Beyond the damage threshold: the historic earthquakes of Rome

Abstract

With the goal of constructing a comprehensive seismic catalogue of earthquakes that exceeded the damage threshold within Rome, we collected all the primary historical sources which describe earthquake-induced effects inside the city, integrating literary documents with both epigraphic and archaeoseismic evidence. This was achieved by examining hundreds of studies involving archaeological excavations performed within the Urbs Aeterna during the past two centuries, searching for clues of a coseismic nature, both explicitly quoted by the authors or not. We also tried to identify the seismogenetic sources of the earthquakes that were responsible for damage in Rome, indicating for each event both the epicentral/site parameters and the affected buildings. Considering the long time-span covered by the sources (ca. 2.5 kyr), our results indicate an overall low level of seismicity for Rome (\(\text{ Is}<8\) MCS) which is mainly induced by the periodic rupture of the primary Apennine fault systems located over 80 km away.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    See the early remarks in Agamennone (1935).

  2. 2.

    “Rome will not be destroyed by enemies, but it will ruin into itself because of storms and earthquakes”. Dialogi II, 15.

  3. 3.

    It is worth of note that the MCS site intensity (which is used in all the Italian macroseismic databases) should be evaluated considering the percentual of buildings affected by a certain damage level. Unfortunately, for Ancient and Middle Age earthquakes we have only sparse data concerning mainly monumental buildings. Therefore the intensity values proposed in this paper are merely suggestive. For the same reason, the European Macroseismic Scale (EMS) is even more useless, as it requires also the knowledge of the vulnerability class of each building and the exact percentage of damage level of each class.

  4. 4.

    Noctes Atticae IV, 6, 1–2.

  5. 5.

    According to Livius (III, 10, 6) an earthquake occurred in Rome in 461 BC, under the consulate of Publius Volumnius and Sergius Sulpicius. Later, (IV, 21, 5) he notes that in 436, around Rome, some shocks damaged many houses.

  6. 6.

    Historia Romana LVII, 14, 7.

  7. 7.

    Annales XII, 43, 1.

  8. 8.

    “During the consulate of Maximus and Paterius, an earthquake struck Rome causing the collapse of statues and of the new porticos”.

  9. 9.

    Historia Romana XIII,16

  10. 10.

    “Around those days, Rome was struck by an earthquake so strong that the main houses and buildings collapsed”.

  11. 11.

    Actually, Leo III restored also the new San Peter basilica (“ Hic renovavit basilicam Beati Petri apostolo...”) in association with the ex-prefect Marinianus, and, perhaps, with the son of him Rufus Viventius Gallus (see epigraphs CIL 06, 41397; 41400; 41336). We can only guess that this early restoration was due to the 443 effects.

  12. 12.

    The church was completed under Sixtus III just few years before. Krautheimer et al. (1937–1980) recognized the remains of this building (i.e., the western façade, columns foundation, apse) inside the wall of the successive church that Eudossia (who stayed in Rome between 450–455 AD) dedicated to her parents, as visible on an epigraph: THEODOSIVS PATER EVDOCIA CVM CONIVGE VOTVM CVMQUE SVO SVPPLEX EVDOXIA NOMINE SOLVIT.

  13. 13.

    “...restored the arena, the podium and the doors, and the steps disrupted by the columns fallen down onto the ima cavea because of the earthquake...”. The complete inscription would be:[PRO] FELICITATE DD.NN. (i.e. dominorum nostrorum) [THE]ODO[S]II ET PLACIDI VALENTINIANI, PERPETVORUM INVICTISSIMORVM PRINCIPVM, FLAVIVS [—?] PAVLVS, VIR CLARISSIMVS, [VRBI PRAEFECT]VS, VI[CE SACRA IVDICANS], AD MAIOREM GRATIAM VOLVPTATEMQ(ue) POPVLI ROMANI ARENAM, PODIVM ET IANVAS, GRADVS EX COLVMNIS AD IMAM CAVEAM TERRAE MOTVS DILAPSOS INSTAVRAVIT AC DECENNIO POST, FERIS DIMISSIS, DEDICAVIT.

  14. 14.

    NB, this event is not mentioned in any literary source. As hereafter discussed, its knowledge derives from epigraphic, archaeoseismological and paleoseismological data.

  15. 15.

    According to Fea (1820) one of the two memorial stones was found on August 23, 1813 and that it was originally located over the northern sector of the podium, before falling inside the arena.

  16. 16.

    The complete inscription is: “DECIVS MARIVS VENANTIVS/BASILIVS V(IR)C(LARISSIMVS) ET INL(VSTRIS) PRAEF(ECTVUS)/VRB(IS) PATRICIVS CONSVL/ORDINARIVS ARENAM ET/PODIVM QVAE ABOMI/NANDI TERRAEMO/TVS RVINA PROS/TRAVIT SVMTV (sic) PRO/PRIO RESTITVIT”.

  17. 17.

    “Restored the apse which was falling down”.

  18. 18.

    Surveys in September 2002 by PG, F. Galadini, A. Sposato e M.C. Rinaldoni.

  19. 19.

    Surveys in July 1999 by PG, F. Galadini, A. Sposato, M. Dewailly and H. Broise.

  20. 20.

    Variae III, 10.

