Claim: Alaska Okmok Eruption Volcanic Winter Caused Social Turmoil in Ancient Rome

death of caesar
Death of Caesar. By by Vincenzo Camuccini, Between 1804-1805

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

Just after the time of Julius Caesars death ancient Rome experienced crop failures, disease, social upheaval and extremely cold Summers. Researchers are pointing the finger at Alaska’s Okmok Volcano.

NEWS RELEASE 22-JUN-2020

Eruption of Alaska’s Okmok volcano linked to period of extreme cold in ancient Rome

Ice core samples provide new evidence of a massive volcanic eruption in 43 BCE

DESERT RESEARCH INSTITUTE

An international team of scientists and historians has found evidence connecting an unexplained period of extreme cold in ancient Rome with an unlikely source: a massive eruption of Alaska’s Okmok volcano, located on the opposite side of the Earth. 

Around the time of Julius Caesar’s death in 44 BCE, written sources describe a period of unusually cold climate, crop failures, famine, disease, and unrest in the Mediterranean Region -impacts that ultimately contributed to the downfall of the Roman Republic and Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. Historians have long suspected a volcano to be the cause, but have been unable to pinpoint where or when such an eruption had occurred, or how severe it was. 

In a new study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a research team led by Joe McConnell, Ph.D. of the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev. uses an analysis of tephra (volcanic ash) found in Arctic ice cores to link the period of unexplained extreme climate in the Mediterranean with the caldera-forming eruption of Alaska’s Okmok volcano in 43 BCE. 

“To find evidence that a volcano on other side of the earth erupted and effectively contributed to the demise of the Romans and the Egyptians and the rise of the Roman Empire is fascinating,” McConnell said. “It certainly shows how interconnected the world was even 2,000 years ago.” 

The discovery was initially made last year in DRI’s Ice Core Laboratory, when McConnell and Swiss researcher Michael Sigl, Ph.D. from the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Bern happened upon an unusually well preserved layer of tephra in an ice core sample and decided to investigate. 

New measurements were made on ice cores from Greenland and Russia, some of which were drilled in the 1990s and archived in the U.S., Denmark, and Germany. Using these and earlier measurements, they were able to clearly delineate two distinct eruptions – a powerful but short-lived, relatively localized event in early 45 BCE, and a much larger and more widespread event in early 43 BCE with volcanic fallout that lasted more than two years in all the ice core records. 

The researchers then conducted a geochemical analysis of the tephra samples from the second eruption found in the ice, matching the tiny shards with those of the Okmok II eruption in Alaska – one of the largest eruptions of the past 2,500 years. 

“The tephra match doesn’t get any better,” said tephra specialist Gill Plunkett, Ph.D. from Queen’s University Belfast. “We compared the chemical fingerprint of the tephra found in the ice with tephra from volcanoes thought to have erupted about that time and it was very clear that the source of the 43 BCE fallout in the ice was the Okmok II eruption.” 

Working with colleagues from the U.K., Switzerland, Ireland, Germany, Denmark, Alaska, and Yale University in Connecticut, the team of historians and scientists gathered supporting evidence from around the globe, including tree-ring-based climate records from Scandinavia, Austria and California’s White Mountains, and climate records from a speleothem (cave formations) from Shihua Cave in northeast China. They then used Earth system modeling to develop a more complete understanding of the timing and magnitude of volcanism during this period and its effects on climate and history.

According to their findings, the two years following the Okmok II eruption were some of the coldest in the Northern Hemisphere in the past 2,500 years, and the decade that followed was the fourth coldest. Climate models suggest that seasonally averaged temperatures may have been as much as 7oC (13oF) below normal during the summer and autumn that followed the 43 BCE eruption of Okmok, with summer precipitation of 50 to 120 percent above normal throughout Southern Europe, and autumn precipitation reaching as high as 400 percent of normal. 

“In the Mediterranean region, these wet and extremely cold conditions during the agriculturally important spring through autumn seasons probably reduced crop yields and compounded supply problems during the ongoing political upheavals of the period,” said classical archaeologist Andrew Wilson, D.Phil. of the University of Oxford. “These findings lend credibility to reports of cold, famine, food shortage and disease described by ancient sources.”

“Particularly striking was the severity of the Nile flood failure at the time of the Okmok eruption, and the famine and disease that was reported in Egyptian sources,” added Yale University historian Joe Manning, Ph.D. “The climate effects were a severe shock to an already stressed society at a pivotal moment in history.”

Volcanic activity also helps to explain certain unusual atmospheric phenomena that were described by ancient Mediterranean sources around the time of Caesar’s assassination and interpreted as signs or omens – things like solar halos, the sun darkening in the sky, or three suns appearing in the sky (a phenomenon now known as a parahelia, or ‘sun dog’). However, many of these observations took place prior to the eruption of Okmok II in 43 BCE, and are likely related to a smaller eruption of Mt. Etna in 44 BCE. 

