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  • Sparta (click here to focus in map) (see also Pleiades #570685)
    Pleiades_icon Sparta settlement, temple, theatre Geocontext: Sparti
    Description: Sparta was a prominent city-state (polis) of ancient Greece.


Text #9091

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Series: Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War. Vol. 1
[Thuc. 1.101--1.128. Harvard University Press. 1919. (4 Vols.) pp. 169--215]

101 As for the Thasians, who had been defeated in battle and were now besieged, they appealed to the Lacedemonians and urged them to come to their aid by invading Attica. This, unknown to the Athenians they promised to do, and intended to keep their promise, but were prevented by the earthquake which occurred at the time when both their Helots and the Perioeci of Thuria and Aethaea revolted and went to Ithome.


128 The Athenians answered with the demand that the Lacedaemonians should drive out the curse of Taenarus. For the Lacedaemonians had on one occasion caused some suppliant Helots to leave their refuge in the temple of Poseidon at Taenarus, then had led them off and put them to death; and the Lacedaemonians believe that it was because of this sacrilege that the great earthquake befell them at Sparta.

Text #9090

Cicero. De Senectute, De Amicitia, De Divinatione. Series: Cicero. Vol. 20
[Cic. Div. . Translated by William Armistead Falconer. Harvard University Press. 1923. (29 Vols.) p. 345]

De Divinatione 1.112: There are many things foreseen by physicians, pilots, and also by farmers, but I do not call the predictions of any of them divination. I do not even call that a case of divination when Anaximander, the natural philosopher, warned the Spartans to leave the city and their homes and to sleep in the fields under arms, because an earthquake was at hand. Then the whole city fell down in ruins and the extremity of Mount Taygetus was torn away like the stern of a ship in a storm. Not even Pherecydes, the famous teacher of Pythagoras, will be considered a prophet rather than a natural philosopher, because he predicted an earthquake from the appearance of some water drawn from an unfailing well.

Text #9092

Diodorus Siculus. The Library of History. Vol. 4
[Diod. 11. Translated by C. H. Oldfather. Harvard University Press. 1935. (12 Vols.) p. 289]

During this year a great and incredible catastrophe befell the Lacedaemonians; for great earthquakes occurred in Sparta, and as a result the houses collapsed from their foundations and more than twenty thousand Lacedaemonians perished. And since the tumbling down of the city and the falling in of the houses continued uninterruptedly over a long period, many persons were caught and crushed in the collapse of the walls and no little household property was ruined by the quake. And although they suffered this disaster because some god, as it were, was wreaking his anger upon them, it so happened that other dangers befell them at the hands of men for the following reasons. The Helots and Messenians, although enemies of the Lacedaemonians, had remained quiet up to this time, since they stood in fear of the eminent position and power of Sparta; but when they observed that the larger part of them had perished because of the earthquake, they held in contempt the survivors, who were few. Consequently they came to an agreement with each other and joined together in the war against the Lacedaemonians. The king of the Lacedaemonians, Archidamus, by his personal foresight not only was the saviour of his fellow citizens even during the earthquake, but in the course of the war also he bravely fought the aggressors. For instance, when the terrible earthquake struck Sparta, he was the first Spartan to seize his armour and hasten from the city into the country, calling upon the other citizens to follow his example. The Spartans obeyed him and thus those who survived the shock were saved and these men King Archidamus organized into an army and prepared to make war upon the revolters.”

Text #9100

Diodorus Siculus. The Library of History. Vol. 7
[Diod. 15.66.4. Translated by C. H. Oldfather. Harvard University Press. 1935. (12 Vols.) p. 137]

The last war between them1 was on the occasion of a great earthquake; practically all Sparta was destroyed and left bare of men, and the remnants of the Messenians settled Ithomê with the aid of the Helots who joined the revolt, after Messenê had for a long time been desolate.

  1. The Messenians and Spartans.

Text #9101

Strabo. Geography. Series: Geography. Vol. 4
[Strab. 8.5.7. Translated by Horace Leonard Jones and John Robert Sitlington. William Heinemann; G. P. Putnam's Sons. 1967. (8 Vols.) p. 144]

Laconia is subject to earthquakes, and in fact some writers record that certain peaks of Taygetus have been broken away.

