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If poor individuals have always been with us, societies have not always
seen the poor as a distinct social group. But within the Roman world,
from at least the late Republic onwards, the poor were an important
force in social and political life and howto treat the poor was a topic of
philosophical as well as political discussion. This book explains what
poverty meant in antiquity, and why the poor came to be an important
group in the Roman world, and it explores the issues which poverty
and the poor raised for Roman society and for Roman writers. In
essays which range widely in space and time across the whole Roman
empire, the contributors address both the reality and the representa-
tion of poverty, and examine the impact which Christianity had upon
attitudes towards and treatment of the poor.
Margaret Atki ns is a Senior Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall,
Oxford. She was previously Senior Lecturer in Theology at Trinity
and All Saints College, Leeds. She has published with Cambridge
University Press translations of Ciceros De Ofciis, Augustines polit-
ical writings and Aquinas Disputed Questions on the Virtues.
Robi n Osborne is Professor of Ancient History at the University of
Cambridge and a Fellowof Kings College. His numerous publications
include Greece in the Making (1996), Archaic and Classical Greek Art
(1998), Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy (1999, edited
with Simon Goldhill) and Greek Historical Inscriptions from the End
of the Peloponnesian War to the Death of Alexander (2003, edited with
P. J. Rhodes).
edi ted by
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First published in print format
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Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York
eBook (EBL)
eBook (EBL)
for Peter Garnsey
List of contributors page
List of abbreviations
1 Introduction: Roman poverty in context 1
Robin Osborne
2 The poor in the city of Rome 21
Neville Morley
3 Stratication, deprivation and quality of life 40
Walter Scheidel
4 You do him no service: an exploration of pagan almsgiving 60
Anneliese Parkin
5 Writing poverty in Rome 83
Greg Woolf
6 Poverty and population in Roman Egypt 100
Dominic Rathbone
7 A pragmatic approach to poverty and riches: Ambrosiasters
quaestio 124 115
Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe
8 Portraying the poor: descriptions of poverty in Christian
texts from the late Roman empire. 130
Richard Finn, O.P.
9 Thowing parties for the poor: poverty and splendour in the
late antique church 145
Lucy Grig
viii Contents
10 Salvian, the ideal Christian community and the fate of the
poor in fth-century Gaul 162
Cam Grey
11 Poverty and Roman law 183
Caroline Humfress
Bibliography 204
Index 220
Margaret Atki ns has taught Classics and Theology in Cambridge
and Leeds and is currently a Senior Research Fellow of Blackfriars Hall,
Oxford. She is the editor, with R. J. Dodaro, of Augustine: Political
Writings (2001).
Ri chard Fi nn OP is a Dominicanfriar and Regent of Studies at Black-
friars Hall in the University of Oxford. He was a doctoral student of Peter
Garnsey and Averil Cameron. He is the author of Almsgiving in the Later
Roman Empire (2006).
Cam Grey is Assistant Professor of Roman History in the Department of
Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He has spent many
hours discussing the merits and weaknesses of the Australian cricket
team with Peter Garnsey. He also wrote a doctoral dissertation on rural
communities in late antiquity under Peters guidance.
Lucy Gri g is Lecturer in Classics at the University of Edinburgh and
was a PhD student of Peter Garnsey. Her published work includes a
monograph, Making Martyrs in Late Antiquity (2004), and articles on
subjects ranging from late antique gold glass to the representation of
female saints.
Caroli ne Humfress is a Lecturer in Late Antique History at Birk-
beck College, University of London and was both an undergraduate
and graduate student of Peter Garnsey. Her published work includes
Law and Legal Practice in the Age of Justinian, in Maas, M. (ed.)
Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian (2005) and The Evolution
of Late Antiquity (with Peter Garnsey, 2001).
Sophi e Lunn- Rockli ffe is Harris Fellow in History and College
Lecturer at Peterhouse, Cambridge. She was supervised for her MPhil
and PhD by Peter Garnsey.
x List of contributors
Nevi lle Morley is Reader in Ancient Economic History and Histor-
ical Theory at the University of Bristol. His PhD thesis on Rome and
Italy, published by Cambridge University Press in 1996 as Metropolis and
Hinterland, was supervised by Peter Garnsey. He has subsequently pub-
lished books on historical theory, and has just completed a work on trade
in classical antiquity.
Robi n Osborne is Professor of Ancient History at the University of
Cambridge and was an undergraduate pupil of Peter Garnsey. His books
include Classical Landscape with Figures: The Ancient Greek City and its
Countryside (1987), Greece in the Making c.1200479 b.c. (1996) and Greek
History (2004).
Anneli ese Parki n is a Senior Analyst at New Zealands Department
of Labour. She was a doctoral student of Peter Garnsey.
Domi ni c Rathbone was an undergraduate pupil of Peter Garnsey and
is now Professor of Ancient History at Kings College London. His pub-
lished work includes: Economic Rationalism and Rural Society in Third-
Century AD Egypt (1991); ed. with R. S. Bagnall, Egypt from Alexander to
the Copts: An Archaeological and Historical Guide (2004).
Walter Schei del is Professor of Classics at Stanford University. As a
research fellow at Cambridge, he edited a collection of Peter Garnseys
papers as Cities, Peasants and Food in Classical Antiquity (1998).
Greg Woolf is Professor of Ancient History at the University of St
Andrews. Peter Garnsey was one of the supervisors of his PhD thesis,
and despite that experience has continued to offer advice and criticism
whenever asked. Greg Woolf s rst publication was a collaborative piece
with Peter, appropriately enough dealing with the patronage of the poor.
Greg Woolf s other publications include Becoming Roman: The Origins
of Provincial Civilization in Gaul (1998).
The papers collected here were given at a conference in Cambridge in
2003 in honour of Professor Peter Garnsey. All those contributing are in
one sense or another pupils of Peter, and most of them had their doctoral
studies supervised by him, at least in part.
The conference was held not to mark any particular anniversary or event,
but to signal the enormous contribution that Peter Garnsey has made to our
understanding of the social and economic history of the Graeco-Roman
world, andtothe way inwhichwe doancient history. All Peters publications
have been directed at explaining the social dynamics of the Greek and
Roman worlds, and in particular explaining how social status is established
and marked, how it interacts with political power, and how the structures
of society impact back upon the life of the individual. Peter has repeatedly
insisted on the importance of understanding the basic questions of how
individuals and communities survive, what they eat and where they live.
He has directed attention at social groups neglected by our main literary
sources, and has shown how judicious reading of texts of all sorts against
the knowledge that we have of the constants of human physiological and
ecological realities can enable bright light to be thrown on even the most
intractable of problems. In this volume his pupils try to emulate his example
as they explore a facet of the Roman world peculiarly liable to neglect and
The conference was crucially shaped by Gillian Clark, Dominic
Rathbone and Greg Woolf. It was enabled by the generosity of the Faculty
of Classics, the Faculty of History, and Jesus College, Cambridge. For the
lively and productive conference discussions we are particularly indebted to
the skills of GillianClark, Christopher Kelly andRichardSaller as chairmen.
In turning the papers from the conference into a book we have been much
assisted by Gillian Clark, Emily Gowers, Jill Harries, John Henderson,
Brent Shaw and an anonymous reader for Cambridge University Press. We
xii Preface
regret that Pasquale Rosao was unable to contribute to the volume the
paper he delivered at the conference.
margaret atki ns and robi n osborne September 2005
CAH Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd edn. Cambridge.
CCL 149 Corpus Christianorum series Latina, vol. 149, ed. Charles
CJ Codex Justinianus, ed. Paul Kr uger, Corpus Iuris Civilis II
(Berlin, 1877).
CTh Codex Theodosianus, ed. Theodor Mommsen, 3 vols.
(Berlin, 1905). Translated by Clyde Pharr and others, The
Theodosian Code and Novels, and the Sirmondian
Constitutions (Princeton, 1952).
D. Digest of Justinian, trans. Alan Watson and others
(Pennsylvania, 1985).
En. in Ps. Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos,
vols. IL, ed. D. Dekkers and J. Fraipont, CCSL 38;
vols. LIC, ed. D. Dekkers and J. Fraipont, CCSL 39;
vols. CICL, ed. D. Dekkers and J. Fraipont, CCSL 40.
Turnhout, Brepols, 1956.
Frag. Vat. Fragmenta Quae Dicuntur Vaticana in Fontes Iuris Romani
Anteiustiniani, 2nd edn. S. Riccobono and others, vol. ii
(Florence, 1940): 464540.
Inst. Iust. Justinians Institutes, trans. Peter Birks and Grant McLeod
(London, 1987).
Nov. Iust. Novellae (Justiniani), ed. Rudolf Sch oll and Wilhelm
Kroll, Corpus Iuris Civilis III (Berlin, 1895).
Sent. Paul. Sententiae Receptae Paulo Tributae in Fontes Iuris Romani
Anteiustiniani, 2nd edn. S. Riccobono and others, vol. ii
(Florence, 1940): 329417.
Other ancient authors and works are abbreviated as in the Oxford Classical
Dictionary (3rd edn).
chapter 1
Introduction: Roman poverty in context
Robin Osborne
What are we studying when we study poverty? Are we studying the social
and economic structure that means that a proportion of the population has
barely adequate access to the resources required for life? Or are we studying
those in a society who at any moment happen to have less than some
particular, and more or less arbitrary, threshold of resources? Or again, are
we studying how the society in question analyses its own structure, how
it classies those with least resources, what it does about them and how it
justies to itself what it does or does not do?
Studying poverty in contemporary societies is closely linked to the ques-
tion of what to do about it; make poverty history is the political slogan
of 2005. Doing something about it depends on understanding the nature
of the problem to begin with. Are the poor a random collection of people
who for different reasons have fallen on hard times but can be expected
to improve their lot in better times (conjunctural poverty as it is some-
times called)? Or are the poor trapped by the structure of economic system,
whether that be feudalism, capitalism, or whatever, so that in good times
as well as hard times they will remain impoverished (structural poverty)?
Is poverty an economic problem (because a given society does not pro-
duce enough resources to go round), or is it a social problem (because the
resources are there but for social reasons are maldistributed)?
Understanding poverty in the contemporary world is inevitably a politi-
cal matter, and the politics do not always assist the understanding. For this
reason, it can help us to see the issues involved if we study poverty in a
historic society, particularly in one well removed from the roots of twenty-
rst century social and economic problems. Studying poverty in the Roman
world and in this volume we are primarily concerned with the Roman
world in the rst four centuries ad has a peculiar interest. The size of the
city of Rome the rst western city to reach a million inhabitants created
issues of food supply quite unlike those faced by Greek city-states or even
the great Hellenistic cities, and the equally unprecedented size of Romes
2 robi n osborne
empire meant that Roman government could both call upon an extraor-
dinarily diverse productive base and had responsibility for ensuring the
well-being of the isolated as well as of those at the centre. Rome thus gives
a case study in the sustenance of a population that is extremely unequally
distributed in a world where communications were slow and uncertain.
But Rome is also of particular interest because the arrival of Christianity
gives an opportunity to examine the impact of changing systems of belief
upon the classication of and attitudes towards the poor.
past work on roman poverty
There are no studies specically on poverty in ancient Rome. So C. R.
Whittaker, in his chapter on The poor in Giardinas collection originally
published as Luomo Romano.
