Header Dark Ages

The Ancient Natural World Part 6

The Dark Ages are appropriately named. Civilisation in Europe perished, submerged beneath barbarian waves. In the East it struggled to survive. Natural events contributed to the darkness. A gigantic earthquake shook the disintegrating Mediterranean world. Britain was ravaged by what may have been cosmic disaster. A mysterious cataclysm in an unknown region of the Earth literally darkened the Sun for two years, and then the Black Death swept up from Egypt. Volcanoes erupted, climates changed, and always there were the portents. Comets sped through space, indifferent to our planet, but striking fear into its inhabitants whenever they were seen, and the quaking earth created more tangible terrors. The sky, as well as the earth, was sometimes drenched with blood and swept by fire, and when there was not fire, there was darkness by day.


Portents became more terrifying, and it seems that Europeans were no longer able to tell them apart. In Seneca's time there had been classification, and even the fearful had been able to distinguish between chasmata, bolides and comets. Now there was only fear, and people looked upon the signs in the sky with elemental terror. In 313 A.D., there was an appearance of the aurora borealis. Chinese observers recorded in their official way that during the night "red gases were shining in the north-west sky". This kind of calm reportage was on the wane. Any red appearance in the European sky became blood or fire, and these were the most feared of portents. What they signified was all too obvious, and the intimation often became reality. The inhabitants of Europe were not only troubled by portents. Other events, both natural and man-made, gave them more immediate cause for fear. Rome was failing, Byzantium was divided, and barbaric tribes, seeking loot and living space, pressed westward.

At the same time, natural disasters seemed to multiply. About A.D. 315, it is said that the island of Cyprus was 36 years without rain. The famine that followed caused the disappearance of all the island's animals. Between A.D. 317 and A.D. 329 there were floods, freezes, and a blood-rain in Britain. An earthquake in Italy shattered 13 cities.

In 334 A.D., according to Theophanes, during the middle of the day at Antioch, a star was seen in the eastern sky, and dense smoke poured from it for three hours. Whatever this was, it is unlikely to have been a comet. The Chinese seem to have missed it, and why was the tail, if bright enough to be seen in daylight, only visible for a few hours? A meteor? Meteors are not visible for hours, although their trails might be. Possibly the 'star' was a meteor and the 'smoke' it's dissipating trail.

The Chinese astronomers continued to observe comets. The Chinese believed in portents as fervently as the Europeans, but in China there was no unmannerly panic. The portent was observed calmly by professionals trained for the task, and the event to come was determined by consultation with the official handbooks. On February 16, A.D. 336, a 'broom star' appeared in Andromeda in the western sky. This is believed to be the 'hairy star of unusual size' which announced the death of the emperor Constantine on May 22nd, A.D. 337. It also portended more disasters.


In A.D. 340 an earthquake was "all through the East", followed in the next few years by devastating shocks in Antioch, Neocaesarea, Rhodes, and Italy. Even Rome was shaken by tremors which lasted for three days, and, according to the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, "fearful earthquakes shattered numerous cities and towns throughout Asia, Macedonia and Pontus with repeated shocks."

The most fearful was the tremor which shattered Nicomedia in Bithynia on August 24, A.D. 358. Black clouds, a thick fog, and a violent storm preceded a shock which completely destroyed the city and its suburbs. Landslides swept the hillsides, carrying houses to ruin, while a great cloud of dust billowed up. The survivors who were able to flee seem to have done so, leaving those trapped by fallen buildings to call for help in vain. Ammianus says that many of the victims might have been saved, "had not a sudden onrush of flames, sweeping over them for five days and nights, burned up whatever could be consumed." Four years later, on December 2, A.D. 362, another earthquake ruined what was left of the city. But the greatest earthquake disaster was still to come.

