Go to top

Posidonius Quake

Second Century BCE

by Jefferson Williams









Introduction & Summary

Posidonius, as quoted by Strabo and Seneca, described an earthquake which "swallowed up a city above Sidon" and destroyed two-thirds of Sidon itself. The destruction in Sidon is described as occurring slowly such that loss of life was minimal. This may describe a slow moving displacement of structures which was induced by liquefaction. Shaking is described as moderate in Syria. It was likely stronger in Phoenicia and may have had an offshore epicenter. This earthquake is not well dated. Ambraseys (2009) estimated that it occurred in the second century BCE. Although most catalogs (including Ambraseys, 2009) supply date of 199 or 198 BCE, the earthquake is not well dated and can be best described as an event that probably happened around 199 BCE. A few earthquake catalogs date this earthquake to 525 BCE. It is not currently understood how anyone came up with a 525 BCE date. See the Textual evidence section for more details on the 525 BCE date.

Textual Evidence

Text (with hotlink) Original Language Biographical Info Religion Date of Composition Location Composed Notes
Posidonius as quoted in Geographicum by Strabo Greek - Strabo
Greek - Posidonius
Strabo - born around 64 BCE in Amaseia in Pontus. Geographer, Philosopher, and Historian. Traveled extensively. Scientifically insightful.
Posidonius - born around 125 BCE in Apamea on the Orontes in Syria, died in c. 51 BCE, traveled extensively, Stoic philosopher, polymath. Posidonius works are lost and only exist as fragments quoted by other authors.
Geographicum by Strabo is estimated to have been finished around 24 CE with early versions perhaps as early as 7 BCE.
Posidonius - before c. 51 BCE
Strabo - Amaseia in Pontus with some sections perhaps written at other locations.
Posidonius - Rhodes
describes an earthquake which destroyed two thirds of Sidon and was felt moderately over all of Syria stating that in Phoenicia, says Poseidonius, on the occasion of an earthquake, a city situated above Sidon was swallowed up, and nearly two-thirds of Sidon itself was engulfed too, but not all at once, so that no considerable destruction of human life took place. The same operation of nature extended also over the whole of Syria, but with rather moderate force. This earthquake is not well dated. As noted by Ambraseys (2009) and others, Book I Chapter 3 by Strabo is not ordered chronologically. It is ordered thematically. However, because the account of an earthquake near Sidon is (mistakenly) conflated with earthquakes in the Cyclades, Euboea, and Chalcis along with a volcanic eruption in the Lelantine Plain, the dates of these alleged events might help estimate the date of the Posidonius Quake near Sidon. Ambraseys (2009) suggests that the earthquake in the Cyclades refers to an earthquake that caused damage in the nearby Dodecanese which he dates to the second century BCE based on several inscriptions reported by Roberts (1978).
Posidonius as quoted in Questionaes Naturales by Seneca Latin - Seneca
Greek - Posidonius
Seneca (the younger) - Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, and dramatist. Born in born in Cordoba in Hispania and raised in Rome. Lived most of his life in Rome except for 8 years in exile on the Island of Corsica. Was forced by Roman Emperor Nero to commit suicide in 65 CE due to possibly trumped up charges that he was involved in a plot to assassinate Nero.
Posidonius - born around 125 BCE in Apamea on the Orontes in Syria, died in c. 51 BCE, traveled extensively, Stoic philosopher, polymath. Posidonius works are lost and only exist as fragments quoted by other authors.
Questionaes Naturales by Seneca - ~60-65 CE
Posidonius - before c. 51 BCE
Questionaes Naturales by Seneca - Rome
Posidonius - Rhodes
While describing a Greek Island that was swallowed up, Seneca states that you may take Posidonius for witness that the same thing happened to Sidon.
525 BCE Catalog Entries Brief Earthquake Catalogs can't be trusted.
Text (with hotlink) Original Language Biographical Info Religion Date of Composition Location Composed Notes
Posidonius as quoted in Geographicum by Strabo

