Natural Disasters in Byzantine History

Posted by Powee Celdran 

During the whole year (536) the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, and it seemed extremely like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it emitted were not clear nor like those it usually makes.” -Procopius, Byzantine historian on the “dust-veil” of 536


Welcome to another article by the Byzantium Blogger! This month, I have just finished 3 extremely long, complex, but interesting articles on all the Byzantine emperors and their personalities and with so much information and stories about them and their actions, I had to make not one article on it but 3! Now that I’m done with the 3-part series on the Byzantine personality through the emperors’ lives, it’s time to move to another topic which will be on Disasters in Byzantine history, which are mostly acts of God. After writing such a long scholarly series on the emperors, it’s time for a break and for this, I will here an article less serious and focus more on Byzantine historical trivia. This article will once again be based on the book A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities by Anthony Kaldellis and specifically on Chapter XVII which is “Disasters- Mostly Acts of God”. When it comes to natural disasters, they are considered as “Acts of God” and therefore are events that cannot be foreseen and in legal terms these are called Fortuitous Events and these unforeseen disasters I will write about in this article include tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, extreme weather events or the “dust-veil”, plague, ice, and fire. Meanwhile many of these events were acts of God like earthquakes, floods, and tsunamis but some fortuitous events can be acts of man as well like fire and plague in the sense of not being able to control it. The quote I used above is from the 6th century Byzantine historian Procopius who discusses what the extreme weather events of the year 536 when the sun was blocked by a thick layer of ash known as the “dust-veil”. This article will be written in a chronological form of disasters from the beginning to end of Byzantine history which is from the foundation of Constantinople in 330 to the fall of it in 1453 covering the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd ages of Byzantium, also it will only stick to these kinds of events in Byzantine history and not on these kinds of events that happened in the Roman Empire before Byzantium such as the Eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii in 79AD; and each paragraph will be made per year of the disaster. This article will feature specific highlighted years which had a major disaster in Byzantine history and will not cover every natural disaster in Byzantine history as it will be too much to write about, also all the disasters I will mention here are those that had only taken place within the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire between 330 and 1453, which means that if a location was no longer under Byzantine control but faced some of these natural disasters, it will not be mentioned. Also, the article will continue what was discussed the last time which was on the personalities of the emperors as it will mention who the reigning emperor was during the time of these disasters as well as in some parts how these emperors based on their personalities dealt with these disasters. In the last 3-part series I wrote, I have discovered that the personalities of the emperors do affect the turn of events in Byzantine history, now since I am writing about natural disasters, these events also did a more major rile in turning Byzantine history itself and both the articles on the imperial personalities and this one would be something I write to learn more about the turn of events in Byzantine history, as the final year ender article will be the “Turning Points in Byzantine History” and will be mostly based on the information of this one and the past 3 as the personalities and disasters did in fact play a big role in the changing of Byzantium’s history itself. Apparently, the Byzantine Empire who’s reign saw the most natural disasters was Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565) and many of the disasters that will be featured here took place during his reign, also because his reign was the most recorded by Byzantine historians such as Procopius as well as it was the most eventful reign out of all the Byzantine emperors. During Justinian I’s reign, the Byzantine Empire faced extreme weather events, a massive plague, a large flood, 2 tsunamis, and 3 major earthquakes but earthquakes on the other hand were the most common disaster in the Byzantine Empire as the empire itself was located in an area which is Anatolia and the Mediterranean that is prone to earthquakes. In fact, Constantinople, for all its greatness in architecture had one major flaw, which was that it was located in an active seismic zone, meanwhile other parts and major cities of the empire including Antioch and many parts of Asia Minor were in active seismic zones too. In Byzantine history, earthquakes were one of the major factors for turning points in their history not because it destroyed cities but affected people forcing them to migrate as seen with a major earthquake in 1354 which destroyed most of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Thrace forcing people to move out allowing the Ottomans from Asia Minor to make their first move into Europe, thus beginning their conquest of the Balkans and the Byzantine Empire itself. The Byzantine people were however superstitious and many of them judged these disasters to be God’s way of punishing them, and some emperors even took action on these disasters by using them as a way to repent such as Leo III in 726 after the eruption of Thera seeing this as the reason for icons to be banned as he saw that the icons had no power to stop these calamities from happening, therefore the Iconoclast movement began. The other disaster most common in the Middle Ages was plague and throughout Byzantine history, there were 2 major devastating recorded plagues first being the Plague of Justinian from 541-542 and the Black Death in the 1340’s and both created such a decline in population and a weakening of the empire and its resources, meanwhile both these plagues too have mysterious origins coming all the way as far as from China. Now since Byzantine history went a long way and changed itself so much that things were no longer the way they were in the 6th century in the 14th century but one thing that never changed for the Byzantines were natural disasters, but at least they at times knew how to prepare for them. Anyway, let’s begin with the article featuring key years of natural disasters having some bizarre stories about them!

Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols
Map of the Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent, 555 during the reign of Justinian I
“A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities” by Anthony Kaldellis

Note: This article’s information comes from various Byzantine historians from the ear of the Byzantine Empire (330-1453). Facts come from A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities by Anthony Kaldellis 