In A.D. 362, the eastern emperor Julian, campaigning in Persia, was alarmed at night by a 'blazing light', which passed across the sky and vanished. Julian, much alarmed, and believing that the fiery apparition might be a threatening 'star of Mars', roused his Etruscan diviners from their beds and asked what it might signify. The diviners stated that it had been an 'advisory' portent, and care must be taken to avoid new enterprises. They quoted from the Tarquinian (Sybilline) books, which said that battles and similar operations should not be undertaken when fiery bodies appear in the sky. Ammianus Marcellinus pointed out that the object was obviously a shooting star. These never reach the earth, for “anyone who thinks that bodies can fall from the sky must be...an ignoramus”. Various opinions were put forward as to the nature of shooting stars. They might be sparks of the fifth element ether, or sparks created when 'fiery rays' shake thick clouds.


On July 21, A.D. 365, just after dawn, a gigantic earthquake rocked the eastern Mediterranean. Ammianus Marcellinus described it as a "mad discord of the elements…a frightful disaster, surpassing anything related either in legend or authentic history". He says the shock was preceded by thunder and lightning, and "the whole of the solid earth was shaken and trembled". The sea withdrew from the shore, "so that in the abyss of the deep thus revealed men saw many kinds of sea-creatures stuck fast in the slime". Then the sea returned, roaring. Thousands of people, unwise in the ways of seismic sea waves, were drowned. Ships, lately stranded by the retreating sea, were thrown far inland. Some in Alexandria came to rest on the roofs of buildings. Marcellinus himself saw the rotting remains of a Laconian ship which had been carried almost two miles inland. The focus of the earthquake has been placed in Turkey, Crete and Palestine, but after archaeological research David Soren placed the origin under the sea 30 miles off Kourion in Cyprus. Kourion (population about 2,000) was shattered by the shocks. Even if it had survived, the seismic sea wave generated by the earthquake would have engulfed it about three minutes later. The town was abandoned after the disaster and its dead were left unburied. The shock and a seismic sea wave killed 50,000 people in Alexandria. Waves also swept the shores of Sicily, Dalmatia and Greece, and may have reached as far as Gibraltar.
After this cataclysm, the earth continued unquiet, with shocks in Nicaea, the Hellespont, and an inundation by the sea in Sicily. A hailstorm at Constantinople on July 2, A.D. 367 is said to have killed many people and cattle. One of the hailstones filled a man's hand, and was 'as solid as a stone'.


On February 13, AD 374, Halley's Comet rounded the Sun. It was seen from China after perihelion, and would return in A.D. 451. It came rather too early to portend a disaster for the failing Roman Empire. On the 'burning day' of August 9, A.D. 378, the battle of Adrianople took place between the Romans and the Visigoths. The Romans were scorched by the sun and blinded by the clouds of dust which rose from the battlefield. The Roman cavalry fled before the Visigoths and the Roman infantry was destroyed. Valens, the Emperor of the East, was killed; his body was never found.
It was the worst disaster for Roman arms since the annihilation of Varus in A.D. 9. Ambrose, the Bishop of Mediolanum said it marked "the massacre of all humanity, the end of the world". A few years later he recorded, "diseases spreading, time nearing its end. We are indeed in the twilight of the world."

But the world rolled on, indifferent to suffering mankind, even though some of its events increased that suffering. Events beyond the Earth, even though they caused no physical hardship, spread more terror. In A.D. 390, on August 7, a 'bushy star' appeared in Gemini. On September 8 it became a white comet 100 cubits long. An affrighted Roman writer recorded it as a sign like a hanging dove (
columba pendens) which burned in the sky for 30 days. No doubt he would have agreed with Synesius of Cyrene, who said of comets in about AD 400, "…they are an evil portent…They assuredly foretell public disasters, enslavements of nations, desolations of cities, deaths of kings."

In A.D. 393, says Lycosthenes, at midnight, glowing globes merged into "one awful flame" which resembled a sword. This was in the time of Theodosius. On September 5, A.D. 394, during a protracted battle between that emperor and a rival, Eugenius, there was, says Zosimus, "such an eclipse of the sun that for some time it was considered to be night rather than day." There was no solar eclipse on this date, but there could have been a dark day.

