BMCR 2020.03.39

Der Kaiser und die Katastrophe: Untersuchungen zum politischen Umgang mit Umweltkatastrophen im Prinzipat (31 v. Chr. bis 192 n. Chr.)

, Der Kaiser und die Katastrophe: Untersuchungen zum politischen Umgang mit Umweltkatastrophen im Prinzipat (31 v. Chr. bis 192 n. Chr.). . Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2019. 317 p.. ISBN 9783515123747. €55,00.

Philipp Deeg’s book on Roman emperors and disasters, based on a Stuttgart University dissertation, joins a whole series of recent publications on relationships between humans and the environment and natural catastrophes in Antiquity.[1]While essentially leaving aside the much-discussed question of the long-term impact of these catastrophes, Deeg concentrates on another, indeed quite important aspect. He asks what was the significance of natural disasters, as documented in Rome and throughout the Roman Empire, for the political system of the principate between Augustus and Commodus. Deeg thereby draws upon Egon Flaig’s “Akzeptanzsystem”, which identifies army, senate and the plebs at Rome as the three major groups upon whose acceptance the power of an individual emperor depended, a view that has been central to German-language scholarship in recent years (21-27).[2] His major question, in this context, considers the expectations of Rome’s imperial subjects towards their ruler in times of trouble. Did they, whenever disasters struck or ominous signs were observed, expect their ruler to act—be it with material help or by religious or symbolic measures? If so, this would make disasters a significant factor in the political process, adding to the many constraints the emperor had to face when dealing with the acceptance groups. While some reservations have recently been expressed against inferring general expectations from the tendentious sources covering such cases,[3] Deeg responds by arguing that the evidence has never been reviewed in its entirety and he makes this undertaking the major task of his work (11–16). His approach seeks to combine a chronological and a structural analysis, treating both aspects separately in the two major sections of his work.

The methodological introduction (11-36) offers some thoughts on central questions and key terminology as well as on the author’s approach to the sources. Deeg defines the term “environmental disaster” (“Umweltkatastrophe”, which he prefers to “Naturkatastrophe”, since the latter, “natural disaster”, in his eyes, implies nature’s agency) quite broadly as a sharp social rupture that can be caused both naturally and—as part of the mutual relationship between humans and the environmental relationship—anthropogenically (16-21). He, therefore, explicitly includes emblematic events such as comets and other celestial phenomena, while excluding from consideration incidents caused by a clear human act of will (e.g. arson). His source material (27-36) encompasses not only a number of quite heterogeneous literary works from Tacitus to John Malalas (6th century), but also epigraphic and numismatic evidence. Archaeology, on the other hand, is largely excluded from the discussion due to the methodological difficulties of aligning material and written evidence chronologically (35-6). Deeg stresses that, despite the difficulties caused by the idiosyncratic nature of literary evidence, the material allows (in Flaig’s words) a “‘construction’ of plausible sequences” (32-3).

The chronological part, which forms the bulk of the book (37-197), is strictly divided according to dynasties and individual emperors. Augustus is ascribed a key role (37-54). Deeg sees this emperor as a model for his successors on two levels. First, he effectively managed to retain control over the interpretation of a range of emblematic events at Rome (37-41). Second, he set new standards in the treatment of catastrophes (42-54), taking up the behaviour of Hellenistic kings and intervening through donations, tax exemptions, the sending of special representatives and symbolic acts (personal appearances, establishment of open dialogue between ruler and ruled). This, according to Deeg, became the yardstick against which future rulers had to measure themselves.

