Discussions of poverty in past societies almost always begin with the question of definition, and the problem of cross-cultural comparison. By most modern standards—in terms of education or health, for example, or the level of infant mortality—everyone in antiquity was poor, even compared with the present-day populations of India or sub-Saharan Africa, let alone the modern West. This is inevitable, given the limitations of premodern technology and hence of agricultural productivity; even the most optimistic views of ancient economic development would not deny that most people must have lived close to subsistence level.1 Considered in absolute terms, “mass structural poverty” has characterised all premodern societies, but that tells us little about the specific nature of ancient social structure, or about the significance of poverty in classical antiquity.
The focus of economic historians in recent decades has therefore been on “relative” poverty within the premodern era. One line of research considers the societal level, that is, the level of development of classical Mediterranean societies compared with others. Was it true, as the Spartan Demaratus claimed to the Persian king Xerxes (according to Herodotus 7.102.1), that poverty (penia) was always Greece’s foster sister, but kept at bay by virtue? A similar ideological claim, grounding political and moral superiority in a taken-for-granted condition of limited means, is offered by Thucydides (1.2.5) in his account of Attica’s freedom from political strife because of the poverty of its soil. This image of a poor but virtuous Greece compared with wealthier Eastern societies can be contrasted with the recent claims of Josiah Ober that classical Greece in fact experienced a remarkable level of economic development that needs to be explained through its particular social institutions.2 (See further on this economy, Greek; economy, Hellenistic; economy, Roman.)
The second main focus of research has been on poverty within classical societies: How far were there groups which were, permanently or temporarily, significantly poorer than the rest? Certainly Greek and Roman society was at all times made up of a tiny minority of wealthy individuals, mainly great landowners, and the mass of the population who, from the perspective of the former, were all “poor” or even “without means” (this is how Aristotle, for example, characterises the difference between oligarchy and democracy, in terms of which of these two groups holds power: Pol. 1279b–80a). However, the extent of this inequality, and its significance, varied over time; it is suggested that the level of inequality in classical Attica, for example, was relatively low by premodern standards,3 whereas other regions (especially in the high Roman period) showed much greater disparity between the wealthy classes and the masses, with the former accumulating vast estates and other sources of wealth.4 Modern studies show how those groups that control significant capital will always have an advantage in increasing their share of a society’s wealth, to the disadvantage of the rest, unless restrained in some way; it is scarcely surprising, then, that the Athenian democracy, which did indeed seek to limit the power of the wealthier classes over the poorer citizens, should provide the clearest evidence for a relatively egalitarian division of resources.5
The other key question is how far the non-rich majority was more or less homogeneous, and how far we can identify significant distinctions of wealth and power within it in the long term. “Conjunctural” poverty, the result of random misfortune such as a series of poor harvests, the death of a breadwinner (widows and orphans were always vulnerable and marginalised), or the effects of war, was a constant threat in a capricious environmental context and in societies prone to conflict. However, there is extensive debate about the existence of “structural” poverty, of groups that were permanently closer to subsistence and hence more vulnerable to external shocks than the average inhabitant of antiquity. The major difficulty is of course one of evidence; by definition, the poorest in society would leave far less trace in the material record—they are less likely to have erected inscriptions, they possessed fewer goods and lived in poorer, flimsier dwellings—while, as noted above, elite literary sources tend to treat the whole of the population beyond their own class in an undifferentiated manner as “poor” because they lack their own level of resources.6
The possibility of the existence of a class of paupers is bound up with the question of how much other groups in ancient society were able to enjoy, at least in normal years, a larger cushion above subsistence level. The speaker in a speech of Lysias (24.6) claims to be poor because he has no slave and so cannot enjoy any leisure from work; this certainly implies a distinction among the ordinary citizens between those who could exploit the labour of others and those wholly dependent on their own and their family’s labour (the same could be suggested for the ownership of draft animals), while raising the old question of how widespread slave ownership was among the peasantry. Evidence for improved living conditions, health, and nutritional status among some farmers in Roman Egypt and other areas of the empire, suggesting the existence of a “middling” class, implies also that others were not so fortunate, not merely due to bad luck but as a long-term condition.7
We can at least identify the conditions likely to contribute to such structural poverty. Access to land as the basic source of wealth and nourishment was clearly vital for inhabitants of the countryside; even the poorest tenant farmer could hope to provide food for his family except in the most disastrous years, and owner-occupiers could in an emergency seek to raise loans on the security of their property, while the landless were in a far more precarious position. Those closest to subsistence level were more vulnerable to the effects of poor harvests, and they faced the possibility of a vicious circle because their poor nutritional status left them less able to work hard and more susceptible to disease, and they were certainly unable to raise the capital to improve their situation. Whether it was better to be poor in the city or the countryside is an open question; the rural poor had the possibility of foraging for food, while the urban poor had greater possibilities for begging or crime.8