Bust of Posidonius
Bust of Posidonius from the Naples
National Archaeological Museum
from Wikipedia
Posidonius was a celebrated Greek polymath originally from Apamea in Syria. He is thought to have authored over 20 works none of which have survived intact. Some of his work, however, survives as quotations by other authors. Strabo (~ 64 BC – ~ 24 AD), in his book Geographicum, using Posidonius (~135 BC – ~ 51 BC) as his source, reports an earthquake which destroyed two thirds of Sidon and was felt moderately over all of Syria. In Book I Chapter 3 Paragraph 16 one can read:
And in Phoenicia, says Poseidonius, on the occasion of an earthquake, a city situated above Sidon was swallowed up, and nearly two-thirds of Sidon itself was engulfed too, but not all at once, so that no considerable destruction of human life took place. The same operation of nature extended also over the whole of Syria, but with rather moderate force; and it also passed over to certain islands, both the Cyclades and Euboea, with the result that the fountains of Arethusa (a spring in Chalcis) were stopped up, though after many days they gushed up at another mouth, and the island did not cease from being shaken in some part or other until a chasm in the earth opened in the Lelantine Plain and vomited forth a river of fiery lava.
This earthquake is not well dated. As noted by Ambraseys (2009) and others, Book I Chapter 3 by Strabo is not ordered chronologically. It is ordered thematically. However, because the account of an earthquake near Sidon is (mistakenly) conflated with earthquakes in the Cyclades, Euboea, and Chalcis along with a volcanic eruption in the Lelantine Plain, the dates of these alleged events might help estimate the date of the Posidonius Quake near Sidon. Ambraseys (2009) suggests that the earthquake in the Cyclades refers to an earthquake that caused damage in the nearby Dodecanese which he dates to the second century BCE based on several inscriptions reported by Roberts (1978).
Online Versions and References

Posidonius as quoted in Questionaes Naturales by Seneca

Seneca (4 BCE - 65 CE) wrote Questionaes Naturales in Latin. His section on Earthquakes is titled Book IV - De Terrae Motu (concerning earthquakes). At the beginning of the chapter he mentions the then recent Campanian Earthquake of 62/63 CE1 indicating that this section was put in final form between 62/63 CE and his forced suicide in 65 CE. In Chapter XXIV of Book VI (p.256), one can read:

Thucydides tells us that, about the time of the Peloponnesian War, the island of Atalanta, either wholly, or, at any rate, for the most part, was swallowed up. You may take Posidonius for witness that the same thing happened to Sidon.
Footnotes

1 See Williams (2006:125 n.1) for a discussion on possible dates of this earthquake.

Online Versions and References

Seneca

Seneca, Questionaes Naturales

Questionaes Naturales in its original Latin can be accessed here.

525 BCE Catalog Entries

The source for the 525 BCE entry in later catalogs is probably Sieberg (1932b) who describes earthquake damage in Sidon, a tsunami, and the quake being felt in the Cyclades and Euboea. Although Sieberg (1932b) never cited sources, his damage description indicates his source was Strabo quoting Posidonius, possibly Seneca and/or another source. Other catalogers (e.g. Ben-Menahem, 1979, Ben-Menahem, 1991, Antonopoulos, 1979, Plassard and Kojoj, 1981, and Sbeinati et. al., 2005) more or less repeat Sieberg's description for 525 BCE. Sbeinati et. al. (2005) list this same earthquake twice in 199 BCE and 525 BCE. Obviously, this double date is an error. How Sieberg (1932b) came up with a date of 525 BCE is currently a mystery. Migowski et al (2004) assigned a seismite at En Gedi to the 525 BCE date and Kagan et al (2011) assigned seismites at En Feshka to both 199 BCE and 525 BCE dates. Although their date ranges may be approximately correct for the seismites they encountered, due to the distance between Sidon and the Dead Sea Paleoseismic sites, their historical earthquake assignments are likely wrong for both dates (199 BCE and 525 BCE). Neither Ambraseys (2009) nor Guidoboni et. al. (1994) have an entry for a 525 BCE earthquake.

