Sibyl Quake

76 – 81 AD – probably between June 78 AD and June 79 AD

by Jefferson Williams

Introduction     Textual Evidence     Archeoseismic Evidence     Paleoseismic Evidence     Notes     Paleoclimate - Droughts     Footnotes     References


An earthquake is reported in Cyprus based on one near contemporaneous source and several late but fairly consistent sources. Ambraseys (2009), and Guidoboni et. al. (1994) offer differing interpretations of the year; selecting 76 AD and 77 AD respectively. Their reasons are examined in the subsections below titled “Roman Plague of 77 AD ?” and “Transfer of the Roman Mint”. If one considers the inconsistent and sometimes ambiguous dating provided by the sources, the earthquake is constrained to the date range of 76 – 81 AD. Based on weighing all the sources and paying particular attention to Amandry (1993)’s coin data from the mint in Cyprus, it seems likely that this earthquake occurred during the last year of Vespasian’s life from June 78 AD – July 79 AD. Some of the later sources synchronize the earthquake with a plague in Rome which an early source (Suetonius) states happened during the reign of Vespasian’s son and successor Titus. It is probable that the later sources conflated the plague and Cypriot earthquake. One of the sources (Philostratus) states that this earthquake was also felt in Cilicia; which would presumably include both Antioch and Tarsus. Another source (Sibylline Oracles) suggests that an earthquake and tsunami hit Cyprus destroying both Paphos and Salamis. Since some sources state that three cities in Cyprus were destroyed, Ambraseys (2009) speculates that the third destroyed city was probably Citium. The epicenter of this earthquake was probably offshore of the southern coast of Cyprus.

Textual Evidence

History Against the Pagans by Paulus Orosius

Paulus Orosius , writing in Latin in 416/417 AD, stated in his book History Against the Pagans (Book 7 Section 9 Bottom of p. 303)
In the ninth year of this emperor's reign, an earthquake destroyed three cities of Cyprus and at Rome there was a great plague [1]. Vespasian died of dysentery at his country place among the Sabines in the ninth year of his principate.
The Emperor Orosius refers to is Vespasian and since his rule started in 69 AD, the ninth year of his reign was ~78 AD. Orosius synchronizes the earthquake in Cyprus with a plague in Rome whose date seems to be somewhat elastic.

Chronicon by Eusebius

Eusebius wrote Chronicon in two parts in the early 4th century AD. Although the original Greek text has been lost, later Chroniclers preserved significant parts of the manuscript. Jerome translated all of the second part (Book 2) into Latin. In this translation (Eusebius Chronicon Book Two, page 270, 214th Olympiad), we read that in the 214th Olympiad
Three cities in Cyprus were destroyed all together in an earthquake [2]. A massive plague happened at Rome, so that for many days about 10,000 men were listed in the daily register of the dead.
Like Orosius, Eusebius synchronizes the Cypriot earthquake with a plague in Rome. Eusebius dates this to the first year of the 214th Olympiad which corresponds to July 1, 77 AD – June 3- 78 AD [3].

Roman Plague of 77 AD ?

The Life of the Caesars by Suetonius
Suetonius (~ 69 –122 + AD) in his book The Life of the Caesars mentions a plague in Rome during the reign of Titus however since Titus ruled from 79 – 81 AD, this plague would not have occurred in 77 AD. The section of interest (Section 8 Paragraph 3) is listed below
There were some dreadful disasters during his reign, such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Campania, a fire at Rome which continued three days and as many nights, and a plague the like of which had hardly ever been known before.
Epitome de Caesaribus by Aurelius Victor
Epitome de Caesaribus is a later work attributed to Aurelius Victor (320 – 390 AD) but which may have been written by an anonymous Pagan author. It contains brief summaries about the Roman Emperors from Augustus to Theodosius the Great. In the biographical section on Roman Emperor Titus , we find the following in Section 10 - Titus Lines 12-13.
In his time, Mount Vesuvius in Campania began to flame, and at Rome there was a fire for three days and three nights without an evening's respite. Pestilence, too, there was, as much as scarcely ever before.
Like Suetonius before him, the author of Epitome de Caesaribus dates the pestilence to the years of 79 – 81 AD when Titus was the Roman emperor. In our opinion, the near contemporary author Suetonius is more reliable and the late writing authors Orosius and Eusebius likely misdated the plague in Rome and possibly the earthquake as well.