  21. 21.

    Cassiodorus (Variae IV, 51) describes the restorations promoted by Theodoric of Pompeius’s Theatre, but not Marcellus’s one, which was probably no longer in use at that time, justifying the abandonment of the fallen columns onto the road and within the ambulacrum.

  22. 22.

    “Then in August there was a major earthquake”.

  23. 23.

    “A large portion of the roof and of the rafters of Saint Paul’s Basilica collapsed”.

  24. 24.

    “In the ninth indiction, because of our sins, an abrupt earthquake occurred on the second day before the kalendae of May, and the church of Saint Paul was hit by the same quake and its roof collapsed”.

  25. 25.

    “...once built and already close to ruin...restored from the foundations...”

  26. 26.

    “...This building was been ruined by collapses a time ago...”.–

  27. 27.

    “...nimia iam lassata senio, ita ut fundamentis casura ruinam sui minaretur...” (Liber Pontificalis, II).

  28. 28.

    “At the time of this Pope (Leo IV) an earthquake occurred in Rome in the tenth indiction, so that everything was seen struck”. According to the Liber Pontificalis, the same Pope restored the portico of the Constantinian basilica maior of Saint Laurence (outside the Wall). This church literally disappeared since that time from all the historical sources, its columns and architraves being reutilized just in the twelfth century for the new, existing church. Leo IV restored also the apse of Saint Mary trans Tiberim, that “vetustate ruitura manebat”. However, in both cases, the Liber Pontificalis does not quote explicity the 847 earthquake as the cause of the damage.

  29. 29.

    Fuit is past tense.

  30. 30.

    Survey of February 2012 with A. La Regina and L. Scaroina.

  31. 31.

    Indeed, the church is still mentioned in the epigraphic anthology which is attached to the Einsiedlen Itinerary (Valentini and Zucchetti 1942).

  32. 32.

    “An earthquake so strong happened, that the bells of the churches rang”.

  33. 33.

    N.B., the day indicated by the Liber Pontificalis (die tertio) seems different from that in the Annales Beneventani.

  34. 34.

    “...in the silence of the night a severe earthquake occurred...”.

  35. 35.

    Historia C, XLIIII. “...the earthquakes let the tower-bell of the Saint Paul’ church fall down, together with part of the noble Milizie tower and the Conti tower, leaving in many places of Rome the trace of its ruin”. According to Da Bra (1952), the earthquake damaged also the bell-tower of Saint Laurence outside the Wall.

  36. 36.

    Familiares XI, 7.

  37. 37.

    Familiares XV, 9. “...the ancient buildings neglected by the citizen and admired by the pilgrims felt down; that tower named Conti, unique in the World, opened by large fissures now looks beheaded, with its head, honor of the superb top, spread onto the ground; then, because the proofs of God wrath do not miss, many features of many churches—and first of all the one dedicated to the apostle Paul—felt down, and the top of the one of Lateran [Saint John] has been crashed, and all of this makes us sad in the light of the incoming Jubilee”. According to Lanciani (1909), amongst the buildings quoted by Petrarca there were the “spiral column of Marcus Aurelius, the basilica of Constantine [=Maxentius], certain monuments on the Sacra Via and the Flavian amphitheatre”.

  38. 38.

    “Four years passed since the temple of the apostle Paul has been destroyed and that the church of the Virgin at the top of the Hill has been struck...”.

  39. 39.

    Seniles X, 16.

  40. 40.

    Seniles VII.

  41. 41.

    There fell down some marble columns of Saint Paul’s church with one third of the roof and many other churches and wonderful buildings”.

  42. 42.

    ASV, Regesta Vaticana, 143, f.163v.

  43. 43.

    “...the Romans were aghast and they did not dare staying in their homes, sleeping in tends outside.”

  44. 44.

    Survey of February 2012 by PG with A. La Regina and L. Scaroina.

  45. 45.

    Three arches of the second ring.

  46. 46.

    Less than one arch.

  47. 47.

    The other arch...from the Saint Gregory church side.

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Acknowledgments

The idea of this paper has its roots in the 90’s when together with F. Galadini and A. Sposato we have started collecting data in Roman archaeological sites. We are in debt with many archaeologists and architects who discussed with us, in the past dozen years, single and general Italian cases in archaeoseismology, providing advises, suggestions, data and materials. We remember: S. Antonetti, G. Bisogno, H. Broise, S. Capini, G. Colucci Pescatori, R. Dal Ri, M. Dewailly, V. Di Giovanni, A. Di Niro, G. Gasperetti, M. Heinzelman, A. Lagi, A. La Regina, L. Scaroina, R. Spadea, M. Vitti, R. Rea, M. C. Rinaldoni, A. Ruga, F. Sirano, R. Santangeli Valenzani, M. Turchetti, R. Tuteri, and many others. An anonymous referee spell-checked all our manuscript, correcting patiently our poor Latin. The views and conclusions contained in this paper are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing official policies, either expressed or implied, of the Italian Government.

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Galli, P.A.C., Molin, D. Beyond the damage threshold: the historic earthquakes of Rome. Bull Earthquake Eng 12, 1277–1306 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10518-012-9409-0

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Keywords

  • Rome
  • Earthquakes
  • Historical seismology
  • Archaeoseismology