We use cookies to give you the best experience possible. By continuing we’ll assume you’re on board with our cookie policy

The Poor in the City of Rome

The whole doc is available only for registered users

A limited time offer! Get a custom sample essay written according to your requirements urgent 3h delivery guaranteed

Order Now

1. The politics of Roman poverty

Almsgiving, though it cannot be stopped at present, as without it we should have hunger riots, and possibly revolution, is an evil. At present we give the unemployed a dole to support them, not for love of them, but because if we left them to starve they would begin by breaking our windows and end by looting our shops and burning our houses. In ancient Rome the unemployed demanded not only bread to feed them but gladiatorial shows to keep them amused; and the result was that Rome became crowded with playboys who would not work at all, and were fed and amused with money taken from the provinces. That was the beginning of the end for ancient Rome. We may come to bread and football (or prizefights) yet.

George Bernard Shaw, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism (1928)

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, writers on political economy frequently turned to examples from classical history, and above all from the history of Rome, to illustrate and support their arguments. Rome was better documented than any other past society, and the broad outlines of its history were familiar to educated people; more importantly, it was felt to be sufficiently similar to the present — a complex, ‘civilised’ society, and the ancestor of European civilisation — to make comparisons meaningful and productive. David Hume, for example, put forward Roman evidence to support his views on the inherent idleness of the poor and the pernicious effects of any attempt at poor relief:

The sportulae, so much talked of by Martial and Juvenal, being presents regularly made by the great lords to their smaller clients, must have had a like tendency to produce idleness, debauchery, and a continual decay among the people. The parish-rates have at present the same bad consequences in England. Adam Smith offered a rather different analysis of Roman society, with rather different implications, when discussing the tendency of states to respond to financial problems — which they had for the most part created themselves through unwise expenditure or poor government — by devaluing their coinage:

In Rome, as in all the other ancient republics, the poor people were constantly in debt to the rich and the great, who in order to secure their votes at the annual elections, used to lend them money at exorbitant interest, which, being never paid, soon accumulated into a sum too great either for the debtor to pay, or for anybody else to pay for him. The debtor, for fear of a very severe execution, was obliged, without any further gratuity, to vote for the candidate whom the creditor recommended. In spite of all the laws against bribery and corruption, the bounty of the candidates, together with the occasional distributions of corn which were ordered by the senate, were the principal funds from which, during the latter times of the Roman republic, the poorer citizens derived their subsistence. To deliver themselves from this subjection to their creditors, the poorer citizens were continually calling out either for an entire abolition of debts, or for what they called New Tables; that is, for a law which should entitle them to a complete acquittance upon paying only a certain proportion of what their accumulated debts . . . In order to satisfy the people, the rich and the great were, upon several different occasions, obliged to consent to laws both for abolishing debts, and for introducing New Tables.

There is an implicit contrast here with Smith’s discussion of modern poverty. He presented poverty as something that might be alleviated or even abolished through economic growth and limited political action, rather than as a natural, inescapable fact of life.

Where Hume had advocated restricting wages to compel the poor to industry, Smith emphasised the role of higher wages as an incentive. For Smith, provided that the state is concerned with the well-being of all and not simply that of the wealthy, and thus that there will be ‘peace, easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice’, the natural inclination of the poor labourer to improve his situation will result in the enrichment of both the individual and society as a whole. Rome, in contrast, exemplified a state that was managed for the benefit of the rich; the result was that the poor were maintained in idleness and thus remained poor, the political process was corrupted, and yet the wealthy remained susceptible to popular pressure and always fearful of demands for the complete redistribution of property.

This new perspective was soon overtaken by events, as the French Revolution put the question of how societies should respond to the grievances of the poor at the centre of political debate. Radicals like Thomas Paine urged the introduction of social measures like subsidised education and grants for those in temporary need, in order that ‘the poor, as well as the rich, will then be interested in the support of government, and the cause and apprehension of riots and tumults will cease’.

For conservatives like Edmund Burke, on the other hand, such proposals — which threatened the institutions of monarchy, religion and above all private property — were precisely the danger. Burke constantly evoked the fall of the Roman Republic and the decadence of the Roman Empire in his account of the French Revolution, quoting liberally from Sallust, Cicero, Virgil, Horace and Juvenal. Among the French revolutionaries ‘are found persons, in comparison of whom Catiline would be thought scrupulous’; the army was to be seduced from its discipline and fidelity through ‘donatives’, Burke suggested, while the citizens of the capital were to be fed at the expense of their fellow-subjects.