Since these words were published in 1989,
poverty at Rome has begun to attract more attention. Peter Browns Poverty
and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire has brought to the forefront
of discussion issues of the changing position of and attitudes towards the
poor in late antiquity, which were agged up long ago by Bolkestein and
reinforced by Patlagean. In addition, Marcus Prell has given us a socio-
economic study of poverty in Rome between the Gracchi and Diocletian.
What is more, detailed work has been done on poverty in specic areas of
the Roman empire.
Two related issues dominate discussions of the poor in the Roman world:
the emergence of the poor as a distinct social group, and the changing ways
in which poverty is represented and the poor are thought about. Although
throughout Greek and Roman history it was acknowledged that some men
were poor, only in the late Roman Republic and the imperial period did
poverty begin to be seen as a social and political problem which required
some sort of consistent and systematic treatment, and even then the poor
never came to constitute a distinct class.
It was not until the early empire, as
Bolkestein stressed, that people began less to think of the poor as necessarily
morally corrupt and more to see giving monetary relief to the poor as a
virtue. Once this alteration in the view of the poor had occurred, the
benecence which had earlier been bestowed upon communities generally,
and to which the work of Veyne has done so much to attract attention,
came to be seen as properly directed at the poor.
Whittaker (1993) 299.
Bolkestein (1939); Patlagean (1977); Brown (2002); Prell (1997).
Hamel (1989); Holman (2001).
Prell (1997) ch. 3.
Veyne (1990); on which see Garnsey (1991b)
Roman poverty in context 3
Much recent scholarship has repeated the idea that there was a move
from a civic notion of virtue, in which it was the general well-being of
the whole community which was promoted by the well-doing of the rich,
to a more narrowly economic denition of benefaction, in which largesse
consisting in money or consumable goods was bestowed specically upon
the impoverished. There is no general agreement, however, about the date
of the change of attitude, and the reason for it. For Bolkestein, whose study
of pre-Christian antiquity embraced Egypt and Israel as well as Greece
and Rome, the change was visible as early as the rst century ad, and was
consequent upon oriental inuence which caused priority to be given to
poor relief in the Graeco-Roman world just as poor relief had been given
priority in Israel. Bolkestein thought it signicant that Seneca, in Letters
to Lucilius 95.51, included giving a coin to the beggar and a crust to the
starving in an otherwise tralatician list of minimum moral demands on
any man (on which see Parkin, below p. 66). He noted parallels with Philo
and Josephus, and saw the mark of eastern inuence.
By contrast, for
Patlagean and for Brown this same change is a feature of late antiquity,
emerging slowly in centuries that followed the conversion of Constantine
in 312.
But whereas for Patlagean the crucial factor was a massive change
in the structure of late antique society in general, partly consequent on
signicant demographic change, for Brown, as his choice of 312 as a key
date indicates, the crucial factor was the inuence of Christianity.
One major weakness to date of work on poverty in the Roman world has
been the absence of any study which spans the whole period from Republic
to late antiquity: Bolkestein and Prell stop with the rise of Christianity,
Brown and Patlagean show no great interest in the Roman world in the
pre-Christian period. A second is that those who, like Bolkestein, Hands,
and Brown, interest themselves in attitudes to the poor tend to look only
supercially at what it was actually tobe poor, while those who, like Prell and
Patlagean, interest themselves in the actual conditions of the poor pay little
attention to ideas about the poor. Peter Garnseys scholarship is marked by
a unique interest in the ways in which ideas played themselves out in prac-
tice in the relationship between legal privilege and social status, in ideas
of slavery and the conditions of the slave, in how the nutritional value of
foods and conventional attitudes to foodstuffs relate to their consumption
Philo ap. Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica 358d; Josephus, Ap. 2.29.1; for some questioning of the
truth of this see Hands (1968) 84.
Brown (2002) 111.
Brown (2002) 756 for arguments against Patlagean. With Browns own position compare also the
conclusion of Prell (1997) 296.
4 robi n osborne
and its consequences.
In this collection of essays by his pupils, brought
together to honour Peter and to demonstrate something of what we have
learned from him, we attempt to bridge both the divide between poverty
as image and poverty as reality and the divide between earlier and later
Roman empire in a set of papers which discuss both the realities and the
representation of poverty in the Roman world both before and after the
conversion of Constantine. In this introduction I outline the big issues
involved by asking whether there was anything distinctive about poverty
in the Roman world, by asking how the representation of poverty at Rome
compares with the representation of poverty in the Greek world, and by
offering a synopsis of the chapters which follow.
was roman poverty di sti ncti ve?
The Romanworldwas pre-industrial. Its economy was fundamentally based
in agriculture, and its population was largely rural. In modern terminology
the Roman economy was underdeveloped.
Life expectancy was low (life
expectancy at birth was somewhere between twenty and thirty and probably
closer to twenty).
Nutritional deciencies were widespread.
But in none
of these features was the Roman world clearly distinct from the Hellenistic
world or from the world of the archaic and classical Greek city-state.
Poverty in this pre-industrial world was largely determined by access to
Those who owned, or were able to secure the rental of, land could
secure their subsistence provided that the area of land at their disposal was
large enough, and the climatic conditions favourable enough. How large
the plot of land needed to be has been much debated: it is clear that the
productivity of land is directly related to the labour put into it gardening
is more productive per unit area than farming but also that the law of
diminishing returns applies repeatedly doubling the number of gardeners
does not repeatedly double the output of the garden.
What counts as
favourable climatic conditions depends upon the nature of the land (the
grimness of the terrain
) and the crops grown (barley can withstand drier
conditions than wheat). What it is possible or reasonable to grow, however,
will often, in turn, depend upon the relationship of the farmer to the
market: farming r egimes that optimise the yield of the land in caloric
Garnsey (1970), (1988), (1996), (1999).
Garnsey and Saller (1987) 43.
See Scheidel (2001b) and chapter 3 below; cf. Brown (2002) 52, citing Simon Keays work on Tarraco.
Garnsey (1999).
Garnsey (1998) 20113, esp. 213.
See most recently the papers in Van der Veen (2005), and especially Jones (2005).
Garnsey (1999) 1 (specically of Palestine).
Roman poverty in context 5
terms may not produce the kind of food a family needs to consume. In
general large landowners dobetter thansmall out of drought conditions, but
how badly the small farmer fares will depend upon access to the market.
Many people, therefore, had reason to be anxious about food, but for those
who had access to land the threat of hunger was episodic, not endemic.
Not all who were without land or access to land were impoverished. From
the eighth century bc onwards in both Greece and Italy there was signi-
cant urbanisation.
Although the proportion of the population employed
in craft activity or service industries of one sort or another never approached
the proportion employed in agriculture, nevertheless a signicant number
of people was securely fed, and in some cases signicantly enriched, by
non-agricultural activities. Towns were an important focus of such activ-
ities, though not the only one: those activities which depended upon the
exploitation of natural resources above all mining were necessarily
located in the countryside. Political developments further diversied the
possible sources of livelihood: at any one time a large number of mercenary
troops, infantry or rowers, were to be found in active service in the classical
or Hellenistic Greek worlds.
Since land was the main acceptable security for loans, it was hard for
those without land to achieve wealth, but in times of plenty all who were
able-bodied could expect to subsist. In the country even those who did not
own land could gather food from the land beyond cultivation.
What was
gathered could be consumed directly or marketed in towns and villages. In
the town there were possibilities of casual employment that might involve
working alongside slaves but which would give an irregular income.
the able-bodied, poverty was conjunctural.
Times of dearth divided communities between those who had and those
who had not managed to ll their storehouses. Those compelled to pay the
soaring prices of foodstuffs in the market quickly found their conditions of
life deteriorating as the need to secure food caused other economic activity
to contract. It was in such times that individuals were no doubt tempted to
sell themselves or their children into slavery a practice legislated against
by Solon in Athens but still encountered by Augustine.
For those who were not able-bodied, all times were times of dearth. The
disabled relied on the charity of their families, their friends, and ultimately
Garnsey (1998) 212.
Garnsey (1988), (1999) 2.
For a survey of early urbanisation in the Mediterranean see Osborne and Cunliffe (2005).
See, for twentieth-century Greece, Clark (1976), (1997), Forbes (1997).
Brown (2002) 5051 on cities constructing a safety net for the destitute; but I am sceptical about his
claim that the real poor were in the countryside.
Brown (2002) 63 on Augustine.
6 robi n osborne
of strangers. If they exhausted local charity and moved away to seek alms
from larger pools of benecence they risked nding themselves isolated
from all with whom they had affective bonds. For such people, poverty was
Both in Greek city-states and during much of the Roman Republic polit-
ical status was of greater signicance than levels of wealth. As a result, the
poor were not thought of as a distinct social group. It is true that Greek city-
states, including democratic Athens, and Republican Rome both restricted
certain economic opportunities (above all landownership) to citizens and
made certain political rights depend upon wealth. In this way rights of par-
ticipation might be curtailed, both theoretically and practically, by poverty.
However, citizenship and the legal privileges which went with it were for-
feited only by seriously unbecoming conduct. Citizens, however indigent,
remained distinct in their political rights from both free non-citizens and
slaves, and the possession of citizenship and freedom, in that order, were
ideologically, if not always practically, privileged over considerations of
wealth. The importance of political status that Finley saw as rendering
Marxist class analysis unsuitable for the ancient world ruled out the per-
ception, or self-perception, of the poor as a particular group just as it ruled
out the development of a working class.
What scholars call civic models of poor relief are based on the privi-
leging of political status over economic need. The sharing out among all
citizens of the prots that had accrued to a polis is attested for the archaic
period, when the Siphnians shared the prots of the silver mines there,
and later, in the early fth century, when Themistocles intervened to boost
the Athenian navy at the expense of such a hand-out in Athens.
of benecence (euergesia) by rich individuals towards their communities
are attested in Greek cities from the classical period onwards and become
increasingly prominent in later Greek epigraphy from the Hellenistic and
Graeco-Roman worlds. But very feweuergetists would have described what
they were doing as poor relief.
The principles of sharing out city resources were applied also to the
sharing out of grain. At times of crisis city magistrates might be charged
with buying grain, and might distribute it at a xed price, but the prin-
ciple of distribution was that it was to citizens.
However, it is with the
question of grain distribution and its recipients that we encounter Roman
Finley (1973) 49.
Herodotus 3.57.2 for Siphnos, 8.144.12 and [Aristotle] Ath. Pol. 22.7 for Themistocles; Humphreys
(1976) 145 for the general principle.
Garnsey and Saller (1987) 101.
All this denitively documented in Garnsey (1988).
Roman poverty in context 7
distinctiveness. Finley observed that at Rome the decision in 58 bc to dis-
tribute free grain again restricted recipients to citizens, but he stressed that
in this instance the ancient sources are unanimous in their view of the dole
as a formof poor relief won by the plebs after considerable struggle.
was grain distribution regarded like this at Rome when it had not been so
regarded in other cities of the Greek or Roman world? Despite emphasising
the exceptional nature of this Finley offers no discussion of the reasons for
the exceptional conception of grain distribution at Rome.
Two factors
can, however, surely be isolated. One is the sheer size of the population of
Rome in the late Republic, the other is the potential political power of the
Roman poor. Each of these demands some further discussion.
The economic impact of Romes unprecedented size was rst drawn to
ancient historians attention by Keith Hopkins, in an unpublished paper,
and it has been set out in detail by Neville Morley.
