Roman Disasters

Michael Scott enjoys an account of coping with calamity in Roman society

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Reviewed by: Michael Scott
Author: Jerry Toner
Publisher: Polity Press
Price (RRP): £20

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This book has an immediate appeal. Rather than talking about a society’s highs, it focuses on Roman lows – and how Rome as a society responded to them. As we are forever told when young, “character is shown in how you get back up having been knocked down”; so, too, disasters reveal what a society is really like, because they offer an opportunity to see how they react ‘when all hell breaks loose’.

The Roman world was one in which risk was an ever-present element of daily life in a very different way to most of the developed world today: for example, it is estimated that a food shortage occurred somewhere in the Roman empire every 3.3 years. In response, Toner highlights the degree and strength of Roman resilience to disaster, epitomised by the lack of shock expressed in contemporary sources for the destruction of Pompeii by Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

On top of that, there was also a sense that every disaster could have a silver lining. Roman emperors might malign the fact that their reigns were not blighted by a good disaster; the Roman administration could take advantage of destruction to rebuild in even grander fashion, and Roman elites might use such events to increase their networks of patronage and dependence. And particular religious groups within the Roman world, not least the Christians, might use them as an opportunity to demonstrate the compassion and care that was the hallmark of their faith.

Over a series of thematic chapters, Toner deftly explores not just what disasters there were, but how they were experienced, dealt with, thought and talked about, and the impact they had. Throughout he is careful to highlight constantly how the discussion is blighted by the lack of hard data for Roman disasters, and seeks to improve our understanding by reference to a good deal of disaster study from other periods and places. It is a shame that this book is produced without an index, but it is in itself a great introduction to a fascinating topic.

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Michael Scott is assistant professor in classics and ancient history at the University of Warwick. See www.michaelscottweb.com