Text #1800

Pliny. Natural History. Series: Natural History. Vol. 1
[Plin. Nat. 2.53. Translated by H. Rackham. Harvard University Press. 1967. (10 Vols.) p. 323]

The theory of the Babylonians deems that even earthquakes and fissures in the ground are caused by** the force of the stars that is the cause of all other phenomena, but only by that of **those three stars to which they assign thunderbolts (Saturn, Jupiter and Mars); and that they occur when these are travelling with the sun or are in agreement with him, and particularly about the quadratures of the world. On this subject a remarkable and immortal inspiration is attributed (if we can believe it) to the natural philosopher Anaximander of Miletus, who is said to have warned the Spartans to be careful of their city and buildings, because an earthquake was impending; and subsequently the whole of their city collapsed, and also a large part of Mount Taygetus projecting in the shape of a ship’s stern broke off and crashing down on it added to the catastrophe. Also another conjecture is attributed to Pherecydes the teacher of Pythagoras, this also inspired: he is said to have foretold to his fellow-citizens an earthquake, of which he had obtained a premonition in drawing water from a well.

Text #9093

Plutarch. Lives. Vol. 2
[Plut. Cim. 16.4--16.7. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Harvard University Press. 1914. (11 Vols.) pp. 453--455]


When Archidamus, the son of Zeuxidamus, was in the fourth year of his reign at Sparta, a greater earthquake than any before reported rent the land of the Lacedaemonians into many chasms, shook Taÿgetus so that sundry peaks were torn away, and demolished the entire city with the exception of five houses. The rest were thrown down by the earthquake.

It is said that while the young men and youths were exercising together in the interior of the colonnade, just a little before the earthquake, a hare made its appearance, and the youths, all anointed as they were, in sport dashed out and gave chase to it, but the young men remained behind, on whom the gymnasium fell, and all perished together. Their tomb, even down to the present day, they call Seismatias.

Archidamus at once comprehended from the danger at hand that which was sure to follow, and as he saw the citizens trying to save the choicest valuables out of their houses, ordered the trumpet to give the signal of an enemy’s attack, in order that they might flock to him at once under arms. This was all that saved Sparta at that crisis. For the Helots hurriedly gathered from all the country round about with intent to despatch the surviving Spartans. But finding them arrayed in arms, they withdrew to their cities and waged open war, persuading many Perioeci also so to do. The Messenians besides joined in this attack upon the Spartans.

Text #9098

Plutarch. Lives. Vol. 1
[Plut. Lyc. 28.4--28.6. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Harvard University Press. 1914. (11 Vols.) pp. 291--293]


And in other ways also they1 were harsh and cruel to the Helots. For instance, they would force them to drink too much strong wine, and then introduce them into their public messes, to show the young men what a thing drunkenness was. They also ordered them to sing songs and dance dances that were low and ridiculous, but to let the nobler kind alone. […]

However, in my opinion, such cruelties were first practised by the Spartans in later times, particularly after the great earthquake, when the Helots and Messenians together rose up against them, wrought the widest devastation in their territory, and brought their city into the greatest peril.

  1. The Spartans

Text #9099

Pausanias. Description of Greece. Series: Description of Greece. Vol. 2
[Paus. 4.24.5--4.24.6. Translated by W. H. S. Jones. Harvard University Press. 1918. (6 Vols.) p. 317]


The Messenians who were captured in the country, reduced by force to the position of serfs, were later moved to revolt from the Lacedaemonians in the seventy-ninth Olympiad, when Xenophon the Corinthian was victorious. Archimedes was archon at Athens. The occasion which they found for the revolt was this. Certain Lacedaemonians who had been condemned to death on some charge fled as suppliants to Taenarum but the board of ephors dragged them from the altar there and put them to death.

As the Spartans paid no heed to their being suppliants, the wrath of Poseidon came upon them, and the god razed all their city to the ground. At this disaster all the serfs who were of Messenian origin seceded to Mount Ithome. Against them the Lacedaemonians, amongst other allies, called to their assistance Cimon the son of Miltiades, their patron in Athens, and an Athenian force. But when the Athenians arrived, they seem to have regarded them with suspicion that they were likely to promote revolution, and as a result of this suspicion to have soon dismissed them from Ithome.

Text #9097

Aelian. Historical Miscellany
[Bk. 6 Ch. 7 p. 235]

When the Spartans broke the terms of an agreement by removing the suppliants from Taenarum and executing them - the suppliants were helots - the wrath of Poseidon brought an earthquake upon Sparta and shook the city so powerfully that only five houses were left standing in the whole city.

Text #9095

Kagan. The Peloponnesian War
[p. 14]

Between 469 and 463, a tremendous earthquake shook Sparta, and was considered to be of epoch making importance, because it is cited by historical sources as one of the key events that led up to the First Peloponnesian War. In 465 the Athenians besieged the island of Thasos in the northern Aegean where they met fierce resistance. The Spartans had secretly made a promise to the Thrasians to aid them by invading Attica. They were only prevented by doing so by the greatest earthquake that had ever happened at Sparta. It did great damage to the countryside and destroyed almost the whole of the city of Sparta, ostensibly killing 20 000 people1. The earthquake caused the revolt of the helots, the slave class of Spartan society, and various Messenian subjects of Sparta.. The Helots who after defeating the Spartans with loss of 300 men on the plain of Stenyclarus fortified themselves on Mount Ithome.

