Ammianus Marcellinus on the tsunami of 365 CE

This is the famous section from the 28. book of the “Res Gestae”, the history written by Roman historian Ammianus who lived from around 330 – 400 CE. It describes the earthquake and tsunami of July 21. 365 CE which shook the whole Mediterranean. The scene described by Ammianus is most likely set at the coast of Sicily. As the author mentions, areas as far as the Egyptian shore were affected by tsunamis resulting from the earthquake which had its epicenter near Crete. The city of Alexandria was heavily destroyed and the event was publicly remembered in the city for at least a hundred years as the “Day of Fear”. As Egyptian researcher Yasmine Hussein explained to me, it takes less than 40 minutes for a tsunami from Crete to arrive in Alexandria.

“For a little after daybreak, preceded by heavy and repeated thunder and lightning, the whole of the firm and solid earth was shaken and trembled, the sea with its rolling waves was driven back and withdrew from the land, so that in the abyss of the deep thus revealed men saw many kinds of sea-creatures stuck fast in the slime; and vast mountains and deep valleys, which Nature, the creator, had hidden in the unplumbed depths, then, as one might well believe, first saw the beams of the sun.

Hence, many ships were stranded as if on dry land, and since many men roamed about without fear in the little that remained of the waters, to gather fish and similar things, with their hands, the roaring sea, resenting, as it were, this forced retreat, rose in its turn; and over the boiling shoals it dashed mightily upon islands and broad stretches of the mainland, and levelled innumerable buildings in the cities and where else they were found; so that amid the mad discord of the elements the altered face of the earth revealed marvellous sights.

For the great mass of waters, returning when it was least expected, killed many thousands of men by drowning; and by the swift recoil of the eddying tides a number of ships, after the swelling of the wet element subsided, were seen to have foundered, and lifeless bodies of shipwrecked persons lay floating on their backs or on their faces. Other great ships, driven by the mad blasts, landed on the tops of buildings (as happened at Alexandria), and some were driven almost two miles inland, like a Laconian ship which I myself in passing that way saw near the town of Mothone, yawning, apart through long decay.”

Original online source.

Thanks to Holger Sonnabend for the lead!

Heracles, the first hydraulic engineer

According to historian Terje Tvedt the Greek god and hero Heracles derived from a much older Egyptian hero of similar name. The now submerged city Heracleion off the coast of the Nile delta was named after the god and Heracles plays a central role in the ancient literature of the region. The historian Diodorus of Sicily, who lived in the 1st. Century BCE, recounts Heracles’ story in detail. Among the many feats he describes, several are connected to hydrology. The most famous one is of course from the Twelve Labors of Heracles. Here is the original passage from Diodorus’ History:

“He received a Command from Eurystheus to cleanse the stables of Augeas, and to do this without the assistance of any other man. These stables contained an enormous mass of dung which had accumulated over a great period, and it was a spirit of insult which induced Eurystheus to lay upon him the command to clean out this dung. Heracles declined as unworthy of him to carry this out upon his shoulders, in order to avoid the disgrace which would follow upon the insulting command; and so, turning the course of the Alpheius river, as it is called, into the stables and cleansing them by means of the stream, he accomplished Labour in a single day, and without suffering any insult.”

Hercules the engineer as seen by Francisco de Zuraban

The story is reminiscent of the way ancient Egyptian society used the annual floods of the river Nile to fertilize but also clean the farm land along the river banks.

Here are two other hydraulic engineering feats:

“When Heracles arrived at the farthest points of the continents of Libya and Europe which lie upon the ocean, he decided to set up these pillars to commemorate his campaign. And since he wished to leave upon the ocean a monument which would be had in everlasting remembrance, he built out both the promontories, they say, to a great distance; consequently, whereas before that time a great space had stood between them, he now narrowed the passage, in order that by making it shallow and narrow​ he might prevent the great sea-monsters from passing out of the ocean into the inner sea, and that at the same time the fame of their builder might be held in everlasting remembrance by reason of the magnitude of the structures. Some authorities, however, say just the opposite, namely, that the two continents were originally joined and that he cut a passage between them, and that by opening the passage he brought it about that the ocean was mingled with our sea. On this question, however, it will be possible for every man to think as he may please.”