The concentration
of people in Rome created demands for both foodstuffs and other basic
necessities of life, such as clothing and housing, and also for the goods
required to secure and display status in a place where all ranks of society
gathered. A city of a million inhabitants that was the centre of an empire
extending all round the Mediterranean and beyond was quite unlike any
other town or city. Along with Romes peculiar demands for goods went
also demands for labour, not least to sustain a supply system that had to
draw on the surplus of a much wider area than any other city and to ensure
that the goods required reached those who needed them.
As far as the way in which the poor were perceived and perceived them-
selves is concerned, however, what was important about Rome was not
that its economy was differently congured but that the sheer number of
citizens present in Rome meant that the ction of the citizen state could
no longer be maintained. As recent work has made ever more clear, only
a tiny proportion of citizens resident in Rome could ever physically cast
their vote in a Roman voting assembly, let alone have their votes make any
difference to the result.
As Aristotle had pointed out, if a population grew
to beyond a few thousand citizens the organisation of the city-state would
be threatened, since no herald would be physically able to address them all
(Politics 1326b). The citizen population of Rome could no longer envisage
Finley (1973) 17071 with second edition (1985) 201; and cf. 40.
Finley (1973) 2012 devotes rather more space to the question of the reasons for Trajans alimenta
schemes, withdrawing his initial support for Veynes view that the motivation was demographic and
preferring to see the projection of the emperors power as the crucial factor.
Morley (1996). Hopkins was inspired by Wrigley (1967) on London.
Mouritsen (2001), engaging with Millar (1998).
8 robi n osborne
itself as a distinct community when it could neither gather together in one
place nor engage together in even the most minor of political activities.
Sheer weight of numbers crushed both the distinction between citizens
and other urban residents and the political machinery invented for a small
town. The breakdown of the political machinery manifested itself in the
politics of violence, the destruction of the distinction between citizens and
other urban residents manifested itself in the birth of the poor. It is no
accident that the Clodius who introduced the free grain dole was also the
prime exponent of political violence.
But if the sheer size of Rome made it inevitable that the meaning of
citizenship would be transformed, it was Roman imperialism that spread
awareness of, and self-awareness among, the poor, and in two ways. First,
the incoming wealthof empire encouraged everyone to have higher hopes of
material riches. Debates over poverty . . . tend to ourish in the context of
rising expectations.
Second, in order to ensure that Rome could raise the
size of army required to maintain and expand its empire, Rome abolished
the traditional requirement that to serve as a soldier one had to possess a
certain (gradually reduced) level of property.
Romes need for military manpower on a scale, both in terms of numbers
and in terms of length of service, quite different fromthat of any Greek city,
impacted directly upon the economic and political ambitions of the citizen
body. The lowering and eventual abolition of the property qualication
for legionary service during the second century bc fundamentally altered
the relationship between the army and the land.
It also meant that at the
end of every military campaign poor Roman citizens were in a position,
with the minimum of organisation, to make their presence felt in such
numbers that traditional means of expressing political views, such as the
ballot box, became irrelevant. Although Catilines conspiracy seems in the
end actually not to have mobilised the poor in signicant numbers, and
although many of Clodius activities themselves relied not upon the poor
but upon slaves, the potential that had been feared in 63 bc and was then
enabled by the tribunes legislation of 58 bc was real enough. Other cities
needed to provide a cushion for their whole population only in times of
crisis in the grain supply; at Rome, by contrast, the abolition of property
qualications for military service led to an identication between legionary
and landless such that there was a permanent need to provide subsidised
food for the landless citizen poor.
On violence in Rome see Nippel (1995).
Shaw (2002) 43.
So, famously, Brunt (1962/1988).
Roman poverty in context 9
Augustus famously acknowledged the political importance of grain dis-
tributions whenhe refrained fromabolishing themonthe grounds that they
were bound to be reintroduced at some point per ambitionem (Suet. Aug.
42.3). The senatorial aristocracy in the late Republic and the new r egime
in the early principate cashed in grain for power. In the late empire, as the
city of Rome itself lost its overwhelming dominance, it was a more gen-
eral concern for the poor that emperors cashed in for power. Peter Brown
insists on the continued importance of political interests when he argues
that the emergence of a discourse on the poor in the fourth century was
directly related to the need of the new (Christian) imperial state to assert
its presence.
It is hard to separate the transformation that the size of Rome brought
about in the effective civic status of its poor inhabitants from that which
it wrought in their material conditions. For all the importance of urban
neighbourhoods, clich es about the deracination and anonymisation of the
individual in the metropolis retain their force: Rome remained notable
into late antiquity for the presence of a population living informally in the
crevices of the towering buildings, sleeping rough in tabernae or huddled
in the vaults beneath the seating of theatres, circuses and amphitheatres.
On the one hand, the system necessary to provision the huge urban popu-
lation inevitably involved a level of wastage sufcient to support signicant
numbers; on the other, those who wanted to be regarded as the greatest
men in the city had not only to cream off the wealth of empire to build
houses and gardens of extraordinary luxury but also to be seen to have
throngs of men dependent upon them. The princeps sustained his position
as primus inter pares by ensuring that the calendar of the poor as well as the
well-to-do was structured around festivals and events that were linked to
himself and that brought material as well as immaterial pleasures to all.
If the growth of Rome and Roman imperialism had already destroyed
the civic ideal in Rome itself by the late Republic, that ideal continued
to thrive outside Rome. Some of the clearest manifestations of civic bene-
faction come from the cities of Italy and the Greek east in the rst and
second centuries ad. But as the Roman world gradually transformed itself
from a collection of semi-autonomous cities subordinated to the power
of an alien Rome, and to a single political and economic unit, the civic
ideal came under pressure outside Rome also. The provincial elite were
incorporated into central government through recruitment to the senate
Purcell (1996) 784, citing Ammianus Marcellinus 14.6.25.
Purcell (1996) 799806.
10 robi n osborne
or to the imperial service: provincial wealth owed to Rome as they pur-
chased houses on the Esquiline and in other fashionable areas and set up
their considerable establishments.
Initially such men continued to wish
to display themselves to their native communities through benefactions,
but the more local citizenship came to be a matter of obligations rather
than of opportunities, the more the old civic idealism became irrelevant
to the way in which peoples lives were organised and envisaged. Division
between those who were in a position actively to participate in imperial
rule (essentially the wealthy and those who served in the legions), and those
who were not, became formalised already under Hadrian in the distinction
between honestiores and humiliores.
When Caracalla extended citizenship
to all free-born inhabitants of the empire in the Constitutio Antoniniana
of ad 212, the civic model was doomed. Where there was no distinction
of political status to back them up, distinctions of social status could not
survive unless they were also distinctions of economic status. The death of
the city-state inevitably brought about the birth of the poor.
Looked at from the bottom up, the Roman world was recognisably the
same under-developed world as the world of classical Greek city-states or
Hellenistic kings. Political unication had an economic impact, reducing
the risks and therefore the costs of long-distance transport. This speeded
up the brownian motion which had, as Horden and Purcell have taught
us, long been a feature of the Mediterraneans corrupting sea, and so
enabled both the primate city and the leading men to become far wealth-
ier. But those changes occurred within an unchanged economic structure
within which even the achievement of per capita economic growth is
The revolution which was effected by the Roman empire was not eco-
nomic (or socio-economic) but political (or socio-political). Roman con-
quest and Romes own revolution fromcity-state to imperial power brought
about the slow decline in the domination of the civic ideal over the self-
perception of the free inhabitants of the empire. The habit of dening
oneself in contrast to various Others, which has been seen as so central
to classical Greeks,
could no longer be sustained when some of the fun-
damental divisions upon which it rested were rst effectively and then
formally dissolved in a world empire. As the myth collapsed according to
which the citizens of each city-state were peculiar and particular, a myth
which had successfully prevented material circumstances from bringing
Edwards and Woolf (2003b) 11.
Garnsey (1970) ch. 11.
Garnsey and Saller (1987) 5163.
Cartledge (1993).
Roman poverty in context 11
about divisions among those citizens, so material divisions in the condition
of life imposed themselves. Imperial, philosophical (Stoic) and religious
(Christian) visions of world citizenship had to nd new ways of coming to
terms with economic and social variety within that world vision.
representi ng poverty i n the greek and roman world
What impact did the distinct manifestation of poverty in the Roman world
have on how its richer inhabitants saw and related to the poor? Rome
not only came to deal with the poor and with poverty in ways that were
distinctly different from those prevailing in the Greek city but also to think
about poverty and the poor differently.
It is a striking feature of discussions of poverty in Greek texts that poverty
is always relative.
Of the various terms available to describe the poor, none
is attached to any absolute level of destitution. In Aristophanes Plutus the
personicationof Penia, the termnormally translated poverty, reacts to the
suggestion that she is the sister of Ptocheia, the term normally translated
beggary, by saying that the life of a ptochos is to live having nothing,
whereas the life of a penes is to live a sparing life, working hard, with
nothing to spare but not falling short (lines 5524). But Menander, in his
play Dyskolos will have Gorgias describe himself as a ptochos even though
he owns land (lines 2846). Demosthenes can even describe as without
means (aporoi) men who belonged to the liturgical class in Athens, the
richest 10 per cent of the citizens (18.108). Although it is generally true to
say, as Finley does, that Penia, in short, meant the harsh compulsion to
toil, whereas the pauper, the man who was altogether without resources,
was normally called a ptochos, a beggar, not a penes, neither of the terms
was sufciently laden with associations with a particular level of need to
prevent its use in quite other circumstances.
In as far as the poor constitute a political group for classical Greek
writers, it is as the majority who are not rich. Aristotle insists that it is
rule by the wealthy that constitutes oligarchy, rule by those without means,
the aporoi, that constitutes democracy, and that this would be true even if
the wealthy were in fact the majority and the aporoi the minority (Politics
1279b261280a6). In the case of democracy, the important point is not
that those who are resourceless in fact dominate it, but that resources
are, in theory, irrelevant to political power in a democracy. Similarly, the
dominance of oligarchy by the wealthy derives from the fact that wealth
See more generally Hands (1968) 6276, 7788.
Finley (1973) 41.
12 robi n osborne
denes eligibility for full citizenship in such a r egime, whereas there is no
property qualication for citizenship in a democracy. Plato had already
remarked that the use of property qualications led not only to power
not necessarily being given to those who could make best use of it, but
also to those below the property qualication having no reason not to sell
real estate. As a result, he observes, they may cease to have any stake in
the city and end up destitute, so that the city becomes divided into two
groups, those with and those without resources (Republic 551b552b). For
the ideal community of the Laws Plato legislates to make land inalienable
and to prevent the wealthiest becoming more than four times as wealthy
as the poorest (Laws 744d745a). It is the political effects of differences of
wealth, not the problem of absolute poverty, which exercises both Plato
and Aristotle.