Transfer of the Roman Mint

Antanopoulos (1980) and later Ambraseys (2009) argue that the Romans transferred their mint to Cyprus in 76 AD [4] as part of a probable relief effort to support earthquake and tsunami survivors. They opine that this supports a 76 AD rather than a 77 AD date for the earthquake since if the earthquake occurred in 77 AD, there was no apparent reason to transfer the mint in 76 AD. However, Amandry (1993) notes that the Mint which was moved to Cyprus in 76 AD was moved back to Antioch in 80 AD. He suggests an earthquake in 78 AD was the reason for the move back to Antioch noting that the scarcity of coins produced in the 10th year of Vespasian’s reign (78/79 AD), the absence of coins from the first year of Titus’ reign (79/80 AD), and the reappearance of coins in the first year of Titus’ reign (80/81 AD) was likely due to interrupted production after the earthquake. Vespasian was declared Emperor by the Roman Senate in December 69 AD. His reign ended when he died on 24 June 79 AD. Based on Amandry (1993), this would place the earthquake sometime in the year prior to 24 June 79 AD.

Sibylline Oracles

Book IV (Verses 166-168 on p. 39) of the Sibylline Oracles contains a poetic description of an earthquake and tsunami striking the Cypriot cities of Salamis and Paphos.
160 And many for the throne shall stain with blood
Rome's soil while he flees over Parthian land.
And out of Syria shall come Rome's foremost man,
Who having burned the temple of Solyma,
And having slaughtered many of the Jews,
165 Shall bring destruction on their great broad land.
And then too shall an earthquake overthrow
Both Salamis and Paphos, when dark water
Shall dash o'er Cyprus washed by many a wave.
But when from deep cleft of Italian land
170 Fire shall come flashing forth in the broad heaven,
And many cities burn and men destroy
And much black ashes shall fill the great sky
And small drops like red earth shall fall from heaven,
Then know the anger of the God of heaven
Verses 166-168 is book-ended by the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD which caused the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy. Verse 163 mentions the Roman destruction of the second Temple called Solyma in the text; alluding to the first Temple built by King Solomon. Verse 169-171 refers to the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD and the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The dark water mentioned in verse 167 likely alludes to deep dark ocean water which swept over parts of Cyprus during this event.

Although the Sibylline Oracles are ostensibly prophetic literature from mystical women known as Sibyls, historians of antiquity believe that they were extensively rewritten by authors promoting one agenda or another. In the rewriting, reference is made to actual events so as to bolster the power of the prophecy. As such, these books appear to contain much accurate information about natural disasters and historical events. The above passage was likely rewritten by a Jew(s) or possibly a Jewish Christian(s) or some serial combination thereof. The author appears to view the eruption of Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum as divine punishment for the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

Because other sources mention that three cities in Cyprus were destroyed and Salamis and Paphos are at either end of the island, Ambraseys (2009) speculates that, if the Sibylline Oracles can be trusted, the third city that was destroyed was probably Citium.

The Life of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus

Philostratus (~170 - 240 AD) wrote a biography of Apollonius of Tyana (~15 - ~100 AD); a wandering Greek philosopher and reputed mystic. In this biography (Book 6 Section 38) we have an account of an earthquake.
The ruler of Syria had plunged into a feud, by disseminating among the citizens suspicions such that when they met in assembly they all quarreled with one another. But a violent earthquake happening to occur, they were all cowering, and as is usual in the case of heavenly portents, praying for one another.
Ambraseys (2009) deduces from other passages in the book [5] that Apollonius was in Cilicia in 76 AD concluding that if the account of the earthquake is not fictitious, it indicates that strong seismic shaking was also experienced in Cilicia as a result of the Sybil Quake. In his book, Ambraseys (2009) does not specifically mention Cilicia but locates the shaking in Antioch. However, Antioch is the largest city in Cilicia so he may have made this change in the interest of not overloading his readers with too much ancient Geography. In the relevant sections of Philostratus’ Book, Antioch is not mentioned however Tarsus is. Tarsus is relatively close to Antioch and, like Antioch, it is located in Cilicia. Because the Syballine Oracles appear to mention a tsunami, it would be reasonable to locate the epicenter of the earthquake offshore of the southern coast of Cyprus making the possibility of strong shaking in Cilicia not only possible but likely. As for the date of the shaking mentioned in Philostratus’ account, Philostratus is not specific but it seems likely that Ambraseys (2009) is correct in his assessment that this earthquake was the same one as the Sybil Quake. A more detailed discussion of date and location follows.