Bushy stars, burning doves, and fiery globes were outdone by the fantastic prodigy which appeared over Antioch in A.D. 394. The form of an immense clothed woman appeared high in the night sky, seemingly lashing a whip which 'made the air resound'. Her appearance was followed almost immediately by a 'great and bloody insurrection' in the city.

In A.D. 396, earthquake shocks rocked Constantinople for days on end, and at the same time the heavens seemed to be on fire. About A.D. 398, Jerome says the Sun was obscured "about the days of Pentecost" in Bethlehem, "and everyone feared that the day of judgement was already at hand". A solar eclipse is not possible on the day of Pentecost. About A.D. 398, "a thing like a burning globe, presenting a sword" shone in the sky over Constantinople. It seemed almost to touch the earth from the zenith. The awful aerial apparitions of the 380s and 390s demand attention. For once, the standard explanation that they were aurorae seems to be credible, but what was the aurora doing so far south? Some would deny that these things had physical existence, and say that the people of those troubled times were projecting their psychological traumas upon the blank screen of the sky, but this is an explanation that could be used to dismiss almost every incident of recorded history. The screen of the sky is never blank, and while the events there were probably distorted in the seeing and recording, there seems little doubt that there was something to be seen.

In A.D. 400, more fearful aerial portents shone over Europe. There were "columns in the sky" for three days, and "a fire burned behind a cloud which was terrible for its splendour". Eclipses of the Moon on December 17, A.D. 400, June 12 and December 6, A.D. 401, spread alarm throughout Italy. Seneca had written condescendingly, "No one watches the Moon if it is not in eclipse, but then cities cry out and each person makes a din in accordance with inane superstition." Now superstition prevailed. Night after night, cities echoed with wailings and the sounds of beating gongs "to scare the shadow from off her darkened face". Earthly events lived up to these fearful prognostications. A fearsome winter in A.D. 401 froze the Black Sea for 20 days, and, when it thawed, the sight of huge icebergs drifting past Constantinople terrified its inhabitants.

At the same time barbarians were closing in on the western Roman Empire. The Visigoths under Alaric raided northern Italy in AD 401. They were driven back, but would return. On the last day of the year A.D. 406, Vandals, Sueves and Alans crossed the frozen Rhine and ravaged Gaul. The ancient defence of the Empire was breached, with little resistance, and some of the invaders crossed the entire country and reached the Pyrenees.

Alaric, king of the Visigoths, sacked Rome in A.D. 410, (possibly in late August.) About that time there was "a gloom so great that stars appeared in the daytime". There was an eclipse of the Sun on June 18, AD 410, but the central line was in North Africa. Shove says this darkness is "fictitious", apparently because it does not coincide with an eclipse, but all that demonstrates is that an eclipse did not cause the darkness. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that in A.D. 418, "the Romans collected all the treasures that were in Britain, and some they hid in the earth, so that no one has since been able to find them; and some they carried with them into Gaul." Britain was left to fend for itself.

On July 18, A.D. 418, Philostorgius described a total eclipse of the Sun. Stars were visible, and at the same time, "a light, in the form of a cone, was seen in the sky". Philostorgius says that "some ignorant people" called it a comet. He thought that it could not have been a comet, as it had no tail; "it resembled the flame of a torch subsisting by itself, without any star for its base." However, in this case, the ignorant were correct. The Chinese saw the comet on June 24, with a tail that gradually lengthened until on September 15 it was 100 degrees long. In May of A.D. 420, Chinese astronomers saw a 'tailed star' extending across the heavens. In A.D. 423, December 13, a comet was seen from China with a tail 60 degrees long, in Libra. It moved east and the tail grew 10 degrees daily. After 10 days it disappeared.


