The oldest dated volcanic deposits attributed to the modern volcanism of the Etna have an age of 230.000 years; the constant activity of the volcano has been noted for the last 3.500 years and especially the last 400 years comprise detailed records.
The most violent eruption in the history of Mount Etna occurred in March of 1669. On the first day, lava flows cut a smoldering gash out of two mountain villages. The volcano did not stop there, however. It continued to spew forth-molten rock for days on end, and by the end of April, the city walls of Catania had succumbed and the western side of the city was demolished before the lava mercifully came to a stop.
Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. In May of 44, astronomers report seeing a red comet that was visible during the daylight. The comet appears red due to the volcanic ash of Mount Etna, which is erupting during this time. However, many Romans considered the comet to be Caesar who had become a god after his assassination.
Volcanic relief is multiple, being composed of several sequences erupted from distinct feeding systems (more than 260 eruptive axes) that arose to different edifices. Etnas magma has unique petrologic and geochemical features, related to the very complex structural setting of the Central Mediterranean area. Mount Etna has erupted many times in human history and its intense and persistent volcanic activity generated myths, legends and naturalistic observation from Greek and Roman classic times.
Etna's eruptions have been documented since 1500 BC, when phreatomagmatic eruptions drove people living in the eastern part of the island to migrate to its western end. The volcano has experienced more than 200 eruptions since then, although most are moderately small.
Historical lava flows cover much of the surface of this massive basaltic stratovolcano, Italy's highest and most voluminous volcano. This makes it by far the largest of the three active volcanoes in Italy:
- Mount Etna, on Sicily (continuous activity)
- Stromboli, one of the Aeolian Islands (continuous activity)
- Mount Vesuvius, near Naples (last erupted in 1944).
Over 50,0000 years ago, submarine basalt lavas layed the foundation of present day Mount Etna volcano. Thereafter, modest effusive structures were emplaced, which are now buried in the NE flank of the volcano. The summit of the largest of these, Monte Callana (1325m) is still visible near Zafferana. About 80,000 years ago, activity became increasingly explosive and the Trifoglietto stratovolcano was gradually built up. Little is visible of this structure today, although its remains make up much of the volume of the eastern flank of Etna.
Mt. Etna is an unusual volcano in that most of the world's volcanoes occur on constructive and destructive plate boundaries while Etna is formed on a unique boundary between two continental plates, the European and the African plates, which are pushing towards each other due to convection currents in the mantle beneath the Earth's crust, and will eventually eliminate the Mediterranean.
The common name of the mountain, Etna is derived from its Roman name Aetna and was considered the home of the god of fire, Vulcan. Even back then Etna was nearly under a constant state of eruption, making it the world's most active volcano. Only the Hawaiian volcano Kilauea produces more lava than Etna, but has only been continuously active less than thirty years. Compare that to Mt. Etna's span of over three thousand years of constant volcanic activity.
Mt Etna is the largest active volcano in Europe. It has an elliptical base (38 x 47 km) and a maximum elevation of about 3350 m. The volcano dominates the landscape of NE Sicily, Italy. Mt Etna has the longest period of documented eruptions in the world. Etna is noted for the wide variety of eruption styles. The volcano is at its most spectacular when when both summit and flank eruptions occur simultaneously.