Correctly or not, August 24th is the date which is commonly taken as the day on which, in A. D. 79, Mt. Vesuvius erupted and destroyed the city of Pompeii as well as many adjacent settlements.
Yesterday – on August 24th, of all dates! – yet another seismic activity hit the Apennine peninsula, and a devastating, large-scale earthquake destroyed most of the town of Amatrice and its surrounding areas, taking hundreds of lives.
‘The town is no more,’ Amatrice’s mayor said.
Pompeii, too, famously experienced an earthquake – in A. D. 62.
Seneca the Younger reports in his Naturales Quaestiones (Book 6.1.1-3, transl. J. Clarke):
We have just had news, my esteemed Lucilius, that Pompeii, the celebrated city in Campania, has been overwhelmed in an earthquake, which shook all the surrounding districts as well. The city, you know, lies on a beautiful bay, running far back from the open sea, and is surrounded by two converging shores, on the one side that of Surrentum and Stabiae, on the other that of Herculaneum. The disaster happened in winter, a period for which our forefathers used to claim immunity from such dangers. On the 5th of February, in the consulship of Regulus and Virginius, this shock occurred, involving widespread destruction over the whole province of Campania; the district had never been without risk of such a calamity, but had been hitherto exempt from it, having escaped time after time from groundless alarm.
The extent of the disaster may be gathered from a few details. Part of the town of Herculaneum fell; the buildings left standing are very insecure. The colony of Nuceria had painful experience of the shock, but sustained no damage. Naples was just touched by what might have proved a great disaster to it; many private houses suffered, but no public building was destroyed. The villas built on the cliffs everywhere shook, but without damage being done. In addition, they say, a flock of six hundred sheep was destroyed, and statues were split open; some people were driven out of their minds, and wandered about in helpless idiotcy.
Many, especially those with a merely historical interest, tend to stop reading at this point.
Seneca introduced this topic for a reason, however, and his reason was not one of mere historical curiosity (6.1.4-8):
We must seek solace for the anxious and dispel overmastering fear. For what can any one believe quite safe if the world itself is shaken, and its most solid parts totter to their fall? Where, indeed, can our fears have limit if the one thing immovably fixed, which upholds all other things in dependence on it, begins to rock, and the earth lose its chief characteristic, stability? What refuge can our weak bodies find? whither shall anxious ones flee when fear springs from the ground and is drawn up from earth’s foundations? If roofs at any time begin to crack and premonitions of fall are given, there is general panic : all hurry pell-mell out of doors, they abandon their household treasures, and trust for safety to the public street.
But if the earth itself stir up destruction, what refuge or help can we look for? If this solid globe, which upholds and defends us, upon which our cities are built, which has been called by some the world’s foundation, stagger and remove, whither are we to turn? What comfort, not to say help, can you gain when fear has destroyed all way of escape? Where, I say, is there any protection you can trust? what is there that will stand as sure defence either of oneself or of others? An enemy I can drive off from my city wall. The mere difficulties of approach to turrets set on the dizzy heights will stop the march even of great armies. From storm the harbour shelters us; our roofs are able to withstand the whole force of clouds let loose, and the endless deluges of rain. Fire cannot pursue us if we run away from it. Against heaven’s threats in thunder refuges underground and caverns dug out in the depths of the earth are of avail the fire of heaven does not pierce the ground, but is beaten back by the tiniest portion of the soil. In time of plague we may change our place of abode. No species of disaster is without some means of escape. Lightning has never consumed whole nations. A plague-laden sky has drained cities, but has never blotted them out.
But this calamity of earthquake extends beyond all bounds, inevitable, insatiable, the destruction of a whole State. Nor is it only families or households or single cities that it swallows; it overthrows whole nations and regions. At one time it hides them in their ruins, at another consigns them to the deep abyss; it leaves not a wrack behind to witness that what no longer is, once was. The bare soil stretches over the site of the most famous cities, and no trace is left of their former existence. Nor are there wanting those who dread most of all this kind of death, in which they go down alive into the pit, houses and all, and are carried off from the number of the living: as if every form of death did not lead to the one goal.
It is this very final observation – we all must die – that leads Seneca to his next point (6.1.8-9):
Among nature’s righteous decrees this is the chief, that when we reach the end of life we are all on a level. It makes no difference, therefore, to me whether one stone wound me to death or I am crushed beneath a whole mountain; whether the weight of one house come down on me, and I expire beneath the dust of its humble mound, or whether the whole world descend upon my head; whether I yield up this breath in the open light of day or in the vast abyss of the yawning earth; whether I am borne down to those depths all alone or along with a great throng of perishing nations. To me it can make no difference how great is the turmoil that accompanies my death; the thing is everywhere just the same.
What should one do? Can one just run away, to a safer place? Seneca comes up with his own risk assessment and begs to disagree with that view (6.1.10-15):
Wherefore, let us raise high our courage against that disaster, which can neither be shunned nor yet foreseen. Let us cease to listen to the people that have bid adieu to Campania since the time of this disaster, and have removed to other districts, vowing they will never set foot in that quarter again! Who can guarantee them more solid foundations in whatever soil they choose? All the world is subject to the same fate. If it has not yet suffered from earthquake, it may; perchance this spot on which you stand in full security will be rent this night, or even this day before night. How can one tell whether is better the state of the places on which fortune has already spent her force or of those which are upheld meantime, but only for some disaster to come? We do greatly err if we suppose any quarter of the world wholly exempt from this danger. All quarters are subject to the same law. Nature framed nothing to be immovable.