In A.D. 441, Clube and Napier suggest that cosmic disaster struck Britain. There was widespread destruction in the island, followed by years of migration, dark skies and a dark age. They say that the first written accounts of those times (that is Gildas Sapiens, who wrote
De excidio Britanniae, or Concerning the Ruin and Conquest of Britain about A.D. 530) report that "fire fell from heaven" and "burned the whole surface of the island", so that many cities were still in ruins a century later. They suggest that this destruction, or some of it, was caused by a giant meteorite (or meteorites) exploding in the atmosphere and spreading devastation by heat flash and blast. This could happen; in fact it may have happened in France in A.D. 580. Gildas says, however, that barbarian invaders caused the destruction, although it does seem excessive even for them. "For the fire of vengeance, justly kindled by former crimes, spread from sea to sea, fed by the hands of our foes in the east, and did not cease, until... it reached the other side of the island, and dipped its red and savage tongue in the western ocean…All the columns were levelled with the ground by the frequent strokes of the battering-ram... whilst the sword gleamed, and the flames crackled round them on every side…in the midst of the streets lay the tops of lofty towers, tumbled to the ground, stones of high walls, holy altars, fragments of human bodies...with no chance of being buried, save in the ruins of the houses or in the ravening bellies of wild beasts and birds…"

This is generally considered to describe the invasions of the Anglo-Saxons between about A.D. 450 and A.D. 500. Britain was certainly desolated during this time. Roman towns were abandoned. In Cirencester unburied corpses lay in the main street. At Wroxeter, people sheltered in the heating channels below the town baths, and died there. (What were they sheltering from?) London is not mentioned in any contemporary source between A.D. 457 and A.D. 604, and from the mid-fourth to the late seventh century currency was unknown in Britain. Gildas, writing about A.D. 550, says, "Neither to this day are the cities of our country inhabited as before, but being forsaken and overthrown still lie desolate." The
Chronica Gallica, which were kept in Gaul from about A.D. 380 to A.D. 452, say for the year A.D. 441 that "Britain, which up to this time had suffered manifold devastations and accidents, was subjected to the domination of the Saxons." (Britanniae usque ad hoc tempus variss cladibus eventibusque latae in dicionem Saxonum rediguntur). The Chronica Gallica are distinguished by their terseness, but it is a pity that we will never know exactly what they mean by "accidents".

J. D. Rhanders-Pehrson, in
Romans and Barbarians, does say, "Gildas' lurid accounts of death and destruction must be discounted. Archaeologists thus far have never found a fire layer either in the towns or in the outlying villas." Archaeologists also say that the invading Saxons certainly did not sweep across Britain in one wave as Gildas suggests. However, exploding meteors, unlike rampaging barbarians, would not pick out towns and villas for burning. Forests and woods might blaze, creating terror, while buildings fell to shock waves. Why was Gildas so insistent about the fire, which forms such a striking part of his text? Perhaps he preserves a memory of destruction which he assumed was caused by invaders.

On November 1, A.D. 442, a "strange star" was seen from China. It became a comet and vanished in the winter. Clube and Napier link this comet to the devastation in Britain.

In A.D. 442, earthquakes shook Constantinople for 4 months, and in A.D. 446, Mallet says a six-month earthquake shook most of the civilised world. In A.D. 447, 57 towers on the new wall of Constantinople collapsed in an earthquake. "It was an embarrassing moment", for Attila the Hun was advancing. Rapid work erected a moat and an outer wall.

In A.D. 447 (possibly A.D. 444), the Welsh Annals record Dies tenebosa sieut nox, or "Days as dark as night". On December 23, Hydatius records a solar eclipse, and the Annals of Lund say that in A.D. 447 or 448, "a dark day occurred". On August 25, A.D. 450, in Constantinople, as Marcian assumed the crown, "the sky was dark until the evening", says John of Asia. Schove says, "The darkness, if genuine, must have been meteorological." On April 3, A.D. 451, an auroral display was seen after sunset in France, whose red streamers "were like fire or blood". The auroral lights returned as fire in A.D. 454, when 'burning pikes' appeared in the sky over central Europe.

