Changes in Land and Sea

The celestial phenomena that pervade the narrative of the Iliad and even dominate it in books five, twenty and twenty-one, were accompanied also by terrestrial changes—Earth, called Hera, participated in the strife among the gods. In the Iliad these terrestrial disturbances are narrated too: earthquakes shook the Trojan plain amid the battle of the celestial gods.

Then terribly thundered the father of the gods and men from on high; and beneath did Poseidon cause the vast earth to quake and the steep crests of the mountains. All the roots of many-fountained Ida were shaken and all her peaks, and the city of the Trojans, and the ships of the Achaeans. And seized with fear in the world below was Aidoneus, lord of the shades . . . Lest above him the earth be cloven by Poseidon, the Shaker of the Earth, and his abode be made plain to view for mortals and immortals . . . So great was the din that arose when the gods clashed in strife.1

Strabo of the first century before the present era and Pliny of the first century of this era were well aware of the physical changes that the area of western Asia Minor and of the Aegean islands did undergo. Some of these changes are ascribed to the time of the Trojan War or the time closely preceding or following it; but others may refer to earlier upheavals.2

Strabo cited Democles “who recalls certain great earthquakes some of which long ago took place about Lydia and Ionia as far north as the Troad, and by their action not only were villages swallowed up, but Mount Sipylus was shattered—in the reign of Tantalus. And lakes arose from swamps, and a tidal wave submerged the Troad.”3

Pliny described the changes in land and sea distribution. “Land is sometimes formed . . . rising suddenly out of the sea. Delos and Rhodes, islands which have now been long famous, are recorded to have risen up in this way. More lately there have been some smaller islands formed,” and he names them: Anapha, Nea, Halone, Thera, Therasia,4 Hiera, and Thia, the last of which appeared in his own time.5

Pindar said that “the isle of Rhodes was not yet to be seen in the open main, but was hidden in the briny depths of the sea” ; then it was born in the darkness—the sun was absent. When the sun finally lighted the earth again, a plot of land was seen “rising from the bottom of the foaming main.”6

Under the heading Lands Which Have Been Separated by the Sea Pliny mentions: “The sea has torn Sicily from Italy,7 Cyprus from Syria, Euboea from Boeotia,” and other similar instances.

Under the heading Islands Which Have Been United to the Main Land Pliny mentions Antissa which was added to Lesbos, Zephyrium to Halicarnassus, and the like in other places.

Lands Which Have Been Totally Changed Into Seas: the sea has totally carried off certain lands, and first of all, if we are to believe Plato, for an immense space where the Atlantic Ocean is now extended. More lately we see what has been produced by our inland sea; Acarnania has been overwhelmed by the Ambracian Gulf, Achaia by the Corinthian, Europe and Asia by the Propontis and Pontus. And besides these, the sea has rent asunder Leucas, Antirrhium, the Hellespont and the two Bospori.”8

Pliny tells about Cities Which Have Been Absorbed by the Sea: Pyrrha and Antissa, Elice and Bura [on the Gulf of Corinth]9 from the island of Cea the sea suddenly tore off 30,000 paces “with many persons on them.” In like manner it carried off Eleusina in Boeotia, and half of the city of Tyndaris in Sicily.

And not to speak of bays and gulfs, the earth feeds on itself: it has devoured the very high mountain of Cybotus with the town of the Curites; also Sipylus in Magnesia, and formerly in the same place, a very celebrated city, which was called Tantalis.10

These descriptions by Pliny have corroborating references in other classical authors.11

Minor changes they were not: the Bosporus tearing Asia apart from Europe, like the breaking of the Mediterranean into the Ocean at Gibraltar were major changes. Smaller changes where single cities were engulfed or isles born could have been the after-effects of the cataclysms, which for hundreds of years still agitated the distorted strata of the earth; even today they have not completely subsided. Some of these changes occurred earlier and some later, but for the most part they occurred in historical times; the memory of them survived, and the same testimony comes from all quarters of the globe.

In the effort to regard the fantastic events in the sky as pure invention or flights of poetic imagination, the terrestrial changes described by Homer were also kept out of the discussion. Actually, Carl Blegen rejected Wilhelm Doerpfeld’s identification of Troy VI with the Troy of the siege because he found that the walls and structures of Troy VI had been destroyed by an earthquake apparently oblivious of the fact that the Iliad contains a description of an earthquake at the final stage of the siege.12

Thus Blegen became besieged by contradictions, derived from misinterpreting the Iliad and from following an erroneous chronology as well. To the confusion of the Furtwängler-Dörpfeld debate,13 a misreading of the Iliad brought more confusion, and made the tragedy complete.


  1. The Iliad, transl. by A. T. Murray (1925), Bk. XX.56-67.

  2. [For geological and archaeological evidence, see I. Velikovsky, Earth in Upheaval (New York, 1955). Cf. Claude F. A. Schaeffer, Stratigraphie Comparée (Cambridge, 1949). See also above, “Seismology and Chronology.”]

  3. Strabo, Geography, transl. by H. L. Jones (1949), I. 3. 17; [Tantalus’ reign is traditionally placed two generations before Atreus and Thyestes i.e., three generations before Agamemnon. Strabo goes on to tell of many other changes that occurred in the region of the Mediterranean, among them the opening up of the strait at the Pillars of Heracles, or Gibraltar.]

  4. [The story of Thera and Therasia is told at greater length by Strabo: “For midway between Thera and Therasia fires broke forth from the sea and continued for four days, so that the whole sea boiled and blazed, and the fires cast up an island which was gradually elevated as though by levers and consisted of burning masses—an island with a stretch of twelve stadia in circumference. After the cessation of the eruption, the Rhodians, at the time of their marine supremacy, were first to venture upon the scene. . . .”—Geography I.3.16. On the great volcanic eruption on Thera in Late Minoan times, cf. the bibliography collected by S. Hiller, “Die Explosion des Vulkans von Thera,” Gymnasium 82 (1975), pp. 32-74.]

  5. Pliny, Natural History, transl. by J. Bostock and H.T. Riley (London, 1853), II.89.

  6. Pindar, “Seventh Olympian Ode,” transl. by J. E. Sandys (Loeb Classical Library, 1919).

  7. [Diodorus Siculus IV. 85: “Some say that great earthquakes occurred, which broke through the neck of the land and formed the straits [of Messina], the sea parting the mainland from the island.” Cf. also Ovid, Metamorphoses XV, 290-91; Seneca, Quaestiones Naturales VI. 29.]

  8. Pliny, Natural History II. 94.

  9. Cf. Strabo, Geography I.3.18; Pausanias II.25; Aristotle, Meteorologica I.6, II.8; Diodorus XV.49; Seneca, Quaestiones Naturales VI.23,26; VII.5,16.

  10. Pliny, Natural History II. 93.

  11. Cf. in addition to the works cited above Lucretius, De Rerum Natura Bk. VI passim, Ovid, Metamorphoses Bk. XV.

  12. C. W. Blegen et al., Troy, Settlements VIIa, VIIb and VIII, vol. IV (Princeton, 1958).

  13. See above, section “Olympia.”