It wasn’t just Pompeii. Archaeologists say the Roman Republic and even an ancient Egyptian kingdom may have been destroyed by volcanoes

What led to the fall of the Roman Republic? Experts now believe the eruption of a remote Alaskan volcano may be partly to blame.

The Okmok volcano erupted at the beginning of 43 BC. The event sparked a famine which exacerbated existing political tensions in Rome and led to the rise of the Roman Empire, according to a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“I find the timing of such a massive eruption in Alaska compared to such significant historical and political changes in the Mediterranean very intriguing,” Joseph McConnell, climatologist at the Desert Research Institute in Reno and lead author of the study, told Artnet News in an email. “Was it a coincidence? Maybe, but logic suggests that the very unusual weather caused by the Okmok eruption must have played a big role.

There is some debate as to when the Roman Republic ended, but the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 BC. What no one realized then was that 6,000 miles away, on the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, even more serious problems were brewing as Okmok came to life.

A timeline of events in the Roman Republic and the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt at the time of the Okmok eruption. Image courtesy of the Desert Research Institute.

During the civil war that followed Caesar’s death, written accounts pointed out the unusual weather – the sun was not shining and the weather was unusually cold and humid, leading to famine. Historians once assumed that a volcano was to blame, and now geoscientists, historians, and archaeologists have been able to physically investigate this theory.

The new study analyzed six arctic ice cores, drilled vertically from glaciers in the 1990s. Each core has layers, much like tree rings, that allow scientists to go back in time by examining the ice. year by year, depending on the variable elements present in the frozen sample. At the Desert Research Institute’s ice core laboratory, the cores were melted and the water analyzed by sensitive instruments.

Detailed records of past explosive volcanic eruptions are archived in the Greenland ice cap and accessible through deep drilling operations.  Photo by Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, professor of paleoclimatology and researcher at the Ice and Climate Center at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

Detailed records of past explosive volcanic eruptions are archived in the Greenland ice cap and accessible through deep drilling operations. Photo by Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, professor of paleoclimatology and researcher at the Ice and Climate Center at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

“Due to atmospheric circulation,” McConnell explained, “we can and do develop very detailed records, including of past explosive volcanism and industrial pollution, even from ice cores located in the Arctic far from the sea. sources “.

McConnell and his team soon realized that the ice of 43 BC. But first, they had to find out where the volcanic ash came from.

Each volcano’s tephra is unique, representative of specific rocks and magma. This means that scientific tests can identify the origins of each individual sample. The 35 samples taken from the ice cores did not match the rock chemistry of nearby Mount Etna, Apoyeque in Nicaragua or Shiveluch in Russia. Instead, it was the distant Okmok. Testing of ice and Okmok samples on the same instrument confirmed the match.

“There are events that are delicate. With Okmok, there is nothing else that looks like him, ”said Gill Plunkett, paleoecologist at Queen’s University Belfast, who conducted the test. New York Times.

Okmok Caldera, Alaska.  Photo by J. Reeder.  Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys.

Okmok Caldera, Alaska. Photo by J. Reeder. Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys.

The study used climate models to see how the Okmok eruption would have affected the Mediterranean and found temperatures could have dropped to as low as 13.3 degrees Fahrenheit, with rainfall increasing by up to 400%.

The Roman Republic was already on the verge of collapse, and perhaps Okmok was the last straw. “My understanding is that food shortage and associated civil unrest was quite common during the Roman Republic, so it wouldn’t have taken much disruption in food production to push the Republic from scarcity to scarcity and famine.” , with disease and riots that followed. on the heels of famine, ”McConnell said.

Okmok’s effects rippled through ancient Egypt as well, its dark cloud of volcanic aerosols possibly causing drought in Africa. The resulting Egyptian famine likely made it easier for Octavian to defeat and annex the fallen Ptolemaic kingdom as part of the nascent Roman Empire in 30 BC.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:


Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest news, eye-opening interviews and cutting-edge reviews that keep the conversation going.

David C. Barham