Other Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

The Complete Genealogy of the Byzantine Emperors

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

The 94 Emperors of Byzantium

Byzantine Science and Technology

Crime, Punishment, and Medical Practice in the Byzantine World

The Art of War in the Byzantine World

A Guide to the Byzantine Empire’s Themes

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part1

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part2

Byzantine Imperial Personalities Part3


358- Earthquake of Nicomedia


Nicomedia (known as Izmit today) was a major city of the Eastern Roman Empire in Asia Minor located in the region of Bithynia just along the Sea of Marmara on the Asian side very close to Constantinople. Before the transfer of the Roman Empire’s capital to Constantnople and the founding of the Byzantine Empire, Nicomedia was the center of the persecutions of Christians beginning in 303 under the emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305). In 358, the 2nd Byzantine emperor Constantius II (r. 337-361), the son of the empire’s founder Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337) proposed to hold a Church council at the cathedral in Nicomedia, although Constantius II was an Arian in belief and probably wanted to hold the council to make Arian Christianity the religion of the empire. However, on August 24, 358 which some days before the council could be held, a massive earthquake struck the city at dawn destroying almost everything, including the cathedral. Since the city was built on a slop descending to the sea, houses built along the slope tumbled down crushing each other creating a cascade. The Byzantine historian at that time Ammianus Marcellinus describes the devastation of the earthquake, as when the sun rose the damage was so bad that houses tumbled down on top of each other, people were crushed by the damage, others buried up to the neck in the debris, and some were skewered on sharp points and beams. Worse than this, the damage trapped people in their homes leaving them to starve to death, including the governor Aristainetos. The semi-Arian bishop Cecropius too was found dead from the earthquake, although surprisingly the number of the deaths from this earthquake was only 15 and one of the people killed apart from the bishop and governor was the Persian soldier/ philosopher Arsacius who previously predicted the event but was ridiculed, though after the earthquake, strangely he was found dead in his tower which remained undamaged. This earthquake was held to be an act of divine judgment by Arian opponents believing that God caused this earthquake to punish the Arian heretics, which included the bishop. After the earthquake that brought so much destruction, Nicomedia would eventually be rebuilt but in a smaller scale until in the 6th century when Justinian I built it at the level of an imperial city again.

Byzantine era Nicomedia


365- Earthquake and Tsunami of Crete


On July 21, 365, a massive earthquake occurred with its epicenter at the large island of Crete in the Eastern Mediterranean and the effects of it were so strong it reached as far as Sothern Greece, Northern Libya and Egypt, Cyprus, Sicily, and Southern Spain. Modern geologists say that this earthquake had a magnitude of 8.5 or above as it was so strong enough to trigger a tsunami that devasted Crete and went as far as Alexandria in the south killing thousands and pushing ships 3km inland. The massive tsunami and its aftermath that came from the powerful earthquake of Crete is described in detail by the same historian Ammianus Marcellinus who writes that the sea was pulled back from its bed exposing numerous sea animals stuck in the land where ships were also left stranded, also underwater valleys and mountains were seen for the first time by the people and as the sea was pushed back, the people ran to this “new land” to scavenge the ships that were stuck and to collect sea creatures but soon enough, the sea came back at them killing all of them as it rushed quickly into the land. When the tsunami hit the land, thousands were killed by drowning in the sea water, cities were flooded by the water, and ships were carried inland and were even stranded above buildings from the tsunami’s effects. The earthquake’s epicenter may have been in the middle of the sea but it was so strong that it created a tsunami powerful enough to destroy nearly all the towns in Crete and permanently lift parts of the island out of the water, and today the effects can still be seen with some parts that were submerged no longer buried underwater including sea caves that were lifted by 9m.

Meanwhile, the tsunami caused by the earthquake did not only hit Crete, it travelled south directed towards Alexandria, the largest city of Byzantine Egypt. According to a later legend written in the Chronicle of the 7th century Egyptian Coptic bishop John of Nikiu, the powerful and energetic bishop of Alexandria who was strong opponent against Arianism and Church Father, St. Athanasius (296-373) faced the sea charging towards the city with a Bible in his hand and said “Oh God, you never lie, and you promised after the flood of Noah that you will not again bring a flood of waters upon the earth” and with the help of Athanasius, the water of the tsunami stopped and the city was saved, though many parts of the coast of North Africa were devastated by the tsunami at the same level of damage as Crete, but at least Alexandria was saved. However, even if the earthquake and tsunami took place in 365 during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Valentinian I (364-375), some Christian authors predate the event by 2 years to 363 as a way to interpret the tsunami as God’s anger against the emperor Julian the Apostate (r. 361-363) for rejecting Christianity and returning to Paganism. Meanwhile, the Pagan writer and philosopher Libanius who was a fan of Julian included this event as one of the events caused by the earth to mourn Julian’s passing, as in June of 363 Julian was killed in battle against the Sassanid Persians. From 366 up to the late 6th century, July 21 would be commemorated by the Byzantines as “The Day of Horror”.

Map of the range of the Earthquake and Tsunami of Crete, 365
Summary of the Crete and Alexandria earthquake and tsunami, 365


525- Flood of Edessa


Now fast-forward to the early 6th century and in 525 during the reign of Emperor Justin I (518-527)- the uncle and predecessor of Justinian I the Great- the Daisan (or Skirtos) River in Southeast Asia Minor which is a tributary of the River Euphrates flooded so suddenly at an extreme level that the waters of the river poured through the doors of a bathhouse and drowned those bathing in it. According to the Chronicle of John Malalas, within a couple of hours the flood filled up the entire city and since the city was surrounded by walls, the flood turned it into a lake until the water’s pressure made the walls collapse releasing the flood to the plains outside, and as the flood subsided and the city was being rebuilt, the Shroud of Turin also known as the Image of Edessa or Mandylion was allegedly discovered hidden in a wall hidden above one of the gates as a cloth with the facial features of a man believed to be Christ. This event became known as “The Anger”, which was God’s anger.


