Sub-Project B01: Earthquakes as Threats to Social Order: Threat Discourses in Literature – Threat Discourses as Literature (5th Century B.C. - 6th Century A.D.)


In Antiquity, earthquakes were frequently perceived as a threat to political and social order. Although literary works are a particularly good source for examining how these threat situations were dealt with, existing scholarship has tended to deal with this material only selectively and descriptively. Therefore, the goal of this project is to develop a chronological overview of literary reflections on ancient earthquakes and to analyse these sources more fully by taking their multi-faceted natures into account. On the one hand, these sources are literary products that need to be examined using the tools of literary analysis. On the other hand, they are also historical sources that need to be contextualized and analysed within the framework of non-literary materials as well as within inter-cultural comparisons. In order to deal with both these aspects, Sub-Project B01 consists of two philological and historical studies that have been developed in close cooperation and designed to profit extensively from each other.

Project Team

Project Leaders:

Prof. Dr. Irmgard Männlein-Robert
Prof. Dr. Mischa Meier

Ph.D. Students:

Jonas Borsch, M. A.
Dr. Laura Carrara

Student Assistants:

Simona Muß
Janis Pasquale Tortora

Academic Disciplines and Orientation

Classical Philology (Greek) / Ancient History

Project Description

The high frequency of earthquakes in Antiquity has been well documented with a variety of literary and archaeological evidence. Some of these great seismic events are especially prominent, such as the destruction of the city of Helike in 373 B.C., the Campania-quake in 62 A.D., or the so-called “cosmic catastrophe” in 365 A.D. Devastating earthquakes such as these led to existential threat situations in which the established religious, political and social order even threatened to dissolve.

The goal of Project B01 is to use earthquakes – as well-documented examples of catastrophic events – to develop and apply new methods for a fitting analysis of evidence related to discourse during times of “threatened orders” that have been specifically tailored to take into account the particularities of ancient source materials. This will be done in two closely interwoven individual studies, one with a philological-literary focus and the other with a historical approach.

Given the fact that threat discourses related to ancient earthquakes almost exclusively come from literary texts, i.e. in the form of “artificial” discourses in which subjects, factual questions, and meaning are very often stylized, the first, philological study will analyze the ancient sources on earthquakes in terms of their specific nature and evaluate them as literary (re)presentations of the historical substance of the earthquakes themselves. An essential aspect of this approach is the assessment of ancient literary reports of earthquakes in light of their respective genres as well as their related primary function within the respective situational context of authors and works; as a rule, the multi-faceted intentions within these texts do not include (or at least do not put much weight on) the presentation of factual information.

The historical study adopts the methods of historical disaster research, which are drawn for the most part from the discipline of cultural studies, to look at the ability to reconstruct events and especially their implications as conveyed through communication. Accordingly, the ancient literary texts in question need to be embedded within their concrete contexts - drawing on the findings of the first study - and at the same time - in what only seems to be a paradox - they need to be read as part of a cross-temporal discourse. Simultaneously, this study will also take into account non-literary materials, as well as comparative case studies from post-antique societies, in order to contribute to the further development of a theoretical framework for analysing natural disasters.

In answering these analytical questions, both studies – with their respective disciplinary tools – will contribute to the over-arching goal to take into consideration the double-nature of ancient literary evidence about earthquakes as both literary products and as sources of information about acute situations in which social order was under threat.

Project-related Lectures and Publications

Borsch, Jonas

Carrara, Laura

Männlein-Robert, Irmgard

Meier, Mischa

Congresses, Workshops, and Conferences

Project-related Courses

Borsch, Jonas

Carrara, Laura