The issue of the really destitute arises when Aristotle considers what
makes a democracy durable. He is critical of redistributing state surplus
to the destitute, on the ground that they will spend and remain destitute
(such assistance for the aporoi is a large jar with a hole in the bottom). He
recommends instead that redistribution should be undertaken sufcient to
enable those without means (the aporoi) to acquire land or set themselves up
in business (Politics 1320a171320b3). Aristotles concern here is not with the
welfare of the destitute as such, but with the political behaviour consequent
on there being some within a community who are heavily burdened with
taxes, and others who have no resources of their own and rely on state pay
and other handouts. Plato had suggested that indebtedness was the primary
cause of revolution from oligarchy to democracy, provoking Aristotle to
point out that this is not the only source of such a change (Politics 1316b6
The redistribution mechanisms to which Aristotle refers themselves con-
rm the absence of concern with a distinct group of really resourceless
people. Cities of democratic persuasion might offer pay for taking public
ofce, pay for attending public meetings, pay for military service, and var-
ious free handouts at public festivals. All of these distributions were made
to the citizen body in general, without any redirection of them specically
to the needy. Only in the case of those who were disabled, did democratic
Athens recognise a case for meeting a manifest need with targeted help.
At one point in the Laws Plato argues that if the state and society he lives
in is run with only average skill no virtuous person will ever be reduced
to nal ptocheia and in consequence he makes a law that beggars shall
be expelled from the ideal city (936b3c7). That denial that there were
any virtuous poor was made easier by the long-standing Greek habit of
Roman poverty in context 13
describing the wealthy as good and best (chrestoi, beltistoi), the poor as
bad and worse (poneroi, kheirous).
Such terminology, equating virtue
and worldly success, only began to be challenged in the fth century, and
some remnants remain in fourth-century authors. The idea, fundamental
to Hesiods Works and Days, that if a man is prepared to work honestly
and hard he will be able to provide for himself adequately, lies consistently
behind classical Greek texts. In consequence, not only are those who really
are poor necessarily not themselves good, but poverty itself cannot be or
breed virtue.
Despite the concerns of Plato and Aristotle, and despite the existence
of abolition of debts and redistribution of land as revolutionary rallying
cries, it remains unclear how important a role poverty and the poor played
in the practical politics of classical Greece.
By contrast, in Rome, from
at least the middle Republic, poverty plays an important part in political
discourse and the poor have a signicant role in practical politics.
The place of the poor in Roman political discourse seems to be initially
linked to the invention of the virtuous poor man. Greek writers sometimes
criticise a life of truphe, luxury, or express nostalgia for the simple country
life (e.g. in plays of Aristophanes), but they never extol the life of the poor
man as in any way exemplary. The message of Hesiods Works and Days, that
the hard life of labour is imposed upon men by the gods, and it is for men
to knuckle down and make the best of it, is the message that runs through
classical Greek texts. Luxury is associated not simply with wealth, but with
non-Greeks, particularly with the east, and the opposition is not between
luxury and poverty but between barbarian and Greek behaviour.
contrast, the Romans had already in the middle Republic developed the
image of the virtuous hard-working citizen, who had no time for anything
except earning his living on his farm and doing his civic duty. The truth
of the exemplary stories (e.g. of Cincinnatus or of the Elder Cato) does
not matter; the importance is that those stories were told, and both are
clearly part of the stock of exempla doing the rounds in the late Republic
(Cic. Sen. 56 for Cincinnatus; Plut. Cat. Mai. 3.13 for the Elder Cato).
Although the exemplary Cincinnatus and Cato were hardly destitute, the
honour that they bestow upon the labouring life which enjoys no luxury
offers the foundation upon which a positive evaluation of poverty can be
built. And that positive evaluation we nd in such ctions as the speech
See further Osborne (2004) 1112.
cf. De Ste Croix (1981) 4256, 4312.
Social factors in political unrest have been stressed by Fuks (1984) and minimised by Gehrke (1985).
See the balanced review by Austin (1994) 52835.
Hall (1989) 813, 1269, 20910.
14 robi n osborne
which the Elder Seneca puts into the mouth of Arellius Fuscus, discussed
below by Greg Woolf, in which poverty is extolled as the best defence
against the corruption of riches.
The discourse of the corruption of riches is well represented in Sallusts
Catiline. In the introduction to that work, Sallust presents riches as the
root of all evil. The state whose success is built upon justice and hard
work is undermined by leisure and wealth, which become an impossible
burden (Cat. 10.12). Desire for money is followed by desire for power
and all manner of evils follow as greed undermines honesty and loyalty
(Cat. 10.34). As riches are themselves honoured and become the root of
power and glory, poverty becomes seen as criminal and established values
are overturned (Cat. 12.12). This then attracts all who are resourceless, hate
the status quo, and desire change, since change can bring them no loss
the group in question, Sallust says, includes practically the whole plebs
(Cat. 37.13). Men who have seen others around them becoming wealthy
are moved by the desire to reverse their own misfortune and looking to
their own material interest prefer the handouts they can get in the city to
honest labour (Cat. 37.48).
Analyses of what goes wrong with a constitution in terms of corruption
and greed are familiar in Greek sources from Thucydides on civil strife
(stasis) (3.82.8) through to Polybius (6.57), and greed plays a catalysing role
in Aristotles analysis of stasis (Politics 1302b; cf. Plato Republic 555b).
wealth and poverty play a much more prominent part in Sallusts analysis
than in any Greek text.
Although Sallust is not himself consistent in his
description of the reactions of the city residents to Catiline,
there is little
doubt that the picture he paints in Cat. 37 puts so much stress on the role
of the economic position of Catilines urban followers precisely because
poverty had become a political issue.
Finley observed that Not even the state showed much concern for the
poor. The famous exception is the intensely political one of the city of
But the fact of the exception is crucial: in Rome the poor had
become a political force as they had never been in any other city. As we
have already seen, the plebs frumentaria created by the grain dole recognised
and gave an identity to a large body of more or less impoverished citizens
Arellius formulation suggests that Finleys claim that Fundamentally . . . Blessed are the poor was
not within the Graeco-Roman world of ideas (1973: 38) is wrong: it is not within the Greek view,
but it is within the Roman.
Balot (2001) 468.
And are more prominent in the Catiline than in the corresponding passage (ch. 41) of the Jugurtha.
Compare Cat. 31 and Cat. 48.
Finley (1973) 40, cf. 171.
Roman poverty in context 15
with a political voice.
Emperors toleration of popular protest about food
shortages stemmed in part from the opportunity that solving perceived
crises gave to display imperial power; but at the same time imperial ofcials
often listened to what the crowd said, and responded positively.
There is no sign that the poor of late Republican Rome came to be
considered to have any greater moral claim to support from the more well
off than had been possessed by the poor in any Greek city. Their political
power did not make them virtuous, and writers and politicians continued
to treat themas the dregs of society, responsible for their own destitution by
their own moral failings. But what the political power of the poor did was
to draw attention to the contrasts between rich and poor, between those
whose unusual political power gave them wealth and those whose common
destitution gave them political power. It remains as true for Rome as it was
for Athens that poor was a relative term, open for persuasive denition and
ascription according to context, and even more open to remaining vague
and ambiguous. It remains true for Rome that the poor were more often
a topic for thinking with than a practical problem to be solved. It remains
true in Rome, as it was in Athens, that there was only a discourse of wealth,
not a discourse of poverty. But for all that, the invention of the poor as a
political problem had a profound effect on the ways in which life was lived
and theorised. In classical Athens, the moment when buying expensive
sh led to suspicions of aiming for tyranny passed, and even the eastern
connotations of the luxury lifestyle came to be positively appreciated.
At Rome by the late Republic excessive luxuria had come to create an
expectation of both moral and political depravity.
the shape of thi s volume
It is this new world of the poor and distinctive Roman attitudes towards
poverty and representation of the poor that the chapters in this collection
proceed to explore. They take up the story of poverty and its representation
in the Roman world fromthe beginning of the principate and trace issues of
what it was to be poor through until the great late Roman law codes. They
revisit and review from various angles the question of the impact upon the
poor of the peculiar life of the city of Rome and the unprecedented size and
coherence of its empire, on the one hand, and of the spread of Christianity
on the other.
Garnsey (1998) 2379; (1988) 21114, 23643.
Garnsey (1988) 244 for both points.
Davidson (1993); Miller (1997) chs. 810.
Edwards (1993).
16 robi n osborne
We begin with Neville Morleys discussion of poverty in the city of Rome.
Morley takes up the discussion of the politics of Roman poverty from that
offered above, expanding the discussionnot only of the politics of poverty in
the Romanworld but also of the politics of poverty inscholarly writing since
David Hume. He looks closely at the various ways in which we might dene
poverty and at the problems of nding in Rome the people so dened. He
lays emphasis on the poor as a social and cultural, rather than an economic
group, picking out in particular their characteristic vulnerability, exclusion
and the shame that attaches to poverty. In the nal section of his chapter
he explores what a history of the Roman poor might look like, asking
how the various changes in civic organisation and the economy during the
principate affected the poor. His nal words bring the discussion full circle
by noting how the politics of poverty in the late Republic and early empire
provided a resource on which nineteenth-century discussions of the poor
were able to draw.
Walter Scheidel takes up in Chapter 3 Morleys challenge of seeing the
poor in Rome in relation to more recent discourse of poverty by situating
the study of poverty and the poor in the Roman world in the context of
studies of the poor more generally. He sets the poor within the sociology
of the Roman empire and within the debate over the ways in which the
formal ranking of Roman society did or did not make for stratication
into separate classes. He argues against the dichotomisation of Roman
society and against the notion that all Mediterranean societies have always
been characterised by extreme inequality of land ownership and large-scale
patronage. In the face of a prevailing view that there was no signicant
middle class in the Roman world, he attempts to show, by quantifying the
different census classes across the empire, that there was in fact a substantial
middling group. Our whole conceptualisation of the society of the Roman
empire generally and our understanding of the world presupposed by our
literary texts are at issue here. Scheidel then goes on in the nal section
to consider the difculties of assessing living standards; he suggests that
Roman Italy was developed in rather different ways from classical Athens,
and that Roman Egypt was signicantly different again.
Anneliese Parkin (Chapter 4) turns attention away from what made the
poor poor, to the ways in which the condition of the poor was relieved.
In discussing pagan almsgiving she insists that although the generosity
of Veyne, in Peter Garnseys own phrase, was not aimed at the destitute,
the destitute were not in fact merely ignored before Christian charity was
directedtowards them. Parkinexamines the philosophical discussions about
giving to the poor, noting that Stoic resistance to pity for the poor went
Roman poverty in context 17
together with a willingness practically to help them. Similarly the insistence
that help should be given only to those who are able in some way to
reciprocate did not mean nothing was given to beggars, whose continued
existence indicates otherwise. But she suggests that much of the giving to
the destitute may well have come from people who were not themselves
among the elite and who may have been little affected by philosophical
arguments, and whose giving may well have gone along with a certain
disgust at the beggars themselves. Almsgiving should not be seen as purely
a moral matter: fear of the beggar may itself have played a part. However,
late legislation to outlaw begging by the able-bodied and to divide the poor
according to their labour capacity suggests that beggars needed to be in
some sense pitiable.
Greg Woolfs discussion Writing Poverty in Rome in Chapter 5 turns
to the question of the literary image of the poor in Rome above all in
the early principate. Woolf faces up to the question of how the realism
of literary ctions can be deployed for historical purposes, and insists that
understanding the relationship between literature and life is as essential to
understanding literature as it is to understanding life. Woolf argues that in
the early principate there was no single discourse of poverty, but that poverty
was a topic thought about in the context of the dominant discourses, such
as those on wealth and on luxury. Woolf explores the ways in which poverty
was treated as unwealth in particular in the poetry of Martial, and argues
that the persona of poverty was attractive to Martial in part because the
negative condition of not being wealthy covered so great a social range
and left the reader having to decide the degree of honesty or irony to be
read into any particular claim. But he also argues that this poetic play with
poverty had an effect on the destitute, who were depersonalised and treated
as eminently ignorable.