In particular, he reiterated the dangers of giving in to calls for a redistribution of property, noting that the Romans had in the end confined themselves to confiscating the property of ‘enemies of the state’, rather than attacking all property rights in the name of the ‘rights of Man’. The comparison with Rome both emphasised the inevitable consequences of the French experiment, and highlighted the novelty of the radicals in developing an intellectual justification — the rights of Man — for acceding to the demands of the mob and taking advantage of their grievances to overthrow the established order.

Burke followed the conservative tradition of previous centuries in taking the existence of the poor entirely for granted and assuming that any attempt at providing relief, even in times of famine, would simply encourage their inherent laziness. Thomas Malthus provided a more elaboration justification of this view, arguing that population growth would always outstrip any increase in agricultural productivity and so there could be no hope in the long term that the majority could be anything other than poor.

Whereas for Smith the past might be used as a contrast, an example of what the modern world might now hope to escape, for Malthus it revealed the inescapable workings of nature, the ahistorical forces that would inevitably frustrate human endeavour; in later editions of his work he greatly expanded the historical sections to reinforce his point. The principle of population was revealed even in the case of the Roman republic, cited against him by opponents who pointed to the concern of contemporaries about a lack of manpower:

When the equality of property, which had formerly prevailed in the Roman territory, had been destroyed by degrees, and the land had fallen into the hands of a few great proprietors, the citizens, who were by this change successively deprived of the means of supporting themselves, would naturally have no recourse to prevent them from starving, but that of selling their labour to the rich, as in modern states; but from this resource they were completely cut off by the prodigious number of slaves, which, increasing by constant influx with the increasing luxury of Rome, filled up every employment both in agriculture and manufactures. Under such circumstances, so far from being astonished that the number of free citizens should decrease, the wonder seems to be that any should exist besides the proprietors. And in fact many could not have existed but for a strange and preposterous custom, which, however, the strange and unnatural state of the city might perhaps require, that of distributing vast quantities of corn to the poorer citizens gratuitously.

If half the slaves had been sent out of the country, the effect would have been ‘to increase the number of Roman citizens with more certainty and rapidity than ten thousand laws for the encouragement of children’. Poverty for Malthus is thus unavoidable except in the short term, whether it results from slavery, from economic stagnation or from overpopulation. There is then always a danger that the poor might be persuaded by ‘any dissatisfied man of talents’ that their distress is actually the fault of the established order, and so induced to revolt against it — another analysis of the French Revolution that owed a great deal to Cicero and Sallust. Malthus’ solution was to urge moral restraint and the deferment of marriage, and to accept that the monarchy might sometimes be justified in restricting liberty and employing force.

The question of whether the grievances of the poor could be addressed without resort to now-discredited revolutionary measures, or whether those grievances would inevitably lead to the destruction of society, was equally an issue for more liberal thinkers in the tradition of Smith, such as Jean-Baptiste Say in France. Say offered a similar analysis of the indebtedness of the Roman poor, seen in part as a result of their unwillingness to take on ‘slavish’ employment; ‘hence the unrest and turbulence of the non-proprietors’, constantly demanding an equal distribution of property, which impelled the leaders of Rome to embark on military action abroad in order to distract the masses from their grievances and bribe them with booty:

What a poor figure these masters of the world cut, when they were not in the army or in revolt. They fell into poverty the moment they had no one more to pillage. It was from such people that the clientelage of a Marius, a Sulla, a Pompey, a Caesar, an Anthony or an Augustus were formed. More explicitly than in Smith’s account, this description of Rome was offered as a contrast to the contemporary situation. Say’s optimistic view was that modern economic and social development had made war uneconomical and clientelage obsolete; poverty should be a thing of the past, and the poverty that brought about the fall of governments and the establishment of tyranny should now be confined to the Roman past.

Writers in this period drew very different conclusions from historical material, both regarding whether (and, if so, how) poverty could be relieved or abolished, and more generally about the way that society should be organised and managed, but they shared a common idea of Rome. Roman history provided the archetypal image of the mob, the group of poor whose grievances left them alienated from the rest of society and who were thus susceptible to rabble-rousing and manipulation; it presented the poor as a potential threat to social stability, whose acquiescence had to be bought by indulging their idleness at the expense of the empire’s subjects. This account echoes faithfully a number of familiar Roman sources, from Sallust and Cicero on the followers of Catiline to Juvenal’s much-quoted dismissal of the Roman plebs as concerned only with bread and circuses. However, the material is reinterpreted in the light of a new understanding of economic and social structures; whereas for Cicero (and indeed for Burke) poverty was accepted as part of the order of things and, in individual cases, seen as a moral defect, Smith and Malthus developed explanations of why some people happen to be poor. They sought to understand Roman society in these terms, considering the interrelations between poverty, slavery, political structures and imperialism, and as a result attributed a greater share of the blame for social disorder to Rome’s leaders, for the way that they had responded to the problem.

