezes of wind are felt by us above ground, because the winds are occupied in the lowest recesses of the earth.

12Anaximander says that the earth when burnt up by excessive heat and drought, and also after excessive rains, opens larger fissures than usual, which the upper air penetrates with great force and in excessive quantities, and the earth, shaken by the furious blasts which penetrate those fissures, is disturbed to its very foundations; for which reason these fearful events occur either at times of great evaporation or else at those of an extravagant fall of rain from heaven. And therefore the ancient poets and theologians gave Neptune the name of Earthshaker,as being the power of moist substance.

13Now earthquakes take place in four manners: either they are brasmatiæ, which raise up the ground in a terrible manner, and throw vast masses up to the surface, as in Asia, Delos arose, and Hiera; and also Anaphe and Rhodes, which has at different times been called Ophiusa and Pelagia, and was once watered with a shower of gold; and Eleusis in Bœotia, and the Hellenian islands in the Tyrrhenian sea, and many other islands. Or they are climatiæ, which, with a slanting and oblique blow, level cities, edifices, and mountains. Or chasmatiæ, which suddenly, by a violent motion, open huge mouths, and so swallow up portions of the earth, as in the Atlantic sea, on the coast of Europe, a large island was swallowed up, and in the Crissæan Gulf, Helice and Bura, and in Italy, in the Ciminian district, the town of Saccumum was swallowed up in a deep gulf and hidden in everlasting darkness. And among these three kinds of earthquakes, myæmotiæ are heard with a threatening roar, when the elements either spring apart, their joints being broken, or again resettle in their former places, when the earth also settles back; for then it cannot be but that crashes and roars of the earth should resound with bull-like bellowings. Let us now return to our original subject.

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