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AETNA (Αἴτνη), a celebrated volcanic mountain of Sicily, situated in the NE. part of the island, adjoining the sea-coast between Tauromenium and Catana. It is now called by the peasantry of Sicily Mongibello, a name compounded of the Italian Monte, and the Arabic Jibel, a mountain; but is still well-known by the name of Etna. It is by far the loftiest mountain in Sicily, rising to a height of 10,874 feet above the level of the sea, while its base is not less than 90 miles in circumference. Like most volcanic mountains it forms a distinct and isolated mass, having no real connection with the mountain groups to the N. of it, from which it is separated by the valley of the Acesines, or Alcantara; while its limits on the W. and S. are defined by the river Symaethus (the Simeto or Giarretta), and on the E. by the sea. The volcanic phenomena which it presents on a far greater scale than is seen elsewhere in Europe, early attracted the attention of the ancients, and there is scarcely any object of physical geography of which we find more numerous and ample notices.

It is certain from geological considerations, that the first eruptions of Aetna must have long preceded the historical era; and if any reliance could be placed on the fact recorded by Diodorus (5.6), that the Sicanians were compelled to abandon their original settlements in the E. part of the island in consequence of the frequency and violence of these outbursts, we should have sufficient evidence that it was in a state of active operation at the earliest period at which Sicily was inhabited. It is difficult, however, to believe that any such tradition was really preserved; and it is far more probable, as related by Thucydides (6.2), that the Sicanians were driven to the W. portion of the island by the invasion of the Sicelians, or Siculi: on the other hand, the silence of Homer concerning Aetna has been frequently urged as a proof that the mountain was not then in a state of volcanic activity, and though it would be absurd to infer from thence (as has been done by some authors) that there had been no previous eruptions, it may fairly be assumed that these phenomena were not very frequent or violent in the days of the poet, otherwise some vague rumour of them must have reached him among the other marvels of “the far west.” But the name at least of Aetna, and probably its volcanic character, was known to Hesiod (Eratosth. ap. Strab. i. p.23), and from the time of the Greek settlements in Sicily, it attracted general attention. Pindar describes the phenomena of the mountain in a manner equally accurate and poetical--the streams of fire that were vomited forth from its inmost recesses, and the rivers (of lava) that gave forth only smoke in the daytime, but in the darkness assumed the appearance of sheets of crimson fire rolling down into the deep sea. (Pyth. 1.40.) Aeschylus also alludes distinctly to the “rivers of fire, devouring with their fierce jaws the smooth fields of the fertile Sicily.” (Prom. V. 368.) Great eruptions, accompanied with streams of lava, were not, however, frequent. We learn from Thucydides (3.116) that the one which he records in the sixth year of the Peloponnesian war (B.C. 425) was only the third which had taken place since the establishment of the Greeks in the island. The date of the earliest is not mentioned; the second (which is evidently the one more particularly referred to by Pindar and Aeschylus) took place, according to Thucydides, 50 years before the above date, or B.C. 475; but it is placed by the Parian Chronicle in the same year with the battle of Plataea, B.C. 479. (Marm. Par.68, ed. C. Müller.) The next after that of B.C. 425 is the one recorded by Diodorus in B.C. 396, as having occurred shortly before that date, which had laid waste so considerable a part of the tract between Tauromenium and Catana, as to render it impossible for the Carthaginian general Mago to advance with his army along the coast. (Diod. 14.59; the same eruption is noticed by Orosius, 2.18.) From this time we have no account of any great outbreak till B.C. 140, when the mountain seems to have suddenly assumed a condition of extraordinary activity, and we find no less than four violenteruptions recorded within 20 years, viz. in B.C. 140, 135, 126, 121; the last of which inflicted the most serious damage, not only on the territory but the city of Catana. (Oros. 5.6, 10, 13; Jul. Obseq. 82, 85, 89.) Other eruptions are also mentioned as accompanying the outbreak of the civil war between Pompey and Caesar, B.C. 49, and immediately preceding the death of the latter, B.C. 44 (Verg. G. 1.471; Liv. ap. Serv. ad Virg. l.c.; Petron. de B.C. 135; Lucan 1.545), and these successive outbursts appear to have so completely devastated the whole tract on the eastern side of the mountain, as to have rendered it uninhabitable and almost impassable from [p. 1.62]want of water. (Appian, App. BC 5.114.) Again, in B.C. 38, the volcano appears to have been in at least a partial state of eruption (Id. 5.117), and 6 years afterwards, just before the outbreak of the civil war between Octavian and Antony, Dio Cassius records a more serious outburst, accompanied with a stream of lava which did great damage to the adjoining country. (D. C. 50.8.) But from this time forth the volcanic agency appears to have been comparatively quiescent; the smoke and noises which terrified the emperor Caligula (Suet. Cal. 51) were probably nothing very extraordinary, and with this exception we hear only of two eruptions during the period of the Roman empire, one in the reign of Vespasian, A.D. 70, and the other in that of Decius, A.D. 251, neither of which is noticed by contemporary writers, and may therefore be presumed to have been of no very formidable character. Orosius, writing in the beginning of the fifth century, speaks of Aetna as having then become harmless, and only smoking enough to give credit to the stories of its past violence. (Idat. Chron. ad ann. 70; Vita St. Agathae, ap. Cluver. Sicil. p. 106; Oros. 2.14.)1