Their accounts suggest different ways of thinking about the place of the poor in the city of Rome, but there are two obvious problems. The first is that of the evidence: Burke, Malthus and the like deploy historical material to support their political arguments about poverty, but their sources for this are already politicised, presented in the context of a set of ideological assumptions. When Cicero describes Roman society in terms of a distinction between assidui and proletarii (Rep. II.40) or between the populus and the plebs (Mur. 1), or identifies those who work in shops and taverns as likely adherents of Catiline, as opposed to the respectable plebs (Cat. IV.17), these are not neutral accounts of social reality. In part, they reflect an elite world-view that sometimes uses the vocabulary of poverty indiscriminately of the entire non-elite population — a poor man, from this perspective, is anyone who lacks the leisure, and hence the virtue, of the rich — and sometimes seeks to distinguish, as Tacitus puts it, between those sections of the population who were ‘virtuous and associated with the great houses’ and the ‘dirty plebs, accustomed to the circus and theatres’ (Hist. 1.4).

In part, they are deliberate attempts at constructing and promoting such an image of society for particular purposes. Long ago, the people cast off its worries, when we stopped selling our votes. A body that used to confer commands, legions, rods and everything else, has now narrowed its scope, and is eager and anxious for two things only: bread and circuses. (Juvenal 10: 77-80) The tradition of taking Juvenal’s account at face value, either quoting it as a simple description of Roman life (as nineteenth-century commentators tended to do) or explaining how the plebs could not in fact have survived on the corn dole alone, neglects his ironic intent.

He does not pretend to present a description of urban reality, but rather deploys this picture of the idle mob as a symbol of the political failure of the Republic — the good old days when we used to sell our votes — and the decadence of the Principate. Likewise, Satire 3 uses the topos of the poor man’s life in Rome to construct an image of the city as a place of extreme contrasts between luxury and poverty, opulence and destitution, pleasure and death. There are echoes here of the dramatic qualities of nineteenth-century depictions of London: ‘the most miserable is the most memorable’.

More sinisterly, it can be argued that the stereotypes of the poor as idle and worthless legitimised the wealthy in the enjoyment of their wealth, and reinforced the social structure that kept the masses in their place. Certainly those who attended contiones were encouraged to identify themselves with the loyal, respectable populus which upheld the authority of the magistrates and supported the maintenance of the social hierarchy, and to oppose the sordida plebs. Within political discourse, poverty was pathologised, presented as inextricably entwined with envy and sedition:

In general the whole plebs approved of Catiline’s undertaking, from an inclination for new things. In this it seemed to act according to its custom. For always in a state those who have no resources envy the propertied, admire evil men, hate established things and long for new ones, and from discontent with their own position they desire everything to be changed. (Sall. Cat. 37)

Catiline, Clodius and the like are to be discredited by the base motives of their followers, as they can win over only those people too poor to uphold their own principles (compare Cicero, Dom. 89), while any legitimate grievances of the poor are tainted through their association with Catiline and other revolutionaries. Reference to the Roman poor was intended to arouse fear of violent upheaval and attacks on private property, in order to justify a course of action, sway a jury or win support for one side in a debate. It is easy to see how such texts would serve the purposes of conservatives like Burke; it is not clear that they can tell us much about the actual Roman poor.

Indeed, there is a second and more basic problem in this study, that of identifying its subject. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century political economists unselfconsciously treated ‘the poor’ of Rome as identical with the plebs or the populus, and vice versa, despite the fact that within their own societies the poor were clearly only a subset of the population at large. They were happy to accept, following Juvenal, that the mass of the Roman population was effectively destitute and dependent on the corn dole, and to consider a group defined in political terms as coterminous with one defined by economic or social criteria. Neither of these assumptions now seems tenable; to consider how far ‘the poor’ were in fact a significant social group within Roman society, it is necessary to try to develop a more precise definition of their identity, based on economic or social criteria.

2. Were there any poor in the city of Rome?

‘Poverty’ is a problematic, and almost invariably politicised, term, referring to a state that is easier to describe than define. There is no agreement on how ‘the poor’ as a social group should be identified; the choice of a particular set of criteria can always be criticised for its ideological assumptions and implications. Commentators differ as to whether poverty should be defined in absolute or relative terms, and whether it is primarily an objective or a subjective state. As Himmelfarb’s classic study of the idea of poverty has shown, different systems of classification produce radically different perspectives: ‘the “natural”, unproblematic poverty of one age becomes the urgent social problem of another’.

It could be argued, for example, that there were no poor in Rome, or anywhere else in the empire, if one follows modern practice in taking the term to refer to a social group whose lack of resources and/or way of life is regarded as a problem for ‘society’ as a whole, an unacceptable state of affairs.