They defied the Spartans who appealed for assistance to Athens, since the Athenians were skilled in siege operations.The Athenians still formally tied to the Spartans by the Greek alliance against Persia sworn in 481, came to their assistance. 4000 Athenian hoplites were sent under the command of the pro-Spartan strategos Cimon to help in the siege of Ithome. But Ithome was not easily to be taken, and the Spartans, perhaps suspecting treason, suddenly and insultingly dismissed the Athenian troops. This incident caused a political revolution in Athens and ultimately a diplomatic revolution in Greece. The indignation at Athens was intense and Cimon, along with his pro-Spartan policy, was ostracized in 461. The antin-Spartan group led by Pericles and Ephialtes, which had opposed sending help to Peloponnese, withdrew from the old alliance with Sparta, and made a new alliance with Sparta’s old and bitter enemy, Argos. After the ostracism of Cimon, the imperialist Pericles stood alone at the helm of the Athenian state for the next 30 years. The revolt stopped in 4552, when the besieged Helots could hold out no longer. The Spartans allowed them to leave the Peloponnese under a truce, provided they never return. The Athenians settled them as a group at a strategic site on the north shore of the Corinthian Gulf, in the city of Naupactus 3.

Though recent studies show a tendency to date the earthquake to 464, ancient writers are not in the agreement on the matter. Thucydides gives 465-464, Diodorus 469-468, Plutarch 466-465 and Pausanias 464-463. Hammond4, following Diodorus’ account, suggest that a first series of shocks occurred around 469-468.

Geophysical studies in Greece support the occurrence of this earthquake: satellite images and fieldwork has identified a 20 km long normal fault scarp a few kilometres east of the ancient city of Sparta. Armijor et al. have estimated that its magnitude was around 7.25.

On a side note, Cicero and Pliny the Elder report the same earthquake but during Anaximander of Miletus lifetime (c. 610 – c. 546 BC), a pre-Socratic philosopher. According to them, Anaximander warned the Spartans to be careful of their city and dwellings because an earthquake was impending. Subsequently the city was ruined, and a part of Mt Taygetus, which had projected in the shape of a ship’s stern, broke off. Though it seems a doublet to the earthquake of 464, some modern writers6 consider that the accounts of Cicero and Pliny refer to a destructive earthquake in Sparta in the middle of the 6th century BC.

  1. According to Ducat, half the population of Sparta was killed: Ducat, J. , ‘Le tremblement de terre de 464 et l’histoire de Sparte’, Colloque, Tremblements de terre, histoire et archéologie, Antibes, 1983, p. 73–85

  2. The end of the Third Messenian War has been much debated: see Fornara C.W., Samons II L.J., Athens from Cleisthenes to Pericles, 1991, p.133

  3. Kagan D., The Peloponnesian War, 2003, p.14; Cotterill, Ancient Greece, 1996, p.291-292. The earthquake and its consequences have been extensively studied by: Ducat, J. op.cit.; Autino, P., ‘I terremoti nella Grecia classica’, Mem. Ist. Lombardo, 38 (4), 1987, p. 368-393. See also, Guidoboni, Catalogue of Earthquakes, p. 113-115; Ambraseys, Earthquakes in the Mediterranean and Middle East, p. 81-82

  4. Hammond NG.L., Studies in Greek Chronology of the Sixth and Fifth Centuries B.C., Historia 4, 1955, p. 371-411

  5. Armijor et al., A possible normal-fault rupture for the 464 BC Sparta Earthquake, Nature, 351, 1991, p. 123-125; see also Benedetti et al. “Post-glacial slip history of the Sparta fault (Greece) determined by 36CI cosmogenic dating: Evidence for non-periodic earthquakes”, Geophysical Research Letters, 2002, p. 1-50; Higgins M, Higgins R., A Geological companion to Greece and the Aegan, 1996.

  6. e.g. Guidoboni, op.cit, p. 108

Text #9094

Gates & Ritchie. Encyclopedia of Earthquakes and Volcanoes

Sparta, Greece, earthquake. Mercalli intensity X. 20,000 killed.

Text #9102

Editorial comment by Laura Knight-Jadczyk

Since Cicero and Pliny appear to have confused this earthquake with that of the mid-sixth century, one wonders about the Taygetus part of the story. See E#2643 for a possible comparison.

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