Archeoseismic Evidence

Tsunamogenic Evidence

Location (with hotlink) Status Intensity Notes
Sidon possibly missing evidence Marinner et al (2006) and Carayon et al (2011) reported on 15 cores taken around the northern harbor and four around the cirque ronde. There is no mention of tsunamogenic evidence in the cores. Marinner et al (2006:1521) noted that in Unit B2 (Closed Phoenician to Roman harbours) persistent age-depth anomalies concur analogous data in Tyre’s ancient harbour where strong chronostratigraphic evidence for dredging has been detailed from the Roman period onwards. This may indicate that, like at Tyre, any evidence of a 1st millennium BCE tsunami may have been removed by dredging.
Tyre missing evidence Marriner et al (2005) undertook a litho and biostratigraphical study of four core sequences from the landward edge of the current harbor. AMS radiocarbon dating was performed on dateable material found in the cores. They attributed missing 1st millennium BCE strata to dredging activity undertaken in the Roman and Byzantine periods.
Location (with hotlink) Status Intensity Notes
Sidon



Tyre



Paleoseismic Evidence

<
Location (with hotlink) Status Intensity Notes
Dinar Trenches possible - indeterminate ≥ 7 Altunel et al (1999) claim evidence for a ~80 BCE Apamea Earthquake in Event 2 from their trenches but only two useful radiocarbon dates were obtained in their paleoseismic study. The date constraints from these two samples are large (~1550 BCE - 1360 ± 50 CE) and their historical earthquake assignment is speculative - based on consulting earthquake catalogs during that time span.
Hacipasa Trenches possible ≥ 7 The oldest event identified in the Ziyaret Trench dated to before 983 CE. A lower bound on age was not available due to insufficient radiocarbon dates.
Tekieh Trenches possible ≥ 7 Gomez et. al. (2003:15) may have seen evidence for an earthquake in the 1st or 2nd century BCE in Event B. Event B is estimated to have created ~ 2 meters of left lateral strike slip displacement which translates to an estimated Magnitude between 7.0 and 7.3 (7.0 and 7.2 according to Gomez et al, 2003:16-17). In terms of dating, an upper bound for Event B is 170 BCE - 20 CE while a lower bound for Events B and and the older Event C is from 1690 - 1400 BCE.
Tabarja Benches possible Mw = ~7.5 Elias et al (2007) examined uplifted benches on the Lebanese coast between Sarafand and Tripolis; some in the vicinity of Tabarja (~20 km. NE of Beirut). They identified four uplifts from 3 or more [sizeable Mw = ~7.5] earthquakes in the past ca. 6-7 ka. They attributed the latest uplift (B1) to the 551 CE Beirut Quake while the earlier events (B2, B3, and B4) were no more precisely dated than between ~5000 BCE and 551 CE. Bench uplift on the earlier events (B2, B3, and B4) would likely have been due to uplift on the Mount Lebanon Thrust system - as was surmised for Event B1 and the 551 CE Beirut Quake.
Jarmaq Trench possible ≥ 7 Nemer and Meghraoui (2006) date Event Y to between 2920-2879 BCE and 84-239 CE
Qiryat-Shemona Rockfalls possible Kanari, M. (2008) examined rockfalls in Qiryat-Shemona which were attributed to earthquakes. Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating was performed on soil samples beneath the fallen rocks. Kanari et al (2019) assigned Sample ID QS-6 to an earthquake in 199 BCE but the wide spread in ages indicate that this event could have occurred between ~400 BCE and ~200 CE.
Bet Zayda possible ≥ 7 Wechsler at al. (2014) records event CH4-E6 with a modeled age of 392 BCE – 91 CE.
Jordan Valley - Dir Hagla Trenches possible ≥ 7 Reches and Hoexter (1981) report that Event A was dated from 200 BCE - 200 CE and exhibited 3.5 m of vertical displacement. Although the total vertical displacement could have been created by more than one seismic event, there were no broken layers between Event A the next Event (B) which was dated to between 700 and 900 CE. Further, they interpreted Event A created a fault scarp on the site. Kagan, E., et al. (2011) noted that the dip slip could have been magnified by local variations in the strike of the fault.
Dead Sea - Seismite Types n/a n/a If the Posidonius Quake struck somewhere between Tyre and Sidon (possibly offshore), it's epicenter might have been ~170-250 km. away from the Dead Sea Paleoseismic sites. If one assumes a magnitude of 6.5, this leads to projected PGAs of 0.08-0.12 g at the Dead Sea sites. At a magnitude of 7.0, those numbers go up to 0.14-0.21 g. This is below the 0.23 g threshold calculated by Williams (2004) but is, in some cases, above the 0.13 g threshold assumed in Lu et al (2020a) that one needs to break the Dead Sea sediments. This leads to the conclusion that if the Posidonius Quake did leave a mark in the Dead Sea, it likely would have been a powerful earthquake with a Magnitude of 7.0 or greater. If the Posidonius Quake was that powerful, however, it might be expected to have produced more accounts than just the one by Posidonius - a native of the region.

