Natural disasters have always threatened society. History is full of places that have disappeared and cities that have been wiped off the map. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, floods, fires, and even sandstorms have been responsible for the destruction of cities since human settlement began 10,000 years ago. The ruins of many of the earliest natural disaster sites have not survived to the present. But occasional disasters, like the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE, have actually preserved some settlements in nearly intact shape. This has allowed modern archaeologists to study them and gain insight into their cultures.
As human society and technology have advanced, it has become less common for a natural disaster to render a city uninhabitable for centuries. But more recently, human-made disasters like wars and nuclear accidents have had similar effects.
Here are some places that were wiped out in an instant.
Pompeii is perhaps the most well-known ancient city that was devastated by a natural disaster. This is not so much because of how devastating the disaster was, but because of its ruins' remarkable state of preservation, which has made it one of the most famous tourist attractions since the 18th century.
But the story of Pompeii is still definitely tragic. It had been founded around the 8th century BCE and became a Roman territory in the third century BCE. Situated on the picturesque Amalfi coast, Pompeii eventually became a Roman resort town home to around 12,000 people.
Pompeii wasn't the only Roman city in the area when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, but it took the brunt of the volcano's devastation. For 12 hours after the eruption, pumice stones rained down on the city and drove the residents indoors seeking shelter. This proved to be a fateful decision. The following day, a cloud of toxic gas rolled into the city and suffocated around 2,000 people. After that, a fast-moving flood of volcanic gas and ash called a "pyroclastic flow" buried the city in up to 6m of ash, or about 18 ft.
Herculaneum, Stabiae, And Oplontis
Two thousand Pompeiians perished in the Mt. Vesuvius eruption, but the volcano is estimated to have taken about 16,000 lives overall. The remaining people lived in several nearby towns. The eruption devastated the region, but small differences in weather made big differences in each town's death toll.
Herculaneum was situated about five miles to the southeast of Pompeii. The direction of the wind spared Herculaneum from the hail of pumice stones, which may have allowed its residents to flee. The pyroclastic flow eventually buried Herculaneum in about 25m of ash, or about 82 ft., but only about 300 people died there.
Stabiae was another lavish resort town about three miles away, and it's where Pliny the Elder perished the day after the eruption. It was buried in about 2m of ash, or about six feet.
Oplontis, today known as Torre Annunziata, was about two miles from Pompeii and was a smaller resort community, also buried in ash. It's home to Villa Poppaea, one of the most lavish villas discovered from the Roman world.
Today, an earthquake followed by a tsunami can devastate any city. This was even more true historically, especially in the eastern Mediterranean, one of the most active earthquake zones in Europe.
The first ancient city known to have been wiped out by an earthquake-tsunami combo was most likely Akrotiri, located on the modern-day island of Santorini. Akrotiri was part of the Minoan civilization, a Bronze Age culture that was advanced for its time but still isn't well understood today. Akrotiri was one of its most prosperous ports, and by 1628 BCE it had thrived for centuries.
But Akrotiri was also built on top of a dormant volcano, Thera, which erupted that year. The city was buried in about 21m of volcanic ash, or about 69 feet. The entire island remained uninhabited for the next 200 years, but the ruins of the city of Akrotiri weren't rediscovered until 1860 CE. Along with Helike, Akrotiri may have been Plato's inspiration for Atlantis.
Nearly 1,300 years after Akrotiri's doom, the ancient Greek city of Helike met a similar fate. Located on the northwest Peloponnesian peninsula, Helike was one of twelve cities in the Achaean League and powerful enough to establish its own colonies. But one winter night in 373 BCE, a massive earthquake hit the Gulf of Corinth and generated an enormous tidal wave that wiped the city off the map.
The event shocked the ancient Greeks, who hadn't experienced a natural disaster like this in a millennium, or since Akrotiri. It resonated for centuries after. Later chroniclers like Pliny, Strabo, and Ovid would write that the ruins of Helike, just offshore, were still visible under the water. The Greeks believed that Poseidon had wiped out the city, and modern historians have speculated that its demise may have inspired Plato to write about Atlantis.