In either case, less wealth meant exclusion from society, or at least a limited ability to participate in its main activities and institutions (again, classical Athens is the great exception, with the introduction of payment to support attendance at the assembly and participation in the courts). The very poor had little to offer the wealthy and powerful beyond sheer numbers, to make up a supportive crowd; they therefore were largely excluded from the reciprocal relationships that dominated ancient society, and had at best only limited access to patronage or other support. Until the rise of Christianity and the establishment of its charitable institutions, most donations of food and other benefits by the wealthy were directed towards their fellow-citizens in general, not towards those most in need of them.9
Poverty also meant shame, according to the dominant cultural attitudes—albeit largely defined by the wealthy elite who were farthest removed from the reality.10 Hesiod emphasises the importance of having sufficient resources not to have to depend on anyone else for support, as “cursed poverty wastes a man’s courage” (Works and Days 638, 717); Theognis and other 6th-century poets presented penia as an ungovernable evil—“everywhere her status is inferior, everywhere she is scorned, and everywhere she is equally hated” (Theog. Frag. 1.267)—which deforms the body and mind of those afflicted by it. Poverty forces its victims into dependence on others, and it compels them to ceaseless labour rather than having the leisure for self-development. Poverty (which may not even mean destitution, ptocheia, but simply limited resources) may not be the consequence of a lack of virtue, but it certainly leads to it. The elite denunciation of Athenian democracy was founded on the idea that it gave power to those unsuited to wield it properly because of their lack of means and leisure, and the consequences of this for their characters; in contrast, the wealthy are kaloi kagathoi, beautiful and good, and so suited to rule. Lack of resources would have made it more difficult for poor Jews to fulfil their religion’s purity laws when it came to diet, or to afford the clothing that would mark them out as pious and bring them the associated honour.11
There are indications of a more positive interpretation of poverty even in the 5th century bce. In building its plot around curing the blindness of the god of wealth, Aristophanes’s Ploutos recognises that wealth was not distributed fairly according to virtue or merit, but apparently at random; and in the central agon scene, the figure of Penia offers arguments for recognising poverty as a source of virtue, fortitude, and courage, and as a positive influence on society. From this early date, especially within the Athenian democracy, wealth could be seen as a source of corruption and vice. The philosophy of Cynicism and its renunciation of material possessions for the sake of wisdom and virtue drew on these wider cultural ideals, emphasising the importance of frugality and self-control, and the paradoxical idea that poverty was wealth.12 Jewish sources see poverty as a calamity that could strike anyone and might bring one closer to god; however, but a focus within Rabbinic writings on those who fell from high status in this way could distract attention from real, permanent poverty.13
Roman authors likewise criticised wealth and its corrupting power, for example in Sallust’s account of Catiline and his followers; the figure of Cincinnatus, a figure who was poor at least relative to the aristocrats of the 1st century bce (but who did own his own farm), established a template of moderation and frugality. This does not amount to a wholehearted praise of actual poverty, as represented by the landless veterans and migrants to the city of Rome who were becoming an increasingly serious problem for the elite of the late Republic; it appears rather as an attempt at reining in the excesses of certain aristocrats which threatened to undermine the legitimacy of their class as a whole. Concern about the impoverishment of the Italian peasantry was driven entirely by fears about the possible consequences for military recruitment, just as the distribution of land to veterans and the creation of the grain dole were motivated not by charity but by fear of the political consequences if a rival should take advantage of popular discontent.14
Wealthy Romans did sometimes give to the poor as a virtuous act, but it was the rise of Christianity in late antiquity that institutionalised alms-giving, especially to the most vulnerable in society (including widows and orphans) as a duty for all believers. The age-old tradition of sacrifice was now explicitly directed towards the poor, who were now for the first time seen as a distinct social class.15 “Love of the poor” was now established as a public virtue, to be expected from emperors, bishops, and ordinary Christians. This went hand in hand with a view of wealth not as a sign of virtue but as a possible impediment to a proper relationship with God, a persistent theme in late antique preaching: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25).16 No one was guaranteed salvation, but the poor might indeed be closer to it because they lacked the burden of riches and the love of money.
This was an inspiration to some to sell their possessions and embrace poverty voluntarily as a means of imitating Jesus and coming closer to God (see asceticism). Displays of extreme personal asceticism and humility became a sign of holiness and hence a source of power and status—but so too did displays of ostentatious generosity to the poor, whether by individuals or by the church. The identification of “the poor” as a separate group within society inspired new interest in the nature, causes, and consequences of poverty, both material and spiritual. The expansion of legislation related to the poor can be seen in part as a response to increasing inequality within late antique society, but still more to the importance, both theological and rhetorical, within Christian discourse.17 Poverty was not going to be abolished in this world, but it had now become a central theme for society.
