In part one, Thibault Serlet argues there are still lessons to learn from the way the Roman Empire responded to natural disasters. In particular, the Roman emperor Tiberius’s response to the Western Anatolia earthquake of 17AD, which featured not only direct financial relief and tax breaks, but an anti-corruption campaign to avert misuse of funds. Readers are recommended to read it before continuing this article.
Another earthquake hit the Anatolian peninsula on February 6 2023, and the people of modern Turkey and Syria are still coming to term with the daunting task of recovering and rebuilding the areas affected by the earthquake that struck on February 6.
And they have rebuilt before; Western Anatolia not only recovered from the 17AD earthquake, but emerged significantly wealthier and more prosperous, thanks in no small part to the emperor Tiberius’s intervention.
The rebirth of Anatolia
Coins minted in 23 AD, six years after the earthquake, celebrate Tiberius’s response with the inscription “Civitatibus Asiae Restitutis” — the Latin for “Cities of Asia Restored”.
Long after his death in 37 AD, Tiberius was revered as a restorer of the region. Several years after his death, a statue was built in the ancient city of Sardis (now an active archaeological site in Turkey), celebrating him as a “new founder of the city”. For nearly 50 years after his death, local coins with the Latin for “Tiberius Augustus founder” could be found throughout Western Anatolia. Several cities would be renamed after Tiberius, with the new names sticking for nearly a century.
Fast-forward to modern times, archeologists studying the site have found that almost all of the affected cities significantly improved their architecture after the earthquake, with the quality of buildings, from private homes to businesses, increasing drastically. Cities had been rebuilt with then-modern Roman road networks and aqueducts. Sardis also gained access to the funds to build a massive gymnasium, then a combination of a stadium, religious centre, school, university and community centre.
Kyle Harper, a historian of natural disasters and demographer at Princeton University, estimates that in the two centuries following the earthquake, the population of the whole Anatolian peninsula grew from 10 million to 15 million, making it the most populated province of the empire.
In the century following the earthquake, Western Anatolian culture flourished. It became a centre for the production of art, literature and intellectual works. It also became one of the first hubs of Christianity and Christian thinking.
For the most part, early Christianity attracted the dispossessed lower classes. However, in the prosperous province Western Anatolia, upper class elites were converting to Christianity and began financing the construction of churches, writing and preaching. When the empire converted to Christianity in 380AD, the capital moved from Rome to Byzantium. In this new post-Nicene Christian era – the intervening period between the council of Nicea in 325AD and the fall of the western Roman empire in 476AD – Western Anatolia surpassed Italy in cultural importance.
Lessons to learn
The areas affected by the great earthquake of 17AD could easily have been abandoned if not for Tiberius’s intervention. Towards the end of the Roman Empire, when it had become more bureaucratic, it seemingly lost its ability to properly respond to earthquakes. Instead of increased profitability, affected regions experienced famine, war, pestilence and social collapse, plunging them into centuries-long dark ages.
And still, the response to the earthquake of 17AD paved the path for future flourishing. When compared to a modern disaster, the Romans had all of the cards stacked against them. We have much better technology. Adjusted for inflation, the disaster relief budgets that the Romans had were much smaller. The Romans lived in a precarious pre-industrial society, where surpluses were low and the slightest economic errors could lead to famine.
Despite, or perhaps because of these disadvantages, the Romans thought differently to us. They took a much longer-term view of the world: their survival depended on their ability to make and execute long-term plans.
In a world that is ever more prone to natural disasters due to climate change, there is much that we can learn from the ancient Romans. Here are five key lessons:
- Government emergency financing is not good enough and cannot be the only source of funds in case of disasters. Inheritances, private charity and tax breaks all contributed to the reconstruction of Western Anatolia.
- Tax breaks were essential. Modern governments still offer tax breaks to areas struck by disaster; however, they rarely go far enough. To be effective, these tax breaks must be large enough to offset the cost of the damage caused by the disaster.
- Corruption kills relief efforts. Like us, the Romans had a system of private government contractors. Had the relief efforts been mishandled, the funds could have easily been wasted.
- Infrastructure makes a huge difference. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the Romans responded by building new roads and aqueducts — infrastructure that remained in use for nearly 400 years after the earthquake. Had the Romans instead focused on short-term shelters, there would have been less long-term growth.
- Success is measured in decades and centuries, not election cycles. The roads and buildings that the Romans built in response to the disaster sometimes are still standing today. By contrast, modern infrastructure seems to crumble within, at best, a few decades.
Disasters create panic and panic drives short-term thinking. Climate change will increase the frequency of disasters, which means we cannot afford to take a short-term approach any longer. Our thinking needs to change.
We live in a society with a fundamentally short-term, consumerist mindset. We buy single-use disposable plastic bags, which more often than not find their way to the open oceans once discarded. Ironically, those plastic bags will last far longer than most of the buildings that are built today.
Like many things in industrial consumer societies, our response to disasters is ephemeral. Politicians tend to think about how they can do things quickly to get immediate results.
If we want to achieve a more sustainable future, we need to start thinking like the Romans of Tiberius: when there is a disaster, we need to build infrastructure that can last for centuries. We need to see beyond the five-year dip in tax revenue and help affected people financially rebuild their lives. We need to focus on making sure disaster relief funds are well spent and controlling inflated budgets.