526- Earthquake of Antioch


Just one year after the great flood of Edessa and still during the reign of the aging Justin I who started life as a simple peasant, a massive earthquake struck the city of Antioch in Byzantine Syria which is today in southern Turkey and was one of the Byzantine Empire’s major cities in the first age of its history before the city was lost later on to the Arabs and later to the Crusaders. This powerful earthquake with a magnitude of about 7 struck Antioch sometime between May 20 and 29 of 526 at mid-morning killing about 250,000 people and afterwards it created a fire destroying most of the city’s already fallen buildings. As it turns out, Antioch is located in a major earthquake prone zone as it is right where the Eastern Anatolian Fault and Dead Sea Transform intersect, where the Anatolian, Arabian, and African plates border each other. One of the many killed in the great Antioch earthquake was the Patriarch of Antioch Euphrasios who’s house apparently was located above a tanners’ workshop and because of the earthquake, the house collapsed and according to the Chronicle of Dionysios of Tel-Mahre, he died falling straight into a vat of boiling pitch in which he was cooked in, his body was then melted from hit only leaving his head untouched so at least a part of his body was found. The buildings destroyed by the earthquake included Constantine’s the Great’s octagonal church on the city’s island along the Orontes River and the great church too was destroyed but from the fire after the earthquake, while only houses along the mountain slopes survived. Meanwhile at Constantinople, when the emperor aged Justin I heard of it, he panicked but sent money and people to reconstruct the city as well as had the church rebuilt and appointed a new patriarch who was a military leader named Ephraim, who is actually known as St. Ephraim of Antioch. Antioch however still suffered 18 more months of aftershocks and in November of 528, another major earthquake hit the city but killing less this time. Then to appease divine anger, the city of Antioch was renamed “The City of God” or Theopolis in Greek.

Overview of Roman era Antioch
Location of Antioch (red circle) at the intersection of the East Anatolian Fault and Dead Sea Transform, between the Arabian, Anatolian, and African plates
Summary of the Antioch Earthquake, 526
Modern day Antioch (Antakya, Turkey)


535-537- The Dust-Veil


It is said that the worst year to be alive was 536 not so much because of constant invasions but because of strange extreme weather events that caused a drop in temperatures creating crop shortages and famines that lasted the whole year. This strange case of extreme weather events was recorded by the Byzantine court historian Procopius of Caesarea (500-570) who documented the reign of Emperor Justinian I (also known as Flavius Petrus Sabbatius), Justin I’s nephew. Although from 535-536, Justinian I’s reign was strong and a golden age was on its way for the Byzantine Empire, but this did not stop nature from getting in the way as Procopius described the whole year of 536 with the sun not giving its usual brightness, instead only giving its light at the same level of brightness of the moon as the sun’s beams were not clear because of the fog that covered the sky. For the entire year of 536, it may have looked like the sun was eclipsed, but in fact there was no eclipse, it was just that a thick layer of a dust-like fog- which was actually ash- that covered the sky and the causes of this back in time of the Byzantines were unclear making many believe it was supernatural, as this thick fog which blocked the sun resulted it crop failures as the crops did not get enough sunlight. In fact, not only Procopius writes about this event, sources all the way to Ireland and China mention it as well, which means places as far as Ireland and China experienced this “dust-veil” as well. In Ireland, the Gaelic chronicles only mention that beginning 536 because of a thick fog preventing the sun to shine strong, there was a failure of bread up to 539 while in China it was recorded that temperatures dropped so low that snow fell in August of 536 creating crop failures and a delay in harvest. The dry fog extended throughout China, the Middle East, and Europe as well and even as far as Peru, drought affected the Pre-Inca Moche civilization there. The causes of this “dust-veil” are either the impact of a meteor on earth or more possibly because of a series of volcanic eruptions all over the world. Volcanic eruptions are the more the credible source for this weather event because the darkening of the sky was most likely caused by the ashes from these volcanoes that drifted really far making this kind of event a “volcanic winter”. Just recently, evidence for this event have been proven; first in 1816, this kind of event happened again as this year was known to be “a year without summer” and it was discovered that the cause of it was the ashes created by the eruption of Mt. Tambora in the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia, then in 1984 it was discovered that the Rabaul Volcano in the island of New Britain near Papua New Guinea erupted sometime in the 530’s, then in 1999 it was suggested that the volcano of Krakatoa in Indonesia erupted sometime between 535 and 536, in 2010 it was discovered that a massive volcanic eruption happened at the Ilopango caldera in El Salvador at around the same time which made it suggested in 2015 that a volcanic eruption in Central America was a major cause for the dust-veil, and lastly in 2018 it was suggested that the most possible cause of this event was a volcanic eruption in Iceland that also took place in 536. Although in 2009 it was suggested that multiple meteor impacts in Greenland created the haze in the sky as the air grew cold possibly because of the cold debris from space. It is seems very unusual that volcanic eruption taking place in lands far away that no Roman has ever known of before caused the sky of the Eastern Roman Empire and lands around it to darken, but this is possible because the ash that erupted out of these volcanoes were very thick and because of the speed and strength of the wind, the ashes could be carried as far as possible, also probably because there was a chain reaction of volcanoes in that year, the sun was able to be covered by a blanket of ash for an entire year. The Byzantines were superstitious about this event also because they had no idea where these far away volcanoes were and their eruptions were not recorded or discovered up to the modern day. This event where the temperature dropped because of the ash covering the sky became known as a Little Ice Age in the early Middle Ages and since this event caused many crop failures in Europe, this could have been one of the causes for the Norsemen to start migrating out of Scandinavia, for the Mongols to start migrating west, for the civilization of Teotihuacan in Mexico to collapse, and also for the Gupta Empire in India to collapse. For Byzantium, modern historians suggested that these extreme weather events from 535-537 caused the great plague of 541-542 and for the Arabs to begin their conquests in the 7th century beginning their attacks on Byzantium as crops grew short in their region. Nevertheless, the Byzantines still moved on with their lives despite having the whole year of 536 with the sun dimmed as the general Belisarius began the Roman reconquest of Italy that year, and it was here where Procopius wrote about these events, also the Hagia Sophia cathedral at Constantinople was being completed at this time. This had turned out to be the most severe and short-term episodes of cooling in the Northern Hemisphere in the last 2000 years and since the Byzantines among others didn’t understand it was because of volcanic eruptions from far away that they had no idea of it, they thought that these events were supernatural and could have been the end of the world itself.