Conversely, one might argue that everyone or virtually everyone in antiquity was poor, in material terms, in comparison with the modern era. ‘Mass structural poverty’, it is suggested, has been the natural state of humanity for most of history, an inevitable feature of life in a society that was wholly dependent on ‘organic’ sources of energy — above all, human or animal muscle, which had to be supported from the land and therefore placed strict limits on how far productivity could be increased.

Many of the attributes which are today often taken as indicative of the condition of poverty — high levels of infant mortality, low levels of literacy, a diet close to subsistence level — were indeed common to the vast majority of inhabitants of the classical world.

This global comparison highlights one of the essential differences between ancient and modern economies, but it is of limited use in understanding the place of poverty within any particular pre-industrial society — and one might also be wary of the implication that poverty has now been abolished, at least in the industrialised West.

In order to study the position of the poor within a particular society, two distinctions need to be made. The first is between structural and conjunctural poverty; between those who are born poor and remain poor until they die, unless they are particularly skilled or fortunate, and those who fall into that state as a result of misfortune. In individual cases, this distinction is not necessarily clear; the poverty of widows and orphans in most pre-industrial societies might be described as the result both of an accident and of the structure of society that renders the position of such people, like that of the elderly, particularly precarious. Even in the modern west, some level of conjunctural poverty seems unavoidable; in a pre-industrial society where risk was endemic, its existence can be taken for granted. The important question must be whether there was an identifiable group within Roman society of those who were significantly less well-off than the majority over most of their lives, a group into which those who suffered accidents or misfortune might then also find themselves incorporated.

The second distinction is between poverty and destitution. Anyone might fall into the latter condition as a result of accident — it will be argued below that ‘the poor’ would be particularly vulnerable to this — but in the absence of any social provision it is not a long-term prospect. If poverty is equated with destitution, the lack of any significant income, then ‘the poor’ cannot be a significant social group but only a collection of individuals in temporary distress, most of whom would either quickly recover or perish. A blurring of this distinction seems to be the main basis for Purcell’s rejection of the idea that ‘there was in the late Republic a group of free-born Romans “largely too poor to erect even the simplest epitaphs”’.

‘Economic poverty at Rome was not a state that an individual is likely to have endured for long, let alone a family; it was, if at all extreme, usually rapidly fatal’; survival for any period of time, it is suggested, must have entailed betterment, and the possibility of emigrating from the city.

There is a question as to whether this scenario is demographically plausible, but it also leaves open the question of how one should label those whose poverty was not so extreme — precisely those who, if one distinguishes poverty from destitution, might be categorised as ‘the poor’. The issue raised by Purcell needs to be reformulated: did the majority of the inhabitants of the city of Rome (and indeed of the Empire) live so close to subsistence level that any deterioration in one’s condition could only mean destitution, not mere poverty?

Certainly elite sources often treat the rest of the population as an undifferentiated mass, and apply the vocabulary of poverty indiscriminately. The distinctions that they sometimes draw between different groups within the plebs are vague and contradictory; this is unsurprising, given that they speak of an image rather than a social reality and that on any particular occasion ‘the poor’ were those who were absent, the threat against which those present (the true populus) should unite. In other words, we could dismiss such finely-grained descriptions of Roman society as politically motivated. Modern historians have often implicitly adopted such an approach, emphasising that the plebs was not completely homogeneous but then analysing the politics of the Republic as if it was; often focusing on the activities and divisions of the political class, with ‘the people’ or ‘the crowd’ as a largely passive mass, relevant only when one of the elite seeks to make use of them.

Where divisions within the ‘mass’ are highlighted, these are often understood solely in terms of social status; the distinction between freeborn, slave and freedman is taken to overshadow other criteria of differentiation. In economic and social history, too, there is a tendency to pursue the idea of ‘ancient diet’ or ‘the Roman family’ — noting, of course, that elite sources cannot be taken as representative of the entire population — rather than acknowledging the possibility of variation outside the elite as well. The argument can be developed that, in diet at least, there were no significant differences in terms of quality or quantity across the mass of the population, but it is as misleading simply to assume homogeneity as it would be to take Juvenal’s account as representative of the life of the average Roman citizen.

In many cases this approach is understandable; there is scarcely sufficient evidence to answer any of our questions about ancient nutritional status, and the temptation must be to make use of everything available. However, it can make a considerable difference to our intepretation of these limited sources if we assume the existence of economic differentiation, even if we admit that we cannot say much about it, or if we assume its absence.

