Roman Disasters

Jerry Toner, Author
Jerry Toner. Polity, $25 (224p) ISBN 978-0-7456-5102-6
Reviewed on: 05/06/2013
Release date: 04/01/2013
Ebook - 216 pages - 978-0-7456-6549-8
Ebook - 216 pages - 978-0-7456-6550-4
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Blending contemporary sociological theory with historical accounts, Cambridge Classicist Toner covers the many disasters that afflicted the world of the Roman Empire: earthquakes, fires, floods, famine, plague, and war. Although one chapter is devoted to the brutality of conflict, he finds little distinction between natural and man-made catastrophes in terms of effects. The ancient narrative of disaster illustrates how pagan and Christian Romans interpreted events: both felt that disasters were divinely instigated. Pagans were inclined to see "political and social negligence...as the underlying cause"; Christians saw disasters as "a simple metaphor for the tortures of hell." Punishment for collective sin and warning of imminent judgment were also popular themes. Unlike pagans, Christians used disasters as an opportunity for the duty of charity. Toner's analysis of internal reactions to disaster is intriguing and shows that human beings react in much the same way today as they did 2,000 years ago. It's intentional: throughout he compares current responses to events which "destroy order" with classical ones; from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius to the Pacific tsunami of 2004, the physical and mental toll on individuals and societies is shown. Toner brings us closer to the people of the past as well as shedding light on our contemporary reactions to disaster. (May)
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