Procopius’ description of the “dust-veil”


541-542- The Plague of Justinian


Following the extreme weather conditions or “dust-veil” of 535-537, a massive plague struck the Byzantine Empire beginning 541 in Egypt and in 542 it hit Constantinople itself very badly. The plague was said to have started in Egypt coming from merchant ships but the bacteria of this plague known as Yersinia Pestis transmitted by fleas carried by small animals such as rats came from the Tian Shan mountain range at the border of China, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan and travelled by both land and sea. The same historian Procopius of Caesarea who described the “dust-veil” also describes the plague and its symptoms in death; the symptoms for this plague included it being started with a light fever that did not do so much harm but if it continued to develop it would cause people to start falling into a deep coma or develop an acute dementia causing them to run in fear, and because of developing a mental illness these people start throwing themselves into water. Doctors of that time on the other hand were not familiar with the symptoms of the plague but many doctors weren’t affected as well because the disease was not transmitted from person to person, rather from fleas carried by animals such as rats to persons; meanwhile the most odd thing about this plague happened to pregnant women as 3 were still able to give birth despite having the plague but their babies died but one woman died while giving birth but the baby survived. As the plague hit Constantinople in 542, the mortality rate went from 5,000 to 10,000 a day, mass graves were created across the Golden Horn at the district of Pera but when the winds blew south the stench reached the city, groups had also searched homes to find any corpse they would see and would sometimes even find parents died while their children still alive and babies were even seen suckling the breasts of their dead mothers which apparently shows that the plague kills people that quick, and also people put on name-tags so they could be identified if they died away from home. Since the death rate grew so high and the mass graves could no longer fit them, bodies were stored inside forts all the way until the corpses reached the ceiling, but 4 months after the plague arrived in Constantinople, it subsided although killing up to 25-50 million people all over the Byzantine Empire and those who survived it still remained strong and could speak well except being unable to articulate some indistinct words. Among the people who were contracted by the plague but survived was the emperor Justinian I himself as he was probably inspecting the dead outside and the fleas probably transmitted the disease to him, the plague then almost killed Justinian but surprisingly he survived it after waking up from a long coma. Justinian’s wife, the empress Theodora however managed to not be affected by the plague and while the emperor fell into a coma, she ran the empire but in the east, the generals already believed the emperor to be dead so they made their move to take the throne but it failed as Justinian recovered but his full recovery still took some time. Other than Theodora, the historian Procopius, the generals Belisarius and Narses, and the finance minister John of Cappadocia did not contract the plague but one of the most notable people to die from it happened to be the jurist Tribonian who famously made the Codex of Justinian back in 529; another survivor who contracted the plague other than the emperor was the church lawyer and historian Euagrios who was still a child at elementary school at that time. Meanwhile, another contemporary historian of Procopius, John of Ephesus writes a more emotional story of the plague which is different from Procopius’ precise details as John of Ephesus describes the horrors caused by it such as scenes of corpses slit open in the streets leaking puss everywhere, ships drifting at sea with dead crews, houses with inhabitants rotting in their beds, villages where only one child survived, herds that ran off to the wild with no one to look after them as these people were killed by the plague too, and highways that were deserted. John of Ephesus also writes that a rumor went around Constantinople that monks were causing the plague, so people would flee from them on sight. This plague though lasting for less than a year killed people so quick that 13-26% of the world’s population was killed and not only was the Byzantine Empire affected, the Sassanid Persian Empire was heavily affected as well and since both empire were hit by the plague, the war between the two that was supposed to happen did not push through. This plague had also spread so quick across the Mediterranean affecting almost every place under Byzantine control including North Africa and Italy which have been recently reconquered but since the plague hit them, Byzantine control all of a sudden went out of control and for the next years after the plague, Justinian had to put everything back together again in a way repeating his hard-worked reconquest of Italy. Soon enough the empire was stable again as the plague subsided but this though happened to be the first continental scale plague to strike as plagues before that were smaller, the next large scale plague as big as this to happen would be the Black Death some 800 years later in the 14th century when Byzantium was already weakened. Because of the “dust-veil” that happened a few years before the plague, the wind carrying volcanic ashes may have affected the fleas causing them to fly out of control due to the absence of the sun which makes the fleas live and breathe more due to colder air. Overall Justinian I’s reign may have accomplished so much for the Byzantines, but it was met with the worst disasters.

Map of the spread of the Plague of Justinian, 541-542
The Plague hits Constantinople, 542 (from Total War: Attila)
Map of the Byzantine Empire next to the Sassanid Empire and the Rashidun Arab Caliphate, early 7th century


547-548- Flooding of the Nile


Only 6 years after the great plague hit Constantinople and a decade after the “dust-veil”, the Byzantine Empire faced another great natural disaster, this time it was the flooding of the Nile from 547 to 548. Egypt was probably the richest and most important province for the Byzantines as it produced the most grain despite being a dry dessert land but with the many tributaries of the Nile River, it was fertile. In 547, the Nile flooded more than it usually did in some places along it and as it flooded, the waters refused to recede up to 548 destroying many crops and causing a famine. The people of Egypt thought that the famine caused by the waters no receding was a bad omen but the historian Procopius comes back again and says that when people do not understand the present they like to find portents regarding the future and when they worry themselves to death about things that confuse them, they make groundless predictions about what will happen. Procopius would rather think about the present rather than what is to come and for him the flooding of the Nile and swamping of land had only become a great misfortune in present time but afterwards nothing bad happened anymore there.