Calculator
Seismic Attenuation

Variable Input Units Notes
Magnitude
km. Distance to earthquake producing fault
Variable Output - Site Effect not considered Units Notes
unitless
unitless Conversion from PGA to Intensity using Wald et al (1999)
  

Dead Sea - Nahal Darga possible ≥ 7 Enzel et. al. (2000) identified a 20 cm. thick seismite in coarse grained lithology in Deformed Unit 8 in Stratigraphic Unit 10 which dated to 450-50 BCE (2400-2000 yrs BP).
Dead Sea - En Feshkapossible 5.7 - 8.8 Kagan et al (2011) identified several seismites from around 199 BCE.
Depth (cm.) Thickness (cm.) Seismite Type Modeled Age (± 1σ) Modeled Age (± 2σ) Quake Assignment (Kagan) Quake Assignment (Williams)
402 l.5 4 151 BCE ± 21 150 BCE ± 55 mid 2nd century BCE possibly ~150 BCE southern Dead Fish and Soldiers Quake
425 2 4 223 BCE ± 21 236 BCE ± 53 199 BCE ~250 BCE Fortress at Arad Quake ?
428 2 1 232 BCE ± 20 247 BCE ± 55 not assigned ~250 BCE Fortress at Arad Quake ?
438 2 4 263 BCE ± 23 279 BCE ± 57 not assigned ~250 BCE Fortress at Arad Quake ?
Dead Sea - En Gedi possible Migowski et. al. (2004) did not date any seismites to around 199 BCE.
Dead Sea - Nahal Ze 'elim possible 8.2 - 8.9 At site ZA-2, Kagan et al (2011) observed a 8 cm. thick Type 4 intraclast breccia seismite at a depth of 552 cm. with modeled ages of 225 BCE ± 35 (1σ) and 225 BCE ± 75 (2σ). Although they assigned it a 199 BCE date, the ~250 BCE Fortress at Arad Quake is a more likely candidate.
Location (with hotlink) Status Intensity Notes
Dinar Trenches



Altunel et al (1999) claim evidence for a ~80 BCE Apamea Earthquake in Event 2 from their trenches but only two useful radiocarbon dates were obtained in their paleoseismic study. The date constraints from these two samples are large (~1550 BCE - 1360 ± 50 CE) and their historical earthquake assignment is speculative - based on consulting earthquake catalogs during that time span.



Hacipasa Trenches

The oldest event identified in the Ziyaret Trench dated to before 983 CE. A lower bound on age was not available due to insufficient radiocarbon dates.



Tekieh Trenches

Gomez et. al. (2003:15) may have seen evidence for an earthquake in the 1st or 2nd century BCE in Event B. Event B is estimated to have created ~ 2 meters of left lateral strike slip displacement which translates to an estimated Magnitude between 7.0 and 7.3 (7.0 and 7.2 according to Gomez et al, 2003:16-17). In terms of dating, an upper bound for Event B is 170 BCE - 20 CE while a lower bound for Events B and and the older Event C is from 1690 - 1400 BCE.



Tabarja Benches

Elias et al (2007) examined uplifted benches on the Lebanese coast between Sarafand and Tripolis; some in the vicinity of Tabarja (~20 km. NE of Beirut). They identified four uplifts from 3 or more [sizeable Mw = ~7.5] earthquakes in the past ca. 6-7 ka. They attributed the latest uplift (B1) to the 551 CE Beirut Quake while the earlier events (B2, B3, and B4) were no more precisely dated than between ~5000 BCE and 551 CE. Bench uplift on the earlier events (B2, B3, and B4) would likely have been due to uplift on the Mount Lebanon Thrust system - as was surmised for Event B1 and the 551 CE Beirut Quake.