In November of A.D. 472, Vesuvius stirred again, and more than stirred. It awoke with an outburst that exceeded A.D. 79. The historian Marcellinus said, "Vesuvius, a burning mountain of Campania, seething with internal fires, vomited up its completely consumed inner parts and turned day into night, covering the whole surface of Europe with a fine dust." At Constantinople, "fiery clouds" were seen in the sky on November 6; then about noon, ash began to fall, and finally lay on the roofs "one palm" deep.
Rosi and Santacroce say that this "must be considered the most violent and fatal Vesuvius eruption during the last nineteen centuries". Vesuvius certainly erupted about this time, but the only definite date comes from the presumption that the ashfall originated there, and chroniclers are in dispute as to the year of the ashfall. A 7th-century historian says the year was A.D. 469. Theodorus Lector says 473, and Theophanes Confessor (10th century) gives 474. Some volcanologists find it incredible that Vesuvian ash could travel in such quantity as far as Constantinople (although ash fell at Constantinople duringg the Vesuvius eruption of 1631), and one alternative suggestion is that the 'fiery clouds' and ash were from an exploded meteor.

On September 4
th, A.D. 476, Romulus Augustulus, the last Emperor of western Rome, abdicated and retired to Naples. The eastern Roman Empire of Constantinople remained, and would last another thousand years, but in the west civilisation died.

On September 25, A.D. 477 (or 478) a great earthquake shook Constantinople, the Hellespont, and the Cyclades. Shocks lasted four days. About this time, Gregory of Tours says, "Three times the sun was in eclipse, so that only a third part of it was visible. In my opinion this happened because of all the crimes which had been committed and all the blood which had been shed". Various attempts have been made to identify this with a solar eclipse, without much success. On May 17, A.D. 451, the Chinese saw Halley's Comet, which rounded the Sun on July 4. It was a portent for the defeat of Attila the Hun at Chalons in France. The comet would return in AD 530.

The phenomena that had spread terror in the last decades of the 4th century returned in the fifth. In A.D. 457, a gigantic "blazing thing" appeared in the sky over Brittany. On its beams "hung a ball of fire like a dragon", with two beams streaming from its mouth and ending in fire. On May 28, A.D. 458, Hydatius recorded a solar eclipse at Chaves, when "the Sun appeared reduced in the light of his orb to the figure of the Moon five or six days old". The eclipse was total in the North Sea at noon. On March 1, A.D. 462, a lunar eclipse turned the full Moon to blood. In A.D. 484, on January 14, there was a total solar eclipse, beginning in Greece at sunrise; "there was deep darkness and the stars were seen." This was a precursor to a devastating drought and famine, in 'Africa and the Vandals', when “Men died in Heaps; all Roads were lined with their dead Carcasses, without any Body to bury them.”

On November 9, A.D. 505, Vesuvius erupted, and again on July 8, A.D. 512. Theodoric the Goth exempted the surviving towns from taxes. Magnus Flavius Aurelius Cassiodorus, Theodoric's advisor, visited the region and became the first person to describe the most deadly of volcanic phenomena, that which had annihilated Herculaneum in AD 79, and would later be known as a
nuee ardente or pyroclastic flow. He described "rivers of ash" filled with hot sand, "flowing like liquid".

About A.D. 523, sky terrors returned to Britain. "Strange sights were seen of Dragons, Lions and other furious beasts fighting in the Air. In the west of Kent it rained Wheat, and soon after great Drops of Blood…"
Halley's Comet swung round the Sun on November 15, A.D. 530. China's observers had first seen it on August 29, as a 'broom star' in the morning sky, with a pure white tail 9 degrees long. The comet vanished from their sight on September 23. It would return in A.D. 607.