Different things will fall at different times. Just as in large cities, now this house and now that leans over and has to be shored up, so in the world as a whole, now this part contains a flaw, now that. Tyre was once notorious for a disaster of the kind. The province of Asia lost at a single stroke twelve of its cities. Last year calamity overtook Achaia and Macedonia, now the injury has fallen upon Campania, whatever be the nature of that force which thus assails us. Fate makes a circuit, paying a second visit to places she has long passed over. On some places her attacks are more rare, more frequent on some. Nothing is suffered to be quite exempt from injury.
Not merely we men, whose life is frail and fleeting, but cities too, and the earth’s coasts and shores, yea, the very sea falls under bondage to fate. And in face of this we promise ourselves permanence in the boons fortune bestows! we suppose there will be stability and endurance in happiness, whose fickleness is greatest of all things on earth! While men promise themselves all things in perpetuity, it never enters their thoughts that the very earth on which we stand is not permanent. The flaws of the ground are to be found everywhere; they are not peculiar to Campania or Tyre or Achaia. The earth coheres imperfectly, it suffers breach from many causes; permanent as a whole, it is subject to collapse in its parts.
Subsequently, Seneca discusses (a) the Stoic view that fear of death is futile (we all must die, and it does not matter if our death is spectacular or not) and (b) ancient theories about the causes of earthquakes as related to the composition of the earth and the primordial elements and forces of fire, water, and air, some of them amusing, some of them surprisingly close to what humankind has managed to establish scientifically later on.
Yet, after all scientific discussion, Seneca returns to the matter of fear and post-traumatic stress (6.29.1-2):
Through fear some people have run about as if distracted or mad. For fear, even when in moderation and confined to individuals, shatters the mind’s powers. But when there is public alarm through fall of cities, burying of whole nations, and shaking of earth’s foundations, what wonder that minds in the distraction of suffering and terror should have wandered forth bereft of sense ? It is no easy matter in the midst of overmastering evils not to lose one’s reason. So it is, as a rule, the feeblest souls that reach such a pitch of dread as to become unhinged. No one, indeed, has suffered extreme terror without some loss of sanity; one who is afraid is much like a madman. But some quickly recovering from the alarm regain self-possession. Others it more violently disturbs and reduces to sheer madness. Hence during times of war lunatics are to be met wandering about. On no occasion will one find more instances of raving prophets than when mingled terror and superstition have struck men’s hearts.
It is fear – fear of death in particular – that one should fight.
Seneca’s Stoic advice on how to harness oneself may seem harsh. It may seem unsuitable. It may not be everyone’s preferred course of action. But it is important to note what he is actually trying to do: he is trying to help, focusing on actual people, their traumatic experiences, and their innermost fears. For it is the people who need our help in such terrible situations first and foremost.
Perhaps we all can try and help?
The Italian Red Cross has set up a webpage for donations – you can find it here (the page is in Italian, but it’s really not hard to figure this one out: nome – first name; cognome – surname; nazione – nationality; indirizzo – address; CAP – post code; importo – amount):
For other ways to help:
What a beautiful post. I love the Classics, even more when I can apply their writings to the present. I’ve wanted to learn Latin since I was a kid so I could read the Classics in their original form, but life seems to have gotten in the way. I’m 56; maybe there is time yet to spend my golden years with Seneca’s writings in my lap.
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Thank you, how very kind of you. It’s never too late to start learning Latin – as with every language, it’s a matter of time that one can spare for it. But I know from my own experience that it will be time well spent. The pleasures of being able to read these texts and to engage with these minds in the original are worth every bit of effort. Good luck!
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Thank you for this piece and lesson from Seneca. To me, it seems not just to apply to natural catastrophes but other kinds of misfortunes and accidents as well. Concerning the earthquake of Pompeii and the present one, the reaction of Seneca reminds me of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 with following reflections of a couple of thinkers at the time of enlightenment like Voltaire, Rousseau, Jacobi and Kant. According to:
Wolfgang Breidert, Herausgeber, Die Erschütterung der vollkommenen Welt, Die Wirkung des Erdbebens von Lissabon im Spiegel europäischer Zeitgenossen, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1994
With greetings and wishes
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I can’t help but think that Seneca is wrong in some respects. Many people are more afraid of their families and children coming to harm than their own demise. That is why these calamities are more terrifying than those that affect the individual and why they are different from a death where you leave your loved ones behind, knowing they are safe and that life will continue on.
It is interesting that post-traumatic stress is nothing new. I have a few medical professionals in the family and they say that, while depression and even some forms of anxiety seem to manifest differently depending on the person’s culture and origin, PTSD always looks very much the same, whether someone has gone through a war in Africa or a mass-shooting right here, or domestic violence.