Last week we spent a few days on what constitutes a catastrophe and how we might define it. There is no consensus. But among the top contenders are:
Triple-trouble disasters, perhaps what Craig Fugate calls “Maximum-of- Maximums.” (Has the FEMA administrator derived this mantra from hurricane surge models?)
Cascading systems failure obliterating means of command, control, or coordination. (Well, sure… but let’s admit there’s an innate tautology in presumptive commanders, controllers, and coordinators defining catastrophe as losing the ability to play their roles.)
A significant shift in the society’s sense-of-self and direction caused by how the event is interpreted, even if the maximum-of-maximums is not suffered and command-and-control is preserved. Regular readers know this is my bias. (See a prior post for more.)
A colleague recently suggested that time-passing is also an important component in defining catastrophe. How will 9/11 be viewed a century from now? How do we perceive (if at all) the 1755 Lisbon earthquake? What about Chernobyl or Bhopal? The sack of Rome or Baghdad? With the passage of time do we understand these events as catastrophic? If so, how? If not, why not?
Even more obscure, how about the collapse of Antioch? Across most of the classical era Antioch was one of the three great cities of the Mediterranean world. Rome and Alexandria — while much changed — have persisted, Antioch has essentially disappeared.
Founded in 300 BC by Seleucus, a successor of Alexander the Great, Antioch may have been the most vivacious city in the Hellenistic world. During most of the Roman Empire — even after the founding of Constantinople (324 AD) — it was the true capital of the East. It was from Antioch that St. Paul set out to convert the world.
The historian H.V. Morton describes classical Antioch as a, “city of consumers…full of rich aristocrats and nouveaux riches, and of wealthy, retired people who sought here one of the finest climates in the world. Something that we associate with Venice in the eighteenth century, with Paris in the nineteenth century, and with Hollywood today, with its deification of youth and beauty, distinguished Antioch… It was up-to-date, amusing, elegant, wicked….”
Antioch was always a tumultuous place. It was situated at the seam of Western and Eastern cultures, at the flashpoint of Greco-Roman and Persian imperial ambition, and at the intersection of what are now known as the Dead Sea Fault and the East Anatolian Fault.
Over the centuries Antioch experienced several disastrous floods, earthquakes, and conquests. But it always recovered, usually stronger, more beautiful, and more compelling than before. Antioch was especially resilient. Yet it did not recover from the earthquake of October 31, 588. Why not?
The late sixth century disaster was severe. It was also the culmination of a series of disasters. The earthquake was followed by other closely spaced stress events. Finally, the late sixth century was a time of significant shifts in economic, political, and cultural realities extending far beyond Antioch.
It seems to me the catastrophe at Antioch — if you will join me it calling it such — was the outcome of a cumulative set of challenges.
There was a huge fire in 525. The next year an earthquake reportedly killed 250,000 inhabitants. On November 29, 528 an even worse earthquake hit the city. In 538 Antioch was temporarily captured by the Persians.
After reclaiming Antioch in 540 the Byzantine Emperor Justinian led a major rebuilding effort. The restoration continued apace for over 15 years, barely slowing during an epidemic of bubonic plague that began in 542. The plague continued in spurts and starts for several years
But after the 588 quake Antioch never reclaimed anything close to its former population, status, or wealth. The October 31 earthquake was bad, but not as bad as two or three prior hits. Something other than the quake is needed to explain the persistent decline the great city experienced after 588.
Possible culprits include the economic consequences of the mid-sixth century plague years and the (related) financial crisis resulting from drastic overspending by the Byzantine government (this included overspending on Antioch). There was also a serious drought in the Antioch region over many years at the turn of the seventh century.
These challenges were extended and amplified by the Byzantine-Sassanid (Persian) wars of 602-628 AD,which once again brought foreign conquest to Antioch. This long war weakened both the Byzantines and Sassanids, setting the stage for the Arabs to take the city in 638.
So… at least in the case of Antioch, we can see non-resilience and non-recovery after 588 as the culmination of a range of inter-related factors unfolding over time. Most of these factors would have been impossible to confidently forecast, but are clear in retrospect.
While this may seem a weird weekend indulgence in historical musing, I am prompted by a radio conversation regarding today’s Gulf coast. Given the continuing impacts of Katrina — especially on the Mississippi delta marshes — the likelihood of a major oil spill, the expectation of an especially bad 2010 hurricane season, and a range of other factors, the effects do seem cumulative. Will there be a culminating event? Will we decide it is a catastrophic event?
For further consideration:
Anatolia: a history forged by disaster (National Geographic)
History of Byzantium by Timothy E. Gregory
Antioch: The Lost Ancient City (Worcester Art Museum)
Antioch Mosaics (Baltimore Museum of Art) — On February 5 I was in Baltimore for meetings related to regional catastrophic planning. By the time I finished the snowpocalypse had already claimed my home in Piedmont Virginia and was moving north. Before hunkering down in my hotel (where I was snowbound for four days) I visited the Baltimore Museum of Art. These fabulous room-sized mosaics have enthralled me ever since.