551- Earthquake and Tsunami of Beirut


In 551, with Justinian I still reigning as emperor, though his empress Theodora had already been dead since 548, another great disaster struck within the empire, this time it was the massive earthquake and tsunami at Beirut in Byzantine Phoenicia (today Lebanon). The earthquake took place on July 9, 551 off the coast of Beirut which in Byzantine times was called Berytus with a magnitude of 7.5 but the bigger devastation did not come from the earthquake, rather from the tsunami. This earthquake could be felt all the way from Alexandria in the south to Antioch in the north but the coastal cities of Lebanon such as Tyre and Tripoli suffered the most but in Beirut alone, it was reported that about 30,000 people died from the earthquake and tsunami. Beirut was also where one of the 3 major law academies up by Justinian were found but because of the earthquake and tsunami, the academy had to be moved to Sidon. Meanwhile, at the time the Beirut earthquake happened, the historian and lawyer Agathias was still studying at Alexandria and there he heard of the disaster and when returning to Constantinople also in 551, he passed by the island of Kos in the Aegean Sea and apparently the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami reached there. In Kos, Agathias writes in his Histories that he found the city at Kos in a pile of rubble, broken pillars and beams were sticking out everywhere, haggard people were scavenging the ruins, and the tsunami from the sea also contaminated the city’s water supply.


552- Tsunami of Boeotia


Only a year after the 551 earthquake and tsunami of Beirut, the reign of Justinian I saw a strong tsunami that flooded parts of the region of Boeotia in Central Greece. According to the same historian Procopius, as the waters from flood caused by the tsunami receded, certain unfamiliar sea creatures were left behind in the muck and the locals with their first instinct decided to grill them but when the fire touched these creatures which were probably sea cucumbers, they dissolved into a gross smelly liquid.


557- Earthquake of Constantinople


Constantinople was at a major earthquake zone and this was one of the city’s flaws; Constantine the Great chose Constantinople then Byzantium to be his capital in 324 seeing that it was in a perfect location that would be hard for enemies to invade but he did not see its major flaw that it was built in an area that was an active earthquake zone. After the plague of 542, the next major disaster Constantinople saw also within Justinian I’s reign was the major earthquake of 557, though earlier in 533 there was another major earthquake but it did not have any real casualties then in 540, 545, 547, 551, and 555, Justinian’s reign saw minor earthquakes in these years. In 557, there were 2 earthquakes that struck the city, one in April and the other in October but both had no real damage, however it was the earthquake that hit the city on the night of December 14, 557 that hit the capital very bad almost destroying it. Historians including John Malalas, Theophanes the Confessor, and Agathias again record this event and according to the Chronicle of Agathias, many people were asleep when the earthquake struck but when they felt it they ran out their houses refusing to return as their roofs would fall on them, although the only ones who didn’t run outside were those seeking refuge inside the churches, but since the city was so built up there were only a few open spaces where people could be safe but even though they were there, there was cold rain falling from the sky as winter had started. This earthquake had a magnitude of 6.4 and brought damage to many buildings that debris started falling on people as there wasn’t so much empty space around the city anymore, but at the end there were not that much casualties from the earthquake, and the only senator to die from it was the corrupt Anatolios as his bedroom walls were lined with sculpted marble panels and because of the earthquake it fell on him killing him in his sleep. Many people then believed the earthquake was sent to punish the unpopular Anatolios for his corrupt life but Agathias thinking more scientifically said that the earthquake did not distinguish between good and bad people but as the earthquake ceased by dawn of December 15, people were overjoyed. It was not mentioned though what the now 75-year-old Justinian himself- now that his wife Theodora had been long dead- was doing when the earthquake struck except in response to it afterwards, he went into a period of mourning for the city refusing to wear his crown for 40 days in respect for the people and also he made sure they helped each other. Agathias also mentions there was a short-lived positive effect on the people’s attitude from the earthquake that was very rare in Constantinople in which all the people were caring for each other, the wealthy turned to charity, doubtful people began to pray again, and even the most vicious people turned to virtue all probably as an act of repentance because of the fear of God’s wrath but soon enough, Agathias mentions they returned to their old ways. The major damages caused by this earthquake was the weakening of the dome of the Hagia Sophia which soon fully collapsed in May 558, the capital’s Walls of Theodosius II too were severely damaged that in 559, the Huns raiding into the city were able to pass through the cracks. This was probably the last major disaster in Justinian I’s reign but despite facing so many disasters in his long reign, the Byzantine Empire managed to survive and grow again and Justinian himself never gave up and continued to strongly lead his people in times of disasters as after the earthquake, despite at an old age, Justinian made sure the city and the Hagia Sophia’s dome was rebuilt into the way it once was. Even up to his old age, Justinian never gave up on his imperial ambitions to make Byzantium the world power it should be and despite facing so many natural disasters throughout his reign, Justinian was persistent to make sure everything will go back to normal, he then died in 565 8 years after this major earthquake.

Artwork of the Earthquake of Constantinople on December 14, 557


726- Eruption of Thera


Fast-forward to 726, the golden age of Byzantium saw under the reign of Justinian I in 6th century which also saw many natural disaster was long over, now the second age of the Byzantine Empire had begun, 22 years of anarchy with a change of emperor 7 times made it grow very exhausted; now Byzantium was no longer controlling the rich provinces of Egypt and Syria as those had fallen to the massive invading Arab armies in the 6th century, and even Constantinople itself became a dangerous position having survived to Arab sieges that almost succeeded. In 726, Byzantium was under the emperor Leo III the Isaurian (r. 717-741), the former Strategos or general of the Anatolic Theme who had brought order back after 22 years of anarchy successfully defeated a major Arab siege of Constantinople in 718 but on July 15, 726, disaster struck as deep beneath the Aegean Sea, a large volcanic eruption coming from the caldera of the island of Thera (now Santorini, Greece) forced boiling lava and stones as big as hills to burst out from under the sea being so strong enough to create the new volcanic island of Nea Kameni between Thera and Therasia. Back in around 1500BC, this same volcano of Thera erupted which caused the destruction of the Minoan civilization in Crete but this way long before Byzantine times, as in the era of the Byzantine Empire, this was the only time the underwater volcano of Thera erupted and in this article this will the first of the second age disasters that took place. The effects of the volcanic eruption lasted for about 45 days with the ashes covering the sky just like the “dust-veil” of 536 except not lasting that long, but when the superstitious emperor Leo III saw the ashes darkening the sky, he thought of it as a warning from God against the use of icons. Leo III was originally a Syrian and being from there, he was exposed to the ideas of the Arabs and their belief in not using any forms of images for worship and as emperor, he wanted to impose this belief on the Byzantines. Seeing that the people’s closeness to icons and veneration of them did not do anything to protect Byzantium against the constant invasions of the Arabs and the ash cloud from the volcano of Thera, Leo III saw it as the right time to ban the veneration of icons and beginning 730, the first Iconoclast movement of the Byzantine Empire began resulting in the destruction of icons all over the empire. After the banning of icons, the Byzantines started winning wars against the Arabs taking back most of the lands they lost, Leo III chose to continue his policy in outlawing the veneration of icons.

