THE ANCIENT NATURAL WORLD Part 2
Friday, April 3, A.D. 33 The Moon was full, coasting along its orbit towards the point where, at about 2.30 p.m. GMT, it would enter the Earth's shadow and be partially eclipsed. Deep below Asia Minor, intolerable subterranean stresses were about to be catastrophically released. Outside Jerusalem, at the place of execution known as Golgotha, a curious darkness came over the sky at mid-day.
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ signalled the end of the ancient world and the beginning of a convulsion in human history. The darkness at His death also marked a convulsion of the natural world, if Eusebius and other writers are to be believed. It was, according to them, what the Pharisees had demanded of Jesus in vain while He lived: a sign from heaven, an intervention by God in the order of the world. Taylor Caldwell, using sources which she did not specify, claimed that the darkness on this day covered the entire Earth, that the Sun seemed to have been lost in space, and that the darkness is mentioned in Mexican and Aztec records. In contrast, the Gospels seem to mention it almost casually. They say (except for John, who does not mention it at all) that “there was darkness over all the land” from the sixth to the ninth hour (noon to 3 p.m.)
It is easier to say what the darkness was not than what it was. It could not have been an eclipse of the Sun, for the crucifixion was at the Passover, which was set at full Moon. J. B. Lindsey stated that, as a solar eclipse could not have caused the darkness, it must have been miraculous. D. J. Schove said that “any daytime darkness at the Crucifixion must have been meteorological (e.g. cloud, fog, dust-storm)”. Dean Farrar said, “it is quite possible that the darkness was a local gloom which hung densely over the guilty city and its immediate neighbourhood”. If this was he case, then the cause may have been meteorological, such as high-level dust from a distant dust-storm. However, there is some evidence that the darkness was not local.
Dionysius the Areopagite in Egypt is said to have observed the darkness and exclaimed, “Either the God of Nature is suffering, or the machine of the world is tumbling into ruin”. Phlegon, a freedman of Hadrian (A.D. 117 – 138), wrote a lost compendium of history from 775 B.C. to A.D. 140, and, according to Eusebius (a Christian historian of the fourth century A.D.), recorded, “In the 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad (A.D. 32 – 33), there was an eclipse of the Sun which was greater than any known before and in the 6th hour of the day it became night, so that stars appeared in the heavens”. If this account is accepted as it stands, this is not an eclipse of the Sun. The two eclipses of A.D. 32 were partial, and the two central eclipses of A.D. 33 (March 19 and September 12) were in the Indian Ocean and Siberia respectively. If it describes the crucifixion darkness, then the fact that stars were visible means that it cannot have been meteorological. The cause must have been beyond the Earth.
Unfortunately, Phlegon's account cannot be accepted without reservation. He himself wrote it one hundred years after the event; his account is now lost, and all we have is Eusebius' record, itself written several hundred years later (circa A.D. 320), of what Phlegon is said to have said. Phlegon is not highly regarded as a historian. The surviving fragments of his writings apparently reveal that 'his style was not elegant, and that he wrote without judgement or precision.' Most investigators have identified the eclipse of November 24, A.D. 29, which was total over the Black Sea, as being Phlegon's. However, some have worked on the basis that any daytime darkness must be a solar eclipse. Phlegon said there was an eclipse in A.D. 33: there was no eclipse then, so the A.D. 29 eclipse must be the one he meant. The famous eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon rejected the crucifixion darkness, as it was not mentioned in Pliny or Seneca. J.B. Lindsay wrote indignantly, “Very few wonderful phenomena are mentioned by Pliny or Seneca; and to believe nothing but what they state is the highest mark of human perversity.”
Unless we habitually disbelieve everything ancient writers tell us (a principle many modern scholars seem to work on), it must be admitted that there was darkness at the crucifixion, even if its cause must remain a mystery. Tertullian (circa A.D. 196), a famous Christian writer of Carthage, said, “At the moment of Christ's death the light departed from the Sun, and the land was darkened at noon; and this wonder is related in your own annals, and preserved in your own archives unto this day.” As Lindsay remarks, “...it is absurd to suppose that Tertullian would have made such an appeal to annals and archives unless the account was to be found in them.”