Dominic Rathbones chapter (6) moves the discussion from Rome to
Egypt, but keeps the issue of image and reality in the centre of the dis-
cussion. Is the invisibility of the poor and problems of poverty in Egypt
during the early principate and their visibility in late antique Egypt a prod-
uct of increasing poverty, of increasing visibility for the poor who were
always present, or of a Christian invention of poverty? Rathbone looks at
the evidence for widows and their condition, arguing for the possibility
that widows did not remarry because they had sufcient means to remain
independent, and at the evidence for standards of living, arguing for relative
prosperity. Although he nds some reason to suppose that conditions did
worsen in late antiquity, he suggests that the prominence of poverty in the
Christian source material gives undue emphasis to poverty as a problem.
18 robi n osborne
With Sophie Lunn-Rockliffes discussion in Chapter 7 of Ambrosiasters
treatment of almsgiving we turn rmly to the Christian sources. Lunn-
Rockliffes analysis further illuminates the concern of the late antique
church to offer space and salvation to the rich. She shows howAmbrosi-
aster notably avoids tussling with those scriptural passages which con-
demn riches. But he is prepared, as writers such as Clement had not
been, to acknowledge that wealth needs to be taken into account when
assessing other actions an acknowledgement which builds, at least in
part, on the allowance for status made in Roman law. Lunn-Rockliffe
argues that Ambrosiasters position cannot be understood on the assump-
tion that there were monolithic ideologies of poverty and wealth. She
suggests that the poor could be both disdained, because of their phys-
ical condition, and admired, because of their spiritual wealth, and that
the question of how means affected virtue was explored in a sophisticated
Richard Finn in Chapter 8 takes further the issue of what can and should
be concluded about the relationship of texts to the realities of impoverish-
ment and destitution, now in relation to Christian texts. Finn argues that
the visibility of the poor in late antique Christian texts should not be exag-
gerated, and that attention needs to be paid to the instances in which the
poor are unreasonably absent as well as instances in which they are the
focus of attention. In an analysis of Augustines Enarrationes in Psalmos he
suggests that the contrast between the low incidence of encouragement to
almsgiving in the brief exegetical notes on Psalms 132 and the high inci-
dence in the expositions of Psalms 3398 is a consequence of promotion of
almsgiving being one of the prime duties of a bishop. Finn analyses the way
in which Augustine draws the materially poor man into relationship with
the spiritual needs of all men, so breaking down the distance between rich
and poor. There are some reections of an insecure and uncertain age in
these expositions, but avoiding detailed descriptions of the poor and using
the term beggar only infrequently to refer to the recipient of alms helped
keep small the perceived distance between rich and poor. Finn suggests that
the attitudes of the well-off can be read between the lines of Augustines
sermons and the strategies of argument that Augustine chooses to employ.
The much greater visibility of the poor in saints lives, in terms of descrip-
tions of their circumstances, must also be read in the light of the purpose
and readership of these lives: they achieve their effects by replaying the
episodes of Christs encounters with the poor in the Gospels, and hence
emphasising the Christlikeness of the saint, as much as, or more than, by
shocking the reader with recognition of daily reality.
Roman poverty in context 19
It is with a saints life that Lucy Grig begins her discussion in Chapter 9 of
the parties thrown for the poor that gure prominently in some late Roman
sources and which have been seen by some as central to Christian charity.
Grig analyses the literary construction of these party stories in an extended
treatment of Paulinus of Nolas thirteenth letter. That letter spends much
time on the sumptuousness of the setting of the poverty party, the basilica
of St Peters in Rome, and Grig contrasts Paulinus belief in the glorication
of God through material splendour as well as through charity with Jeromes
belief in the absolute priority of the poor and with Ambroses use of the
story of St Laurence, who presented the poor as the riches of the church,
to justify giving away the churchs material wealth. Grig notes that there
was a sense in which the church relied upon desire for both material and
spiritual riches and in which the poor played only an instrumental role in
the churchs courtship of the elite.
The world of Paulinus of Nola contrasts strongly with the graphic pic-
ture of the perils of life in fth-century Gaul painted in the diatribe De
Gubernatione Dei written by Salvian, which is the subject of Cam Greys
chapter (10). Salvians work is an argument, rather than a description, but
his themes of the responsibility of those in power, the importance of reci-
procity in vertical social relations, and the need for communities to have a
unity of purpose, reect the issues of the day. For all that his generalisations
about the plight of the poor are unlikely to be an accurate reection of the
circumstances of his time, the Theodosian and Justinianic codes, too, are
concerned to regulate patronage and labour relations.
It is to the world of late Roman law that Caroline Humfress turns in
the nal chapter (11). Humfress examines Marcians Novel 4 and asks what
relationship the greater prominence of the poor in late Roman law has
to the changing conditions of the late Roman world. She argues that the
poor of Marcians text have to be understood as the relatively poor, the
middling rather than the destitute, and that throughout late Roman law
there is no single category of the poor but each reference to a poor person
has to be interpreted in context. Much late Roman legislation which bears
upon the poor was not designed to alter the conditions of the poor but was
concerned with mitigating the effects of poverty (e.g. the killing or selling
of children). The regulation by law of what could and could not happen
to bequests is in fact evidence that ways were often found to divert such
bequests from the poor, and there is much evidence for on-going prejudice
against the poor even within the church. Alongside evidence for men falsely
claiming poverty in order to avoid various duties, there is also evidence of
poverty being administered as a penalty. The relativity of poverty made
20 robi n osborne
it difcult or impossible to use the poor as a legal category. Right until
the end of antiquity, therefore, the political and moral force of claims to
poverty prevented the formation of a coherent social group of those who
were really destitute.
Walter Scheidels chapter concludes with the observation that the ques-
tions whichdominate development studies have hardly impingedonstudies
of the ancient world. Throughout this volume the contributors have ges-
tured towards lines of enquiry and ways of thought which if pursued further
would make us look very differently at poverty in the Roman world. This
volume is not a collection of denitive studies, but a summary of current
understanding, an attempt to survey and dene a territory which has to
date been under-explored. What is claimed here remains open to revision
as Roman historians engage more fully with the lessons that can be learnt
from analysis of more recent and contemporary societies. It is such a pro-
ductive engagement between questions generated by the study of more
recent societies and material derived from the Graeco-Roman world that
has marked Peter Garnseys own research. And just as his examination of the
ancient world has served also to sharpen awareness of issues in the modern
world, so we hope that this volume also offers insights into the relationship
between reality and representation, ideas and actions, that will themselves
enlighten contemporary engagement with poverty and the poor.
chapter 2
The poor in the city of Rome
Neville Morley
the poli ti cs 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
prizeghts) yet.
(George Bernard Shaw, The Intelligent Womans Guide to Socialism,
Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism (1928))
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, writers on political
economy frequently turned to examples fromclassical history, and above all
fromthe history of Rome, to illustrate and support their arguments.
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 sufciently 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.
Morley (1998).
Hume (1882) 177; cf. Himmelfarb (1984) 512.
22 nevi lle morley
Adam Smith offered a rather different analysis of Roman society, with
rather different implications, when discussing the tendency of states to
respond to nancial 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
There is an implicit contrast here with Smiths 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, exemplied a state that was managed for the benet 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.
Smith (1976) 5.3.62.
Himmelfarb (1984) 4263; Stedman Jones (2004) 35, 3641, 978.
Quoted in Winch (1996) 90.
Stedman Jones (2004) 368.
The poor in the city of Rome 23
This new perspective was soon overtaken by events, as the French Rev-
olution 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 com-
parison of whom Catiline would be thought scrupulous; the army was to
be seduced from its discipline and delity through donatives, Burke sug-
gested, while the citizens of the capital were to be fed at the expense of their
In particular, he reiterated the dangers of giving in to calls
for a redistribution of property, noting that the Romans had in the end
conned themselves to conscating 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 justication 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 elaborate justication
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.
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 humanendeavour; inlater editions of his work he greatly expanded
Stedman Jones (2004) 1663.
Paine (1906) 5012.
Burke (2001) 212, 228, 41011.
Burke (2001) 28081.
Stedman Jones (2004) 889.
Himmelfarb (1984) 10032; Stedman Jones (2004) 88109.
24 nevi lle morley
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
When the equality of property, which had formerly prevailed in the Roman terri-
tory, 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 inux with the increasing luxury of Rome,
lled up every employment both in agriculture and manufactures. Under such cir-
cumstances, 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 dissatised
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 justied 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 anequal distributionof 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:
Malthus (1989) 1.14.4.
Cf. Malthus (1989) 3.14.13.
Stedman Jones (2004) 1036.
The poor in the city of Rome 25
What a poor gure 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 Smiths account, this description of Rome was
offered as a contrast to the contemporary situation. Says 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 conned to the Roman
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 empires subjects. This account
echoes faithfully a number of familiar Roman sources, from Sallust and
Cicero on the followers of Catiline to Juvenals 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 betweenpoverty, slavery, political
structures and imperialism, and as a result attributed a greater share of the
blame for social disorder to Romes 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 rst is
that of the evidence: Burke, Malthus and the like deploy historical mate-
rial to support their political arguments about poverty, but their sources
for this are already politicised, presented in the context of a set of ideo-
logical assumptions. When Cicero describes Roman society in terms of a
Say (1971) 341; Stedman Jones (2004) 1358.
26 nevi lle morley
distinction between assidui and proletarii (Rep. 2.40) or between the populus
and the plebs (Mur. 1), or identies those who work in shops and taverns as
likely adherents of Catiline, as opposed to the respectable plebs (Cat. 4.17),
these are not neutral accounts of social reality. In part, they reect 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).
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 10.7780)
The tradition of taking Juvenals 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 mans 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
reinforcedthe social structure that kept the masses intheir place.
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
Pars populi integra et magnis dominus adnexa . . . plebs sordida et circo ac theatris sueta. Generally,
Whittaker (1993) 6.
Debunking Juvenals panem et circenses: Brunt (1980); Whittaker (1993).
Himmelfarb (1984) 321; more generally, Williams (1973).
Whittaker (1993) 2.
The poor in the city of Rome 27
the sordida plebs.
Within political discourse, poverty was pathologised,
presented as inextricably entwined with envy and sedition:
In general the whole plebs approved of Catilines undertaking, from an inclination
for newthings. 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 Cic. 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
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 dened in political terms as coterminous with one
dened by economic or social criteria. Neither of these assumptions now
seems tenable; to consider how far the poor were in fact a signicant social
group within Roman society, it is necessary to try to develop a more precise
denition of their identity, based on economic or social criteria.
were there any poor i n the ci ty of rome?
Poverty is a problematic, and almost invariably politicised, term, referring
to a state that is easier to describe than dene.
There is no agreement on
Morstein-Marx (2004) 1323, esp. 1516; cf. Cic. Cat. 4.1416.
Omnino cuncta plebes novarum rerum studio Catilinae incepta probabat. Id adeo more suo videbatur
facere. Nam semper in civitate quibus opes nullae sunt bonis invident, malos extollunt, vetera odere, nova
exoptant, odio suarum rerum mutari omnia student. Cat. 36 represents adherence to Catiline in terms
of disease, morbus and tabes.
