Saturday, October 12, 2013


Jerry Toner, Roman Disasters. Cambridge; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013. Pp. ix, 220. ISBN 9780745651026. $25.00.

Reviewed by Jane Draycott, University of Wales Trinity Saint David (

Version at BMCR home site


Jerry Toner's stated aim with Roman Disasters is to provide 'a broad and innovative treatment of [disasters] in ancient Rome … in a way that is easily accessible to as wide a readership as possible, without sacrificing conceptual or empirical rigour' (p. iix), and to show how the Romans 'reacted to, thought about and used …disastrous events in their history' (p. 17). To an extent he succeeds, although his approach is not without its problems.

Chapter One (What is a Disaster?) attempts to offer a definition of disasters in order to establish the parameters of the study going forward. Toner acknowledges the potential difficulties in approaching disasters in the ancient world. For example, he notes that although Roman definitions of disasters were not dissimilar to ours, the Romans were most concerned with human/man-made ones, a concern reflected in the terminology used: clades, calamitas, casus, pestis. Chapter Two (Rome's Disasters) neatly demonstrates the variability of ancient disasters, describing some of the most significant of those that occurred during the Roman Republic and Empire, encompassing military defeats, fires, an amphitheatre collapse, natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, environmental disasters such as deforestation, and the Third Century Crisis. This chapter was designed to mitigate the monograph's thematic approach, it might therefore have profitably been still more extensive, offering more in-depth case studies of selected disastrous events that occurred throughout the period under investigation, incorporating both literary and archaeological evidence, and reviewing the existing scholarship on them.

Chapter Three (The Disaster Experience) uses firsthand accounts from a range of ancient literary and epigraphic sources to try and give some sense of both what it was like to experience a disaster in Roman society and how people reacted to them both at the time (e.g. panic, immobility, flight, compassion) and subsequently (e.g. looking for opportunities for financial gain, turning to or away from religion). It cautions that while ancient accounts can be quite vivid when it comes to describing how people felt, they are somewhat less helpful when it comes to offering facts and figures. Chapter Four (Dealing with the Aftermath) explores the strategies that the Romans turned to in dealing with the after effects of disasters, and questions whether disasters forced profound social transformations and cultural adaptations. It notes that ultimately Roman society was extremely resilient despite the fact that the authorities had no tried and tested approach to dealing with disasters, no standardised disaster relief, and whether any relief was offered at all ultimately depended upon the emperor or the elite. Chapter Five (Thinking about Disaster) examines how the Romans explained and interpreted disasters, focussing primarily upon religion in general and Christianity in particular, and the opportunities that were provided as a result.

Chapter Six (A Culture of Risk) assesses how the very structure of Roman society contributed to the occurrence of disasters, their severity, and their impact, exploring who was most vulnerable, the nature of risk and risk management, and the role of luck. Chapter Seven (Narratives of Disaster) investigates the rhetoric of disasters, showing how the events of a disaster could be fitted into a variety of narrative forms in order to give them a specific purpose. Chapter Eight (Inflicting Catastrophe) examines how the Romans inflicted disaster upon other ancient societies, primarily through the means of making war upon them. Chapter Nine (The Psychological Impact) queries the extent to which people that experienced disasters in the ancient world suffered psychological trauma as a result, and surveys their coping mechanisms. Chapter Ten (Roman Disasters in Context) explores the possibilities offered by looking at Roman disasters in a broader context, by directly comparing them with the disasters experienced by other societies, and culminates in a brief examination of the reception of the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii by way of illustration.

Roman Disasters relies predominantly upon literary evidence, and a significant proportion of this is extremely late and overwhelmingly Christian in outlook, which potentially poses a problem regarding the viability of reconstructing 'Roman' attitudes rather than 'Byzantine' or even just 'Christian' ones from it. The exclusion of Galen's On the Avoidance of Grief, is hard to understand, as including this would have considerably strengthened discussions of a variety of issues ranging from Roman disaster preparedness, to the economic impact of disasters, to the psychological impact of disasters, to the fire of AD 192 itself. This questionable selection of literary evidence is mitigated through the utilisation of archaeological evidence only very occasionally, and the archaeological evidence that is incorporated is done so more for illustrative purposes than as a means of offering insight or assisting with analysis. When archaeological evidence is included, it is not considered in a sufficiently rigorous way and references are not given so as to allow readers to engage with it themselves (e.g. coins found in the Forum that were apparently dropped during the Great Fire in AD 64 [p. 32 ]). There are also a number of occasions where it would have been helpful to incorporate archaeological evidence to strengthen rather general assertions (e.g. when discussing how people responded to disasters, whether they panicked or tried to escape, why not refer to the numerous examples of individuals doing exactly that recovered from Pompeii and assess the belongings they chose to take with them, rather than the poem Aetna (p. 41)? When discussing fires, why not utilise sites such as Colchester or London not just for evidence of the event, but also the subsequent rebuilding (p. 54)? When discussing Roman military defeats, why not incorporate human skeletal remains or commemorative inscriptions for the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (p. 183-4)? This reluctance to engage with archaeological evidence also affects the illustrations, which while being good quality black and white photographs, are let down by captions which offer no useful information at all regarding the date, provenance, or context of the objects depicted. Considering that the monograph is aimed at a general audience, this is rather unhelpful and potentially very confusing. Also, the selection process seems to have been rather hit and miss, resulting in some rather irrelevant choices (e.g. a well-known first century BC-AD funerary procession relief from Amiternum is included to show what did not happen during disasters [p. 40]!). Roman Disasters is primarily concerned with examining the concept of disaster, rather than the actual disasters that occurred during the period of the Roman Republic and Empire into the Byzantine Empire through approaching each different type of disaster separately and examining the evidence for it in its entirety. Thus the monograph progresses thematically and shows how the Romans reacted to, thought about, and used disasters and as a result some of the chapters work well (e.g. Chapter 9: The Psychological Impact), others less so (e.g. Chapter 2: Rome's Disasters). In view of this, a study that integrates both approaches is clearly a desideratum. Yet on balance this work certainly serves a purpose, particularly for readers encountering this aspect of antiquity for the first time, offering a useful counterpoint to pre-existing works on Roman disasters, which tend to focus on one particular type or specific event, and opening up a number of areas for potential future investigations. It is written in an informal and accessible style, it introduces numerous works of ancient literature that non-specialists are unlikely to be familiar with, and the bibliography consists primarily of English language scholarship published within the last decade, so it will serve undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as more general readership, reasonably well as an introduction not just to the disasters experienced by the ancient Romans, but what these disasters reveal about ancient Roman society as a whole. It would be a useful addition to any university or college library.

1 comment:

  1. This is a pretty positive review for such a disaster of a book. His uncritical use of Christian sources leads him to conclude that all of the Imperial relief aid we know about was a rare anomaly from emperors who didn't care about their people, and that private aid was intended only for maintaining the power dynamic for the wealthy.


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