While a scene of suffering was being enacted outside Jerusalem, there was disaster in the city of Nicaea, in Bithynia. Eusebius says that at the time of the crucifixion an earthquake, which is reported to have killed 30,000 people, wrecked most of this famous city. The shock of this distant convulsion may have reached Jerusalem, for Matthew's Gospel says, “And, behold, the vail of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom, and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent.”
Meanwhile, the Romans were disputing control of the world with their imperial rival, Parthia. In A.D. 35, there was war. The Roman general Vitellius was preparing to cross the River Euphrates, and sacrificed to the god Mars. In response the Parthian king Tiridates III offered to the river, which was naturally sacred, a finely harnessed horse. The river then rose remarkably, although no rain had fallen. The Roman soothsayers were equal to the phenomenon. The saw that the foam of the waters formed circles like victory diadems, and they announced that this predicted a successful crossing. A few sceptics offered another interpretation; “the enterprise would prosper at first, but briefly; omens of earth and sky were more reliable, but rivers being fluid no sooner displayed a portent than they obliterated it.” Both predictions turned out to be correct.
In A.D. 36, the Romans were having difficulties with their native river, and the Senate no doubt regretted that they had followed the advice of Piso twenty-one years earlier. Once more the River Tiber flooded a large part of Rome, and people went about in boats. In August of that year, the Chinese observers noted a meteor shower, “when more than one hundred meteors flew thither in the morning.” Every year about August 12, meteors stream from their radiant in the constellation Perseus, but this must have been an unusually rich display.
The emperor Tiberius died in A.D. 37, and was succeeded by his grandson Caligula. After a few auspicious months, the awareness of his omnipotent power turned the new emperor's brain. He developed delusions of divinity and a taste for blood. The old Roman gods were despised, and their statues modified with the head of Caligula. When in Gaul, he ordered his troops to gather shells from the shore, to be offered up as spoils from the conquered Ocean. Despite this triumph over the natural world, Caligula still hid under his bed when it thundered; and about A.D. 38, while he was touring Sicily, he fled in fear from Messana by night, because of a sudden outburst of smoke and rumblings from the summit of Mount Etna.
Caligula did well to fear Etna. This mighty volcano, under whose roots Zeus had buried the defeated monster Typhon, had been quiet since 32 B.C., but its power and grandeur still awed the Romans. Pliny said, “...among mountain marvels – Etna always glows at night, and supplies its fires with fuel sufficient for a vast period, although in winter cloaked with snow and covering its output of ashes with hoarfrost”. He reported that the summit crater was two and a half miles in circumference. When in eruption, Etna's ashes fell over a space of a hundred miles.
Some daring visitors who climbed Etna told the geographer Strabo that the summit was a level plain about 20 stadia in circuit, enclosed by a rim of ashes as high as the wall of a house. In the centre of the plain was an ash-coloured mound, from which a dark cloud rose two hundred feet into the windless air. Two of the visitors climbed down to the plain and approached the mound, but the sand was so hot that it forced them to turn back. There was a story that the philosopher Empedocles, about 430 B.C., had thrown himself into the crater of Etna, so that he might disappear mysteriously and be thought a god. (The volcano spewed out one of hs sandals as token of his fate.) The visitors dismissed the legend. They said nothing could be thrown into the crater, because of the heat, and the “contrary blasts of the winds arising from the depths.”
Etna's last great eruption was in 44 B.C. Lava flowed into the sea, 18 kilometres away. A hot ash-cloud rushed across the Straits of Messina and overwhelmed the city of Regium, 70 kilometres distant. The accompanying earthquakes were felt in Rome. The poet Virgil described how “vast Etna...breathes fire from her bursting furnaces; and...all Sicily trembles and murmurs, and the heavens are veiled in smoke.” Seneca said, “Etna was blazing with fire and poured out huge quantities of burning sand. The daylight was wrapped in dust, and the sudden darkness terrified people.” Cicero reported that the darkness during the eruption lasted two days, during which “no man could recognise his fellow; and when on the third day the Sun shone they felt they had come to life again.” The ash-cloud from this eruption may have caused the solar obscuration described by Plutarch after the death of Julius Caesar. The poet Tibillus wrote, “Light departed from the Sun himself, and the cloudy year saw him yoke dim horses to his chariot.”