The success that he attributes to Augustus’ followers in fulfilling this task varies. Tiberius’ actions after the famous “Twelve City Earthquake”, for example, are considered as “vorbildlich” (exemplary) both on a structural and communicative level. However, as Deeg observes, the princeps’ poor communication with the inhabitants of Rome (especially in his late ‘Capri’-phase), as illustrated by his dealing with disasters, became his undoing. Caligula’s handling of disasters, meanwhile, is portrayed far worse in the sources than it would appear to be in reality on sober reflection, as Deeg seeks to underline with the help of a report from John Malalas about an earthquake at Antioch on the Orontes and Caligula’s disaster relief (a story that, according to Deeg, was deliberately concealed by Suetonius: 76). In general, Deeg’s chronological section displays a tendency (especially for the so-called ‘bad’ emperors) to ‘normalize’ individual behaviour in order to illuminate a general, rather stable pattern of actions. The emphasis, therefore, lies in proving that, despite the source situation being sometimes difficult, ‘adequate’ reactions are always to be found (e.g. Domitian: 130-138; Commodus: 191-197; conversely, the otherwise highly praised Marcus Aurelius is characterized as merely a “solider Katastrophenhelfer”: 190).

A single exception (albeit a central one to the argument) is Nero. This emperor, according to Deeg, categorically abstained from offering disaster relief because of his unusual style of rule: as his motivation was “agonal”, he engaged in disaster relief only where it allowed him to outdo his predecessors in a time-transcending competition (98-9). This accounts for the famous conflagration of 64 C.E.—in which case, however, Nero’s public communication proved disastrous in itself, failing to win over public opinion despite his implementation of a whole series of relief measures, as Deeg shows, drawing on an article by Mischa Meier.[4] For Deeg, Nero’s rule failed inter alia because he failed to meet the expectations of his subjects after natural disasters.

The second major section (198-244) reorganizes the findings according to structural aspects. The measures potentially taken by the principes are divided into disaster relief, prevention and the fight for the prerogative of interpretation (“Kampf um die Deutungshoheit”). While Deeg stresses ancient efforts at prevention, he calls into question their functionality, which is attributed to the high degree of trust inhabitants of the empire placed in the emperor (206-210). Communication between emperor and subjects receives a separate sub-chapter (213-226). Deeg believes that the role of city envoys in the transmission of news about disasters is generally overestimated, and emphasizes instead the importance of the cursus publicus and provincial governors. The repeated petitions to Rome are interpreted as ritual acts—a prelude to the necessary public thanksgiving (220). Finally, Deeg summarizes the opening discussion and explicitly makes a case for what clearly constitutes the general aim of his work: to prove that there was indeed a widespread expectation that Roman rulers would act in any case of natural disturbance (227-39). His major arguments encompass the point (1) that some authors like Tacitus or Philostratus seem to paint disaster relief as something normal and (2) that all emperors, according to Deeg, can be proven to have shown liberalitas after natural disasters (229-30). This allows him to argue for supplementing Flaig’s three “acceptance groups” by a fourth one: the inhabitants of the Roman provinces, who expected the pater patriae to act in times of disaster and were, with only a few exceptions, usually heard by their sovereign (239-44).

While the general narrative of the book is clear-cut and, to a certain degree, appealing, there are also some general methodological problems. The first, and probably the most serious one, consists in the fact that what is presented as the conclusions of the book often appear as its premise. When characterizing the behaviour of individual emperors, Deeg keeps repeating that the respective ruler did (or did not do) “what was expected of him” (“was von […] ihm erwartet wurde”, 141, cf. 93, 129, 138, 186, 190). This conviction is implicitly derived from the number of cases cited. The actual argument is only delivered in the structural part of the analysis (see above). Here, however, a point is omitted that appears to this reviewer to be central: C.P. Jones, when arguing against Louis Robert’s old bon mot that imperial help after disasters was “attendue et normale”, highlighted not only that our picture of natural disasters in Roman times is far from complete (a problem that Deeg is aware of: e.g. 77, 130, 198), but also that the sources, particularly inscriptions and coins, tend to mention such events only in a specific context, namely “in connection with the beneficent activity of emperors”. Hence they cannot be expected to provide evidence about ‘omitted’ disaster relief.[5] This position, even if not shared, should have been discussed more explicitly.