From these accounts it is evident that the volcanic action of Aetna was in ancient, as it still continues in modern times, of a very irregular and intermittent character, and that no dependence can be placed upon those passages, whether of poets or prose writers, which apparently describe it as in constant and active operation. But with every allowance for exaggeration, it seems probable that the ordinary volcanic phenomena which it exhibited were more striking and conspicuous in the age of Strabo and Pliny than at the present day. The expressions, however, of the latter writer, that its noise was heard in the more distant parts of Sicily, and that its ashes were carried not only to Tauromenium and Catana, but to a distance of 150 miles, of course refer only to times of violent eruption. Livy also records that in the year B.C. 44, the hot sand and ashes were carried as far as Rhegium. (Plin. Nat. 2.103. 106, 3.8. 14; Liv. ap. Serv. ad Geory. 1.471.) It is unnecessary to do more than allude to the well-known description of the eruptions of Aetna in Virgil, which has been imitated both by Silius Italicus and Claudian. (Verg. A. 3.570-577; Sil. Ital. 14.58-69; Claudian de Rapt. Proserp. 1.161.)

The general appearance of the mountain is well described by Strabo, who tells us that the upper parts were bare and covered with ashes, but with snow in the winter, while the lower slopes were clothed with forests, and with planted grounds, the volcanic ashes, which were at first so destructive, ultimately producing a soil of great fertility, especially adapted for the growth of vines. The summit of the mountain, as described to him by those who had lately ascended it, was a level plain of about 20 stadia in circumference, surrounded by a brow or ridge like a wall. In the midst of this plain, which consisted of deep and hot sand, rose a small hillock of similar aspect, over which hung a cloud of smoke rising to a height of about 200 feet. He, however, justly adds, that these appearances were subject to constant variations, and that there was sometimes only one crater, sometimes more. (Strab. vi. pp. 269, 273, 274.) It is evident from this account that the ascent of the mountain was in his time a common enterprise. Lucilius also speaks of it as not unusual for people to ascend to the very edge of the crater, and offer incense to the tutelary gods of the mountain (Lucil. Aetna, 336; see also Seneca, Ep. 79), and we are told that the emperor Hadrian, when he visited Sicily, made the ascent for the purpose of seeing the sun rise from thence. (Spart. Hadr. 13.) It is therefore a strange mistake in Claudian (de Rapt. Proserp. 1.158) to represent the summit as inaccessible. At a distance of less than 1400 feet from the highest point are some remains of a brick building, clearly of Roman work, commonly known by the name of the Torre del Filosofo, from a vulgar tradition connecting it with Empedocles: this has been supposed, with far more plausibility, to derive its origin from the visit of Hadrian. (Smyth's Sicily, p. 149; Ferrara, Descriz. dell' Etna, p. 28.)