In A.D. 536, Vesuvius rumbled, and the inhabitants were terrified, expecting to see a repetition of the towering ash-cloud, rising 'farther than the eye can see', which had loomed over the mountain in Pliny's day. However, the expected eruption did not follow. The rumblings, which the historian Procopius said once happened only every hundred years or so, were now becoming more frequent. Italy was spared an eruption this time, but still had little to rejoice about. War and famine beset mankind, and worse was to come.


The location of the cataclysm of A.D. 535 is still unknown. It was possibly a giant volcanic eruption, somewhere in the tropics. The Chinese may have heard its echo The
Nan Shi (History of the Southern Dynasties) says that in February of A.D. 535, from the south-west, "there twice was the sound of thunder". Although Chinese observers were always alert for every kind of aerial portent, there must have been something unusual about this 'thunder' that made it worthy of record.
Whatever and wherever the cataclysm was, it's effects were world wide.

Procopius describes "a grave portent" in the year A.D. 536. For the whole year "the Sun sent forth his rays without his usual brilliance, like the Moon". Cassiodorus in Italy said that in the year A.D. 536, "The Sun seems to have lost its wonted light, and seems of a bluish colour. We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon, to feel the mighty vigour of the Sun's heat wasted into feebleness, and the phenomena which accompany a transitory eclipse prolonged through almost a whole year. The Moon too, even when its orb is full, is empty of its natural splendour…We have had a spring without mildness and a summer without heat. The crops have been chilled by north winds, (and) the rain is denied". Nor was this obscuration confined to Italy. John the Lydian recorded that "the Sun became dim for nearly the whole year". On March 24 in Constantinople, the Sun was darkened by day and the Moon by night. This lasted over a year, until June 24 of A.D. 537. In Mesopotamia the Sun was darkened for 18 months. Each day it shone for only a few hours, "and still this light was only a feeble shadow…the fruits did not ripen and the wine tasted like sour grapes". In China, "the stars were lost from view for three months", and yellow dust fell like snow. The winter of A.D. 536 - 537 in Mesopotamia was unusually severe. A "large and unwonted quantity of snow" killed the birds there and caused distress to men.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the solar eclipses of February 2, A.D. 538 and June 20, A.D. 540, and this is a mystery in itself. These eclipses were very small partials in England. The central line of the A.D. 538 eclipse passed through southern Greece, and that of A.D. 540 through central Italy. The annular eclipse of September 1, A.D. 538, which was central in the west of Britain, apparently passed unnoticed. Of course, that may have been cloudy, but why were the minor eclipses of A.D. 538 and 540 recorded? Partial eclipses are usually difficult to see due to the Sun's brilliance; if the Sun was dimmed in those years then those eclipses might have been widely noticed.

However, the obscuration of A.D. 536 was certainly no eclipse. Terror returned to the shrouded skies. Zachariah of Mitylene said that "a great and terrible comet appeared in the sky at evening time for 100 days" about A.D. 540. Roger of Wendover says that in A.D. 541, a comet was seen from Gaul, "so vast that the whole sky seemed on fire. In the same year there dropped real blood from the clouds…and a dreadful mortality ensued".

The obscuration continued. In A.D. 542, according to Holinshed, in Scotland, "the Sun appeared about noon days all wholly of a bloody colour. The element appeared full of bright stars to every man's sight continually for the space of two days together."

In A.D. 539, the arch-portent, a comet, appeared, and was visible for over 40 days.. At first, the tail was 'as long as a tall man', but later grew much larger. The 'swordfish', some called it, as its head came to a sharp point, while others called it the 'bearded star'. The astrologers argued about what the visitor might warn of, but could not agree, until, Procopius says, “a mighty Hunnic army crossing the Danube River fell as a scourge upon all Europe.”

The shrouded sky of AD 536 was but the precursor to a far greater disaster. In AD 542, the first recorded pandemic of bubonic plague reached Egypt. From there it spread to the whole of the known world, and "swept away the noblest third part of the human race."