P. Alcock (1993) 3; Whittaker (1993) 27.
28 nevi lle morley
how the poor as a social group should be identied; the choice of a par-
ticular set of criteria can always be criticised for its ideological assumptions
and implications. Commentators differ as to whether poverty should be
dened in absolute or relative terms, and whether it is primarily an objective
or a subjective state. As Himmelfarbs classic study of the idea of poverty
has shown, different systems of classication 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
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 rst is between structural and conjunc-
tural 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
Himmelfarb (1984) 8. Cf. Osborne, above p. 1.
cf. Jordan (1996) 956; Parkin, Chapter 4.
Lal (1997) 162. On the organic energy economy, Wrigley (1988) and Osborne, above pp. 45.
Lal and Myint (1996) 29, 346.
The poor in the city of Rome 29
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 identiable group within Roman
society of those who were signicantly less well-off than the majority over
most of their lives, a group into which those who suffered accidents or
misfortune might then also nd 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 signicant income, then the poor
cannot be a signicant 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 Purcells rejec-
tion 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.
nomic 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 ones condition could only mean destitution, not mere
Certainly elite sources often treat the rest of the population as an undif-
ferentiated 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 nely grained descriptions of Roman society as politically motivated.
Modern historians have often implicitly adopted such an approach, empha-
sising that the plebs was not completely homogeneous but then analysing
Purcell (1994) 6567.
Purcell (1994) 657.
30 nevi lle morley
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
free-born, slave and freedman is taken to overshadowother criteria of differ-
entiation. 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
signicant 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 Juvenals account as representative of the life of the average
Roman citizen.
In many cases this approach is understandable; there is scarcely sufcient
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 interpretation 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
classication 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 ne wares rather than ordinary pottery for
dating creates a further bias against the sites that are poorest in material
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 sites
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.
E.g. Beard and Crawford (1985) 4071; cf. Millar (1998).
Garnsey (1999) 11327.
Garnsey (1999) is quite explicit about the fact that its general conclusions must conceal signicant
variation in reality.
Rathbone (1993b).
Millett (1991); S. Alcock (1993) 4953.
Potter (1979) 135; Celuzza and Regoli (1982) 5960; cf. Morley (1996) 99100.
The poor in the city of Rome 31
In the city of Rome, the problem is that of the interpretation of silence.
The vast majority of inscriptions fromthe 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 (inuenced by
Juvenals 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
andbe commemoratedoutside the city, while the majority of the population
were new migrants or freedmen who failed to reproduce themselves.
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-bornwho diedunexpectedly andhadto be commemoratedonthe spot,
before they could retire to the country? Current debates about the level of
migration to Rome assume that there was a signicant number of births
annually amongst the free population, if never enough to compensate for
high urban mortality levels. If there was no free population in the city to
reproduce itself, these arguments would need to be drastically revised, as
would assumptions about the required 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 fromearly 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 fromthe early Republic
that seems equally implausible froma 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 dene the poor pre-
cisely as those who, in unknown numbers, failed to leave any signicant
mark in the historical record. The historians task, then, is to identify the
empty spaces, the gaps and cracks in society, in which those noticeably
Purcell (1994) 6567.
MacMullen (1982)
Morley (1996) 3946, on urban mortality; Scheidel (2004) on migration and (1997) on the slave
cf. Whittaker (1993) 4; Mu noz et al. (1982).
32 nevi lle morley
worse off even than the average Roman must have existed. There are two
strands to such a project. The rst, developed in detail by Walter Scheidel in
the next chapter, 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 signicantly 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 signicant 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 empires economy was more
developed, and that on average each individual produced signicantly more
than was required for subsistence, then a more complex economic hierarchy
than a simple richpoor division can be envisaged. The wealthy elite would
retain the lions 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 signicant
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. InScheidels 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 condi-
tion 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 deciencies
began to reinforce one another, as a poor diet affected ones 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
Rathbone (forthcoming) and below, Chapter 6.
Garnsey (1999) 5960.
The poor in the city of Rome 33
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
However, this ubiquitous risk had the greatest impact on those
who were closest to the margin of subsistence, whether because they had
access to insufcient land or could count on only poorly paid and irregu-
lar 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.
dwellers were almost wholly dependent on the market, and so their access
to sufcient 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 signicant
proportion of the populace, this might be effective, but smaller price rises
might affect the ability of the poorest to afford sufcient food without cre-
ating sufciently 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 re, for example must have had a dispropor-
tionate impact on those with the fewest resources, and we might also note
modern statistics, conrmed 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 dis-
ease (more so than in the country), but their poor nutritional status and
crowded living conditions meant that the poorest were once again the most
(2) Exclusion. A certain level of wealth, and the leisure that this per-
mits, 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, con-
versely, those who are excluded for other reasons may be considered, in
a sense, as being among the poor).
Under the Republic, this process of
Garnsey (1988) 816; Horden and Purcell (2000) 151, 175203.
Garnsey (1988) 4368.
Gr unewald (2004) 2531.
Morley (2005).
Cf. Jordan (1996) 93.
34 nevi lle morley
exclusion was manifest in the stratication 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 assem-
blies. Political inuence and the weight of ones 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
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 (D. 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 patronclient 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 emperors generosity, which offered occasional access to
resources (at least for citizens) and entertainment but no social interac-
tion 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 soci-
ety, 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
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
Sherwin-White (1973) 292311.
Saller (1982); Garnsey and Saller (1987) 1512, 156.
Whittaker (1993) 1.
Purcell (1994) 667; cf. Laurence (1994) 3850. On modern urbanism, see the essays by Wirth and
Simmel in Sennett (1969).
The poor in the city of Rome 35
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 denes the human condition at a given point in history.
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
Of course, Juvenals character speaks of the ambitious poverty,
ambitiosa paupertas (3.183; cf. 9.14041), 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 insufcient
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., D. 18.1.45). 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 specically 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
Cf. Garnsey (1988) 5563.
Kothari (1993) 1.
Nil habet infelix paupertas durius in se quam quod ridiculos homines facit.
Joshel (1992).
36 nevi lle morley
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 net-
works of reciprocity or patronage in times of crisis.
towards a hi story of the roman poor
Poverty is not an independent variable; it is the consequence of the com-
bination of a particular level of economic development, a particular size
of population relative to available resources and the particular social and
economic structures that determine the distribution of wealth within soci-
ety. Changes in any of these variables will affect the incidence and sever-
ity of poverty. Smith and his successors argued that increasing afuence
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 institutions of soci-
ety in order to obtain a more equitable distribution of wealth. Modern
explanations for the persistence of poverty even after the industrial revolu-
tion 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 benet everyone, or as an essen-
tial but disavowed element of the capitalist system, ensuring its perpetua-
tion through the existence of a mass of human material always ready for
It is a truismthat 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, under-developed and
severely limited in its capacity for growth.
It is scarcely surprising, there-
fore, that structural as well as conjunctural poverty should have existed;
the questions that need to be considered in order to begin writing its his-
tory 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 owed in from other areas of the Mediterranean; it proved pos-
sible, 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
For the former perspective, see e.g. Lal and Myint (1996) 44, Lal (1997), Hayami (2001); cf. Stiglitz
(2002) 7880. For the latter, Marx (1976) 784.
Garnsey and Saller (1987), P. Millett (2001).
Generally, Morley (1996).
The poor in the city of Rome 37
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 country-
side became more prosperous (or less poor) while poverty was concentrated
in the cities, especially the city of Rome; the capitals demand for fresh bod-
ies 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 gures, 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 produc-
tivity. 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. Romes 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 infor-
The removal of this surplus population left those remaining
behind with greater opportunities for access to land, and thus the oppor-
tunity to improve their situation. However, the apparent stability of the
system in the long term should not disguise the likelihood of serious prob-
lems, 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 popula-
tion 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;
Romes problems, as Purcell puts it, were the problems of success, and
increased in parallel with the citys growth.
The number of poor certainly
Lo Cascio (1994), Morley (2001), Scheidel (2004).
Rosenstein (2004).
On migration, Oberai (1983); Clark and Souden (1987).
Rosenstein (2004) 15569.
Purcell (1994) 647.
38 nevi lle morley
increased over the last two centuries bc; the proportion of the urban pop-
ulation which could be classied 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 heav-
ily 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, ide-
alised 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 conned to freedmen.
The severity of Roman poverty was aggravated by two factors directly
related to the size of the metropolis. In the rst place, the concentration of
such a large population in a limited area made feeding them a more expen-
sive and difcult 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 citys vulnerability to disruptions in supply.
the size of the city made traditional face-to-face social interaction virtually
impossible outside the elite and a small number of their dependents, espe-
cially 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 magnied within
the context of the metropolis.
We might seek to locate the most serious incidence of poverty in the rst
century bc, 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
Generally, Garnsey (1988).
Mouritsen (2001) 1367.
Cf. Whittaker (1993) 17.
The poor in the city of Rome 39
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 inuenced Roman politics and won concessions from the
elite, Morstein-Marx tends to downplay the signicance 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 signicant 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 signicance 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 signicant 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, still 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 effec-
tive in reducing the vulnerability of the city as a whole, this reform does
not seem to have created any signicant new social problems; it simply
conrmed all Romans as either actual or prospective beneciaries of the
emperors generosity, rather than as active citizens.
As in previous cen-
turies, there was no specic 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 classied 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.
Morstein-Marx (2004) 286.
Yavetz (1969).
E.g. Smith (1976) 5.3.62; Hume (1882) 153, 177; Winch (1996).
chapter 3
Stratication, deprivation and quality of life
Walter Scheidel
measuri ng poverty : two approaches
Who is poor? There is a propensity to assimilate poverty to destitution.
Other perspectives are possible. I wouldsuggest that poverty assumes greater
historical importance when the term is applied very loosely, in the sense
of asking if societies as a whole were impoverished, and how this affected
their development. There seem to me to be two ways of exploring this
issue. One is by looking at the overall asset and income distribution in a
society as a whole, in order to determine to what extent the concentration
of resources at the top led to deprivation and impoverishment (however
dened) of the general population. Alternatively, we may focus on the
quality of life or human development as an indicator of overall well-being.
This takes account of non-economic variables that are known to inuence
well-being, and in the absence of representative statistical data, such general
factors (whichinclude disparate features suchas health, literacy, gender roles
and legal rights) tend to be easier to study than a more narrowly dened
phenomenon such as poverty. It also enables us to employ cross-cultural
comparison both within the ancient world and between ancient and more
recent societies, and to relate our research to the ourishing eld of modern
development studies. Both approaches ought to enhance the relevance of
our ndings to other disciplines.
strati fi cati on and i nequali ty
What do we know about the distribution of resources within the Roman
empire in general? If the conventional imperial nomenclature is anything
to go by, a small elite lorded it over a vast and formally undifferentiated
plebeian populace. Imperial legislation bestowed special prominence on
the three orders (ordines) of senators, knights and municipal decurions,
and subsequently distinguished between honestiores, comprised of the three
Stratication, deprivation and quality of life 41
orders plus army veterans, and humiliores, pretty much everybody else (or at
least all other Roman citizens). Modern accounts of Roman social structure
invariably employ these overlapping legal categories as their principal struc-
turing principle. Geza Alf oldys St ande-Schichten (orders-strata) pyramid
of Roman imperial society is merely the most elaborate example.
critiques have done little to change the terms of the debate.