On March 13, A.D. 39, the Chinese saw the first great A.D. comet. A 'broom star' appeared near the Pleiades. The tail soon extended to a length of 30 cubits (45 degrees), bright, broad, and spreading like a tree. The comet moved slowly north-west into Pegasus and disappeared on April 30, after being visible 49 days.
TORCHES IN THE DAYTIME
By A.D. 41, the Romans were weary of Caligula's excesses. He was assassinated and replaced by Claudius. In A.D. 43, he prepared to invade the remote island of Britain. At first things did not go well. Contrary winds drove the invasion fleet crossing the Channel back on its course, and the force became discouraged. Then, “a flash of light arising in the east shot across to the west, the direction in which they were sailing.” This omen, so obviously favourable, heartened the invaders; “they put into the island and found none to oppose them.”
The omen was probably a meteor. Meteors come in many variations, from the evanescent flashes of nocturnal 'shooting stars' to vast fireballs which by day can outshine the Sun and by night illuminate a continent. Aristotle described three types of meteor; the fleeting sparks 'commonly thought to be shooting stars', a body of fire trailing fragments, called a 'goat', and a self-contained fireball, known as a 'torch'. Nero's tutor Seneca described these 'torches' in his work Natural Questions, which was written about A.D. 60. In Book I, Lights in the Sky, he reported that on June 22, 168 B.C., at the Battle of Pydna, a ball of fire as large as the Moon appeared in the sky. When the emperor Augustus died in A.D. 14, “a flaming light in the shape of a huge ball” was seen, “which was then dissipated in mid-flight”. The death of Germanicus in A.D. 19 was announced by another fireball, and a similar prodigy was seen when the usurper Sejanus was condemned in A.D. 31.
These objects were not comets, for they moved far too rapidly. In fact their speed was so great that it was obvious to Seneca that “they do not move of their own accord but are hurled.” Nor were they falling stars. Their origin was far below the stars, in the Earth's atmosphere. According to Aristotle, some 'torches' were formed in the same way as the northern auroral lights, when atmospheric friction ignited dry hot particles rising from the Earth's surface. Others were formed when air, contracting through cold, ejected a fiery particle which then ignited. During the day, the Sun's light drowns out stars, the north-lights and most 'torches', but the energy igniting some meteors is so powerful that they become visible in daylight. Seneca said that “certainly our own age has more than once seen Torches in the daytime, some being swept from east to west, others from west to east.”
THE SEA BROUGHT FORTH LAND
In the centre of the Aegean Sea there is a small island, southernmost of the Cyclades. Once it was called Callista (the beautiful), then Thera, now Santorini (a corruption of St. Irene). Now it takes the form of a semi-circle of precipitous cliffs, ash-coloured, with a town, Phira, perched precariously upon the summit: a popular tourist destination.
Thera (Santorini). The ‘New Burnt Land’ at the centre of the ancient caldera
About 198 B.C., according to Strabo, fire burst up from the sea near Thera. For four days the water boiled around upwelling fiery masses, until a new island, twelve stadia in circumference, was formed midway between the islands of Thera and Therasia. When the eruption was over, sailors from Rhodes were the first to set foot upon the new-formed land, where they erected a temple to Poseidon, god of the sea and of earthquakes.
About noon on July 6, A.D. 46, as the famous sage Apollonius of Tyre was speaking to a large crowd at the Lebenaeum Temple in Crete, a violent earthquake shook the island. Subterranean thunder rumbled. The sea retreated seven stadia from the shore, ominous sign of a possible seismic sea wave. The crowd wished to flee, but Apollonius reassured them by saying that 'the sea had brought forth land'. A few days later, travellers reported that a new island had risen in the Thera group, two stadia from Hiera, preceded by a fire that reached up through two hundred feet of water. The new island was called Thia, but it was named in vain, for it sank again later.
The eruptions of 198 B. C. and A.D. 46 were signs that Thera was renewing itself. The island was a wreck. The semi-circle of cliffs were all that remained of a great volcano shattered by a monstrous eruption in the far past. There are no written records of this cataclysm, but modern studies show that it happened between 1675 and 1525 B.C. Before the disaster, Thera had a thriving sophisticated population, who heeded the warnings of the volcano. About 30,000 people fled the island, taking with them all their movable possessions. Where they went to is unknown, but hopefully it was somewhere far away.