For example, discussions of rural development in Roman Italy, and the classification systems used for archaeological material, often operate with a crude distinction between ‘peasant farms’ and ‘villas’ — that is, once again, between the elite and an undifferentiated mass. It is widely recognised that elite sites are more likely to be found by archaeological survey, and that the tendency to rely on fine wares rather than ordinary pottery for dating creates a further bias against the sites that are poorest in material terms. It is less often noted how far the interpretation of the poorest sites rests on prior assumptions about social structure; since the status of a site’s occupants is archaeologically invisible, small poor sites can be interpreted as slave dwellings, shepherds’ huts or sheds. If one assumes the existence of a hierarchy amongst the non-elite farmers, then they could be interpreted as the homes of the poorer peasants.

In the city of Rome, the problem is that of the interpretation of silence. The vast majority of inscriptions from the city commemorate freedmen and slaves; the free-born (including the offspring of freedmen) are conspicuously absent. Purcell takes this as grounds for rejecting the idea (influenced by Juvenal’s complaints) that the city included a sizeable group of the poor descendents of pure-blood Romans. He argues instead, supported by some inscriptions from other parts of Italy, that free-born urbanites tended to die and be commemorated outside the city, while the majority of the population were new migrants or freedmen who failed to reproduce themselves.

In other words, the absence of evidence for a free-born population is indeed evidence of absence; epigraphy offers more than just a record of a particular habit of social display that only some inhabitants, predominantly freedmen, wished or could afford to indulge. This seems implausible; what of the free-born who died unexpectedly and had to be commemorated on the spot, before they could retire to the country? Such a picture would call for a drastic revision of arguments about the level of migration required to support Rome’s population, which assume that there was a significant number of births annually (if never enough to compensate for high mortality levels), and about the level of slave imports.

Further, this argument assumes that those who could not afford a tombstone must have been destitute and hence unlikely to survive long in the city, and seems drastically to underestimate the degree to which large cities can support large populations with no obvious regular employment. As comparative evidence from early modern and modern cities shows, it is generally possible to survive, if not to live well, living from hand to mouth, through casual labour, prostitution, crime and begging.

That is not to say that we should believe in a core of old plebeian families, surviving from the early Republic — that seems equally implausible from a demographic perspective — but rather in a social group whose membership was constantly changing as some families managed to improve their position and others failed altogether, some indeed moved out into Italy and others arrived as migrants.

Rather than assume their non-existence, we might define the poor precisely as those who, in unknown numbers, failed to leave any significant mark in the historical record. The historian’s task, then, is to identify the empty spaces, the gaps and cracks in society, in which those noticeably worse off even than the average Roman must have existed. There are two strands to such a project. The first, developed in detail by Walter Scheidel below, is to try to establish the extent of economic differentiation within the Roman Empire. Given the state of the evidence, this approach at once becomes a matter of choice between different models of the overall performance of the Roman economy. If the vast majority of the population lived at or close to subsistence level then no one could have survived long-term on an income significantly below the median; ‘poverty’ must describe either destitution as a temporary condition, or a subjective state of mind based on marginal inferiority. The former case, as noted above, implies that there was no significant social group of ‘the poor’; the latter, in the absence of suitable evidence, would mean that ‘the poor’ remained out of reach of historical research.

If, on the other hand, we assume that the Empire’s economy was more developed, and that on average each individual produced significantly more than was required for subsistence, then a more complex economic hierarchy than a simple rich-poor division can be envisaged. The wealthy elite would retain the lion’s share of resources, but there would be capacity within the system for the existence of a range of groups of different levels of wealth — local aristocrats, merchants and well-to-do farmers — and for a significant number of ordinary inhabitants of the empire to be well-fed, reasonably prosperous and fairly secure (similar to the way that Dominic Rathbone has characterised the Egyptians at this time as ‘sleek’).

Such a social structure could then include people living closer to the margin of subsistence than the average and so clearly ‘poor’ relative to the majority of Romans, without being destitute. In Scheidel’s analysis, it is precisely the evidence for the wide range of census classes at Rome, implying a broader distribution of wealth across society than is conventionally assumed, that supports the notion of the existence of ‘middling’ classes and hence, by implication, of ‘the poor’ — the latter constituting perhaps half of the population.

The second aspect of the project is to attempt to characterise the condition of poverty in social and cultural terms. Whatever statement we may make about the diet or employment or health of the typical Roman, some people must always have done slightly worse; the poor were those who did so more or less consistently, even to the point where these deficiencies began to reinforce one another, as a poor diet affected one’s health and ability to work.

However, we can try to offer an account of the nature of poverty in Rome in more than purely negative terms by focusing on some of its particular characteristics and organising principles. This also offers an opportunity to consider how far being poor in the metropolis may have differed from the experience elsewhere in the empire.

(1) Vulnerability. To be poor was to be vulnerable, above all to food shortage. Of course, given the capricious Mediterranean climate, not to mention the frequency of war and the consequences of general political instability, virtually everyone in antiquity was vulnerable to periodic food crises.

