We’ve never seen anything like the pictures emanating out of Japan. Modern video and still photography technology give us an unprecedented view of a phenomenon of vast power and consequence. It might seem like something that has never been witnessed before. However, the impact of a tsunami (Japanese: 津波, lit. “harbor wave”), only by chance a Japanese word that has entered into worldwide parlance, was reported in chilling detail by at least two prominent Greek and Roman historians.
Over four centuries before Christ, the Greek historian Thucydides wrote in his History of the Peloponnesian War about a tsunami that had struck Greek coastal towns. We can recognize the imagery more readily now, as it parallels the footage we are seeing out of Sendai, Japan.
The next summer [426 BC] the Peloponnesians and their confederates came as far as the isthmus under the conduct of Agis the son of Archidamus, intending to have invaded Attica; but by reason of the many earthquakes that then happened, they turned back, and the invasion proceeded not. About the same time (Euboea being then troubled with earthquakes), the sea came in at Orobiae on the part which then was land and, being impetuous withal, overflowed most part of the city, whereof part it covered and part it washed down and made lower in the return so that it is now sea which before was land. And the people, as many as could not prevent it by running up into the higher ground, perished. Another inundation like unto this happened in the isle of Atalanta, on the coast of Locris of the Opuntians, and carried away part of the Athenians’ fort there; and of two galleys that lay on dry land, it brake one in pieces. Also there happened at Peparethus a certain rising of the water, but it brake not in; and a part of the wall, the town-house, and some few houses besides were overthrown by the earthquakes. The cause of such inundation, for my part, I take to be this: that the earthquake, where it was very great, did there send off the sea; and the sea returning on a sudden, caused the water to come on with greater violence. And it seemeth unto me that without an earthquake such an accident could never happen.—Thucydides (ca. 430 BC), History of the Peloponnesian War, (89), Thomas Hobbes, Ed., London: Bohn.
Centuries later, Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus described the tsunami caused by a large earthquake that devastated Alexandria, Egypt in 365 AD. In this even more evocative description, the effects of the retreating sea and its catastrophic return are described in terse and dramatic language.
While that usurper of whose many deeds and his death we have told, still survived, on the twenty-first of July in the first consulship of Valentinian with his brother, horrible phenomena suddenly spread through the entire extent of the world, such as are related to us neither in fable nor in truthful history. For a little after daybreak, preceded by heavy and repeated thunder and lightning, the whole of the firm and solid earth was shaken and trembled, the sea with its rolling waves was driven back and withdrew from the land, so that in the abyss of the deep thus revealed men saw many kinds of sea-creatures stuck fast in the slime; and vast mountains and deep valleys, which Nature, the creator, had hidden in the unplumbed depths, then, as one might well believe, first saw the beams of the sun. Hence, many ships were stranded as if on dry land, and since many men roamed about without fear in the little that remained of the waters, to gather fish and similar things with their hands, the roaring sea, resenting, as it were, this forced retreat, rose in its turn; and over the boiling shoals it dashed mightily upon islands and broad stretches of the mainland, and leveled innumerable buildings in the cities and where else they were found; so that amid the mad discord of the elements the altered face of the earth revealed wondrous sights. For the great mass of waters, returning when it was least expected, killed many thousands of men by drowning; and by the swift recoil of the eddying tides a number of ships, after the swelling of the wet element subsided, were seen to have foundered, and lifeless bodies of shipwrecked persons lay floating on their backs or on their faces. Other great ships, driven by the mad blasts, landed on the tops of buildings (as happened at Alexandria), and some were driven almost two miles inland, like a Laconian ship which I myself in passing that way saw near the town of Mothone, yawning apart through long decay.—Marcellinus, A. (360) Res Gestae, Vol. II, (26) 15-19.