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”

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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.

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries

14 December 1287 
50,000 people are killed by floods in the Netherlands.
14 December 1542 
James V of Scotland died, aged 30, leaving his infant daughter Mary as queen. He himself had succeeded to the Scottish throne as a one-year-old following the death of his father at the battle of Flodden in 1513.
14 December 1730
Birth at Kinnaird, Stirlingshire of Scottish traveller and writer James Bruce. He travelled extensively in north Africa and Abyssinia and claimed to have discovered the source of the Nile in 1770.
14 December 1839
Sir John Colborne, former lieutenant governor of Upper Canada and a veteran of both the Peninsular War and Waterloo, was created Baron Seaton of Seaton in Devonshire.

14 December 1861

Prince Albert, 42-year-old consort of Queen Victoria, died in the Blue Room at Windsor Castle. The cause of death was stated to be typhoid fever, although doubt has since been cast on this diagnosis. Despite failing health, Albert had gone to Cambridge to confront his son over his affair with an Irish actress and had personally intervened to ensure that the diplomatic row between Britain and the US over the Trent affair did not escalate into war. His death plunged the queen into a lifetime of mourning. | Read more about what killed Prince Albert?

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14 December 1918

Property owning women over 30 years of age vote for the first time in a United Kingdom general election. The Conservative wartime coalition wins a landslide victory. Former prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith loses his seat. Labour, led by William Adamson, becomes the main opposition. Seventy-three Sinn Fein candidates are elected, including Constance Markiewicz, the first woman to be elected to Parliament, but nearly 50 are in prison and the rest decline to take their seats in the Commons. | Read more about the 1918 Representation of the People Act

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Authors

Dominic SandbrookHistorian and presenter

Dominic Sandbrook is historian and presenter, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine

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