Thera destroyed itself in a monstrous blast. About 20 cubic kilometres of volcanic debris fell into the sea and on nearby islands. Seismic sea waves battered coastal towns around the eastern Mediterranean. A vast ash cloud engulfed Crete, the Aegean islands, and swept south-east toward Egypt, with some ash falling in the Nile delta. One of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, the plague of darkness, may have been the Thera ash-cloud.
Whether the Thera explosion ended the Bronze Age Minoan civilisation of Crete has been disputed. Archaeologists, who dislike catastrophes of non-human origin, date its destruction much later, in about 1450 B.C., and some seem to have decided that a gigantic volcano could blow itself to pieces in the middle of the Mediterranean without causing inconvenience to anyone. It seems as certain as such things can be that, even if Thera did not immediately destroy the Minoan culture, it must have been a major cause of its decline and fall. The Greek Solon, about 590 B.C., heard from the Egyptians how, long ago, the far-western people of Keftiu (Crete) were stricken by a disaster which had ended their trade. From Solon's reports Plato is supposed to have derived his story of Atlantis, the island civilisation which sank beneath the sea after a day and night of earthquakes.
Strabo and Pliny describe other fiery islands which have risen from the sea. Between Lipara and Sicily is the sacred island of the fire-god Hephaestus, Thermessa (now Vulcanello), which was born about 183 B.C. Strabo says, “the whole island is rocky, desert, and fiery, and it has three fire blasts, rising from three openings which might be called craters. From the largest the flames carry up also red-hot masses, which have already choked up a considerable part of the Strait.”
Nearby, between the islands of Vulcano and Panaria, there was another disturbance on a summer day in 126 B.C. The sea rose, boiling, and remained so for a considerable time. When it subsided, venturesome sailors found the water full of dead fish. Some boats ran into a cloud of suffocating vapour and retreated with stifled crews. Many days later, flames and smoke burst out of the sea, and an islet appeared, composed of 'scum' which later became 'as hard as mill-stone'. The governor of Sicily reported the event to the Roman Senate, who sent a deputation to the islet. There they made propitiatory sacrifices to the gods of the sea and the underworld.
In A.D. 48, there was disaster in Britain, according to Dr. Thomas Short. He says that great floods in the Thames Valley drowned about ten thousand people. About A.D. 50, the lakes and rivers of Britain froze solid from mid-November to the beginning of April. So wrote John Seller, in his 1696 History of England, but C. E. Britton says this reference is 'probably imaginary'.
At the same time, the Romans were once more troubled by portents. According to Tacitus, A.D. 51 was a year of prodigies. “Ill-omened birds settled on the Capitol. Houses were flattened by repeated earthquakes, and as terror spread the weak were trampled to death by the panic-stricken crowd. Further portents were seen in a shortage of corn, resulting in famine...Only heaven's special favour and a mild winter prevented catastrophe.”
Then, on July 6, A.D. 54, a portent of more direct significance appeared. The Chinese saw the comet first as it moved through Gemini, developing a white tail seven degrees long. It moved towards the north-east and vanished after 31 days. The Romans believed that the appearance of a comet indicated a change of emperor, and Claudius' wife Agrippina took steps to ensure that the portent was fulfilled. She had Claudius poisoned; he died on October 13, and his stepson Nero became emperor.
ANGER OF THE GODS
Nero's reign, like Caligula's, began well, guided by the famous philosopher Seneca: but it was not to last. On February 11, A.D. 55, Nero disposed of his rival Britannicus, Claudius' son, by poisoning the boy at his 14th birthday party. Tacitus says, “Britannicus was cremated the night he died...As his remains were placed in the Field of Mars, there erupted a violent storm. It was widely believed that the gods were showing their anger at the boy's murder...” A story went about that the rain washed away the white paint which had been put on the victim's face, “so that it appeared quite black, and disclosed the effects of poison.”
Then, on December 12, another comet appeared. The Chinese recorded the 'guest star' with rays that moved slowly south-west for 113 days, but Roman writers seem to have decided that discretion was the better part of observation. In A.D. 56, however, there was a portent that could not be ignored. The temples of Jupiter and Minerva in Rome were struck by lightning. The College of Augurs, whose duty it was to interpret the sky's portents, and whose judgements could not be disputed by lay persons, recommended the purification of the city.
