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Capitolias Theater Quake

Mid 3rd Century CE

by Jefferson Williams

Introduction     Textual Evidence     Archeoseismic Evidence     Tsunamogenic Evidence     Paleoseismic Evidence     Notes     Paleoclimate - Droughts     Footnotes     References     Catalog Home


Archeoseismic evidence uncovered at a theater in Capitolias - one of the cities of the Decapolis suggests a strong earthquake struck the area in the decades before 260/261 CE. As the historical record is fairly silent in this part of the world in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, no known currently extant textual accounts appear to refer to this earthquake and although there are some earthquake catalog entries for 233, 242, and 245 CE, these appear to be false events that are based on Willis' (1928) catalogue which failed to recognize that dates provided by the Arab chronicler As-Soyuti used the Islamic A.H. calendar instead of the A.D. C.E. calendar introducing a dating error of ~622 years. Once these false events are removed from consideration, it becomes evident that the archeoseismic evidence uncovered by Al-Tawalbeh et. al. (2020) represents a new earthquake event discovered by archeoseismic means.

See the Notes section on how errant dates propagated through various earthquake catalogs.

Textual Evidence

There are no known extant textual accounts for this earthquake.

Archeoseismic Evidence

Beit-Ras/Capitolias, Jordan

Al-Tawalbeh et. al. (2020) examined archeoseismic evidence at the theater of Capitolias - one of the cities of the Decapolis. They suggested two earthquakes damaged the structure - one before 260/261 CE and one after 260/261 CE. The 260/261 CE dividing date is based on an inscription found in a rebuilding phase where the eastern orchestra gate was walled up. Archeoseismic evidence included a number of deformed arches and chipped corners of masonry blocks. Estimated local intensity was VII-IX. Based on the collapse of significant structures in the theater and the Earthquake Archeological Effects diagram from Rodríguez-Pascua et al (2013: 221-224), local Intensity may have gotten as high as IX (Al-Tawalbeh personal communication, 2021). Although the date of the first earthquake is bracketed between the establishment of the city in 97/98 CE and the inscription dated to 260/261 CE, the authors suggest that restoration efforts memorialized by the inscription suggests that the earthquake occurred close to the 260/261 CE date. Numismatic and epigraphic evidence indicated that the city was fairly prosperous from the later half of the second century CE into the first half of the 3rd century CE and thus capable (and willing) to convert their theater to an amphitheater fairly quickly after the damaging earthquake. Only a few recent earthquakes were discovered in the earthquake catalogues near to the 260/261 CE date - earthquakes in 233, 242, and 245 CE. However, as illustrated in the Notes section of this catalog entry, these all appear to be false events ultimately based on Willis' (1928) catalog which misdated all earthquakes reported by Arab Chroniclers such as As-Soyuti by ~622 years due to a failure to recognize that As-Soyuti's dates were reported in the Islamic calendar (A.H.) rather than the Western A.D. or C.E. calendar. Ambraseys (2009) reports a possible earthquake in Palmyra, Syria in 233 CE based on an inscription however Palmyra is 310 km. away from the the theater at Capitolias so it is doubtful that an earthquake could have caused heavy damage in both places. Hence, we suggest that this archeoseismic evidence points towards a previously unrecognized earthquake not reported in the earthquake catalogues and not reported in any extant historical source that we are currently aware of.

Paleoseismic Evidence

Bet Zayda

In paleoseismic trenches just north of the Sea of Galilee (aka Lake Kinneret), Wechsler at al. (2014) identified 3 events which could fit this earthquake. We suggest that Event CH4-E4 was created as a result of the Capitolias Theater Quake.

Bet Zeyda Earthquakes
Figure 9. Probability density functions for all paleoseismic events, based on the OxCal modeling. Historically known earthquakes are marked by gray lines. The age extent of each channel is marked by rectangles. There is an age uncertainty as to the age of the oldest units in channel 4 (units 490-499) marked by a dashed rectangle. Channel 1 refers to the channel complex studied by Marco et al. (2005).


