The earthquakes that struck southern Turkey and northern Syria in the early hours of February 6 wreaked havoc. At time of writing, more than 50,000 people are known to have died as a result. Millions have been displaced and left homeless by the destruction of property.

As humanitarian and response efforts continue on the ground, a longer-term question is raised. How should the world respond to these natural disasters, and what can we learn from previous relief efforts that have gone wrong?


Our technological capacity to respond to natural disasters is the best it has ever been, but modern disaster relief efforts have been mired in corruption and mismanagement. The exceptional mismanagement of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti are cases in point. 

On top of that, climate change is only making natural disasters worse. According to estimates by the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) — an intergovernmental non-treaty organisation of 58 developing nations most threatened by climate change representing some 1.5 billion people worldwide — there will be up to 3.4 million deaths per year attributable to climate change by the end of the century.

The earthquake of 17AD in Western Anatolia

The root cause of both climate change and our inability to respond to disasters is the same: short-term thinking.

Experts are constantly presenting plans to rethink the paradigms of disaster relief. Despite this, the problems only get worse. Perhaps what we really need is a return to the basics.

When looking for insight into how best to respond to disasters, the Roman Empire is a good place to start. 


Like us, the Romans faced many deadly natural disasters. One particularly deadly earthquake shows just how well the Romans could respond: the Western Anatolian earthquake of 17AD, when the empire was at the height of its power and stability under the reign of Tiberius.

The gods, the Romans believed, sent a massive earthquake to punish them for their hubris, destroying the densely populated region of Western Anatolia (now Turkey).

Our most complete records of what unfolded come from the hands of Tacitus, a historian who was the region’s governor a century after the disaster. Tacitus built his records around the second-hand accounts told by descendants of the survivors.

Here is an excerpt recounting the events from his Annals of Imperial Rome, as translated in 1956 by historian Michael Grant:

“Twelve famous cities in the province of Asia were overwhelmed by an earthquake. Its occurrence at night increased the surprise and destruction. Open ground — the usual refuge on such occasions — afforded no escape, because the earth parted and swallowed the fugitives. I heard stories about entire mountains collapsing; and flat earth rising to become hills. Fires raged through the debris, burning the survivors.”

The Roman geographer and naturalist Pliny the Elder, who was born five years after the earthquake, grew up hearing stories about the carnage. He called it the “greatest earthquake which has occurred in our memory”, noting that “12 cities of Asia were laid prostrate in one night”.

In 2015, a team of Turkish geologists and archeologists surveyed the ancient city of Kibyra to assess the damage caused by the earthquake. They found that a Roman stadium suffered significant earthquake-caused structural damage. Dozens of massive marble blocks had fallen over. “Marble blocks of such a size, 75cm in width, 45cm in height, and up to 150cm in length would have needed considerable force to move them.” By analysing the displacement of the marble blocks, they concluded that the earthquake was at least a seven on the MSK scale, making it roughly equivalent to the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Recovery, reconstruction and tax breaks

The emperor Tiberius was notoriously stingy. He spent most of his 22-year reign cutting budgets, increasing taxes and reducing the Roman deficit. He famously built only two public buildings, both of which were notable only for how modest they were.

Throughout his reign, he refused to give money to the provinces for any purpose whatsoever, with the only exception being for the rebuilding after the Western Anatolian earthquake. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, several decades later: “The only free money grant any province got from him was when an earthquake destroyed some cities in Asia Minor.”

The city of Sardis received a significant portion of this money. Tacitus explains: “Sardis suffered the worst and attracted the most sympathy. Tiberius promised it 10 million sesterces [silver coins] and remitted all taxation by the Treasury or its imperially controlled branches for five years.”

Although only a handful of cities received direct relief, almost all were exempted from all taxation for five years. Tacitus writes:

“Exemptions from direct taxation were also authorised for Temnus, Philadelphia, Aegae, Apollonis, Mostene, Hierocaesarea, Myrina, Cume and Tmolus.”

Tiberius feared that corruption would result in the relief funds being plundered for private purposes. Velleius Paterculus, a Roman senator and contemporary of Tiberius, noted in his memoirs that the emperor also made an effort to strictly punish corrupt officials during the reconstruction effort. These anti-corruption efforts appear to have worked, as many reports from the time suggest that the funds were well spent, and no reports cited funds being misused.

Finally, private charity also played a vital role in rebuilding Western Anatolia.

Tacitus notes: “Tiberius supplemented this impressive official generosity by an equally welcome private benefaction”.

Tiberius made speeches urging wealthy Romans from around the empire to make charitable contributions to help Anatolia, and donated some of his own wealth during these efforts. When several wealthy landowners in Rome died without heirs in the months following the disaster, their estates were donated for the reconstruction effort.

Did Tiberius eventually manage to recover and regenerate the affected areas? Thibault Serlet will answer this question in part two of this mini-series on March 10.