“A thing very much like this he had already done in Greece. For instance, in the region which is called Tempê, where the country is like a plain and was largely covered with marshes, he cut a channel through the territory which bordered on it, and carrying off through this ditch all the water of the marsh he caused the plains to appear which are now in Thessaly along the Peneius river. But in Boeotia he did just the opposite and damming the stream which flowed near the Minyan city of Orchomenus he turned the country into a lake and caused the ruin of that whole region. But what he did in Thessaly was to confer a benefit upon the Greeks, whereas in Boeotia he was exacting punishment from those who dwelt in Minyan territory, because they had enslaved the Thebans.”

Full text in english translation

Alexandria III

The God Abandons Antony

by C.P. Cafavy

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

Reprinted from C. P. CAVAFY: Collected Poems Revised Edition, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, edited by George Savvidis. Translation copyright © 1975, 1992 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Princeton University Press. For reuse of these translations, please contact Princeton University Press.


This famous poem is by the poet Constantinos Petrou Cafavy who was born and died in the ancient port city Alexandria. He lived from 1863 to 1933 and was a member of the large Greek community in Alexandria. His poems were also written in Greek.

The City

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried like something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.

from C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Translation Copyright © 1975, 1992 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Reproduced with permission of Princeton University Press

Put your money on Atlantis

In times like these, what the world needs is good humor and good counseling. And this company apparently offers both. Because if you name your business consulting company after a city that spectacularly sank into the sea as a punishment for the hubris of it’s citizens, you have to have a really keen sense of humor. And these guys have been at it for 30 years! So they must be doing something right after all.
And yes indeed, they are:
For this Greek company, Atlantis is not only a quirky choice of a name, but also a commitment to cultural heritage on the one hand and to the ocean on the other. In their own words: “ATLANTIS Consulting implements projects aiming at the promotion of culture, “blue” technologies and the exploitation of the underwater wealth (cultural and natural) for the benefit of the European economy. ATLANTIS is pioneering internationally on the issue of the protection and sustainable exploitation of the cultural heritage.”

So if I ever happen to amass enough finance to seek the services of a finance consulting company, they will of course be my first choice. And until them, I’ll keep researching the odd paths of cultural heritage of sunken cities and of Atlantis in particular. (Note: Atlantis is actually not an uncommon name for finance enterprises. I guess the lure of untold riches is a stronger allegory than a notorious demise.)

Neromanna – A film about a sunken community

Athens based artist collective Latent Community produced this wonderful film about the story of Kallio in Fokida, Greece, a village that was expropriated in 1969 and was covered in 1981 by the waters of the artificial lake created by the Mornos Dam for use as a reservoir for the city of Athens. The lake has been the main source of water for the Greek capital ever since. The community got dispersed, many of the people of Kallio now living in Athens themselves.

I was lucky to meet Latent Community in their studio in Athens and discuss the impact of flooding on the collective psyche of a community and the political implications of Athens incessant thirst for fresh water.

Alexander’s submarine dive

The Alexander Romance is an account of the life and exploits of Alexander the Great. Although constructed around a historical core, the romance is largely fictional. It was widely copied and translated, accruing various legends and fantastical elements at different stages. The original version was composed in Ancient Greek some time before 338 CE, when a Latin translation was made, although the exact date is unknown. (from Wikipedia)

One of those tales is about a deep sea dive Alexander undertook:
” In the Problemata, a text contentiously credited to Aristotle, the philosopher tells how his student Alexander the Great descends to the depths of the sea in “a very fine barrel made entirely of white glass”, as a later poet would put it. The reasons for this descent differ across time. For some, it was to scout submarine defenses surrounding the city of Tyre during its siege. Others depict the Macedonian king met with a cruel vision of the great chain of being, stating, upon resurfacing, that “the world is damned and lost. The large and powerful fish devour the small fry”. 