Jarmaq Trench

Nemer and Meghraoui (2006) date Event Y to between 2920-2879 BCE and 84-239 CE



Qiryat-Shemona Rockfalls

Kanari, M. (2008) examined rockfalls in Qiryat-Shemona which were attributed to earthquakes. Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating was performed on soil samples beneath the fallen rocks. Kanari et al (2019) assigned Sample ID QS-6 to an earthquake in 199 BCE but the wide spread in ages indicate that this event could have occurred between ~400 BCE and ~200 CE.



Bet Zayda (aka Beteiha)

Wechsler at al. (2014) records event CH4-E6 with a modeled age of 392 BCE – 91 CE.



Jordan Valley - Dir Hagla Trenches

Reches and Hoexter (1981) report that Event A was dated from 200 BCE - 200 CE and exhibited 3.5 m of vertical displacement. Although the total vertical displacement could have been created by more than one seismic event, there were no broken layers between Event A the next Event (B) which was dated to between 700 and 900 CE. Further, they interpreted Event A created a fault scarp on the site. Kagan, E., et al. (2011) noted that the dip slip could have been magnified by local variations in the strike of the fault.



Dead Sea - Seismite Types



Dead Sea - Nahal Darga

Enzel et. al. (2000) identified a 20 cm. thick seismite in coarse grained lithology in Deformed Unit 8 in Stratigraphic Unit 10 which dated to 450-50 BCE (2400-2000 yrs BP).



Dead Sea - En Feshka

Kagan et al (2011) identified several seismites from around 199 BCE.

Depth (cm.) Thickness (cm.) Seismite Type Modeled Age (± 1σ) Modeled Age (± 2σ) Quake Assignment (Kagan) Quake Assignment (Williams)
402 l.5 4 151 BCE ± 21 150 BCE ± 55 mid 2nd century BCE possibly ~150 BCE southern Dead Fish and Soldiers Quake
425 2 4 223 BCE ± 21 236 BCE ± 53 199 BCE ~250 BCE Fortress at Arad Quake ?
428 2 1 232 BCE ± 20 247 BCE ± 55 not assigned ~250 BCE Fortress at Arad Quake ?
438 2 4 263 BCE ± 23 279 BCE ± 57 not assigned ~250 BCE Fortress at Arad Quake ?


Dead Sea - En Gedi

Migowski et. al. (2004) did not date any seismites to around 199 BCE.



Dead Sea - Nahal Ze 'elim

At site ZA-2, Kagan et al (2011) observed a 8 cm. thick Type 4 intraclast breccia seismite at a depth of 552 cm. with modeled ages of 225 BCE ± 35 (1σ) and 225 BCE ± 75 (2σ). Although they assigned it a 199 BCE date, the ~250 BCE Fortress at Arad Quake is a more likely candidate.



Notes

Paleoclimate - Droughts

References

References

Ambraseys, N. (2009). Earthquakes in the Mediterranean and Middle East: A multidisciplinary study of seismicity up to 1900.

Guidoboni, E., et al. (1994). Catalogue of ancient earthquakes in the Mediterranean area up to the 10th century. Rome, Istituto nazionale di geofisica.

Kagan, E., et al. (2011). "Intrabasin paleoearthquake and quiescence correlation of the late Holocene Dead Sea." Journal of Geophysical Research 116(B4): B04311.

Kanari, M. (2008). Evaluation of Rockfall Hazard to Qiryat Shemona: Possible Correlation to Earthquakes. Department of Geophysics and Planetary Sciences. Tel Aviv, Israel, Tel Aviv University: 135.

Wechsler, N., et al. (2014). "A Paleoseismic Record of Earthquakes for the Dead Sea Transform Fault between the First and Seventh Centuries C.E.: Nonperiodic Behavior of a Plate Boundary Fault." Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America.



Ancient Texts

Strabo, Geography

Posidonius, Fragmenta, ed. W.Theiler, Berlin-New York 1982. - Guidoboni's source

Posidonius, et al. (2005). Posidonius: Volume 1, The Fragments, Cambridge University Press

Seneca, Questionaes Naturales

Thucydides, Peloponnesian War