The Dead Fish and Soldiers Quake

~142 BC

by Jefferson Williams

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


In ~142 BC, the Seleucid Empire experienced a power struggle between competing monarchs. Two generals, Sarpedon and Diodotus Tryphon , led their troops into battle. Tryphon’s army won. As Tryphon’s army marched up the Lebanese coast after the battle, an earthquake induced tsunami is reported to have struck and drowned parts of the army; leaving a scene of Dead Fish and Soldiers in its wake.

Although this reported seismic event was too far from the Dead Sea to have generated seismites, seismites from around this time (mid second century BCE) have been observed in En Feshka, En Gedi, and Nahal Ze 'elim and in paleoseismic trenches in the Araba. The seismites thicken towards the south and are quite thick in Nahal Ze 'elim. This suggests an earthquake couplet may be at play where a southern quake triggered a northern quake or vice-versa.

See the Notes section for brief discussion on whether the Dead Fish and Soldiers Quake was conflated in the historical sources with the Malalas Confusion Quake and the Seventeenth of Adar Quake

Textual Evidence

Strabo (~ 64 BC – ~ 24 AD), in his book Geographicum, possibly using Posidonius (~135 BC – ~ 51 BC) as his source (Kidd,1988 p. 40) , reports sea wave flooding between Tyre and Acre (aka Ptolemais). Although he does not specifically cite an earthquake as the cause of the sea wave, he speculates that ground movement may have caused the sea wave comparing this event to another possible earthquake and tsunami reported in ~20 BC near Mount Casius (aka Cassium) in Egypt. If there was an earthquake, there is some uncertainty about its date. According to Ambraseys (2009), it could have occurred between 138 BC and 125 BC. The description in Geographicum (Book XVI Chapter 2 Paragraph 26) follows:
A marvellous occurrence of a very rare kind is reported as having taken place on this shore between Tyre and Ptolemaïs: at the time when the Ptolemaeans, after joining battle the Sarpedon the general, were left in this place, after a brilliant rout had taken place, a wave from the sea, like a flood-tide, submerged the fugitives; and some were carried off into the sea and destroyed, whereas others were left dead in the hollow places; and then, succeeding this wave, the ebb uncovered the shore again and disclosed the bodies of men lying promiscuously among dead fish. Like occurrences take place in the neighborhood of the Mt. Casius situated near Aegypt, where the land undergoes a single quick convulsion, and makes a sudden change to a higher or lower level, the result being that, whereas the elevated part repels the sea and the sunken part receives it, yet, the land makes a reverse change and the site resumes its old position again, a complete interchange of levels sometimes having taken place and sometimes not. Perhaps such disturbances are subject to periodic principles unknown to us, as is also should be the case of the overflows of the Nile, which prove to be variant but follow some unknown order.
Ambraseys (2009) notes that an earthquake was not specifically mentioned adding that “assuming that such a large event in fact occurred, it should have caused havoc in the coastal area of southern Lebanon and Palestine, for which there is not a hint in the sources.” In quoting Strabo, Ambraseys (2009) did not include Strabo’s ground movement and tsunami-like speculations starting with “Like occurrences take place …” something he did include in his entry for the 20 BC Mount Casius event. Ben-Menahem (1991) assigned a Local Magnitude of 7.0 and a Maximum Local Intensity of X to this supposed earthquake also stating that there was partial subsidence of Sur Island [1] and that earthquake shaking was strong in Cyprus. Although Ben-Menahem (1991) cites Strabo as his source, Strabo does not mention strong earthquake shaking in Cyprus and merely speculates about the possibility of uplift or subsidence in the vicinity of Sur Island. These observations are interpretations by Ben-Menahem (1991).

Archeoseismic Evidence

Ellenblum et. al. (2015) dated an earthquake with ~2.5 meters of slip to ~142 BC at Tel Ateret [2] noting that “excavated coins suggest this event occurred around and no earlier than 142 BC [3].” Using the scaling laws of Wells and Coppersmith (1994), this corresponds to a magnitude of 7.0 - 7.25.
Tel Ateret Slip History
Figure 4.Schematic illustration of the stages of slip accrual (values arerounded) in the Ateret structures, timeline from bottom to top. JW: Second illustration from bottom refers to the ~142 BC Event.