However, this ubiquitous risk had the greatest impact on those who were closest to the margin of subsistence, whether because they had access to insufficient land or could count on only poorly-paid and irregular employment. In the countryside, poor peasants could employ a variety of strategies to reduce their exposure to risk, and could if necessary turn to famine foods or migrate to towns in search of employment.

Urban dwellers were almost wholly dependent on the market, and so their access to sufficient and affordable food might be disrupted by rumours as much as by actual harvest failure. Their sole hope was then to put pressure on the elite or on the state to intervene in the market, by regulating its activities or bringing in emergency supplies; in times of real crisis, affecting a significant proportion of the populace, this might be effective, but smaller price rises might affect the ability of the poorest to afford sufficient food without creating sufficiently widespread unrest to force action. Under the Principate, the use of state grain to provide a regular dole must have helped to stabilise the market, but not everyone had access to it — and recent immigrants, already vulnerable, were least likely to get on the lists. Other accidents — the loss of property in a fire, for example — must have had a disproportionate impact on those with the fewest resources, and we might also note modern statistics, confirmed by evidence from Roman Egypt, suggesting that the poor are by far the most likely to become victims of crime as well as its perpetrators.

Everyone in the city was at risk from infectious disease (more so than in the country), but their poor nutritional status and crowded living conditions meant that the poorest were once again the most susceptible.

(2) Exclusion. A certain level of wealth, and the leisure that this permits, is necessary in almost all societies in order to play a full social role; the poor, then, are denied the opportunity to participate fully (and, conversely, those who are excluded for other reasons may be considered, in a sense, as being among the poor).

Under the Republic, this process of exclusion was manifest in the stratification of the citizen body by wealth, both formally and, as Roman citizens came to be distributed over a wider geographical area, in terms of the costs involved in attending the assemblies. Political influence and the weight of one’s vote were determined by wealth; so too the opportunity to play a role in the defence of the state. In terms of the dominant ideology, at least, the poor were therefore incapable of developing their full potential as human beings. A further barrier stood between citizen and non-citizen, and it is clear that the wealthy Italian or provincial stood a far better chance of obtaining citizenship than the poor immigrant, who might indeed be in a less favourable position than some slaves.

Under the Principate, most of the population was excluded from politics, but citizenship continued to offer privileged access to largesse and legal protection — though it was formally noted that the poor man was always suspect as a witness (Dig 22.5.3).

Roman social interaction involved far more than politics, but many of the most important arenas of social activity — dinners, collegia, private bathhouses and gymnasia — required some measure of surplus wealth to gain access. The privileged amongst the plebs might be able to enter into a reciprocal patron-client relationship with a wealthier individual, offering an entry into the social world as well as access to more material resources, but, precisely because the client was expected to have something to offer his patron in return, these relationships excluded the poorest.

Their main hope lay in the emperor’s generosity, which offered occasional access to resources (at least for citizens) and entertainment but no social interaction or recognition; their expected role was simply as a member of the grateful crowd in the arena.

Purcell offers the optimistic view that even the poorer plebs would have been integrated into Roman society through their involvement in the social exchanges of the insula, something which remains entirely invisible to us; it seems equally possible that urban society, especially in the great metropolis and especially for recent immigrants, was characterised by the alienation, anonymity and purely instrumental relationships that were believed to constitute city life in the mid-twentieth century.

High levels of urban mortality imply that not even family life would necessarily have offered a stable, dependable social framework for the most vulnerable. The countryside may have offered a more reliable and inclusive network of relationships with kin, neighbours and friends, even for the poorest.

(3) Shame. ‘Poverty is not basically an economic problem. Rather, it is a particular state of social, political, psychological and existential being that defines the human condition at a given point in history’.

Certainly this is the perspective offered by Juvenal: ‘there is nothing in the calamity of poverty that is harder to bear than the fact that it makes men ridiculous’ (3.153-4).

Of course, Juvenal’s character speaks of the ‘ambitious poverty’, ambitiosa paupertas (3.183; cf. 9.140-1) of those who still aspired to move in polite society; it would be both misleading and insulting to the truly destitute to assume that his highly literary account gives an accurate picture of the lives of the Roman poor. Conceivably, however, it does offer an insight into the psychology of poverty in Rome, into attitudes that were not necessarily restricted to the elite. Whether a man felt himself to be poor because of a lack of slaves, because of his clothing and shoes (Juvenal 3.147-51), because he was compelled to work his farm himself or had insufficient money for a proper dowry (Valerius Maximus, De Paupertate 4.4), because he had to sell his labour to another (a common elite attitude: Cic. Off. 1.151; Sen. Ep. 88.21) or because he was genuinely destitute and desperate, the sense of shame, and envy against those who enjoyed better (and undeserved) fortune, may have been the same. To be poor was to be incapable of any virtue besides that of enduring poverty (Sen. de Beat. Vit. 22); it left one all too close to slavery, whether in occupation or appearance (cf. Sen. Clem. 1.23.2-24.1, Dig. 18.1.4-5). That is not to say that the masses shared the elite view on the demeaning nature of manual labour and trade, since they advertised their professions on their tombstones — but they did so in part precisely to emphasise that they were not entirely poor, not inferior to their fellow-citizens, with no reason to feel ashamed.