Fortunately for the emperor, there was a distraction in the form of another war with Parthia over control of Armenia. Early in A.D. 58, the Roman army was under canvas in a savage winter. Sentries were frozen to death, or lost limbs by frostbite. Tacitus reports that one soldier lost his hands when they fell off still frozen to their load of firewood. At last the Armenian capital of Artaxata was captured and set ablaze after its inhabitants surrendered. The heat rising from the burning city formed a thundercloud, and lightning flashed, as if 'the angry gods were consigning Artaxata to destruction.'
In A.D. 59, there was a curious story from Germany. Flames burst from the ground in the territory of the Ubii. Villages and crops were consumed over a wide area, up to the walls of the newly-founded settlement now known as Cologne. No water could quench the fires. At last the desperate Ubii hurled rocks into the flames, then “fought them with clubs...as one would fight wild animals. Finally, they tore off their clothes and heaped them on. The oldest and dirtiest garments were most effective as extinguishers.” This phenomenon may have been a peat moor burning by spontaneous combustion, or an escape of natural gas; but Stothers and Rampino note that “the Eifel region, just south of Cologne, is known to have been volcanic in prehistoric times.”
The universe's distaste for the emperor Nero was now being demonstrated. After he murdered his mother Agrippina in March of A.D. 59, portents came thick and fast. All fourteen districts of Rome were struck by lightning. On April 30, there was an eclipse of the Sun. Then, on August 9, A.D. 60, yet another comet shone in the sky, and remained stubbornly visible for six months. People began to speculate about Nero's successor, and the talk intensified after a yet more blatant portent, a lightning-stroke which broke the table at which he was dining. In A.D. 63, the message was delivered with even more force. Lightning set fire to the Gymnasium in Rome, melting a statue of Nero inside into a shapeless bronze mass. “But these portents meant nothing,” Tacitus says. “So little were they due to the gods that Nero continued his reign and his crimes for years to come.” Even the earthquake at Naples in A.D. 64, which interrupted the emperor's debut performance on the lyre, failed to deter him.
A STAR STREAMING FIRE
On May 3, A.D. 64, came one portent too many. Another comet appeared. To the Chinese observers, it was a 'guest star', with a white tail three degrees long. To many of the Roman aristocracy, it was death.
Nero, at last uneasy, learned from his astrologer Balbillus that kings usually expiated cometary portents by ensuring the death of some notable man. The emperor sprang to the task of executing Rome's most eminent personages, and in passing drove his old tutor Seneca to suicide.
Seneca had his own opinions as to the nature of comets, which seemingly were not passed to the emperor. He wrote, “No one is so completely slow and dull and stooping to the earth that he is not aroused by celestial phenomena...especially when some new marvel flashes in the sky”. When a comet appears, “every one wants to know what it is...and asks about the newcomer, uncertain whether he should admire or fear it.”
Comets were of three types; those with a tail hanging down like a beard, those surrounded by streamers of light, and those with a long tail. “None the less, they all have the same characteristics and are correctly called comets...this one description ought to be generally agreed upon: an unusual star of strange appearance is seen trailing fire streaming around it.”.
In 151 B.C., a comet appeared as large as the Sun, with a fiery red disc so bright that it dispelled the night. About 133 B.C., a comet, at first of moderate size, developed a vast tail whose extent 'equalled the region of the sky which is called the Milky Way'.
Comets were intruders, appearing at rare intervals on unpredictable paths. Although they seemed to be celestial bodies, they did not follow the rules governing the planets and the stars. Therefore, some philosophers said that, despite appearances, comets must be evanescent lights formed in our atmosphere, like meteors. Others said that comets were celestial, but still evanescent; they were formed when two planets came into conjunction or passed close to each other. The space between the two planets was illuminated and set aflame, producing a trail of fire. Seneca pointed out that planets often pass close to each other, yet comets are remarkable because of their rarity. And how many planets or stars must conjoin to produce a body like that of 151 B.C.? “Consequently it is obvious that a comet is not produced by a conjunction of planets but has its own existence and in its own right.”
