Storms and Floods in the Ancient World Ill winds, tempests and other disasters are central to the saga of the ancient world. Classics commentator Elaine Fantham reminds Linda Wertheimer about Greek storms at sea and Roman floods.

Storms and Floods in the Ancient World

Storms and Floods in the Ancient World

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Ill winds, tempests and other disasters are central to the saga of the ancient world. Classics commentator Elaine Fantham reminds Linda Wertheimer about Greek storms at sea and Roman floods.


The stories that shape our understanding of the ancient world are laced and littered with storms, floods, other disasters that remind us of what it means to be mere mortals. The ancient Greeks, for instance, sailed to Troy and destroyed it, but the Greeks were themselves destroyed when a mighty storm drove their ships to the bottom of the sea. Classics commentator Elaine Fantham joins us from Toronto to talk about ill winds, tempests and other ancient disasters.

Elaine, thanks for taking the time to talk to us.


Not at all, Linda. It's a pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: The ships returning from Troy--what happened to them?

FANTHAM: Well, different things happened to different ships. Menelaus' ship was shipwrecked and he was washed up on the shores of Egypt. The bad Ajax(ph), Ajax the son of Oyleus(ph), who had actually violated the priestess of Athena, was struck by lightning, with a lightning bolt by Athena in the middle of a storm and perished. And many of the ships were shipwrecked as they went around the southernmost point of the Peloponnese, which is called Cape Malia.

WERTHEIMER: Elaine, what about floods that happened on the land?

FANTHAM: We have the Greek counterpart of the mythical flood of the Bible. The Greek flood took place in northern Greece in the lovely valleys of Thecily(ph). And of course the story that most of us know is the rather picturesque version that Ovid gives us, in which Jupiter is angry with mankind, so he has all the rivers run rampant until they fill up the Earth. And fish are caught in the treetops, seals are stuck in the middle of forests, wolves are swimming alongside lambs for their lives and so they're forgetting to kill each other. And he stops the flood. And the first peak appears. And it's peak which, if you visit Greece, you will know. It's quite marvelously unique: Parnassus, the incredibly tall twin-peaked mountain behind Delphi.

WERTHEIMER: Now doesn't "The Aeneid" describe the flooding of the Tiber River where he talks about `the fat yellow river, rolling floods,' something about `in times to come, my waves shall wash the walls of mighty Rome'?

FANTHAM: Well, yes, the flooding of the Tiber is a real historical fact and something that comes much closer to the awful things we've been seeing happening in New Orleans and I guess, up to a point, in Galveston and other places. Julius Caesar made plans to straighten out the course of the river, which is what one does nowadays with rivers that flood because of, you know, awkward bends. And there was a very big bend at Rome. Then when his successor, Octavian, became Augustus, Octavian's great friend Agretha(ph) was a hotshot on water control. And in the end, his successor, Tiberius, set up a permanent board to monitor and sort out the river problems. It needed dredging. The mouth of the river, which was 15 miles or so from Rome at Austia, was endlessly silting up.

WERTHEIMER: So how did ordinary Romans react when the Tiber flooded?

FANTHAM: You know, you had seven hills. And the poorer you were, the more likely it was that you lived high up. If there was a flood and it looked as though there was going to be a flood in your street, at the bottom of your tenement house that you were living in, it wouldn't take long to walk to higher ground. I don't think that even when they had the floods, though, it would have caused as much havoc to the poor in the city of Rome.

WERTHEIMER: So what is the best storm story?

FANTHAM: Oh, my goodness. You know, part of the problem there is that, for instance, the return of the Greeks from Troy was this very old story that came first in Homer and then it was developed in the epic writers after Homer. By the time we come to Greek tragedy and to Roman literature, every poet is trying to beat the one before in stories of waves that reached the sky and the troughs of the waves of going down to Tartarus and the ships being--disintegrating and being plunged to the bottom. There's a whole rhetoric of ancient storms. And if you were a tragic poet in Athens or an epic poet in Rome, you would have to have a better storm than the poet before you.

WERTHEIMER: Elaine Fantham is our classics commentator and professor emerita of classics at Princeton University. She joined us from CFRB in Toronto.

Elaine, thank you so much.

FANTHAM: My pleasure, Linda.

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