Allen, Pauline, Bronwen Neil, and Wendy Mayer. Preaching Poverty in Late Antiquity: Perceptions and Realities. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsansalt, 2009.Find this resource:
Atkins, Margaret, and Robin Osborne, eds. Poverty in the Roman World. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006.Find this resource:
Brown, Peter. Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2002.Find this resource:
Brown, Peter. Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 ad. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.Find this resource:
Corbo, Chiara. Paupertas: La legislazione tardoantica (IV–V Sec DC). Naples: Satura, 2006.Find this resource:
Desmond, William D. The Greek Praise of Poverty: Origins of Ancient Cynicism. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006.Find this resource:
Dossey, Leslie. Peasant and Empire in North Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.Find this resource:
Finn, Richard. Almsgiving in the Later Roman Empire: Christian Promotion and Practice (313–450). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.Find this resource:
Freu, Christel. Les figures du pauvre dans les sources italiennes de l’Antiquité tardive. Paris: de Boccard, 2007.Find this resource:
Garnsey, Peter. Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.Find this resource:
Hamel, Gildas. Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine, First Three Centuries ce. Near Eastern Studies 23. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.Find this resource:
Harris, W. V. “Poverty and Destitution in the Roman Empire.” In Rome’s Imperial Economy: Twelve Essays. Edited by W. V. Harris, 27–54. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:
Holman, Susan R. The Hungry Are Dying: Beggars and Bishops in Roman Cappadocia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.Find this resource:
Holman, Susan R., ed. Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008.Find this resource:
Jakobson, Alexander. “Popular Power in the Roman Republic.” In A Companion to the Roman Republic. Edited by Nathan Rosenstein and Robert Morstein-Marx, 383–400. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006.Find this resource:
Ober, Josiah. The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.Find this resource:
Parkin, Annaliese. “‘You do him no service’: An Exploration of Pagan Almsgiving.” In Poverty in the Roman World. Edited by Margaret Atkins and Robin Osborne, 60–82. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006.Find this resource:
Raaflaub, Kurt R., Josiah Ober, and Robert W. Wallace. Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.Find this resource:
Scheidel, Walter. “Stratification, Deprivation and Quality of Life.” In Poverty in the Roman World. Edited by Margaret Atkins and Robin Osborne, 40–59. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006.Find this resource:
Scheidel, Walter, and Steven J. Friesen. “The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire.” Journal of Roman Studies 99 (2009): 61–91.Find this resource:
Whittaker, C. R. “The Poor.” In The Romans. Edited by Andrea Giardina, 272–299. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993.Find this resource:
Wood, Ellen Meiksins. Peasant-Citizen and Slave: The Foundations of Athenian Democracy. London: Verso, 1988.Find this resource:
(1.) See Walter Scheidel, “Stratification, Deprivation and Quality of Life,” in Poverty in the Roman World, ed. Margaret Atkins and Robin Osborne (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 40–59; and Leslie Dossey, Peasant and Empire in North Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).
(2.) Josiah Ober, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).
(3.) Kurt R. Raaflaub, Josiah Ober, and Robert W. Wallace, Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
(4.) C. R. Whittaker, “The Poor,” in The Romans, ed. Andrea Giardina (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 272–299; and Walter Scheidel and Steven J. Friesen, “The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire,” Journal of Roman Studies 99 (2009): 61–91.
(5.) Ellen Meiksins Wood, Peasant-Citizen and Slave: The Foundations of Athenian Democracy (London: Verso, 1988).
(6.) Margaret Atkins and Robin Osborne, eds., Poverty in the Roman World (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006); and W. V. Harris, “Poverty and Destitution in the Roman Empire,” in Rome’s Imperial Economy: Twelve Essays, ed. W. V. Harris (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2011), 27–54.
(7.) Scheidel, “Stratification.”
(8.) Peter Garnsey, Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
(9.) Annaliese Parkin, “‘You do him no service’: An Exploration of Pagan Almsgiving,” in Poverty in the Roman World, ed. Margaret Atkins and Robin Osborne (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 60–82.
(10.) William D. Desmond, The Greek Praise of Poverty: Origins of Ancient Cynicism (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006).
(11.) Gildas Hamel, Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine, First Three Centuries CE (Near Eastern Studies 23; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).
(12.) Desmond, Greek Praise.
(13.) Hamel, Poverty and Charity.
(14.) Alexander Jakobson, “Popular Power in the Roman Republic,” in A Companion to the Roman Republic, ed. Nathan Rosenstein and Robert Morstein-Marx (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006), 383–400.
(15.) Peter Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2002); and Richard Finn, Almsgiving in the Later Roman Empire: Christian Promotion and Practice (313–450) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
(16.) Pauline Allen, Bronwen Neil, and Wendy Mayer, Preaching Poverty in Late Antiquity: Perceptions and Realities (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsansalt, 2009); and Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012).
(17.) Chiara Corbo, Paupertas: La legislazione tardoantica (IV–V Sec DC) (Naples: Satura, 2006); and Christel Freu, Les figures du pauvre dans les sources italiennes de l’Antiquité tardive (Paris: de Boccard, 2007).