A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
In August 1519 Hernán Cortés was marching toward the Aztec capital Tenotchtitlán, when he saw something "not a little marvelous":
Eight leagues from this city of Cholula there are two marvelously high mountains [Popocatépetl and Ixaccihuatal] whose summits still at the end of August are covered with snow so that nothing else can be seen of them. From the higher of the two both by day and night a great volume of smoke often comes forth and rises up into the clouds as straight as a staff, with such force that although a very violent wind continuously blows over the mountain range yet it cannot change the direction of the column. Since I have ever been desirous of sending your Majesty a very particular account of everything that I met with in this land, I was eager to know the secret of this which seemed to me not a little marvelous, and accordingly sent ten men such as were well fitted for the expedition with certain natives to guide them to find out the secret of the smoke, where and how it arose. These men set out and made every effort to climb to the summit but without success on account of the thickness of the snow, the repeated wind storms in which ashes from the volcano were blown in their faces and also the great severity of the temperature, but they reached very near the top, so near in fact that being there when the smoke began to rush out, they reported that it did so with such noise and violence that the whole mountain seemed like to fall down....
The Destruction of Pompeii
Pliny the Younger's account of Vesuvius erupting on August 4, A.D. 79, is classic. (Some of the details in Pliny's account of Vesuvius are paralleled in the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.) The narrative takes place in Misenum (where Pliny the Younger and his aunt try to wait out the eruption) and Stabiae, to which Pliny the Elder (the Younger's uncle and commander of the local fleet) sailed to evacuate those trapped near the volcano. (Adapted from The Letters of the Younger Pliny, B. Radice, trans., Penguin NY 1959).
The First Izmit Quake
Izmit, Turkey, is hit by a devastating earthquake--a modern headline? No, its A.D. 358 and Nicomedia (modern Izmit) is reeling. Ammianus Marcellinus describes the scene (English trans. from Guidoboni et al., 1994):
At the same time fearful earthquakes shattered numerous cities and mountains throughout Asia, Macedonia and Pontus with repeated shocks. Now pre-eminent among the instances of manifold disaster was the collapse of Nicomedia, the metropolis of Bithynia; and I shall give a true and concise account of the misfortune of its destruction. On the twenty fourth of August, at the first break of the day a terrific earthquake, utterly destroyed the city and its suburbs. And since most of the houses were carried down the slopes of the hills, they fell one upon another, while everything resounded with the vast roar of their destruction. Mean while the hilltops re-echoed with all manner of outcries, of those seeking their wives, their children and their relatives. Finally, after the second hour, but well before the third, the air, which was now bright and clear, revealed the fatal ravages that lay concealed. For some who have been crushed by the huge bulk of the debris falling upon them perished under its very weight; some were buried up to their necks in the heaps of rubble, and might have survived had anyone helped them, but died for want of assistance; others hung impaled upon the sharp points of projecting timber. Most were killed instantly, and where there had been human beings shortly before, were now seen confused piles of corpses. Some were imprisoned unhurt within fallen house roofs, only to die in agony and starvation. Among them was Aristaenetus, vice governor of the recently created diocese which Constantius, in honour of his wife, Eusebia, had named Pietas; now he died in agony as a result of the disaster. Others, who were overtaken by the suddenness of the disaster, still lay hidden under the ruins; some with fractured skulls or severed arms or legs hovered between life and dearth, imploring the aid of others in the same situation; but they were abandoned, despite their strong entreaties. And the greater part of the temples and private houses might have been saved, and of the population as well, had not a sudden onrush of flames, sweeping over them for five days and nights, burned up whatever could be consumed.