Another objection to the idea of comets as celestial bodies was the fact that they did not move within the limits of the zodiac, the strip of sky which confines the movement of the planets. “Who places one boundary for planets?” Seneca wrote. Nature prides herself on her variety; “anyone who thinks that nature is not occasionally able to do something she has not done frequently, simply does not understand the power of nature.” He said, “I do not think a comet is just a sudden fire but that it is among the eternal works of nature.”
Seneca was not the first to hold this opinion. Apollonius claimed that the Chaldeans classed comets as planets, and had determined their orbits. (Another philosopher, Epigenes, disagreed, and said the Chaldeans thought comets were fires produced by a turbulent atmosphere). Seneca said, “Some day there will be a man who will show in what regions comets have their orbit, why they travel so remote from other celestial bodies, how large they are, and what sort they are. Let us be satisfied with what we have found out, and let our descendants also contribute something to the truth.”
In the same year that Nero appeased the comet with an offering of aristocratic blood, he caused a naval disaster. He ordered the Roman fleet to return to Campania by a fixed date, whatever the weather, and the weather was bad. In heavy seas, the fleet set out from Formiae. A south-westerly gale struck as they struggled near Cape Misenium. The fleet was driven ashore with the loss of many warships and smaller craft.
In A.D. 66, Rome was stricken by plague, and Campania was ravaged by a 'hurricane' which destroyed houses, orchards and crops, and, Tacitus says, 'almost extended its fury to the city'. Tacitus does not give enough details to be sure, bit it is possible that this storm was a tornado. The Romans were familiar with these terrifying storm-spawned whirlwinds, which they called turbo, and the Greeks knew of them also. Homer, in the Iliad, described the 'column of black air that issues from the clouds when a tornado springs up after heat.' The poet Lucretius, writing of waterspouts, explained how an eddy of whirling air burst out of a storm cloud, dragging a column of vapour after it, and reaching the surface of the sea, whipped the water into spray. The same phenomenon over land, Lucretius said, was a tornado. When the revolving cloud-filled eddy touched the earth rather than the sea, it belched forth 'the measureless might of a tempest and whirlwind'.
Rome itself had experienced several tornadoes. In 152 B.C., a turbo overthrew a statue-bearing column before the Temple of Jupiter on the Campus Martius. In 60 B.C., a much more violent turbo tore off roofs and collapsed a bridge, throwing people into the Tiber. In the countryside trees were torn up by the roots. In 44 B.C. a tornado destroyed roofs and trees in Rome. A statue of Minerva erected by Cicero was overturned and broken. This was a portent which 'foretold disaster to Cicero himself’. He was duly murdered at the end of the year.
THE BLADE OF A SWORD
The comet of A.D. 66 over Jerusalem, from Lubienitzki, Theatrum Cometicum (1668)
By now Nero and the Romans must have been resigned to comets. They were supposed to portend a change of emperor, but several had brandished their ominous tails in vain. Nero, detested by the Senate and the natural world, still ruled.
However, the comet that appeared in January 31, A.D. 66, was something unusual, although no-one could know it at the time. In the future, as Seneca had predicted, its orbit would be revealed. It was the comet of Edmund Halley, which swung around the Sun once every 76 years or so. In early March of A.D. 66, Halley's Comet passed relatively close to the Earth, and was brighter than a 1st-magnitude star. At this time the Romans were suppressing a Jewish revolt, and the historian Josephus described one of the prodigies that portended the destruction of Jerusalem. “Amongst other warnings, a comet of the kind called Xiphias, because their tails appear to represent the blade of a sword, was seen above the city for the space of a whole year.” By then, Halley's Comet was long gone, having been last seen by the Chinese about April 10 in A.D. 66. It would return in A.D. 141.
WANT OF BREAD
The decade from A.D. 60 to A.D. 70 may have been disastrous for Britain. “May” must be used, since the terrible weather-wrought disasters which are said to have wracked the island during this period may have originated in the imagination of later chroniclers, notably Dr. Short.
