The Roman historian Tacitus, in his work Agricola in the context a passage that comments on the British isles’ multus umor terrarum caelique (‘the excessive moisture of the soil and of the atmosphere’) famously writes (Tac. Agr. 12):
Caelum crebris imbribus ac nebulis foedum; asperitas frigorum abest.
Their sky is maimed with frequent rain and fog: it does not get terribly cold, though.
Yet, even Tacitus quite possibly would have been mildly surprised at the extraordinary period of torrential rainfall and high winds that Britain recently had to face, and whose effects will remain to be visible for the foreseeable future.
The severeness of the weather, with its main side effects (flooding in particular) resulted in an exceptional level of disruption to infrastructure and transportation in Britain – an infrastructure that, due to its relative age, rests on somewhat shaky foundations at the best of times.
There are three general responses to this scenario, which (by order of rapidly decreasing bonkerdom) can be described as follows: i) identify scapegoats (ideally driven by utterly conspicuous political agendas rather than actual scientific insight); ii) analyse the actual causes and long-term changes; iii) show community spirit, take action, and get on with life as much as possible.
The latter appears to have been the response of the Roman Empire in the case of a reported disruption to public life that was experienced in third-century Roman North Africa. An inscription, put up during the reign of the rather notorious Emperor Caracalla, reads as follows:
Imp(eratori) Caes(ari) M(arco) Au|relio Seuero | Antonino Pio Fel(ici) | Aug(usto) diui Septimi | Seueri Pii Arab(ici) Adiab(enici) Parth(ici) max(imi) | Britt(annici) max(imi) Aug(usti) et Iuliae Domnae Aug(ustae) | matris Caesar(is) et senatus et patriae | filio diui M(arci) Ant(onini) Pii Germ(anici) Sarmat(ici) | nep(oti) diui Ant(onini) Pii pronep(oti) diui Hadr(iani) | abnep(oti) diui Tra(iani) Parth(ici) et diui Neru(ae) | adnep(oti) Parth(ico) max(imo) trib(unicia) pot(estate) III imp(eratori) III | co(n)s(uli) IIII p(atri) p(atriae) proco(n)s(uli). Res pub(lica) | Cuiculitanorum uias torren|tibus exhaustas restituit ac no|uis munitionibus dilatauit.
To Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Pius Felix Augustus, son of the late Septimius Severus Pius Arabicus Adiabenicus Parthicus maximus Britannicus maximus Augustus and Julia Domna Augusta, mater Caesaris (!) et senatus et patriae, grandson of the late Marcus Antoninus Pius, great-grandson of the late Hadrian, great-great-grandson of the late Nerva, Parthicus maximus, with tribunicia potestas for the third time, imperator for the third time, consul for the fourth time, father of the fatherland, proconsul. The community of Cuicul has restored the roads that were destroyed by torrential rainfalls and extended on new foundations.
This inscription commemorates the building works carried out by the community of Cuicul, dedicated to Rome’s emperor – and it does not only name the torrential rainfall as the cause, it also mentions the community’s swift action to use this opportunity for work carried out in order to widen the road. What a welcome opportunity.
This inscription is one of quite a few texts discovered in the same area mentioning extensive road network repairs following rainfall, yet with the texts spanning a time period of some sixty years – raising obvious questions: just how much rain was there, just how much damage did it do, … and just to what extent exactly did those who produced these inscriptions actually understand what they wrote (as opposed to copying a perceived template, as it has been argued recently).
Of course, the rain in Numidia may have been very bad indeed. On the other hand, very much like Britain’s infrastructure in some areas, that of Roman North Africa, too, may have been rather dated and generally in a regrettable state of disrepair.
In fact, some of the inscriptions that pertain to the same area would appear to suggest. Here is the example of CIL VIII 10304 from Cirta/Constantine, referring to roadworks carried out under an emperor even more notorious than Caracalla, namely Elagabalus, one of Caracalla’s more immediate successors:
Imp(erator) Caesar | diui Magni | Antonini Pii | filius diui Seue|ri Pii nepos | M(arcus) Aurelius [An]|[toninus] Pius Felix | Aug(ustus) pontif(ex) max(imus) | trib(unicia) pot(estate) II co(n)s(ul) II | designatus III proc[o(n)sul] | felicissimus adque | inuictissimus ac super | omnes [re]tr[o p]rincipes | indulgentissimus | uiam imbribus et | uetust[ate] conlaps[am] | cum pontibus | restituit.
Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius Felix Augustus, son of the late Magnus Antoninus Pius, grandson of the late Severus Pius, pontifex maximus, with the tribunicia potestas for the second time, consul for the second time, designated consul for the third time, proconsul, altogether the most fortunate, unvanquished, and indulging above all earlier emperors, had the road that was destroyed by rain and as a result of its age, together with its bridges, restored.
A welcome opportunity to repair what was in dire need of repair anyway – with the added benefit of having a natural force as a patient culprit?
What Caracalla and Elagabalus understood was that, in addition to carrying out the actual work, any government must aim to make it clear to its subjects that it will put the essential interests of the populace first.
In that respect, the inscriptions do not only look backwards in their commemoration of building works carried out in the public interest: they also have a forward-looking role, as they can be read as the state’s continuous guarantee of safety and public order: they are a political advertising tool par excellence.
The modern day counterpart to these inscriptions are the images of politicians ‘in wellies and staring at floods‘ (as it has humorously been dubbed): they do not (only) come to offer support and relief to those affected by the extent of the natural forces that currently batter Britain: they are token gestures for photo ops that may have the potential to say more than actual words and actual deeds appear to achieve (or so some may think).
The problem, very much like with the Roman inscriptions, is, of course, that the political manoeuvres behind them remain rather conspicuous – especially when pointing out at the same time that the current postholder (like Elagabalus) is ready to be more indulgent than anyone else ever before him.