This leads to the second methodological problem, which concerns the selection and treatment of material. Deeg’s very broad understanding of “environmental disaster” allows him to analyse very different sorts of events side by side. This regards not only the question of the material impact (e.g. appearances of stars vs. major earthquakes—as Deeg rightly states, damage does not have to have been decisive for the event to be perceived as disastrous), but also of location: a significant number of the cases discussed took place at Rome (e.g. 14 out of 24 listed cases for Augustus: 261-3), and many of these were local in scale. In order to evaluate the role of the provincials as a relevant group in political communication, a clear distinction of events between those that took place in the city of Rome and those in the provinces would have been helpful. A personal appearance, which Deeg counts among the most important options of imperial action (203), may well have been expected at Rome and probably in a region like Campania, but possibly less so at Lugdunum, as is implied for Nero (cf. 101). A clear geographical distinction would also have shown more articulately that for the provinces, besides the epigraphic and numismatic evidence (which is problematic for its own reasons, see above), we are to a considerable degree dependent on later sources such as the Historia Augusta, the Epitome de Caesaribus or John Malalas. Deeg is rather keen to trust these sources when it suits his argument. For the first two, however, some of the most frequently cited passages are quite similar both to each other and to Suetonius; a problem that Deeg admits but puts aside without due concern (153, 166, 180). Malalas, meanwhile, may indeed deserve some trust with regards his treatment of local disasters (repeatedly stressed: 31, 52, 73, 90, 107); this trust, however, has its limits, particularly because Malalas attributes almost any given building measure to the emperor in person. Finally, Deeg accords different value to similar reports in different contexts: the treatment of notices on disasters not mentioning relief, for example, is usually determined by the conviction that the sources are simply incomplete (e.g. 67-8, 145-6, 152, 167, 179); only for the counter-example of the failed emperor Nero, where such pieces of evidence are cited to prove a lack of willingness to help (89-93).

Despite the aforementioned problems, the book is not without merit. It convincingly highlights the importance of the communicative processes surrounding imperial disaster relief. In the structural analysis, Deeg plausibly argues that this relief did not function according to a fixed mechanism, but was crafted specifically according to particular needs (233-4). The whole work is based on a crushingly comprehensive survey of secondary literature that covers almost anything published on the topic from 1900 to 2018. An extensive list of cases with references to the relevant sources (261-277) provides transparency and a good basis for future engagement with natural disasters in imperial times. On the other hand, an often rather brief, occasionally overoptimistic, and sometimes methodologically contradictory treatment of the sources forms the downside of this comprehensive method. The main proposition, that the provincials expected the emperor to act and that not acting might have severe political consequences, is, therefore, likely to remain a matter of discussion.


[1] The most discussed of these is undoubtedly Kyle Harper’s recent synthesis on late-ancient Rome (The Fate of Rome. Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire. Princeton/Oxford 2017). See furthermore Toner, Jerry, Roman Disasters. Cambridge 2013; Sonnabend, Holger, Katastrophen in der Antike. Darmstadt/Mainz 2013; Thély, Ludovic, Les Grecs face aux catatrophes naturelles. Savoirs, histoire, mémoire. Paris/Athènes 2016; Borsch, Jonas, Erschütterte Welt. Soziale Bewältigung von Erdbeben im östlichen Mittelmeerraum der Antike. Tübingen 2018; Walter, Justine, Erdbeben im antiken Mittelmeerraum und im frühen China. Vergleichende Analyse der gesellschaftlichen Konstruktion von Naturkatastrophen bis zum 3. Jahrhundert n. Chr. Berlin 2019.

[2] Originally published in 1992, Flaig’s fundamental book has recently been reissued in a second, profoundly reworked edition: Flaig, Egon, Den Kaiser herausfordern. Die Usurpation im Römischen Reich. Frankfurt a.M./New York 2019.

[3] See Toner 2013 (cit., n. 1): 50; 55 and more emphatically Jones, Christopher P., “Earthquakes and Emperors”, in: Kolb, Anne (ed.), Infrastruktur und Herrschaftsorganisation im Imperium Romanum. Berlin 2012: 52-65.

[4] Meier, Mischa, “Roman Emperors and ‘Natural Disasters’ in the First Century A.D., in: Janku, Andrea et al., Historical Disasters in Context. Science, Religion, Politics, New York/London 2012: 15-30, esp. 21-4.

[5] Jones 2014 (cit., n. 3): 54.