Paleoseismic Evidence

Paleoseismic Evidence for the Southern and Northern Dead Fish and Soldiers Quake of ~150 BC is summarized below:

Location Status
Tekieh Trenches Syria possible - ~2 m displacement
Bet Zayda possible - wide spread in ages
Nahal Darga possible
En Feshka possible - 2 candidates 1 and 1.5 cm. thick microbreccias
En Gediprobable - 1cm. thick seismite
Nahal Ze 'elim (ZA1 and ZA2) probable - 15 cm. and 8 cm. intraclast breccias respectively
Taybeh Trench Jordan probable
Qatar Trench Jordan unlikely - Fortress at Arad Quake is a better fit

Tekieh Trenches Syria

Gomez et. al. (2003) may also have seen evidence for this earthquake in paleoseismic trenches in Syria (Event B – below 170 BC – 20 AD colluvium).
Tekieh Trench Seismic Events
Figure 13. Summary of events observed in the trenches and the interpreted palaeoseismic history of the Serghaya fault. Colluvial wedge deposits post-date palaeoseismic events. Stratigraphic ties provide additional constraint on the relative timing of events. Ages represent calendar corrected radiocarbon ages for given features (2 sigma uncertainties provided). Gomez et al (2003)

Bet Zayda

Wechsler at al. (2014) may have seen evidence for this earthquake as event CH4-E6 (modeled age 392 BCE – 91 CE) in paleoseismic trenches at Bet Zayda just north of the Sea of Galilee [4].
Bet Zeyda Earthquakes
Figure 9. Probability density functions for all paleoseismic events, based on the OxCal modeling. Historically known earthquakes are marked by gray lines. The age extent of each channel is marked by rectangles. There is an age uncertainty as to the age of the oldest units in channel 4 (units 490-499) marked by a dashed rectangle. Channel 1 refers to the channel complex studied by Marco et al. (2005).

Dead Sea

Although mid second century BC dates were assigned to seismites in En Feshka, En Gedi, and Nahal Ze e'lim by Kagan et. al. (2011), Migowski et. al. (2004), and Kagan et. al. (2011) respectively, it is unlikely that this northerly earthquake would have created Dead Sea seismites due to the distance involved. At the most southerly Nahal Ze ‘elim site, Kagan et al (2011) records thick seismites (15 cm. and 8 cm. at the ZA-1 and ZA-2 sites respectively) which correlate well with this event; within the 1σ range. At the more northerly sites of En Gedi and En Feshka, seismite thicknesses for mid second century earthquake(s) are not reported to exceed 1.5 cm. Williams (2004) and Agnon et. al (2006) both revised an original date assignment of Event A at Nahal Ze’elim by Ken-Tor et al. (2001a) from ~64 BCE to approximately mid second century BCE since the mid second century date better matched the radiocarbon profile and estimates of sedimentation rate.
Nahal Darga
In the coarser grained lithology present at Nahal Darga, Enzel et. al. (2000) report a 20 cm. thick seismite in Deformed Unit 8 in Stratigraphic Unit 10 which is dated to 250 BC +/- 200 (2000-2400 BP) (see Table 2).

En Feshka
Kagan et al (2011) in Table 3 report two seismites from En Feshka at depths of 393 and 402 cm. depth which might fit this earthquake.

En Gedi
Migowski et al (2004) assigned a 140 BC date a 1cm. thick seismite at a depth of 302 cm. (3.02 m) in the 1997 GFZ/GSI core DSEn (Table 2).

Nahal Ze 'elim (ZA1)
Kagan et al (2011) in Table 4 reports a 15 cm. thick seismite which they assigned a date of mid second century BC. This is the same seismite which was called Event A by Ken-Tor et al (2001a) and which was redated to ~150 BC by Williams (2004) and Agnon et. al (2006)

Nahal Ze 'elim (ZA2)
Kagan et al (2011) in Table 3 report an 8 cm. thick intraclast breccia at a depth of 516 cm. which could fit this earthquake.