In one particularly elaborate version, Alexander submerges with companions — a dog, cat, and cock — entrusting his life to a mistress who holds the cord used to retrieve the bathysphere. However, during his dive, she is seduced by a lover and persuaded to elope, dropping the chains that anchor Alexander and his animal companions to their boat. Through a gruesome utility, the pets help him survive: the cock keeps track of time in the lightless fathoms, the cat serves as a rebreather to purify the vessel’s atmosphere, and the poor hound’s body becomes a kind of airbag, propelling Alexander back to the sea’s surface.” (from Public Domain Review)

Miniature from a manuscript of Rudolf von Ems’ Weltchronik in Versen (World Chronicle in Verse), ca. 1370

When the story was told to me by Tobias Bulang, he explained that to medieval believe, the ocean does not keep dead bodies inside. Thus Alexander’s diving bell would rise back to the surface because the ocean emited the animal’s corpse. The fact that drowned corpses tend to float on the surface of the water instead of sinking to the ground gives plausible cause for this believe. Still I would be interested to understand, what people then believed to be the cause for this.

The image of Alexandre the Great below the sea became quite popular in the visual arts of the 14. and the following centuries. You can see many more creative and vivid illustrations here.

Thanks to Tobias Bulang for the lead.

Tourism and Sunken Cities

In the greek town Epidavros on the Pelopones a sunken villa is marketed as a toursit attraction of some sorts.

Somewehere, down there…

thanks to Tanja Krone for the lead and the travel company!

Very Large Floating Structures

To answer the never-tiring desire for more space for residential buildings along the coasts – nearly 50% of the industrialized world now lives within a kilometer of the coast – floating structures are repeatedly discussed in urbanization discourse. So called VLFS, very large floating structures, are a fashionable topic in architectural discourse – see for example the “Mega-Float” by Japanese architects M. Fujikubo and H. Suzuki from 2015 -, but so far no city has actually built one to house it’s residents. There are as far as I know only parking lots built on floating strutures in New York or Goetborg for example.

This image is from a brochure about the Floating Parking Garage in Goetborg

And there are of course accomodation units for employees working on off shore oil platforms. (see: )

As always – the idea of floating habitats is not a new one. The oldest source is – as almost always – Homer’s Odysee. There the hero sails to the island Aeolia, which is floating on open sea in the western Mediteranean. The island and the city on it are home to the god of Winds, Aeolus, thus the name of the island. Today a group of islands near Sicilly is refered to as Aeolian Islands.

Homer does not give away alot about his floating island and how and why it floats. This is the main passage from verse 10 of the text:

“Then to the Aeolian isle we came, where dwelt Aeolus, son of Hippotas, dear to the immortal gods, in a floating island, and all around it is a wall of unbreakable bronze, and the cliff runs up sheer. […] And the house, filled with the savour of feasting, resounds all about even in the outer court by day, and by night again they sleep beside their chaste wives on blankets and on corded bedsteads. To their city, then, and fair palace did we come…”


Diodorus (1. Century BC) on the Destruction of Helice and Bura

“When Asteius was archon at Athens, the Romans elected six military tribunes with consular power, Marcus Furius, Lucius Furius, Aulus Postumius, Lucius Lucretius, Marcus Fabius, and Lucius Postumius. During their term of office great earthquakes occurred in the Peloponnese accompanied by tidal waves which engulfed the open country and cities in a manner past belief; for never in the earlier periods had such disasters befallen Greek cities, nor had entire cities along with their inhabitants disappeared as a result of some divine force wreaking destruction and ruin upon mankind.

The extent of the destruction was increased by the time of its occurrence; for the earthquake did not come in the daytime when it would have been possible for the sufferers to help themselves, but the blow came at night, so that when the houses crashed and crumbled under the force of the shock, the population, owing to the darkness and to the surprise and bewilderment occasioned by the event, had no power to struggle for life.

The majority were caught in the falling houses and annihilated, but as day returned some survivors dashed from the ruins and, when they thought they had escaped the danger, met with a greater and still more incredible disaster. For the sea rose to a vast height, and a wave towering even higher washed away and drowned all the inhabitants and their native lands as well. Two cities in Achaia bore the brunt of this disaster, Helice and Bura,1 the former of which had, as it happened, before the earthquake held first place among the cities of Achaia.

These disasters have been the subject of much discussion. Natural scientists make it their endeavour to attribute responsibility in such cases not to divine providence, but to certain natural circumstances determined by necessary causes, whereas those who are disposed to venerate the divine power assign certain plausible reasons for the occurrence, alleging that the disaster was occasioned by the anger of the gods at those who had committed sacrilege. This question I too shall endeavour to deal with in detail in a special chapter of my history.”


Greece, 1. Century BC, pagan; text; city: Helice