Two earlier passages locate Apollonius in Tarsus - one in ~69 AD [6] and another cited by Ambraseys (2009) sometime later [7]. Two later passages places Apollonius in Tarsus [8] sometime on or after 81 AD [9]. In the interim, Apollonius is reported to have wandered [10] to a variety of locales around the Mediterranean (Phoenicia, Cilicia, Ionia, Achaea, and Italy) however the synchronicity of the earthquake with a feud initiated by the ruler of Syria would place Apollonius in Cilicia or less likely in Phoenicia [11] [12]. Although Philostratus does not specify a date, it seems likely that the earthquake was felt in the 70’s AD so we will conclude like Ambraseys (2009) that Philostratus provided additional seismic information that the Sybil earthquake also damaged Cilicia.

Other Sources

Antonopoulos (1980) compiled a list of ancient sources which he claims mentions the plague and/or earthquake. These are discussed in the Notes section of this catalog entry.

Archeoseismic Evidence

Paleoseismic Evidence

Although the Sibyl Quake was assigned to seismites at several sites in the Dead Sea, this earthquake with an epicenter near Cyprus was too far away to have created a Dead Sea seismite, A discussion of paleoseismic evidence for an earthquake around this time is discussed in the Paleoseismic Evidence section of the potentially dubious Jewish War Quake of 68 AD.


Antonopoulos (1980)

Antonopoulos (1980) compiled a list of ancient sources which he claims mention the plague and/or earthquake. The list is contained in a footnote and is summarized according to dating information below

Plague and Earthquake in 77 AD
Plague in 77 AD and Earthquake between July 75 AD and July 76 AD
Elias Nisibinus (Chron. transl. by Delaporte, p. 54)
Plague during the reign of Titus – 79 – 81 AD
Each individual source will now be discussed separately
Hieronymus (Vita Hilarion, § 7)
Hieronymus is synonymous with Jerome. Jerome wrote the Life of Hilarion (Vita Hilarion) in Bethlehem in 390 AD. Hilarion lived from 291 – 371 AD so Jerome is not "quoting" a contemporary source for either the Plague or the earthquake. A search through this source for the words plague and pestilence revealed nothing. A search for Rome led to a short passage about the Apostle Peter who is reputed to have died a decade or more before the Sybil Quake. There is no mention of an earthquake in this passage. Section 42 may contain the section Antonopoulous (1980) was referring to
Having then entered Paphos, the city of Cyprus renowned in the songs of the poets, the ruins of whose temples after frequent earthquakes are the only evidences at the present day of its former grandeur, he began to live in obscurity about two miles from the city, and rejoiced in having a few days rest.
While this does refer to past earthquakes it is unspecific about the dates. Section 40 mentions an earthquake after Roman Emperor Julian the apostate died in June 363 AD. This appears to reference the 365 AD Crete earthquake of the eastern Mediterranean which is reputed to have been felt widely, generated widespread tsunamis, and may have been part of an earthquake swarm.
At that time there was an earthquake over the whole world, following on the death of Julian, which caused the sea to burst its bounds, and left ships hanging on the edge of mountain steeps. It seemed as though God were threatening a second deluge, or all things were returning to original chaos. When the people of Epidaurus saw this, I mean the roaring waves and heaving waters and the swirling billows mountain-high dashing on the shore, fearing that what they saw had happened elsewhere might befall them and their town be utterly destroyed, they made their way to the old man, and as if preparing for a battle placed him on the shore.
There is no further mention of Earthquakes in the Life of Hilarion.
Svngelos (p. 342)
This appears to refer to Chronographia by Georgius Syncellus. Georgius Syncellus who died after 810 AD wrote the following in his book Chronographia (p.571) [13]
In Cyprus three cities collapsed in an earthquake.
St. Jerome
This appears to refer to Jerome’s Latin Translation of the second part of Eusebius’ Chronicon which is discussed in the Textual Evidence section of this catalog entry.
Chron. Paschale (p. 248D)
The Chronicon Paschale is a chronicle which was written in about 630 A.D. A cursory search of this text did not uncover a reference to the Sybil Quake.
Orosius (lib. vii, § 9.11)
This reference was discussed in the Textual Evidence section of this catalog entry in History Against the Pagans by Orosius.
Calvisius (p. 459)
Sethus Clavisius (1556 – 1615) published Opus Chronologicum in 1605. We find the following passage on p. 547 which cites Chronicon by Eusebius
An earthquake affected 3 cities in Cyprus. Among them was Salamis [14]
Elias Nisibinus (Chron. transl. by Delaporte, p. 54)
Elias of Nisbis (11 February 975 – 18 July 1046) wrote Chronology (Arabic: Kitāb al-Azmina; Latin: Opus Chronologicum ) in Syraic with most paragraphs in the first section followed by an Arabic translation. In a translation into French by Delaporte we find on page 54:
There was an earthquake in Cyprus. For Three days there were collapses (Chronicon by Eusebius)
In the following year we can read
There was a plague in Rome such that more than 10,000 died in a day (Chronicon by Eusebius and Chronolgue of Andronicus [15])
Despite citing Eusebius, Elias of Nisbus dates the Sybil Quake to the 123rd Olympiad in contrast to Eusebius who places the Sybil Quake during the 124th Olympiad. Since Elias of Nisbis dates the earthquake to the 3rd year of the 123rd Olympiad, his date for the earthquake is between July 1, 75 AD and June 30, 76 AD and his date for the plague in Rome is between July 1, 76 AD and June 30, 77 AD. [16]
Suetonius (Titus ch. 8)
This reference was discussed in the Textual Evidence section ( subsection Roman Plague of 77 AD ? ) of this catalog entry.
Victor (Epit. p. 367)
This reference was discussed in the Textual Evidence section ( subsection Roman Plague of 77 AD ? ) of this catalog entry.

