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

It’s hard to measure how much of a wealth transfer this represented, but we can estimate. In her book “The Baths of Caracalla,” Janet DeLaine, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford, calculated that building a Roman bathhouse would require 5,200 men for the excavation, 9,500 men for the substructure, 4,500 men for the central block and 1,800 for the decorations. In other words: thousands of good jobs, for years. And the resulting infrastructure would be used for centuries.

While the government supplied Vesuvius’s victims with new homes and good jobs, it also inadvertently washed the stigma of slavery from generations of people in the Bay of Naples.

That’s because post-Vesuvian chaos allowed Faustus and other liberti to tinker with their names. In Roman society, slaves were marked through naming practices — slave nicknames would have been quite recognizable to any Roman. In the name Gaius Sulpicius Faustus, for example, “Faustus” was a popular slave nickname that means “lucky.” Former slaves added an “L” to their names, for “libertus,” which meant that their humble origin was still identifiable even after manumission. When Faustus introduced himself to patricians, they would immediately know he was a libertus. But because he and his cohort moved to places where fewer people knew their family histories, liberti and their freeborn children could discard those slave names.

Within one generation of the eruption, many refugee families of liberti had names that were indistinguishable from their freeborn neighbors’. That made them eligible to vote and run for political office, unhampered by prejudice against people coming from slaves.

This didn’t represent a complete turnaround in Rome’s attitudes toward slavery, nor did every libertus wind up rich as Faustus and his family. But there’s no doubt that the government’s relief program changed the fortunes of marginalized people for the better and bolstered the Roman economy in the process.

We can still see our modern concerns reflected in this ancient disaster. Everyone in our nation wants a quick return to business as usual, complete with some infrastructure upgrades and new jobs. But for the descendants of slaves, and for other historically disadvantaged groups, this relief effort could also provide opportunities for social mobility. The good news is that historical evidence suggests we can have all this and more — so long as our politicians are willing to be as generous as a Roman emperor once was, some 1,950 years ago.

Annalee Newitz, a science journalist and a contributing opinion writer, is the author most recently of “Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age.”

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