Although the study authors acknowledge that many different factors contributed to the fall of the Roman Republic and Ptolemaic Kingdom, they believe that the climate effects of the Okmok II eruption played an undeniably large role – and that their discovery helps to fill a knowledge gap about this period of history that has long puzzled archaeologists and ancient historians. 

“People have been speculating about this for many years, so it’s exciting to be able to provide some answers,” McConnell said. 

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About the Desert Research Institute

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Media Contact

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 @DRIscience

Source: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-06/dri-eoa061720.php

Below is a screenshot from the video, showing the reconstructed timeline of key events in ancient Rome vs the volcanic winter and sulphur plume.

Rome Volcanic Winter Okmok Eruption
Timeline of events in Ancient Rome vs the eruption of Alaska’s Okmok Volcano. Source Eurekalert

Obviously crop failures which occurred after the death of Caesar did not contribute to the assassination, though the smaller Etna eruption may have stirred anxiety, by causing strange visual phenomena to appear in the sky just before the assassination.

But widespread social upheaval and famine immediately following the assassination may have cemented the downfall of the Republic, by giving a political advantage to Caesar’s heir and great nephew Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

Volcanic weather has been associated with other interesting historic events.

Hardship from the 1815 “year without a summer”, triggered by the massive Tambora eruption, convinced Joseph Smith’s family to leave Vermont.

German inventor Karl Drais intensified his research into horseless mechanised transport, leading to the invention of the bicycle, as a solution to the shortage of oats.

The poor Summer weather in 1815 in Switzerland that year led Mary Shelley to spend far more time indoors than she likely intended, during the year she wrote the novel “Frankenstein”.

And then there is the grandaddy of them all, the Toba catastrophe of 75,000 years ago, which is believed by some to have almost wiped out the human race.

Note: Willis makes a good case that the alleged 1815 year without a summer doesn’t leave the mark you would expect in records of that time.

29 thoughts on “Claim: Alaska Okmok Eruption Volcanic Winter Caused Social Turmoil in Ancient Rome

  1. “Just after the time of Julius Caesars death ancient Rome experienced crop failures, disease, social upheaval and extremely cold Summers.”

    So nothing to do with a 2 year civil war and it’s aftermath? OK

    • Actual turmoil was touched off with the Gracchi.

      As for why, many Romans considered that it all went sour with the Third Punic War. Rome without rivals was Rome in decline.

      • “Rome without rivals was Rome in decline.”

        I’ve read that Rome’s economy was fueled by plunder, goods and people brought in via expansion. Once expansion stopped the economy went into a downward spiral leading to political upheaval and unrest. One leader with the forethought and courage to change their economy before it was needed could have us still under Roman rule today.

  2. “Just after the time of Julius Caesars death ancient Rome experienced crop failures, disease, social upheaval and extremely cold Summers. Researchers are pointing the finger at Alaska’s Okmok Volcano”

    Translation: AGW Climate Change scientists ran out of AGW research questions before they ran out of research funding.

  3. Pre-scientific farming, lack of consistent irrigation, plague, war, competing cultures, economic migration, political rivalry, natural weather variation all, of course, had nothing at all to do with it.

  4. Note: Willis makes a good case that the alleged 1815 [1816!] year without a summer doesn’t leave the mark you would expect in records of that time.

    It depends on expectations and methodology.

    I like to think I made a good case that withstood Willis’s critique for the 1816 Year without a Summer in New Hampshire, including a June day where New Hampshire and Massachusetts reached 100°F. I looked at daily records, the best way to confirm reports of frost. Willis looked at monthly averages, some outside of the most impacted areas.

    https://wattsupwiththat.com/2016/06/05/summer-of-1816-in-new-hampshire-a-tale-of-two-freezes/

  5. Hardship from the 1815 “year without a summer”, triggered by the massive Tambora eruption, convinced Joseph Smith’s family to leave Vermont.

    A lot of people left after the ruined crop in 1816, heading for the Ohio and west areas where the “Indian problem had been solved.” Some farmers on rented land left during the summer of 1816. Several towns in NH and VT had such large population hits that they didn’t recover until the growth years in the 1970s and 1980s.

    Meanwhile, NH made the transition to water-powered industry and became a more urban and industrialized state.

    http://wermenh.com/1816.html

    • “Hardship from the 1815 “year without a summer”, triggered by the massive Tambora eruption, convinced Joseph Smith’s family to leave Vermont.”

