To assume that the Greeks exclusively associated natural disasters with divine anger or folly would be incorrect. For example:
- Thucydides gives an excellent circumstantial account of a tsunami that struck the Aegean seacoasts in 426 BCE and concludes that the cause was an earthquake (Papadopoulos and Chalkis 1984).
- Pliny the Elder (Historia Naturalis 2.82, 83, 86) remarks that earthquakes cause waves at sea and inundations on land.
Ancient Greek and Roman records contain many references to natural disasters. Analyzing the immediate reactions to the events, as well as the ensuing responses, is only possible where there is dependable evidence. Many natural disasters can be identiﬁed in the classical Mediterranean world, but it becomes more problematic to recover the responses of people and societies to disasters.
There are several important reasons for this. One is the simple lack of evidence for some periods and places, especially from early times and less urbanized areas. Literature survives from the upper, educated class, from those who could write it and whose texts were valued by later generations of literati. Another factor is that many descriptions of disaster were written long afterward, lacking direct sources of information and possibly corrupted by tendentious explanations that had arisen in the interim. It is also all too easy for a writer to imagine how he and his society might have reacted in a similar situation.
The Peloponnesian War and to impute that reaction to different people living under other circumstances and with different traditions and beliefs. This occurs with a historian writing in Roman times about classical Athens, Plutarch, for example, or with Christian writers like Eusebius or Sozo, men writing about what they considered to be pagan antiquity.
Only a few cases offer eyewitness accounts of disaster, as well as archaeological and scientific studies. These are the plague that struck Athens in 430 BCE during the Peloponnesian War, described by Thucydides who witnessed and suffered from it, and the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, recorded in letters by Pliny the Younger, who saw it and fled from it during its height.
The reactions to the plague as reported by Thucydides are not always those that might be expected by those with some knowledge of ancient Greek literature. The Homeric poems (Iliad, 1, 33–67) say that the gods, Apollo in particular, send pestilence when they are angry. They do this not to punish some sin or moral failure but to avenge dishonor against themselves or those they protect. It would be reasonable to expect that the Athenians would ask which of the gods had smitten them with the plague and which offerings to make to mollify the divine anger. Nothing of the sort is mentioned by Thucydides, who says people noticed that those who worshipped the gods died with the same frequency as those who did not.
The victims of these disasters were plunged into confusion and uncertainty about what to do to survive. In many cases, social cohesion dissolved, and individuals broke norms and traditions. Some sought help from the gods, and others felt there were no gods. In the aftermath, leaders responded with measures intended to help people, restore the body politic, and rebuild.