Taybeh, Jordan
In paleoseismic trenches near Taybeh, Jordan, LeFevre et al. (2018) dated an earthquake Event (E6) on the Arava Fault to have occurred between 160 BC and 117 BC.

Taybeh Trench Earthquakes
Figure S5: Computed age model from OxCal v4.26 for the seismic events recorded in the trench

Qatar, Jordan
Klinger et. al. (2015) hypothesized that Event E7 in a paleoseismic trench in the southern Arava near Qatar, Jordan may have been caused by an earthquake in ~150 BC or an earlier event (Date Range 338 BC – 213 BC). The Fortress at Arad Quake may be a better fit for this event than the Southern Dead Fish and Soldiers Quake of ~150 BC.
Qatar Trench
Figure 6. Age model computed for the trench stratigraphy using OxCal v4.2 (Bronk-Ramsey et al. 2010) and IntCal13 calibration curve (Reimer et al. 2013). Light grey indicates raw calibration and dark grey indicates modelled ages including stratigraphic information. Phases indicate subsets of samples where no stratigraphic order is imposed. Klinger et al (2015)
Since the earthquake record appears to contain several earthquake couplets (e.g. 750 BC Amos Quakes, 363 AD, 1202/1212 AD) which struck to the north and south of the Dead Sea (Kagan et al, 2011), it is possible there may have been an earthquake couplet with northern and southern epicenters sometime around the middle of the second century BC. This would mean that the paleoseismic data in the Arava and the Dead Sea were likely generated by the southern part of the couplet which may have ruptured the Arava fault. Although there are no known extant textual records for a mid second century BC earthquake on the Arava fault, this should not come as a surprise. Textual sources for earthquakes in the southern Levant are rare before 31 BC – particularly for the sparsely inhabited region south of the Dead Sea.


Considering Malalas' confused chronology on the Malalas Confusion Quake it is possible that the Dead Fish and Soldiers Quake and the Malalas Confusion Quake refer to the same event. Karcz (2004) speculated on this possibility suggesting Malalas may have misreported the ruling Seleucid King when the alleged Malalas Confusion Quake struck Antioch. Karcz (2004) further suggested that the Seventeenth of Adar Quake may refer to the Dead Fish and Soldiers Quake. Based on the historical sources, Ambraseys (2009) constrained the years of the Dead Fish and Soldiers Quake to between 138 BC and 125 BC while assigning a date of 139 BCE and questioning whether it is a spurious earthquake report. Karcz (2004) used historical sources to constrain the date of the Dead Fish and Soldiers Quake to between 145/144 BCE and in 138/137 BCE and notes that if the Dead Fish and Soldiers Quake and the Seventeenth of Adar Quake are the same event, this event would likely have occurred in 143/142 BCE.

Athenaeus of Naucratis writing in his book The Deipnosophistae in the early 3rd-century AD also records this event (Book VIII 332 B 24) apparently using Posidonius [c. 135 BCE – c. 51 BCE ] as his source.
I know also that Poseidonius the Stoic speaks of a great quantity of fishes in these words: When Tryphon of Apameia, who had seized the kingdom of Syria, was attacked near the city of Ptolemais by Sarpedon, Demetrius's general, the latter was defeated and forced to retreat into the interior with his troops. Tryphon's army were marching along the coast after their victory in the battle, when suddenly a wave from the ocean lifted itself to an extraordinary height and dashed upon the shore, engulfing all the men and drowning them beneath the waters. And when the wave receded it left behind a huge pile of fishes among the dead bodies. The followers of Sarpedon, hearing of this disaster, came up and gloated over the bodies of their enemies, while they also carried away an abundance of fish and offered sacrifice to Poseidon, god of the rout, near the suburbs of the city.

Paleoclimate - Droughts


[1] i.e. the then island city of Tyre.

[2] aka Vadun Jacob.

[3] terminus post-quem

[4] aka Lake Kinneret.