      That eruption came at the end of the LIA thus extending what had been a long spell of intermittent harsh weather and poor crop yields. Many of us alive today got just a little taste of what it would have been like the summer after the Mount Pinatubo eruption. A cool summer with a red sun even at high noon.
      https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/1510/global-effects-of-mount-pinatubo

    • Dark, you understand, though, that correlation IS a necessary aspect for determination of causation? I interject this for balance because your statement without qualification has been overly done and many may think that correlation is a counterindication for causation. Best say “a specific correlation is not necessarily an indication of causation”

  6. Seems like proof that cooling is bad and leads to calamity for all.
    Let’s hope warming continues

  7. “It certainly shows how interconnected the world was even 2,000 years ago.”
    What? Ah… Eurekalert

  8. For a year the skies were a pallid grey. Caesar was dead.

    (I remember that from a book I read as a child many years ago.)

    Now we know why?

  9. Ric
    I consider that you are accurate with the quote by Willis about Tambora not leaving much of a mark.
    Recently, ordered and read “Tambora” by Gillen D’Arcy Wood.
    Wonderfully thorough review, including a detailed sweep of the literature and notes from the time and around the world.
    Published in 2014, it is a good addition to one’s bookshelves.

  10. Octavios didn’t need any help from a volcano, he was perhaps the single most gifted Politician/dictator in history.

  11. “An international team of scientists and historians has found evidence connecting an unexplained period of extreme cold in ancient Rome with an unlikely source: a massive eruption of Alaska’s Okmok volcano, located on the opposite side of the Earth. ”

    All the winter extreme cold events are unexplained, eruptions do not cause winter cooling. Though major eruptions typically follow within months after an extreme cold Northern Hemisphere winter period.

  12. Small events such as the volcano eruptions in particular but even the small changes seen in global temperatures seem to do more to change the weather patterns rather than the whole climate. That leads to all sorts of disruptions. Changes to night vs. day temps, early winter melting, late frosts, erratic snowfall, heavy fall rains, wildfires, changing hurricane intensity, changes in the type of rainstorms and more all cause major problems in food production, transportation, and disrupt the economy.

    These problems don’t seem amenable to simplistic fixes such as reducing CO2. So many outside influences, especially from the sun, make assigning cause and effect very difficult to impossible.
    The climate doesn’t run off averages of the weather, it runs off the interactions between the weather in different places. See the effects of the latest central Africa duststorms.

  13. Approximately 24 years where the anomaly was negative…

    Almost in the middle of those 24 years, Alaska’s Okmok volcano erupted, maybe twice. The first eruption is not evident in the Greenland ice core…

    From the researcher’s timeline; famines, wars and assassinations, Rome and Egypt suffered calamities throughout the period.
    From this period of calamities, the researchers claim “Alaska Okmok Eruption Volcanic Winter Caused Social Turmoil in Ancient Rome”.

    It appears to be a case where alleged researchers leap to gross conclusions because of tenuous associations that are not even correlations.

    “the team of historians and scientists gathered supporting evidence from around the globe, including tree-ring-based climate records from Scandinavia, Austria and California’s White Mountains, and climate records from a speleothem (cave formations) from Shihua Cave in northeast China. They then used Earth system modeling to develop a more complete understanding of the timing and magnitude of volcanism during this period and its effects on climate and history.”

    They assumed correlations and modeled their world to happiness…

    Color me unconvinced.

  14. Then there’s the 1883 Krakatoa eruption, which produced the loudest sound ever heard.

    Not sure if that’s true, I thought that honour went to Motorhead gigs, but pretty cool if it is.

  15. The Okmok Caldera is very impressive on Google Earth (link below). Nearly the entire volcano was blasted away down to an elevation of about 500 meters. The caldera measures about 11 km across and even 2000 years post-eruption the terrain looks more like the Moon than Earth.

    Assuming Okmok’s peak was similar in elevation to the nearby Vsevidof volcano at 2100 m and calculating the volume of a simple cone provides a rough estimate that about 44 billion cubic meters of material was blasted into the atmosphere. This wouldn’t include ash and other materials ejected after the initial eruption.

    It seems plausible such a large, explosive eruption could help explain many of the known historical events as postulated by these authors.

    https://earth.app.goo.gl/yiNQzR

  16. The Romans were forced to develop a political system that only lasted another 1500 years.

  17. It never was “extreme right wing”.

    Much of the world lives under the form of government Julius Caesar invented: Fascism. Caesar ruled for 10 years based on the power the lower classes provided him. Where did that power come from? The welfare state in Rome had already existed in Rome for 100 years [1]. Julius Caesar weaponized the welfare state, using the wealth he accumulated conquering Gaul. Starving Plebeians would have had nothing to lose, and would have been willing to raid and burn the homes of the Patricians. Caesar was able to give enough to the poor to secure their loyalty, prevent rioting, and thereby was able to blackmail the other Patrician families to support his dictatorship. Keeping the Plebeians in their place preserved the Patricians’ wealth and power.

