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Ancient and modern

Ancient & modern

When natural disasters like the Haiti earthquake struck in the ancient world, the first move was to appeal to the Roman emperor.

20 January 2010

12:00 AM

20 January 2010

12:00 AM

When natural disasters like the Haiti earthquake struck in the ancient world, the first move was to appeal to the Roman emperor. Smyrna, on the west coast of modern Turkey, was hit with a massive quake in ad 177/8. The letter to the emperor Marcus Aurelius from the local bigwig Aelius Aristides describes ‘dust everywhere, the harbour closed, the magnificent market flattened, fine roads disappeared, sports grounds, men, boys and all, destroyed, ships lying flat or sunk, bodies and ruins piled up, winds blowing over what is now a desert. Everything that is left looks to you…’. When Marcus received the letter, he wept. In such circumstances, all he or any emperor could do (probably weeks after the event: news travelled slowly) was to put someone in charge of restoration (nothing could be done for the victims), backed with generous sums of money and often relief from taxes.

When much of Rome burnt down in ad 64, Nero organised the restoration programme. He opened a fire relief fund, the price of grain was cut and, as in Haiti, emergency accommodation was set up and gangs of looters roamed the streets. Rebuilding was planned to help ensure such an event would never happen again: wider streets, height restrictions, more stone used in building, plenty of internal courtyards, better water supply and every house to have fire-fighting equipment. Further, Nero offered bonuses to those who rebuilt their houses by a certain date, and instituted rubbish-clearance schemes.

Little could be done, however, about volcanic action, let alone plague. After Vesuvius exploded in ad 79, Pompeii stayed buried for some 1,700 years, though efforts were made in the immediate aftermath to tunnel in and rescue (or loot) property and survivors, if graffiti on the subject are contemporary (one says ‘Tunnelled through’; another ‘Fifty of them, still lying where they had been’). For towns not buried, the emperor Titus appointed a commissioner ‘for restoring Campania’, and the buildings of victims who left no heirs were made homes for survivors. Surrounding towns that took in the destitute were given benefits. One source says that Titus took no money from those offering promises of help, but restored all the damage from his own resources. Then, Rome; today, America.

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