After Pompeii, the Roman Empire Established a Disaster Relief Program

Lessons from the ancient world, applied today

The ruins of Pompeii.
Jebulon - Own work, CC0

When you read about the Roman city of Pompeii, it usually takes one of two forms. Some coverage of the ancient city, destroyed after a nearby volcano erupted, focuses on the disaster itself; others explores the process of exhuming the city and unearthing artifacts that provide clues as to what life there was like. But it turns out that the immediate aftermath of the eruption is also worth studying — as it offers more than a few parallels to the disaster relief campaigns of the present day.

At The New York Times, Annalee Newitz explored how the Roman Empire addressed this event, and pondered what the modern world can learn from that response. Newitz is the author of Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age, a new book which takes a very different perspective on ancient history. And in this article, they find the parallels between then and now.

Newitz notes that roughly one-sixth of Pompeii’s population at the time — 12,000 — died in the explosion, while the rest evacuated to nearby cities. Much as world leaders do today, Emperor Titus visited the site of the disaster. His next decision proved to be monumental.

“Emperor Titus ordered that the wealth from rich patricians who perished in the eruption without heirs be transferred to the refugees,” Newitz writes — which included a number of formerly enslaved people. This, combined with a public works program to build new housing and streets for those displaced from Pompeii, helped to keep the Roman Empire’s economy running smoothly.

Newitz argues convincingly that a bold relief program made sense on both idealistic and pragmatic grounds, and they have history on their side. It turns out the aftermath of Pompeii’s destruction is more relevant in 2021 than one might think.

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