    Socialist / fascist governments use the same methods to publicly champion the cause of the lower classes (see Hitler’s Enabling Act speech in 1933 [2] ) , while in reality keeping them under control and empowering the small elite in control of government. Not only socialist, but communist governments do the same thing. Our economic system in increasingly fascist, meaning control by government over the means of production while not taking ownership.

    High taxation, over-regulation, tax breaks, suppression of competition, creation of regulatory markets, permit the govt to pick winners and losers, and force the hand of large private sector businesses. However, the hand of govt is reaching lower into small business, and even into our personal lives, taking power govt has never been allowed to have until now. Thomas Sowell, perhaps the greatest living economist described our economic system as becoming more fascist [3].

    Fascism is not “extreme right wing”. It is a creature of the Left. Mussolini was a leader of the Italian Socialist party, but lost standing because he supported Italy’s fighting with the Allies in WWI. His break was with the Internationale, not socialism. He was a nationalist. Like the Romans. It was natural to adopt the Fasces of Rome as a symbol of ancient Roman power, and nationalism. It was also natural for Mussolini to adopt the same methods of quelling the lower classes, pretending to be their benefactor, while empower himself and a small cadre of elites.

    Mussolini considered himself a communist. He supported the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Trotsky called Mussolini “one of our best students”. The break between Communism and Fascism came later, particularly in Germany, where the two political groups were too alike, appealing to the same people, using mostly the same rhetoric. One had to go. That lead to the rise of the Antifaschistische Aktion (Antifa, who are communists) and Stuerm Abteilung (NSDAP, “nazi”) who fought each other in the streets. The fascists used the ploy of the burning of the Reichstag to eradicate communists in Germany.

    After WWII, the Big Lie coming from the Left was “fascism is extreme right wing” [4]. It gave them two wins. First, it distanced the Left from their ugly sister, fascism. Second, it hung the stigma of fascism on the Left’s political enemies. If you know the reality, the history, you won’t be fooled. Fascism is another form of Leftist government, very distinct from Americanism.

    What are the hallmarks of Americanism? Individual liberty; we are born with our rights. The Left believe the individual must be part of a group. Individualism is gone with the days of hunter-gatherer society. Government gives you what you need, but you must work and sacrifice to support the group. Only in the group can one achieve the most a person can.

    Americanism expresses the right to own private property, that we can risk our wealth, invest our time and resources to earn a better way of life. Thus we live in a classless society where the poor may become rich and the rich can become poor. The Left “protect” the poor, keeping them locked in that status, while taking the fruits of their labor. In this way, those in power stay in power and become more wealthy. Those in the lower classes stay there. It is the Left who create the class society, where you stay in the class in which you were born. Americanism does not have fixed social classes.

    Americanism expresses the right to strong self-defense, freedom of religion in daily life, freedom to purchase goods and services of your choosing, and offer them in free competition with others. The Left attack these principles every day. The Left cannot tolerate free markets, and particularly free competition. Competition undermines the Left’s ability to provide “protection” for their allies in the private sector. Thus, fascism in America is born of govt legalized racketeering. Capitalism does not exist without free markets and competition. From competition, we tend to get the best products at the lowest prices. If our markets are controlled, and businesses are protected by govt interference, then we do not have a capitalist economy. Thomas Sowell said as much.

    The problems we have today are largely the result of govt interference in the affairs of the private sector, taking too much control. Govt at all levels now controls 40% of GDP. Why? We know after spending $10T in 10 years, doubling our national debt, and getting NOTHING in return for it, Keynesian economics is dead, or should be. Even after the most conclusive test of Keynesian economic theory and its complete failure, the Left in control must never and will never admit failure [5]. The Left must always control our dialog, must always define our terms, must always define right and wrong [6]. It is dangerous when individuals know in their hearts what is right and wrong – that’s why religion must be eradicated from public life. The widespread ability of citizens to protect their private property prevents the growth of internal tyranny, which the Founders believed was the greatest threat to liberty and the young Republic.

    Happy Fourth of July. We still have a Republic, if we can keep it. The Romans could not.

    1 https://www.bigbenventure.com/welfare_death100508.html
    2 http://www.worldfuturefund.org/Reports2013/hitlerenablingact.htm
    3 https://www.creators.com/read/thomas-sowell/02/08/who-is-fascist
    4 https://www.heartland.org/news-opinion/news/history-of-left-wing-fascism
    5 https://www.ftadviser.com/european/2019/09/25/in-the-long-run-we-are-all-dead-keynesianism-political-economy-and-revolution-by-geoff-mann/
    6 https://mises.org/library/road-serfdom-0

  18. CALPURNIA

    Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,
    Yet now they fright me. There is one within,
    Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
    Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
    A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
    And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;
    Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,
    In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
    Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
    The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
    Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
    And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.
    O Caesar! these things are beyond all use,
    And I do fear them.

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