Any model
derived from either the ordo system or the honestiores/humiliores dichotomy
is necessarily binary in nature, separating an ofcially recognised elite from
the commoner population while restricting further ne-tuning mostly to
the elite segment of society.
Top-imposed binary ordering of society was
not unique to the Roman empire. Perhaps the closest parallel is the dis-
tinction between elite and masses khassa waumma, the special and the
general in early Islamic societies, brought into particularly sharp focus
by the Ottoman divide between askeri (literally warriors, de facto the state
in the sense of the political class under the direct control of the Sultan)
and reayya (literally sheep, i.e. the common people).
By contrast, Romes
counterpart the Han empire in China produced a much more elaborate
ordering systemwith a total of twenty ranks (up fromseventeen or eighteen
under the Qin), the lowest eight of which could be bestowed on any com-
moner apart from slaves, thereby extending formal stratication down to
the village level. These ranks entailed exemptions from labour service and
taxes and in some cases conferment of land or ofce. On special occasions,
such as a change of emperor, commoner ranks could be summarily raised
by a notch or two, with the result that rank came to be positively correlated
with age. The top twelve ranks, in turn, created a currency of honour and
privilege to spur on the members of the ofcial class. Only the top rank
was hereditary.
What concerns us here is to what extent such social rankings reected
economic inequality. In the case of imperial Rome, it seems clear that on
average, members of the three orders were wealthier than others, although
the exclusion of rich freedmen shows that material prosperity was merely
a necessary but not a sufcient condition for formal preferment. The
total number of honestiores was relatively small: the three ordines con-
sisted of at least 350,000 but probably not more than 500,000 individuals
(including family members), and there cannot have been many more than
Alf oldy (1984) 125.
Christ (1980) 21321; Vittinghoff (1980); Rilinger (1985); Abramenko (1993) 7881; Winterling (2001)
Alf oldy (1986) 7881 re-emphasizes the dichotomous character of such reconstructions.
Black (1999) 278.
Loewe (1986) 4856; Nishijima (1986) 5523.
42 walter schei del
100,000 veterans. Together, these groups accounted for approximately 1
per cent of the population of the empire.
In the eyes of the government,
the other 99 per cent of the population may have been humble, but they
can hardly all have been of modest means. More than anything else, the
inclusion of veterans among the honestiores leaves no doubt that this group
cannot have constituted a homogeneous economic class. Needless to say,
the late Roman separation of potentiores from tenuiores that banished lesser
decurions and veterans from the ranks of the formal elite was even less
suitable as a meaningful marker of economic graduations.
This partial mismatch between rank and class may be well known in
principle but nevertheless remains worth emphasising. Alf oldy nds that
since his orders-strata pyramid lacks a genuine middle class (whichremains
undened, especially the criterion for judging genuineness), Roman impe-
rial society contained only upper and lower strata (Schichten). He goes
on to stress that this divide did not necessarily represent a strict economic
dichotomy, only that real-life differences between afuent and poor ple-
beians were not captured by formal status categories.
Andrik Abramenkos
recent attempt to identify seviri and augustales as a municipal middle class
does little to solve this problem.
These collegia simply formed a supple-
mentary quasi-ordo designed to accommodate and harness the energies of
wealthy individuals who were unable to join the local ordo decurionum,
either because of their servile origins or due to a surfeit of qualied free-
born candidates.
In this sense, they represent a (lateral rather than vertical
downward) extension of the third order, and not a middling group in
any meaningful sense of the term.
Modern scholars have repeatedly identied the imperial ordines as polit-
ical classes dened by their civic function.
In Runcimans terminology,
The existence of some 2,000 cities in the empire implies the presence of at least 90,000 councillors
(cf. Jongman (1988) 193 for Italy; Scheidel (forthcoming a) for the number of cities in the empire)
or 315,000 with their families. The actual total may well have been signicantly higher. Knights are
partly included in that count, while senatorial families accounted for only about 2,000 honestiores.
An army of 350,000400,000 soldiers who enlisted around age 20 and served for 2025 years yields
about 100,000120,000 living veterans (cf. Scheidel (forthcoming b)). The total population before
the Antonine plague has beenput at 60million(Frier (2000) 814). The marginof error is considerable:
Zelener (2003) reckons with a drop from 80 to 60 million after the Antonine plague.
Alf oldy (1986) 523, 55.
Abramenko (1993).
Abramenko (1993) 5882.
Free-born augustales are attested in northern Italy but not in the south. Abramenko (1993) 6276
seeks to explain this difference with reference to a broader base of wealthy free-born citizens in the
E.g. Vittinghoff (1980) 42 (political classes); Harris (1988) 601. Alf oldy (1986) 73 objects to the use
of the term class but likewise thinks that the imposition of the three orders marked out those who
occupied or were able to occupy leadership positions in the imperial or municipal administration
(76). Cf. Harris (1988) for a useful discussion of the applicability of the concept of class in Roman
Stratication, deprivation and quality of life 43
they are systacts, or groups or categories of persons sharing a common
endowment (or lack) of power by virtue of their roles.
Rulers and ruled
may well be an adequate alternative rendering of ordines and plebs.
Garnsey himself, on the nal page of Social Status and Legal Privilege in the
Roman Empire, stresses that honestiores and humiliores were not understood
as homogeneous groups, andthat this apparent dichotomy was merely a the-
oretical construct largely conned to the restricted sphere of reference con-
cerned with the administration of criminal law in the Roman provinces.
In a sense, honestior was perhaps not so much a legal as a functional cate-
gory that lumped together the (free-born) agents of the imperial centre.
As noted earlier, these categories of legal and functional inequality can-
not be co-extensive with any particular social strata or economic classes.
Karl Christ warns against taking dichotomous models as representative of
socio-economic reality and stresses the existence of a middle stratum.
More forcefully, Vittinghoff considers it absurd to classify all humiliores
as lower classes and to deny the presence of some economic (albeit not
political) equivalent of more recent middle classes in the Roman empire.
So why do we need to worry about any of this? The reason is that regard-
less of all these protestations, current textbook wisdom (both Anglophone
and German) tends to paint a rather different picture. Thus, the leading
survey of the economy, society and culture of the Roman empire asserts
unequivocally that while
a sizeable heterogeneous group of men of free birth can be distinguished from
both the elite orders and the humble masses . . . there was no middle class in
the sense of an intermediate group with independent economic resources or social
One wonders how this sizeable heterogeneous group could possibly have
beendistinct fromthe humble masses if not by virtue of some independent
economic resources.
Cruder versions of this binary view of Roman
history. Occasional informal usage of the term ordo (with reference to non-elite groups: e.g. Harris
(1988) 601; K uhnert (1990) 144) does not imply anextensionof formal structuring into the commoner
Runciman (1989) 2024.
Alf oldy (1986) 81.
Garnsey (1970) 280. Cf. Rilinger (1988) for further downgrading of the actual importance of these
binary categories.
Vittinghoff (1980) 489.
E.g. Vittinghoff (1980) 33; Alf oldy (1986) 76.
Christ (1980) 21617, 220.
Vittinghoff (1980) 49.
Garnsey and Saller (1987) 116. The only example of this sizeable heterogeneous group given by the
authors are the apparitores, whose role as mere appendages to the ruling aristocrats is however taken
to conrm the notion of an essential dichotomy between the elite and the humble (ibid.).
Garnsey and Saller (1987) 43 commence their sketch of a simple model of the Roman economy
with the statement that the mass of the population lived at or near subsistence level. Although
44 walter schei del
imperial society are also available, as for instance in Wim Jongmans con-
tention that
since people lived so close to bare subsistence, an estimate of what was needed just
to survive provides a good approximation of the actual consumption patterns of
the mass of the population.
According to Peter Brunt, there is no evidence for a middle class in the
city of Rome, intervening between [senators and equites] and the poor,
except for some rich freedmen.
Jerry Toner concurs: There was no mid-
dle ground . . . The reality was nearer 99% poor, 0.4% military, 0.6%
German scholarship has now adopted the same perspective. In the
section on living standards in the latest recent survey of the Roman imperial
economy, middling individuals are lucky to score a measly paragraph out
of thirteen pages on the fortunate rich and the countless poor.
Yet they
fare even worse in another recent textbook according to which everybody
located beneath the three ordines suffered from poverty, want, deprivation
and the compulsion to eke out a meager living through physical labour.
Taken at face value, such bleak assessments leave little room for any
substantial elements of the population which were nancially secure yet
independent of elite households, not wealthy enough to embrace a leisured
lifestyle yet not destitute or at any signicant risk of serious privations. I
suspect that nomatter howoftenthe formal ordering of imperial society into
a tiny elite and a vast humble mass is explained as a purely legal construct,
it nevertheless continues to seep into our evaluations of lived realities and
colours our perception of economic conditions. Had the Roman authorities
been less cavalier in their apportioning of rank and privilege and joined
their Han counterparts in adopting a farther-reaching ranking system, we
might be less prone to binary tunnel vision. More than thirty years ago,
Willy Pleket already pointed out that the image of the imperial plebs as a
gray uniform mass had come into being primarily as a mere foil for the
honorable people.
William Harris envisions an economic structuring of the Roman popu-
lation into three classes the well-to-do who relied on the work of others;
households that owned means of production but also engaged in work;
this model is merely meant to provide a basis for more specic exploration, their analysis of actual
socio-economic stratication never advances beyond this sweeping claim.
Jongman (2000) 271. Compare Hopkins (2002) 198 for a more nuanced position. Jongman (forth-
coming) offers a much more upbeat assessment of Roman living standards.
Brunt (1987) 383.
Toner (2002) 5051.
Drexhage, Konen and Rufng (2002) 16376, at 172.
Kloft (1992) 203.
Pleket (1971) 237.
Stratication, deprivation and quality of life 45
and hired and slave labourers.
Unfortunately for modern observers, the
apparent lack of non-economic indicators of membership in this middle
class tends to obscure its size and signicance. For instance, epigraphic
records of municipal cash or food handouts dispensed by benefactors or
their foundations usually distinguish merely between decurions, civic asso-
ciations such as seviri and augustales, and an otherwise amorphous plebs
or populus.
An inscription from Histria in the Danube delta that refers
to gifts for certain groups of the plebs such as carpenters and small busi-
nessmen remains unusual.
However, more detailed evidence from urban
environments were it available might contribute little: thanks to the
predominantly agrarian character of Roman imperial society, it is the allo-
cation of resources among the rural population that matters more than
anything else. Luuk de Ligt, in a rare attempt to explore peasant strati-
cation in the Roman empire, not only gathers a handful of references to
well-to-do farmers but more importantly stresses the value of evidence for
housing as an indicator of the distribution of wealth.
What may be the
best preserved relevant remains, Tchalenkos Syrian villages, showa contin-
uum from the comfortable residence, through villas of steadily increasing
simplicity and small farms, to humble shanties,
rather than a stark polar-
ity of lavish versus ramshackle. De Ligt notes that the distribution of garden
land in the Fayum village of Karanis likewise shows a smooth graduation
from small to large owners.
