Sunday, April 18

Opinion | How a Disaster Relief Program Changed the Roman Empire for the Better


Gaius Sulpicius Faustus was lucky, at least by the standards of the Roman Empire. Born into slavery, he was freed by his master and became a libertus, a freedman, though his fortune was still tied to his former owners. Like many educated liberti, Faustus found work as a business manager for his former master, keeping his books and overseeing his real estate holdings in the Bay of Naples. Faustus lived comfortably, but he still faced significant barriers: His status as a former slave meant he was marginalized in polite society; he couldn’t run for political office, nor would he ever ascend to the highest rungs of society.

All that changed in 79 C.E., when a terrifying catastrophe upended the Roman world and Faustus’s life. Earthquakes shook the Bay of Naples, and then Mount Vesuvius began to vomit smoke, large rocks and finally a stream of superheated gas that extinguished everything in its path — including, famously, the city of Pompeii — leaving nothing behind except a 20-foot-thick layer of broiling hot ash. And that’s only the beginning of the story.

Within months, the fortunes of liberti like Faustus were forever changed, for the better, as they became beneficiaries of a disaster relief program that offers something of a blueprint for those we’re debating in the pandemic-stricken United States now. What happened next for Faustus, and others like him, reveals how government generosity during a disaster can benefit the generations to come. Political leaders in Congress may not be certain whether President Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package will jump-start the economy, but history suggests that it will.

While the name Pompeii is practically synonymous with total disaster, only about 2,000 of the city’s estimated 12,000 residents are known to have perished. Archaeologists now have evidence that a vast majority of Pompeiians, including several members of Faustus’s extended family, evacuated to nearby cities like Neapolis (now Naples), Cumae and Puteoli (Pozzuoli). After touring the smoking ruins of Pompeii, and nearby buried towns, Emperor Titus ordered that the wealth from rich patricians who perished in the eruption without heirs be transferred to the refugees, many of whom were former slaves like Faustus. It was a rare act of generosity, and all the more so because we have ample material evidence that he kept his word.