In A.D. 60, Edinburgh was severely damaged by lightning, and in the same year storm-swollen seas flooded the coasts of France and England. An English 'hurricane' in A.D. 67 killed many people and destroyed 15,000 houses. In A.D. 68 excessive rains in winter and a drought in summer caused a famine in Britain that lasted two years, 'so that many thousands perished for want of bread'. In the same year, Dr. Short records, 'the Isle of Wight was torn from Hampshire by an Earthquake', and we are at liberty not to believe him. (However, in the early 17th century, when an attempt was being made to drain Brading Haven on the Isle of Wight, a stone-cased wall was discovered near the middle, “proving that the site had once been dry land, upon which man had planted his foot”). In A.D. 69 lightning destroyed part of London.
THREATS FROM HEAVEN
On June 9th, A.D. 68, Nero was at last deposed, and, with some assistance, committed suicide. The Temple of the Caesars was immediately struck by lightning. Servius Sulpicius Galba, governor of Hispania, was declared emperor. Ominous signs indicated that his reign was to be short. When the new emperor entered Rome in October of A.D. 68, 'he was met by a shock of earthquake and a sound like the lowing of kind.'
Galba was soon faced by a rival for the throne, Aulus Vitellius, and sought to consolidate his position by adopting a young noble, Piso, as his heir. He announced the adoption before the Praetorian Guard on January 10, A.D. 69, an ill-omened day of thunder, lightning, heavy rain and 'unusual threats from heaven'. Tacitus says, “in earlier times notice of these things would have broken up an election, but they did not deter Galba from going to the Praetorian camp, for he despised these things as mere chance”. Six days later, Piso's passed-over rival, Marcus Salvius Otho, subverted the Praetorian Guard, was proclaimed emperor, marched on the Imperial Palace, and on January 15, had Galba and Piso killed. Otho was proclaimed emperor, but not for long.
Vitellius' armies now advanced on Italy, and in March Otho prepared to leave Rome and meet them. He ignored the rumours of ill-omened prodigies – the superhuman form that had rushed from Juno's temple, the speaking ox in Etruria, and the turning statue of Julius Caesar – but there was one portent he was compelled to acknowledge.
The swollen River Tiber broke down the wooden Pons Sublicius, the oldest bridge in Rome, and then, dammed by the wreckage, burst its banks to flood the city. Many people were drowned in the streets, and houses undermined by the flood collapsed when the waters withdrew. The Campus Martius and the Flaminian Way, over which Otho was to march, were blocked by the flood, “and this was interpreted as a prodigy and an omen of impending disaster.”
The omen was fulfilled. Otho met Vitellius at Cremona, was defeated, and killed himself on April 16. Vitellius was now the year's third emperor, but his rule was soon challenged. The eastern provinces supported a rival, Titus Flavius Vespasian, who now advanced upon Italy. Vitellius sought to gather reinforcements from Germany; but the River Rhine was very low, 'owing to a drought unprecedented in that climate’, and many detachments had to be left behind to prevent the Germans from crossing it. “The ignorant regarded even the low water as a prodigy, as if the very rivers, the ancient defences of our empire, were failing us; what they would have called in peace an act of chance or nature, they then called fate or the wrath of the gods.”
Vitellius' forces positioned themselves once more outside Cremona. On October 18 they were alarmed by a partial eclipse of the Moon. “It was not so much it being obscured”, Dio says, “as the fact that it appeared both blood-coloured and black and gave out still other terrifying colours.”
Demoralised, Vitellius' forces were thoroughly defeated on October 24. Cremona was sacked with horrific slaughter by the victors. Vitellius eventually fled back to Rome, where he was killed and thrown into the Tiber on December 20.
Vespasian became emperor on the first of July, A.D. 69. After the manic Caligula and Nero and the excesses of A.D. 68 – 9, no doubt the worst was expected, but Vespasian proved to be a tolerant and efficient ruler, who gave the empire a decade of stability and relative peace. He even had a sense of humour, and was fond of making ponderous jokes. In April of A.D. 79, a 'broom star' comet appeared in the east, and was visible twenty days. Nero had responded to a similar comet with a massacre of the aristocracy, but Vespasian merely remarked, “This hairy star does not concern me; it menaces rather the King of the Parthians, for he is hairy, and I am bald.”
Unfortunately for Vespasian, he was wrong. He fell ill and died on June 24 of A.D. 79. His son Titus, succeeded him.
On August 24 of A.D. 79, Pliny the Elder, staying at Misenium, was informed of an unusual cloud rising above Mount Vesuvius.
VESUVIUS A.D. 79