converted PNM file
Map of the islands of the Thera Caldera in the Aegean Sea


763-764- Extreme Winter Weather Conditions


Also, within the 8th century, another natural disaster struck the Byzantine Empire, and in fact Constantinople itself, this was the extreme weather conditions of the winter of 763 to 764. During this extremely cold winter, temperatures in the Black Sea area dropped so low that icebergs floated all the way down to the Bosporus and struck the seawalls of Constantinople shaking houses that were built along them. The ice grew so bad that it even grew higher than the walls itself; this is recorded in the Chronicle of the Iconodule St. Theophanes the Confessor who actually witnessed this event himself remembering that at that time when he was a child, he and 30 playmates went out to climb and play on the ice. When this natural disaster struck, the reigning emperor was Constantine V (r. 741-775), the son of Leo III who was an event stronger supporter of Iconoclasm that he event went as far as killing and torturing monks who supported the veneration of icons, although nothing is said about how Constantine V dealt with the ice that struck and froze the Bosporus.


927-928- Extreme Winter Weather Conditions


The next time Constantinople experienced brutal winter weather conditions was at the winter of 927-928, which was mentioned in the Chronicle of Theophanes Continuatus that the winter was so bitter that the ground froze for 120 days killing the crops causing what was known as “the worst famine in Byzantine history”. The famine caused by the winter caused so many deaths that there was more dead than the living could bury and snow fell so heavily in Constantinople itself. Fortunately, the Byzantine Empire at this time had an energetic, creative, and thoughtful but also an unsophisticated and power-hungry emperor who began from nothing which was Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944) from the Macedonian Dynasty and to deal with the harsh winter, he had the porticos of the capital boarded up so that the snow and cold air could not easily reach the homeless and poor living beneath them as the city’s streets were partly protected by porticos made out of the protruding upper floors of houses. The emperor also made charity programs for those affected by the winter by inviting the poor to eat in the palace coming in small groups.

Cold Constantinople
Extreme winter in Constantinople (Ottoman era)


Late 10th century- Floods Outside Constantinople


According to this History of Leo the Deacon, sometime in the late 10th century, though not giving an exact date but probably during the early reign of Basil II (r. 976-1025) from the Macedonian Dynasty, huge waves caused by gales toppled a seaside column in the Eutropios District south of Chalcedon across the Bosporus from Constantinople. Above the column toppled by the waves lived a stylite saint whose name isn’t mentioned but when the column was knocked down, Leo the Deacon mentions that the saint fell into the waves and died from drowning.


1063- Earthquake of Constantinople


In 1063, during the ineffective reign of the emperor Constantine X Doukas (r. 1059-1067), a powerful earthquake struck Constantinople on September 23 which is recorded by the politician, monk, and philosopher Michael Psellos. Here, Michael Psellos writes about himself showing an example of how he was strong enough to lecture priests and monks that earthquakes have nothing to do with divine wrath. Michael Psellos was a well-educated scholar who believed in science and that divine nature was entirely outside the universe, meaning that what caused the earthquake was the natural movement of the earth’s crust. Psellos though believed that disasters such as earthquakes was a way for God to remind people, they must repent but he warned the monks and priests that the churches seem to draw a greater measure on divine wrath and had offered no protection during the earthquake itself. If Constantinople though was still under Byzantine control in the 16th century, it would face a major devastating earthquake in 1509, which destroyed a lot of Constantinople which was at that time the Ottoman Empire’s capital. On the other hand, other Byzantine authors, especially from the first age of Byzantine history call earthquakes “mysteries of God’s love for mankind” as some earthquakes revealed pregnant women having given birth to healthy babies when removed from the rubble after being trapped beneath it for 20-30 days.


1203- Fire of Constantinople


This now will be the first disaster to be an act of man on this list and also the first one from Byzantium’s third age to be mentioned, which was a massive fire that travelled swiftly through Constantinople when the army of the 4th Crusade launched their attack on the city in 1203. Before 1203, the 4th Crusade was launched in Venice with the young Byzantine price Alexios Angelos asking for the help of Venice and the crusader army to force his uncle, the weak emperor Alexios III Angelos (r. 1195-1203) out of power and to put him in power. When the ships of Venice and the Latin army of the 4th Crusade arrived at Constantinople to attack it, they set fire to the city. In Constantinople, the main paved street was called the Mese which was 25m wide having colonnades, porches, and shops on either side and above it was porticos created by the protruding upper floors of the houses. When the Crusaders burned the city as they attacked it, the Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates records that the flames from the Crusaders’ attack travelled swiftly along the rafters of the porticos resembling “rivers of fire” and since most of Constantinople’s porticos were connected, it was a chain reaction of fire that spread all over city. While the attack was happening, the emperor Alexios III cowardly fled the city and the young Alexios IV was put in the throne together with his blinded and deposed father, the ex-emperor Isaac II Angelos (r. 1185-1195) who was Alexios III’s younger brother. However, Alexios IV was not able to keep his promise to pay the debts he owes to the Crusaders as the empire did not have that much funds, so he melted down icons to create coins, but the people of the city turned against him starting a revolution that deposed and executed him and his father in January of 1204, and since the Byzantines did not yet fully pay of their debt, the Crusaders sacked the city and captured it in April of 1204.

