The 6 Most Deadly Natural Disasters from Ancient Times

Extraordinary human losses when the world population was much lower

Imagine living during ancient times. You are going about your daily business when a natural disaster springs out of nowhere.

There is no general guidance like the ‘best things to do during a hurricane’ that people have today. In all likelihood, you wouldn’t even know what disaster you saw — much less know how to protect yourself.

This is why some of these disasters had massive such death tolls. And it was incredibly hard to recover from these natural disasters because human populations were so much smaller then.

Here are the six most deadly natural disasters during ancient times:

Justinian Plague

Justinian Plague — Eastern Roman Empire, 541–542 AD
Death Toll: 40–100 million

The Plague of Justinian was a horrific pandemic that struck the Eastern Roman Empire — which was later called the Byzantine Empire — during the years of 541–542 AD¹. It is believed that this pandemic came directly from the bubonic plague.

This plague is quite comparable to the Black Death of the dark ages in regards to the cultural and social impact it had on the population. Historians claim that the Justinian Plague was nearly as massive in scope as it struck south and central Asia, Arabia, North Africa, and even in Europe as far west as Ireland and as far north as Denmark.

Right up to around the year 750, this plague returned with every generation within the Mediterranean basin. These disease waves had a significant impact on European history. Modern historians later named this disease after the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I, who was the ruler when it began. Even the emperor contracted the illness but was one of the few who survived.

The Antonine Plague - Roman Empire

The Antonine Plague — Roman Empire, 165 AD-180 AD
Death Toll: 5,000,000

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who was the Emperor of Rome at the time, is believed to be the namesake of the Antonine Plague. It is sometimes called the Plague of Galen. This is because a Greek physician who documented this plague was named Galen.

According to Galen’s writing, historians now believe either measles or smallpox caused the Antonine Plague. Like the Justinian Plague, this plague killed an incredible number of people.

It is also believed that the Antonine Plague came from Roman soldiers who had been fighting in the Far East. It eventually spread all through the Roman Empire and even affect many of the northern tribes in the Gaul. Dio Cassius, who was a Roman historian, claimed that some 2,000 people were dying every day within the walls of Rome.

Antioch Earthquake

Antioch Earthquake — Syria and Antioch, 526 AD
Death Toll: 250,000

A deadly earthquake struck Syria and Antioch in the year 526 AD. This region was part of the Byzantine Empire at that time. This earthquake amassed an unbelievable death toll in a short period.

Waters in the port of Seleucia Pieria rose by around one meter, which suffocated the harbor with silt. The Antioch Earthquake still stands as the third deadliest earthquake in human history.

Experts estimate that it reached more than seven on the Richter scale. As is the case with many quakes, uncontrollable fires broke out afterward, destroying the buildings that survived the earthquake.

Damghan Earthquake

Damghan Earthquake — Iran, 856 AD
Death Toll: 200,000

The Damghan Earthquake was among the most powerful of all ancient earthquakes. With a magnitude of 7.9, this quake directly struck a 200-mile stretch in Iran on December 22, in the year 856 AD. Its epicenter was right below the city of Damghan, which was Iran’s capital at that time.

Its death toll was around 200,000 deaths, which makes it the fifth deadliest earthquake of all time. This quake was a product of the Alpide earthquake belt. This is a region where geologic forces made a mountain range that is known as the Alpide belt — which is one of the more seismically active areas on Earth.

Crete Earthquake Alexandria Tsunami

Crete Earthquake and Alexandria Tsunami — Greece and Africa, July 21, 365 AD
Death Toll: unknown

It was on July 21, 365 AD, when an earthquake erupted underneath the Mediterranean Sea. Its magnitude was even more extensive than the Damghan quake as it reached over eight on the Richter scale. The quake is believed to have been centered near the Greek isle of Crete.

Practically every town in Crete was demolished and destroyed. Because of its deadly magnitude, it can be assumed that it caused intensive damage in the surrounding areas of Cyprus, Libya, Greece, and Sicily.

But the Crete Earthquake’s fury was not finished. It created a tsunami that overwhelmed Alexandria and other regions in the area. Records from that era claim that ships were carried as far as away as two miles inland by the incredible waves. No reliable death toll was ever obtained.

Eruption of Mount Vesuvius

The Eruption of Mount Vesuvius — Bay of Naples, Italy, August 24, 79 AD
Death Toll: unknown

Perhaps the most famous volcano of all time was the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Many of us have read about how it demolished neighboring towns — mostly in Pompeii and Herculaneum. What is notable about Vesuvius is that it’s still an active volcano today. And many believe it is the most dangerous active volcano in the world. Furthermore, far more people live near Vesuvius than any active volcano, and it is commonly believed that it will erupt again.

In 79 AD, the people living in the Bay of Naples region were warned by an earthquake, but they didn’t recognize the impending danger. Shortly after that, they witnessed a powerful volcanic eruption. This was followed by a heavy showering of volcanic debris and the formation of a cloud that lingered over the mountain.

Pompeii and Herculaneum were both within five miles of the volcano. The citizens of these two towns perished in a variety of ways. Some were burned, others choked from the poisonous gases, and others suffocated. But everyone was eventually buried by the volcanic debris.

The interesting part of the story is that Pompeii laid buried for over 1500 years. It was later discovered when debris was being cleared from another eruption in 1631 AD. The site wasn’t completely uncovered until the twentieth century.

What is fascinating is that as the buried bodies of Pompeii rotted away over the years, they left behind cavities in the volcanic rock — much like a fossil. Archeologists cleverly filled these cavities with plaster, which produced near-perfect statutes of the Roman citizens as they died.