Ancient and modern

How did the ancients cope in a crisis?

11 April 2020

9:00 AM

11 April 2020

9:00 AM

When a major crisis strikes in the modern world, the state and international bodies such as the IMF and World Health Organisation come to the rescue. The ancients in such situations had recourse only to a culture of personal or public benefaction, self-help and (where relevant) legal action: when in ad 27 a ramshackle stadium built for a gladiatorial show at Fidenae collapsed with 50,000 maimed or killed, the impresario was exiled and new building regulations passed.

It was the first emperor Augustus (d. ad 14) who created a template for imperial intervention, establishing a rudimentary fire service, putting in extreme measures to deal with famine in Rome and initiating flood-prevention schemes for the Tiber. Tax breaks and rebates, loans, cancellation of debts and straight cash all became options. Fear of a crisis generating public disorder was a powerful motivation.


Titus, emperor when Vesuvius erupted (ad 79), exemplified the best of what could be expected, exhibiting ‘the concern of an emperor and the love only a father can provide, offering consolation and as much practical help as he could’. Pompeii was left buried, but he put officials in charge of restoring the region, funded the restoration of monuments, and handed over heirless abandoned properties to survivors. When Rome suffered a disastrous three-day fire, Titus’ single public reaction was ‘I am ruined’. He set aside some of his own property to help restore buildings, and financed teams to complete the work as soon as possible. Nero too had reacted similarly to Rome’s much more disastrous fire in ad 64, but then blown it by collaring much of central Rome and converting it into a gigantic Golden Palace, with parks and woodlands for, as the story went, his own private pleasure. But pandemics were a different matter. Marcus Aurelius won praise for funding the funerals of even the lower classes: what else could he do?

In such crises, self-help and bigwig benefaction played an important part in encouraging a sense of communal cohesion and solidarity. For all our modern means of communication, that vital coping mechanism may be hard to maintain while government insists we remain isolated.

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