Earthquake Catalogs indicate that references to earthquakes in 233 CE and 245 CE go back to Willis(1928) whose source was As-Soyuti. Unfortunately, Willis (1928) did not recognize that As-Soyuti provided AH (After Hejira) dates instead of AD dates hence Willis' (1928) earthquake dates from As-Soyuti are off by ~622 years (too early). Later cataloguers copied these erroneous dates which unfortunately keep showing up in current literature. Catalog entries going backwards illustrate this below:

Sbeinati, M. R., R. Darawcheh, and M. Monty (2005). "The historical earth-quakes of Syria: An analysis of large and moderate earthquakes from1365 B.C. to 1900 A.D., ." Ann. Geophys. 48(3): 347-435.

<019> 233 Damascus: VII.

Parametric catalogues
− Ben-Menahem (1979): 233 A.D., Ml= 6.3,damage in Damascus.
Seismological compilations
− Sieberg (1932): 233 A.D., there was an earthquake in Syria causing destruction of many houses at Damascus.

<020> 242-245 Antioch: VI-VII; Syria: VI-VII; Egypt: III; Iran: III.

Parametric catalogues
− Ben-Menahem (1979): 245, Ml= 7.5, near Antioch (Willis).
Seismological compilations
− Sieberg (1932): 242 or 245, a strong earthquake in Antioch and all over Syria. It was felt in Egypt and Iran.

Ben-Menahem, A. (1979). "Earthquake catalogue for the Middle East (92 BC-AD 1980) " Bollettino di Geofisica Teorica e Applicata 21: 245-313.

233 Damage in Damask. ML = 6.3 Source: Sieberg (1932)
245 Near Antiochia. ML = 7.5 Source: Willis (1927)

Sieberg, A. (1932a). Erdbebengeographie, Borntraeger.

233. Sehweres Erdbeben in Syrien nut Zerstiirungen in Damaskus.

Willis, B. (1928). "Earthquakes in the Holy Land." Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 18(2): 73-103.

220 Antioch; very destructive, lasted forty days Source: As-Soyuti
233 Damascus ; many buildings destroyed Source: As-Soyuti
242 Syria in general ; very violent and extended from Egypt to Persia Source: As-Soyuti
245 Antioch ; excessive, very widespread Source: As-Soyuti


Sprenger (1843). "As-Soyuti's work on Earthquakes, ." Journal of The Asiatic Society of Bengal 12(141): 741-749.


220. Antiochia was destroyed by an earthquake, which lasted forty days.

224. An earthquake at Fergana, by which 15,000 persons perished.

225. An earthquake at Ahwaz for sixteen days ; it was also felt in Jebal.

233. At Damascus many persons were buried under their houses; the earthquake extended to Antiochia, Mesopotamia, and Mausil. It is supposed that 50,000 persons perished.

232. Several earthquakes, more particularly in the Maghrib and in Syria, where the walls of Damascus and Emessa were destroyed. It was felt at Antiochia and El-Awassim in Mesopotamia and Mausil.

233. On Thursday, the 11 th of Rabi-al-Akhar, many buildings were destroyed at Damascus by an earthquake.

234. At Herat, the houses were destroyed.

239. At Tiberias.

240. In the Maghrib, thirteen villages of Kairowan sunk.

242. In Shaban a very violent earthquake. At Tunis about 45,000 persons were buried under their houses; it extended also over Yemen, Khorasan, Fars, Syria, Bastam, Komm Kashan, Rai, el-Damaghan, Nishapur, Taberistan and Ispahan. The mountains fell down, and the earth opened so extensively that men could walk into it ; and in the village El-sud in Egypt, five stones fell from heaven. One stone fell on the tent of a Bedouin and set it on fire. The weight of these stones was ten rotles. In Yemen a hill covered with fields moved from its place and became the property of another tribe.

245. Earthquakes prevailed over the whole earth, and many towns and bridges were destroyed. At Antiochia a mountain fell into the sea, with 1005 houses. It had been covered with about ninety villages. The river disappeared one farsang's distance. Dreadful noises were heard at Tinnis. In Mecca all the springs disappeared. The earthquake extended over Rakka, Harran, Ras el-'Ain, Emessa, Damascus, Rokha, Tarsus, Massissa and Adina. On the shores of Syria, in Laodicea, mountains moved with their inhabitants, and when it had destroyed , El-son, it crossed the Euphrates, and was felt in Khorassan.


Paleoclimate - Droughts



Al-Tawalbeh, M., et al. (2020). "Two Inferred Antique Earthquake Phases Recorded in the Roman Theater of Beit‐Ras/Capitolias (Jordan)." Seismological Research Letters: 1-19.