Volcanism in the ancient world

In the ancient Greek and Roman world, volcanism was recognised as a divine phenomenon standing in close connection with the fire god, Hephaestus or Vulcan. Although there did not exist any term corresponding to the modern word “volcano”, people were aware of the destructive power arising from volcanic eruptions. Some early natural philosophers were already able to identify individual volcanic processes, such as lava flow and the generation of huge and extremely hot dust clouds. In the ancient Greek language, lava masses streaming downhill were simply named “rhea” (ύαξ or flow), whereas the Latin words “Vulcanius amnis” (Vulcanic stream), “saxa liquefacta” (liquefied rocks) and “massa ardens” (blazing mass) were used for the same phenomenon.

Volcanoes were of enormous importance for the ancient Mediterranean world, because their eruptions caused the destruction of adjacent settlements and even the annihilation of entire civilizations. According to our present historical and archaeological knowledge, three volcanoes had an immense influence on the development of Mediterranean cultures: (1) the volcano of Thira-Santorini, which left behind the huge caldera visible today; (2) Vesuvius near the city of Naples; and (3) Etna on the island of Sicily (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. A satellite map of the Mediterranean region, including the position of the three volcanoes
covered in this article. Despite the Thira-Santorini volcano being situated in the Aegean Sea,
Vesuvius near Naples and Etna on Sicily, they are all considered to be part of the western
Mediterranean Sea. (Photo: ©NASA.)

In this article, I intend to describe these volcanoes in some detail and additionally want to provide some information on the disastrous eruptions produced by two of them. And, as we will see in the following sections, ancient volcanism had a similar impact on man and climate as well-documented eruptions of the modern times (for example, Krakatoa, Mount St Helens and Pinatubo).

The eruption of the Thira-Santorini volcano (sixteenth century BC)

The island of Santorini is situated in the centre the Greek Cyclades islands and once was marked by the activity of a huge volcano, which erupted in the Middle Bronze Age, sometime between 1650BC and 1550BC. During this natural disaster, the settlement of Akrotiri was completely covered in pumice and volcanic ash, thereby preserving the ancient urban structures, which can still be seen and visited today. According to the results of recent scientific studies, the cataclysmic eruption of the island’s volcano was preceded by earthquakes reaching a magnitude 7 on the Richter scale. These seismic shocks caused the destruction of the town and the creation of 9m-high tsunami. The eruption itself occurred some days later and entailed the release of about 15 billion tons of magma, accompanied by an enormous cloud of volcanic ash. The disaster was not only responsible for the extinction of Akrotiri, but also for the destruction of Trianda on Rhodes and cities along the northern coast of Crete. Current scientific investigations suggest that the eruption of the Thira-Santorini volcano also caused the fall of the Minoan palace era and initiated Mycenaean imperialism in the Aegean region.

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