Ancient attitudes to poverty were often ambiguous or contradictory, as seen most clearly in the arguments of Penia in Aristophanes’ Plutus. In Roman culture, these ambiguities were located in space: one kind of poverty, the specifically rural poverty of the peasant yeoman, was idealised and the virtues associated with working a 4-iugera farm like Cincinnatus were assimilated to the landowning class, while urban poverty was pathologised, associated with rebellion, crime and disease.

Vulnerability, exclusion, shame. Not everyone was poor by every one of these criteria; the excluded and the shamed overlapped, but were not co-extensive, with the vulnerable. However, poverty in one respect might well lead to another, as shame contributed to social exclusion and social exclusion reinforced vulnerability, since the outcast could not rely on networks of reciprocity or patronage in times of crisis.

3. Towards a history of the Roman poor

Poverty is not an independent variable; it is the consequence of the combination of a particular level of economic development, a particular size of population relative to available resources and the particular social and economic structures that determined the distribution of wealth within society. Changes in any of these variables will affect the incidence and severity of poverty. Smith and his successors argued that increasing affluence would in due course alleviate poverty; Malthus retorted that this would not be the case unless population growth could somehow be checked; Paine and later Marx pointed to the need to transform the instutitions of society in order to obtain a more equitable distribution of wealth. Modern explanations for the persistence of poverty even after the industrial revolution follow similarly diverging lines, considering poverty as an unfortunate but temporary by-product of processes of economic change that will in due course increase aggregate wealth and benefit everyone, or as an essential but disavowed element of the capitalist system, ensuring its perpetuation through the existence of ‘a mass of human material always ready for exploitation’.

It is a truism that the political, economic, social and legal structures of the Roman Empire favoured the dominance of the wealthy elite; equally, that the Roman economy was predominantly agrarian, underdeveloped and severely limited in its capacity for growth.

It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that structural as well as conjunctural poverty should have existed; the questions that need to be considered in order to begin writing its history concern incidence, severity and location, and changes in each of these areas. For example, in Italy in the last two centuries of the Republic there is evidence that overall wealth may have increased, as some new land was brought into cultivation, new agricultural techniques were developed, and resources flowed in from other areas of the Mediterranean; it proved possible, if nothing else, to relieve citizens of the burden of the land tax.

At the same time, there is evidence, both literary and archaeological, for the development of a more inequitable distribution of wealth, as property became concentrated in fewer hands. The crucial variable in considering the likely impact of these changes is population size. If, as is conventionally argued, the free population stabilised or even declined at the same time as resources increased, then we might imagine a situation where the countryside became more prosperous (or less poor) while poverty was concentrated in the cities, especially the city of Rome; the capital’s demand for fresh bodies relieved Italy of a surplus population that might otherwise have put a strain on resources and reduced living standards. If, on the other hand, the Italian population grew to the level implied by the ‘high’ interpretation of the Augustan census figures, it implies widespread impoverishment in the countryside as well as the city; such a population was, arguably, sustainable, but only if the majority lived at subsistence level.

Other factors need to be included in such a reconstruction; above all, the effects of military service both on demographic structures and on productivity. As Rosenstein has argued, the army predominantly drew on young unmarried men at a stage in the life-cycle of the average family where their labour could be spared. Rome’s military enterprise did not directly lead to the impoverishment of peasant farms, therefore, but the lack of surplus labour might have prevented them from taking advantage of opportunities for expansion and improvement.

Partible inheritance would then leave many farms in the next generation too small to be fully viable, increasing poverty and creating conditions that might incline people to migrate to the cities. The growth of the metropolis especially, fuelled by the wealth of empire, attracted migrants with the promise of employment; individually they might have been better off staying put, but such decisions are based on hopes and expectations rather than rational calculations and full information.

The removal of this ‘surplus’ population left those remaining behind with greater opportunities for access to land, and thus the opportunity to improve their situation. However, the apparent stability of the system in the long term should not disguise the likelihood of serious problems, including widespread impoverishment, during periods of, so to speak, adjustment; Rosenstein interprets the problems of the late second century, misinterpreted completely by Tiberius Gracchus, as the result of a population boom and consequent pressure on resources and competition for land in many areas of Italy. Within the city of Rome, urbanisation and poverty went hand in hand; Rome’s problems, as Purcell puts it, were the problems of success, and increased in parallel with the city’s growth.

