14 December AD 557: The earth moves in Constantinople

Terror strikes the Roman capital as “a deep, growling sound like thunder issues from the bowels of the earth”


It was at around midnight on 14 December 557 that Constantinople felt the first tremors. Its people were no strangers to earthquakes – there had been one just a matter of months earlier – but this seemed worse. As the Roman capital’s buildings began to shake, “shrieks and lamentations” rose from the imperial city. After each tremor, recorded the historian Agathias, there came a “deep, growling sound like thunder issuing from the bowels of the earth”, while the sky “grew dim with the vaporous exhalations of a smoky haze rising from an unknown source, and gleamed with a dull radiance”.

Seized by mass panic, the city’s population poured into the streets. They turned their eyes to heaven, wrote Agathias, as though to “propitiate the deity”. But it was no good. Everywhere was the sound of crashing and screaming, and in the chaos “the ordered structure of society...was thrown into wild confusion and trampled underfoot”. But when the dawn came, and it was over, “people moved forward to meet one another, gazing joyfully into the faces of their nearest and dearest, kissing and embracing and weeping with delight and surprise”.

For the rest of that winter, Agathias wrote, the people of Constantinople were afflicted by “nagging doubts and persistent fears”. Many saw the calamity as a divine judgment on their sins – and on their emperor, Justinian. Afterwards, the emperor set about restoring the vast number of public buildings damaged during the earthquake. But barely six months later, the main dome of Hagia Sophia, the jewel of his capital, collapsed in ruins. The structure that replaced it, however, stands to this day. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

14 December 1287

50,000 people are killed by floods in the Netherlands.

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