Top view of the Mese street in Byzantine era Constantinople


1347- Black Death Plague


The next large-scale plague epidemic after the Plague of Justinian from 541-542 was the Black Death from 1347-1351 devasting not only Europe but Central Asia and North Africa as well and at the end killing about 200 million people in every place combined. The scale of disaster of the Black Death was just as large as the Plague of Justinian some 800 years before it but the death toll of the 14th century Black Death was much higher killing millions as it reached farther compared to Justinian’s plague as the Black Death itself spread all across Europe, also it was more devastating than 542 Plague because the Black Death lasted for about 4 years. If the Plague of Justinian which swept across the Mediterranean affecting both the Byzantine and Sassanid Persian Empires originated from fleas in Central Asia, the Black Death had also started somewhere in the same area, although not in the Tian Shan Mountains of Central Asia but in the Eurasian Steppes in today’s Russia and travelled so quick through ships affecting all the ports they pass from the Crimea, to Constantinople, to Greece, to Egypt, to Italy, to France and reaching as far as Spain, Germany, England, Scandinavia, and the Baltics. The cause of the Black Death was the same as Justinian’s Plague, it started from fleas in Central Asia except that in the 14th century, climate changed in Asia making the land more dry causing the fleas to escape through mammals such as rats which ended up travelling the Silk Route and boarding the merchant ships docked at the Crimea which was split between the control of Genoa and the offshoot Byzantine Empire of Trebizond. In 1347, the plague travelled by boat from the Crimea and from there made a landfall into the ports of Europe, first at Constantinople when at that time, the Byzantine Empire thought at least being returned to Constantinople after taking it back from the Latins in 1261, had already been so impoverished, weakened, and reduced in size after a deadly civil war fought from 1341-1347 between the imperial family faction supporting the young emperor John V Palaiologos, the son of the late emperor Andronikos III (r. 1328-1341) and John Kantakouzenos who was a friend and high ranking minister of the late emperor. However, in 1347 John VI Kantakouzenos won the civil war and was crowned senior emperor but his reign began bad as Black Death hit Constantinople and many ports of the Byzantine Empire, although at least it did not affect the rest of the inland parts of the empire as it was the merchants and their goods containing the fleas only got off at the ports. On the other hand, there is not really any much details described on how the Black Death hit the Byzantine Empire except that it heavily affected the major ports of the empire, especially the port of Constantinople and killed many but it is not said how many were killed by the Black Death in Constantinople or the Byzantine Empire itself, except that it was one of the disasters the emperor John VI faced during his reign. The impact of the Black Death epidemic happened to be stronger in Western Europe after the ships arrived in Sicily on October of 1347 rapidly spreading across Southern Italy and on January of 1348, the plague hit Genoa as the ships dock there and from the fleas quickly spread infesting on people bringing the death rate up to the thousands. From Genoa it rapidly spread to France, Germany, and England and only in 1351 did the plague subside. The death rate in Western Europe from the plague was extremely high as 75-80% of the population of France and Spain combined was killed while in Germany and England it was only about 20% but in Egypt which was under the Mamluk Sultanate, 40% of the population too was killed. The symptoms of this plague were the same as the ones during the Plague of Justinian, except that doctors were already familiar with it but the plague’s impact was too strong and as it spread too fast, the death toll was too large that it left Europe depopulated for the next decades. Meanwhile in Byzantium, the Black Death did not seem to affect it much as in the next years things went as usual but disaster struck again in March of 1354 when a powerful earthquake hit the Peninsula of Gallipoli in Thrace which is at the entrance to Europe right across the Dardanelles Strait from Asia Minor and because of this earthquake, almost all villages and towns in this part were destroyed forcing the Byzantine Greeks living there to flee inland giving the perfect opportunity for the Ottomans from Asia Minor to seize the area making their first conquest into Europe. Meanwhile, the emperor John VI tried to pay off the Ottoman sultan Orhan to back away but Orhan refused saying that he deserves it as he helped John VI take the throne back in 1347. By December of 1354, John VI was deposed from power as the young emperor and heir to the Palaiologos Dynasty John V returned to power with the help of Genoese pirates, John VI then retired and became a monk.

Map of the Black Death’s spread across Europe, 1347-1350


Before reaching this article’s conclusion, one more thing I have to mention in Constantinople is the large column at the Forum of Constantine which had a colossal statue of Constantine the Great as the god Apollo above it and the column was regarded as a kind of talisman of the city since it experienced almost every disaster that struck the empire. Out of all the landmarks in Constantinople, the porphyry Column of Constantine survived the whole history of Constantinople even predating the Hagia Sophia as the column was built ever since the city’s inauguration in 330 and till today even if Constantinople has been under the Ottomans for centuries since 1453, the column still survives. This column was burned by the great fires of 464 and the one caused by the Nika Riot in 532, though both fires left the porphyry of the column blackened and in need of reinforcements using ugly iron bands. After the Nika Riot’s damage during Justinian I’s reign, these iron bands were already wrapped around the column and because of an earthquake, though it is not dated, the spear of the statue fell and embedded itself in the forum’s pavement. In 1097 during the reign of Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118), the column was struck by lightning according to the History of Michael Attaleiates; then in 1106 according to the daughter of Alexios I and historian Anna Komnene, the statue of Constantine the Great was toppled by a powerful gale squashing a number of people in the ground; and afterwards the statue was replaced by a tall cross by the emperor Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180). The column survived the attack of the 4th Crusade in 1204 where the Crusaders melted the other statues surrounding it, the occupation of the Latins afterwards, the return of the Byzantines from 1261 to 1453, and even under the occupation of the Ottomans up to the 20th century, although when the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453, the cross was removed from the column. Today, this column still survives even if the forum around it is gone, though the column remains shorter today but still 35m high and still having the metal bands around them. Today the column is best known as the “Burned Column” as it still looks burned but on the other hand still intact, though in Turkish this column is called Çemberlitas meaning “stone with hoops” and today this column is very visible and an easy location to reach as it is in the entrance to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.