The number of poor certainly increased over the last two centuries B.C.; the proportion of the urban population which could be classified as poor may also have increased, as the city became ever more dominated by immigrants. As argued above, urban poverty is in general likely to be more severe than rural poverty; the city poor had no direct access to the means of subsistence, no source of food other than the market, theft or charity. The burden fell particularly heavily on recent arrivals: the decision to migrate had separated them from traditional social structures like kinship and patronage, whereas longer-established residents might have succeeded in building up alternative social networks. It is conceivable, though unprovable, that the shame of poverty might be aggravated by being cut off from the traditions of rural life, idealised within Roman culture; it would take time for the migrant to become acclimatised to alternative sets of values, advertised on tombstones, that celebrated industriousness and skill — and it is impossible to deny, given the nature of the epigraphic evidence, that these attitudes may have been largely confined to freedmen.

The severity of Roman poverty was aggravated by two factors directly related to the size of the metropolis. In the first place, the concentration of such a large population in a limited area made feeding them a more expensive and difficult undertaking. Although Rome had the great advantage of being a lucrative and reliable market for goods, and so could generally count on attracting merchants, grain had to be transported over longer distances, and the sheer volume of goods created logistical problems in the immediate vicinity of the city, such as along the Tiber; both of these would add to the price and increase the city’s vulnerability to disruptions in supply.

Secondly, the size of the city made traditional face-to-face social interaction virtually impossible outside the elite and a small number of their dependents, especially as the rich became ever richer and more removed from the mass of the population.

The problem was not simply that immigrants were cut off from their old social networks, but that the traditional networks of patronage within the city were ceasing to operate effectively, as the ties of dependence and civic patriotism were replaced with relationships based on the cash nexus.

Exclusion, and social alienation, were magnified within the context of the metropolis. We might seek to locate the most serious incidence of poverty in the first century B.C., not only because of the prominence of ‘popular’ concerns — and concern about the dangers represented by the poor — in the political discourse of the time, but because in this period the Roman state was only just beginning to come to terms with the existence of a problem, and only just introducing measures to relieve the worst of the vulnerability of the urban population to food crisis. In considering how far pressure ‘from below’ may have influenced Roman politics and won concessions from the elite, Morstein-Marx tends to downplay the significance of improvements to the food supply as relating only to the most basic concern of existence.

It is certainly true that popular pressure yielded no significant political reform or ‘democratisation’, but the practical importance of the corn dole for a major part of the city population should not be underestimated, nor the ideological significance of the concession that all Roman citizens should have the right to demand a share of the spoils of empire. The problem, as was recognised by the political economists, was that the measures relieved the worst effects of poverty without doing anything to reduce the number of poor; indeed, they undoubtedly served as an inducement to prospective migrants, perpetuating the problem.

The only significant reform under the early Principate was the creation, through Augustus’ reduction of the number of recipients of the corn dole, of a further social divide within the plebs, between the entitled and the excluded — who might, however, stil hope to gain access to the lists of the annona in time. Perhaps because other reforms to the organisation of the food supply, and the advent of peace across the Empire, proved effective in reducing the vulnerability of the city as a whole, this reform does not seem to have created any signifiant new social problems; it simply confirmed all Romans as either actual or prospective beneficiaries of the emperor’s generosity, rather than as active citizens.

As in previous centuries, there was no specific concern expressed for the needs of the poor, as opposed to those of the people; late Republican political discourse appears to have successfully pathologised poverty, and persuaded the audience at the contiones — some, if not many, of whom would probably be classified as poor according to the criteria developed here — to identify with the values of their rulers and to regard ‘the poor’ as a threat to their own well-being. It is a remarkably similar discourse to that found in nineteenth-century debates on charity and the Poor Laws — except that those writers were able to draw on the traditional account of the violent and rebellious Roman poor to reinforce their arguments.

Related Topics

We can write a custom essay

According to Your Specific Requirements

Order an essay
Materials Daily
100,000+ Subjects
2000+ Topics
Free Plagiarism
All Materials
are Cataloged Well

Sorry, but copying text is forbidden on this website. If you need this or any other sample, we can send it to you via email.

By clicking "SEND", you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy. We'll occasionally send you account related and promo emails.
Sorry, but only registered users have full access

How about getting this access

Your Answer Is Very Helpful For Us
Thank You A Lot!


Emma Taylor


Hi there!
Would you like to get such a paper?
How about getting a customized one?

Can't find What you were Looking for?

Get access to our huge, continuously updated knowledge base

The next update will be in:
14 : 59 : 59