Many ancient writers describe the upper part of Aetna as clothed with perpetual snow. Pindar calls it “the nurse of the keen snow all the year long” (Pyth. 1.36), and the apparent contradiction of its perpetual fires and everlasting snows is a favourite subject of declamation with the rhetorical poets and prose writers of a later period. (Sil. Ital. 14.58-69; Claudian. de Rapt. Pros. 1.164; Solin. 5.9.) Strabo and Pliny more reasonably state that it was covered with snow in the winter; and there is no reason to believe that its condition in early ages differed from its present state in this respect. The highest parts of the mountain are still covered with snow for seven or eight months in the year, and occasionally patches of it will lie in hollows and rifts throughout the whole summer. The forests which clothe the middle regions of the mountain are alluded to by many writers (Strab. vi. p.273; Claud. l.c. 159); and Diodorus tells us that Dionysius of Syracuse derived from thence great part of the materials for the construction of his fleet in B.C. 399. (Diod. 14.42.)

It was natural that speculations should early be directed to the causes of the remarkable phenomena exhibited by Aetna. A mythological fable, adopted by almost all the poets from Pindar downwards, ascribed them to the struggle of the giant Typhoeus (or Enceladus according to others), who had been buried under the lofty pile by Zeus after the defeat of the giants. (Pind. P. 1.35; Aesch. Prom. 365; Verg. A. 3.578; Ovid. Met. 5.346; Claud. l.c. 152; Lucil. Aetna, 41--71.) Others assigned it as the workshop of Vulcan, though this was placed by the more ordinary tradition in the Aeolian islands. Later and more philosophical writers ascribed the eruptions to the violence of the winds, pent up in subteranean caverns, abounding with sulphur and other inflammable substances; while others conceived them to originate from the action of the waters of the sea upon the same materials. Both these theories are discussed and developed by Lucretius, but at much greater length by the author of a separate poem entitled “Aetna,” which was for a long time ascribed to Cornelius Severus, but has been attributed by its more recent editors, Wernsdorf and Jacob, to the younger Lucilius, the friend and contemporary of Seneca.2 It contains some powerful passages, but is disfigured by obscurity, and adds little to our [p. 1.63]knowledge of the history or phenomena of the mountain. (Lucret. 6.640--703; Lucil. Aetna, 92, et seq; Justin, 4.1; Seneca, Epist. 79; Claudian, l.c. 169--176.) The connection of these volcanic phenomena with the earthquakes by which the island was frequently agitated, was too obvious to escape notice, and was indeed implied in the popular tradition. Some writers also asserted that there was a subterranean communication between Aetna and the Aeolian islands, and that the eruptions of the former were observed to alternate with those of Hiera and Strongyle. (Diod. 5.7.)

The name of Aetna was evidently derived from its fiery character, and has the same root as αἴθω, to burn. But in later times a mythological origin was found for it, and the mountain was supposed to have received its name from a nymph, Aetna, the daughter of Uranus and Gaea, or, according to others, of Briareus. (Schol. ad Theocr. Id. 1.65.) The mountain itself is spoken of by Pindar (Pind. P. 1.57) as consecrated to Zeus; but at a later period Solinus calls it sacred to Vulcan; and we learn that there existed on it a temple of that deity. This was not, however, as supposed by some writers, near the summit of the mountain, but in the middle or forest region, as we are told that it was surrounded by a grove of sacred trees. (Solin. 5.9; Aelian, Ael. NA 11.3.)


1 For the more recent history of the mountain and its eruptions, see Ferrara, Descrizione dell' Etna, Palermo, 1818; and Daubeny on volcanoes, 2d edit. pp. 283--290.

2 For a fuller discussion of this question, see the Biogr. Dict. art. Lucilius Junior.

hide References (16 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (16):
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.42
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.59
    • Thucydides, Histories, 3.116
    • Appian, Civil Wars, 5.12.114
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 3.577
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 3.578
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 3.570
    • Vergil, Georgics, 1.471
    • Suetonius, Caligula, 51
    • Lucan, Civil War, 1.545
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 2.3
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 2.103
    • Thucydides, Histories, 6.2
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 5.6
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 5.7
    • Aelian, De Natura Animalium, 11.3
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