How a vanished ancient Greek city helps us think about disasters

By | August 2, 2021

Guy D Middleton writes:

One night nearly 2,500 years ago, the people of Helike, a city in the northern Peloponnese, were in their homes. Perhaps they were winding down with a glass of watered wine or already sleeping after spending the day about their business in the bustling town. Some had been busy at the market, selling or buying the produce from the local farms or purchasing goods from further afield. Some might have visited the famous Temple of Poseidon, as worshippers or priests of the cult, or trained in the gymnasium. Others were engaged in usual city business, the day-to-day civic and political life of Helike. This night, though, would be their last.

As they slept, a terrible earthquake struck the region, toppling buildings and killing the inhabitants. Then, in a second calamity, the city was swallowed up by a giant wave. The inhabitants disappeared. A recovery party of 2,000 men sent from neighbouring cities found no bodies. The nearby village of Bura was destroyed too.

The story of the destruction of classical Helike in 373 BCE rippled out through the Greek lands. When it was recent history, Aristotle (384-322 BCE) wrote of it in his Meterologica, a book not only about the atmosphere and weather, as we would expect, but also more generally about what we could term Earth processes, including earthquakes and tsunamis. Helike was remembered and written about for centuries by Greek and Roman authors. But as the centuries turned and the coastline shifted, the location of the once-great city was forgotten. The search for this city has captivated modern archaeologists for more than 50 years.

Exploring what happened at Helike involves looking at different types of evidence, including ancient texts, archaeological evidence and geological study. This search enables us to learn not only about this fatal disaster, bringing us closer to the people of the past, but it can also help reveal the way in which the ancient Greeks and Romans thought about how their world worked. [Continue reading…]

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