Paleoclimate - Droughts


[1] Guidobini et. al. (1994) quotes the original Latin text as follows : "Nono autem imperii eius anno tres civitates Cypri terrae motu corruerunt et Romae magna pestilentia fuit."

[2] Guidobini et. al. (1994) quotes the original Latin text as follows : "Tres civitates Cypri terrae motu conruerunt."

[3] See Finegan (1998) Sections 185 – 187 for a discussion of the Olympiad calendar system.

[4] the first coins minted were dated to July 76 AD, August 77 AD and September 78 AD according to Antonopoulos (1980). Antonopoulos cites Hill 1940, p. 234 for this but does not list Hill in his references. In all likelihood the reference is Hill, G. F. (1905). "A Catalogue of the Greek Coins in the British Museum: Cyprus." Journal of Hellenic Studies 25: 188. Sometime this reference is listed as Hill (1904) suggesting that Antonopoulos made a typographic error transposing the 4 and 0 to arrive at Hill (1940) instead of Hill (1904).

[5] Book 6 Section 34 and Book 6 Section 42

[6] Book 6 Section 30 recounts a meeting between Apollonius and future Roman Emperor Titus in Tarsus. During the interview, Titus claims to be co ruling with his father Vespasian at the start of Vespasian’s reign when Titus was 30 years old and Vespasian was 60 which consistently places the meeting in 69 AD.

[7] Book 6 Section 34 places Apollonius in Tarsus.

[8] Book 6 Section 43 locates Apollonius in Tarsus.

[9] Book 6 Section 42 discusses a law prohibiting the making of eunuchs passed by Emperor Domitian whose rule began in 81 AD and ended in 96 AD. Domitian’s cultural decrees regarding Prostitutes and Eunuchs may have come at the beginning of his rule. Perhaps Roman accounts of Domitian’s rule by Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Juvenal, or court poets Martial and Statius can identify when this law was made.

[10] Book 6 Section 35 places Apollonius variously in Phoenicia, Cilicia, Ionia, Achaea, and Italy. Phoenicia is deemed less likely because between Sections 30 and 42 Apollonius is physically located in Tarsus during several of his discourses but there are no accounts of his discourses where he is located in Phoenicia.

[11] Phoenicia is deemed less likely because between Sections 30 and 42 Apollonius is physically located in Tarsus during several of his discourses but there are no accounts of his discourses where he is located in Phoenicia.

[12] A Map of the Roman Empire in 69 AD shows the territorial extent of the Province of Syria, Cilicia and Phoenicia.

[13] The text in Latin, according to the index, reads "Cypri tres urbes terrae motu eversae".

[14] This is a rough translation from the original Latin text which reads "Tres urbes in Cypro terraemotu pereunt inter quas fuit etiam Salamis". The year listed for this event is Anno Mundi 4026 or 4027 which seems too early but because this is a late source quoting an earlier source (Eusebius) and the earthquake in Cyprus is approximately dated to the time period of the end of Vespasian’s rule and the start of Titus’ rule, no further work will be done in unraveling this reference.

[15] i.e. Roman Emperor Titus

[16] The entire section reads as follows

CCXIII Olympiade

- An 385 - [18,r.]
- An 386.
- An 387. En lequel il y eut un tremblement de terre dans l'ile de Chypre, pendant trois jours il se produisit des effondrements (Canon chronologique d'Eusebe).
- An 388. En lequel il y eut un peste dans la ville de Rome, en sorte qu'on trouva par jour plus de 10.000 morts ([Canon chronologique d'Eusebe. ).Canon chronologique] d' Andronicus