on the Gulf
of Naples

on the Gulf
   of Naples

An Idyll is

Jonas Borsch and Laura Carrara

Earthquakes along the Mediterranean region were a common occurrence for many societies in the past, presenting them with special challenges. Not only was effective emergency aid made difficult by slow communication and transportation routes, but many existential questions were also raised. Were earthquakes heavenly sent or were they scientifically explainable phenomena – or both? And what role did humans play? Should they accept the disaster as fate or take a more active approach in working towards prevention? Should they remain in their destroyed homeland or flee?

Panic on Mount Vesuvius

One of the regions in Italy most prone to natural hazards is still Campania. But in ancient times, its inhabitants had no idea of ​​the dangerous threat lurking underground. Instead, they enjoyed the fertile soil and the picturesque coastal landscape, which attracted numerous visitors in the summer months. Many villas, thermal baths, gardens and theaters were built to sweeten the visits of the Roman upper classes, including an emperor or two. In 62 AD, however, this idyll was violently disrupted by a heavy earthquake. Several places, especially Pompeii (located on the eastern slopes of Mount Vesuvius), were badly hit. The extraordinary magnitude of the tremors created panic among the inhabitants. After the catastrophe, debates and discussions occurred throughout the empire, some of which have been preserved in the works of the philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Was it possible to bring the supposed idyll back to life, or whether it would be more prudent to abandon the Gulf of Naples altogether.

What threatens us?

In his treatise Naturales Quaestiones, Seneca used the earthquake in Campania as an archetypal example of the terrible impacts such a catastrophe can have on society. For the philosopher, an earthquake was particularly threatening: "For what can one be truly sure of, when the world trembles and its most stable parts waver?" (Seneca, naturales quaestiones VI 1, 4). Earthquakes not only posed a threat to the health and lives of individuals in the short-term, but also to the very existence of entire communities in the long-term. In the case of the quake in Campania, Seneca also felt that the situation was particularly precarious because the summer villas of many Roman aristocrats – and thus of his peers – were directly affected.

AUDIO-PIECE from Senecas
»Naturales Quaestiones«
00:00 — Piece from Senecas »Naturales Quaestiones«

Who are we?

In his investigation, Seneca focused on the earthquake’s consequences for the Roman upper classes to which his work was addressed. By depicting the Campania region as a well-known, beloved resort, he drew on a shared horizon of experience and values that created a sense of community between the author, the victims and the readers. The impacts on other groups, such as agricultural workers, craftsmen and traders, are not included in Seneca's account. In order to gain insights into the earthquake’s impact on these members of the population we must turn to other testimonials – e.g. archaeological findings or inscriptions.

Mural painting in a rich private house
in Pompeii: Mars, Venus and Cupid
INFO Restoring an idyll?

an idyll?

As early as the beginning of the 17th century, the first, yet rudimentary and unsystematic excavations took place in Pompeii. The walls of the city, which are now nearly completely excavated and exceptionally well preserved, attest to the continual necessity of patching up cracks and conducting repairs. Pompeii is a perfect example of how reconstruction proceeded after an earthquake. The central square of the city, the Forum, was still under construction almost two decades after the initial event described by Seneca. The wealthy townhouses were converted into stores and workshops, in an attempt to provide adequate infrastructure for an increasing number of citizens whose livelihoods depended on the city. At the same time, many members of the upper classes had apparently turned their backs on Pompeii, contrary to Seneca's recommendation. Thus, the earthquake seems to have changed the medium-term urban social structure of the city.

Picture: Wall paintings in the Villa Oplontis, Villa of Poppea Sabina (Mrs. Neros), abandoned after the earthquake 62 AD

What do we need?

According to Seneca, the victims of the catastrophe urgently needed an explanation for the terrible event in order to process it properly. He advocated looking beyond explaining the earthquake as “the wrath of the Gods” in order to free society from the fear of supernatural punishment. Instead, he pled for finding the cause in nature itself, and discussed various explanatory models for tectonic movements in his treatise. According to the science of the times, earthquakes were the result of underground movements, the source of which were subterranean bodies of water, fire, and earth, or enormous currents of air. The latter explanation was the most widely accepted and the one supported by Seneca as well. Seneca's goal was to reduce his fellow men’s fear of future earthquakes with the help of scientific insights and by dealing rationally with various pieces of evidence and counterevidence. The extent to which residents received tangible support, e.g. monetary funds from Rome, outside of such abstract philosophical ideas is not made evident by these sources. But given that the earthquake was discussed by the imperial advisor, Seneca, one might assume that the victims had been granted an audience in Rome. If this was the case, however, their requests for more direct support seem to have had little success.

Picture: Model of the city Pompeii
COMPARISON Power and powerlessness
in threatened social orders

What should we do?

Seneca discussed two radical options. The first was to leave the area permanently, while the second was to stay and stoically endure the misfortune; after all, such strokes of fate could occur unannounced anywhere in the world at any time. Basing his preferred idea on his philosophical convictions, he explained the advantages of adopting the stoic attitude. He did not, however, take into consideration the material costs of dealing with the misfortune that had already occurred. Modern excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum have shown that coping with such events was a major problem for the cities. Seventeen years after the quake, both cities were buried by the ashes of the infamous eruption of Mount Vesuvius and preserved for posterity. At the time of the eruption, the reconstruction work on the damage from the earthquake was still in progress: building materials were still piled up on the forum, while elsewhere wealthy homes had been remodeled for the long term, possibly to provide housing for the many workers that had settled there permanently. By contrast, many inhabitants of the upper class seemed to have left Pompeii. Those who had chosen to follow Seneca’s advice and remain, however, were to be buried in the ashes.

On the left: entrance to the "Eumachia Building", Pompeii Forum; Background: Plan of the Forum of Pompeii, 1849
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