At the time of the Byzantine Empire, the column was at the center of one of the capital’s major squares, the Forum of Constantine founded by Constantine the Great himself as one of the landmarks he inaugurated when he founded the city in 330. When it was built, the column was 50m tall made up of 7-11 large porphyry blocks and below it was stored important relics both of Christian and Pagan origins such as items used in Christ’s life and important relics from Ancient Greece and Rome, and most importantly above the column, the Nails of the Crucifixion and a piece of wood from the True Cross were held within the orb of Constantine’s statue until it fell in the 12th century. In the 10th century, an apocalyptic vision offers a sad image of the End Times where Constantinople would be flooded except for the tip of Constantine’s Column as it bore the Nails of the Crucifixion, although even with the nails gone this kind of flooding did not take place, or it hadn’t happened yet. Today, the column is one of the few remaining intact Byzantine landmarks in Constantinople (Istanbul) and one of the most important examples of Roman art and architecture in the city, also it is one of the oldest landmarks in the city being older than the Hagia Sophia itself and still stands to this day. The Byzantines too have calculated that the world was created in what we call today 5508BC and believed that the world would end 7000 years after its creation which would be the year 1492. However, the Byzantine Empire fell in 1453 but if it still lived on for 39 more years, their prediction would have been right. The end of the world prediction for the Byzantines may have been the year they believed their empire would end, but their end came earlier than they expected, but if 1492 was marked as the year the world would end, it could have also meant the year when an old era would die and a new one would be born. True enough, 1492 was when the Middle Ages had died out and the Renaissance grew and was also the same year when the Genoese Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic and discovered the New World, making the discovery of a new continent a big moment of change for the world’s history.

Forum of Constantine, Byzantine Constantinople


Alright, so this is about it for this article. Now since the Byzantine Empire’s history spanned such a long time having 3 eras, it was bound to face so many natural disasters, most especially earthquakes. The location of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire itself was in an area of great seismic activity, and for all the greatness of its imperial cities like Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria, being in an active earthquake zone was their major flaw. Meanwhile, other than earthquakes floods and fires were common disasters in the Middle Ages and even to this day these are still common. However the big difference between disasters back then in the time of the Byzantines and in this day is the way we see it, back then many saw earthquakes, floods, eruptions, and disease as an omen or even a sign that the world is ending, but now with more scientific evidence behind them, there is not much to be scared of about them anymore. Out of all the 90+ Byzantine emperors, the emperor whose reign was marked by the most natural disasters was Justinian I (r. 527-565), though being Byzantium’s greatest ruler, he knew how to handle these disasters and survived all of it including the mysterious “dust-veil” of 536, the Plague of 542 which even affected him, and the major earthquake of Constantinople in 557. Justinian I did not give up even if being hit by the plague, and yet he survived and lived all the way till old age and was never overthrown; now if this were a weaker emperor like Alexios III (r. 1195-1203), he would have given up and as the Crusaders attacked Constantinople and burned it in 1203, he did nothing to help and instead fled. Also, why many disasters happened during Justinian’s reign was because there was a lot recorded about it by historians like Procopius and Agathias who described them in detail. The next centuries of Byzantine history too faced many natural disasters but historians did not describe them as much as the historians of Justinian’s time did. It so happened that one of the rarest weather events in the past 2000 years which was the 536 “dust-veil” happened during the time of the Byzantine Empire where volcanic ash from far away which was only proven later blocked the sun’s light creating a darkness in the light and the Byzantine empire too faced the greatest plague epidemics in history, which was the Plague of Justinian from 541-542 and the Black Death in 1347 but Byzantium survived them both, although these plagues brought many consequences to the empire; the Plague of Justinian weakened Byzantine control in their newly conquered provinces and the Black Death weakened the Empire by killing off many allowing the Ottomans to start making their move into Europe beginning the conquest of the Byzantine Empire itself. Although, if the Byzantine Empire lived up to the 16th century, Byzantine Constantinople would face yet another great disaster, which was the 1509 earthquake, though at that time Constantinople was still an imperial city but under new management, by the Ottomans. Even if the Byzantine Empire is long gone now, there are at least some structures of it that remain intact which is not only the Hagia Sophia but the Burnt Column of Constantine in Constantinople which has been there ever since the capital was founded by Constantine the Great in 330. Now one thing I learned in writing this article, is that the personalities of the emperors, which I discussed last time also do have an impact on the aftermath of these disasters, such as that skilled rulers like Justinian I would know how to handle these disasters while superstitious ones like Leo III (r. 717-741) would think of it as an omen and a time of repentance. The Byzantine Empire lived for more than a thousand years and has changed so much going from the imperial Roman to a medieval Orthodox Greek state, but no matter how much language, fashion, art, and culture has changed in the empire, the one thing that did not change were natural disasters and its effect. Even today, natural disasters and their effects are no different from back then and yet many of these events remain still unforeseen, and the only difference between that time and ours is the way we see them, especially with science to prove it, there is less to worry about unlike back then when nothing could prove where the ashes came from in 536, which then creates total fear and anxiety among people. Now this concludes my article on natural disasters in Byzantine history and together with my previous articles on the Byzantine emperors and their personalities, this will be one of the articles that will lead up to the ultimate year ender article of this year which are turning points in Byzantine history, and after this I will take a break for a bit on writing articles as for the past 2 months, I have just written a bit too much. Now, this is it… thanks for viewing everyone!

Published by The Byzantium Blogger

Powee Celdran, currently majors in Entrepreneurial Management, a Byzantine scholar and enthusiast, historical military sketch and bathroom mural artist, aspiring historical art restorer, Lego filmmaker creating Byzantine era films and videos, and a possible Renaissance man living in modern times but Byzantine at heart. Currently manages the Instagram account byzantine_time_traveller posting Byzantine history related content.

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