The presence of goldsmiths in Roman Egyp-
tian villages also suggests some level of local demand for luxury goods, and
as we will see below, potential customers appear to have been in ample
More generally, overly dichotomised images of Roman imperial society
would be hard to reconcile not only with evidence from other ancient
Mediterranean civilisations, most notably the Greek poleis, but also with
what we knowabout the Republican phase of the Roman state. Archaic and
classical Greece may serve as a limiting case for the spectrumof the plausible
with regard to the potential for equitable resource allocation in ancient
societies, furnishing us as it does with an increasingly well-documented case
of a large socially and economically middling population that had come to
Harris (1988) 6045. At 6034, Harris corrects the misapprehension of Alf oldy (1986) 53 who assumes
that any class system must be binary in order to qualify as a class system.
Duncan-Jones (1982) 26373, for Roman Italy; see also Mrozek (1990).
Pleket (1971) 238.
De Ligt (1990) 4955.
De Ligt (1990) 51 (a translation of Tchalenko (1953) 358).
De Ligt (1990) 50.
De Ligt (1990) 54, and see below, pp. 524, on the distribution of landed property in the Hermopolite
nome. The extent of rural demand for urban goods remains unclear, but this does not concern us
46 walter schei del
dominate the political discourse.
The best evidence comes from classical
Athens. Robin Osborne estimates that 7.5 per cent of the population held
about 30 per cent of the land, while Lin Foxhall independently argues that
some 9 per cent of households owned 3540 per cent of the land (and
leased another 10 per cent). According to their schematic calculations, 20
to 30 per cent of the population may not have owned any land while 35
to 45 per cent the middling (hoplite) citizens controlled about half.
While both take this as a strong sign of material inequality, Ian Morris
observes that the Gini coefcient of .38.39 implied by their estimates is
in fact remarkably low by historical standards. The apparent lack of very
large estates in Attica is fully consistent with this reading.
Even though
the importance of the non-agrarian sector in classical Athens suggests that
the pattern of landholding probably obscures higher disparities in overall
income distribution,
the existence of a sizeable hoplite middle class is
hardly in doubt. Even allowing for household life cycle uctuations in
labour power and consumption,
there is no good reason to believe that
most of these families regularly faced recurrent hunger or other signicant
resource deprivations. The fact that the oligarchs of 411 bc could draw
on 5,000 citizens with enough resources to equip themselves indicates the
existence of a substantial middle class (Thuc. 8.97). At the apex of their
prosperity at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians may
have been able to muster no fewer than 22,000 adult male citizens of hoplite
The question remains of how typical Athens was in this regard. In Robin
Osbornes words, was Athens odd?
On the one hand, large-scale land
allocations might produce even more egalitarian outcomes, as in Greek
See now esp. Morris (1996) and (2000) 10954. Although in Athenian parlance, the mesoi or metrioi
were not meant to form a middle class in an economic or occupational sense ( (2000) 115), since
they comprised the rich who subscribed (or at least in their public displays and utterances professed
to subscribe) to a middling ideology, this observation does not imply that nancially independent
freeholders did not in fact form an economically middling group as well. For a detailed study of this
group in Athens and Sparta, see Spahn (1977).
Osborne (1992) 234; Foxhall (1992) 1578.
Morris (1994) 362 n. 53; (2000) 1412. (The Gini coefcient is a measure of inequality where 0
denotes perfect equality i.e. everybody enjoys the same income or wealth and 1 corresponds
with perfect inequality i.e. one person earns or owns everything and the others nothing at all.)
Foxhall (2002) 218 fails to acknowledge this crucial point when she worries about the paradox of
substantial inequalities in landholding juxtaposed to the notion of political equality in poleis where
landholding and citizenship were linked in several ways.
E.g. Cohen (1992); Jew (1999).
Gallant (1991) ch. 4. Readers should be warned that several of his calculations are mathematically
incorrect or otherwise awed.
Hansen (1988) 245.
Osborne (1992) 24.
Stratication, deprivation and quality of life 47
settlements overseas, and(possibly thoughnot certainly) in(early?) Sparta.
On the other hand, oligarchic r egimes may have exacerbated inequality.
In any event, institutional arrangements (especially in the political and legal
spheres) were clearly critical to specic outcomes. Morris points out that
any weakening of the middling ideology would facilitate the concentration
of land in the hands of the few.
While this may seem to limit the applicability of the Athenian model
to other ancient societies, it deserves attention that the Greek world in
general appears to have beneted from widespread sustained and signi-
cant improvements in living standards between 800 and 300 bc that are
incompatible with extreme imbalances in resource allocation.
to Morris, conventional house size is one of the most powerful indicators:
by the end of this period, homes were on average ve times as large as at its
beginning. For all we can tell, this expansion was matched by home prices
and the value of household goods.
During the same period, spending on
cult and defence increased much more rapidly. Less reliable proxy variables
include longevity (where skeletal data may be taken to indicate an increase
of several years in mean life expectancy at birth), stature (with a possible
increase in mean body height), and nutritional status.
In keeping with the
principles of neo-institutional and development economics, Morris traces
these improvements to the gradual and unintentional development of insti-
tutions that gave Greek citizens greater freedoms, specied property rights
more clearly, and encouraged investment in human capital. Relevant fac-
tors include the poleis increasing freedom from predatory state rulers, the
development of chattel slavery, citizen egalitarianism, the invisible econ-
omy of banking, trade and commerce, and the relationship between war
and economic growth.
This model drives another nail into the cofn of Mediterraneanism,
dened as the notion that the Mediterranean had always been charac-
terised by large-scale patronage, rural dependency and extreme inequality
in landownership. Periods in which economic growth temporarily outpaced
demographic growth, thereby facilitating intensive growth, are repeatedly
attested across pre-modern history. In a new survey, Jack Goldstone dis-
cusses western Europe in the High Middle Ages, the Golden Age in
For Sparta, see Hodkinson (2000).
Cf. Hanson (1999) 2079 for the situation in Boeotia.
Morris (2000) 144.
I draw on recent work by my colleague Ian Morris: see Morris (2004), (2005).
Morris (2005).
Morris (2004) who stresses that much of this evidence may be of low quality or unrepresentative;
cf. furthermore Scheidel (2003b) 356.
48 walter schei del
Holland, eighteenth-century England and Qing China as pertinent exam-
In this regard, the Greek experience, albeit unusual, was by no means
unique or incredible.
Unfortunately, Roman historians have yet to undertake similarly ambi-
tious surveys of proxy variables of long-term economic growth and devel-
opment. In theory, the imperial success of the Roman state in the second
half of the Republican period might well have engendered comparable rates
of per capita growth, at least in its core regions. At the same time, differ-
ences in institutional arrangements (such as much more rmly entrenched
elitism and the absence of a credible middling ideology) may have mili-
tated against signicant improvements insub-elite living standards and may
have favoured increasing inequality in resource distribution. Nonetheless,
traces of widespread changes are common in the material record: the met-
allisation of Roman imperial sites is just one example.
However, much
more synthetic and diachronic investigation will be necessary to establish
the nature and scale of change over time.
But what if the Greeks were odd after all? It does not take the roman-
tic exuberance of a Victor Hanson to make a plausible case for their
If constraints on inequality are ultimately a function of the
conguration of civic and moral institutions, the Greek experience need
not be of any particular relevance to the more overtly elitist and strati-
ed world of the Romans. Even so, such institutional differences may be
a matter of degree rather than substance. For much of the Republican
period, Roman citizen society was characterised by mass mobilisation of
the adult male population for war and although to a dramatically lesser
extent for the sake of periodic participation in the political process.
For both purposes, the population was ordered in multiple (and arguably
increasingly numerous) formal categories that were based on timocratic
In Dominic Rathbones apt characterisation, the evidence for census
rankings in the Republican period is a morass.
I can do no better than
Goldstone (2002). See also E. Jones (2000) for similar periods of growth recurring (such as Song
Harris (1993), (forthcoming). See De Ligt (1990) 489 for the spread of iron tools even at rural sites.
To what extent dietary changes are indicative of net changes in living standards is an open question:
see e.g. King (2001).
Both the earlier Greek and the late medieval records would provide suitable standards for comparison
to gauge the relative signicance of any such developments: see above, and Dyer (1998). Cf. Scheidel
(2004) for a counterpoint to Morris argument.
See Hanson (1999) and in more extreme form in Hanson and Heath (1998) ch. 2.
War: Hopkins (1978) 2537. Politics: Mouritsen (2001) (for what I consider an appropriately oli-
garchic model of Roman politics).
Rathbone (1993a) 125.
Stratication, deprivation and quality of life 49
followhis fundamental paper on this topic in assuming, for the last century
of the Republic, thresholds of HS100,000 for the rst class, HS75,000 for
the second, HS50,000 for the third, HS20,000 for the fourth, and as little as
HS375 for the fth. The last detail is potentially of considerable importance
for our understanding of Roman notions of poverty if true, one could
own as little as HS375 (less than the annual stipend of an infantryman)
and still count as an assiduus, and hence hardly as a card-carrying pauper.
It is hard to be sure that this threshold was really this low more than
four times lower in real terms than prior to the re-tarifng of the as around
140 bc but this is not what concerns me here. For my purposes, the
lower limit for the fourth class is much more interesting. Reckoning with
a mean grain price of HS3 to 3.5 per modius in that period,
this property
requirement is equivalent to about 5,700 to 6,700 modii, or 38 to 45 tons,
of grain. Assuming a 5 to 6 per cent annual rate of return on farmland, this
translates to an annual income of between 1,900 and 2,700 kg of grain.
In a household of four, this yields 475 to 675 kg per person per year. This
level of income compares well with the annual infantry stipend of HS456
or approximately 870 to 1,010 kg of grain for an adult male. By a variety of
calculations, Peter Temin puts the average per capita GDP of the Roman
empire at the equivalent of about 600 kg of grain, a nding which happens
to be consistent with data from Roman Egypt.
The implied average of
2,400 kg for a family of four falls squarely within the range of between
1,900 and 2,700 kg for the poorest fourth-class household. In other words,
the lower census limit for the fourth class appears to have approximated the
income threshold for a reasonably secure commoner household. While sig-
nicantly less might have exposed it to periodic deprivation, signicantly
more would have lifted it permanently from the risk zone of temporary
scarcity, except perhaps under the most unusual circumstances. I conclude
that most members of the fourth class, with assets ranging from this lower
limit to two and a half times as much, would have been reasonably well
cushioned against chronic want. The same is necessarily even more true
of the third class. At the same time, these households were hardly afuent
enough to adopt a leisured lifestyle. In this sense, they would have con-
stituted a middling group perhaps not very different from the freeholder
hoplite class in classical Athens.
However, whereas we may be able very roughly to estimate the relative
size of that last group, it is much more difcult to get an idea of the relative
size of the Roman property classes. As so often, crude yet controlled (i.e.
parametric) speculation is the only solution. I must stress at the outset that
E.g. Meijer (1993) 1568.
Temin (forthcoming).
50 walter schei del
I do not claim that any of the following numbers represent reality. All I
wish to suggest is that while the margins of error are very large they are
not innite, and that the formal structuring of the Roman citizenry must
have followed some predictable pattern, such as the basic fact that the less
afuent outnumbered the rich.
If there were hundreds of senators, equestrians must have run to several
thousands. Despite the aristocratic focus of the Roman literary tradition,
it is surprisingly hard to be more precise. A conventional total of 20,000
knights for the late Republic seems to me to be without merit, derived as
it is from Plutarchs extravagant claim that when Cicero was prosecuted
by Clodius, 20,000 young men supposedly all knights turned out
in his support.
Appians claim (B Civ. 4.5) that 2,000 knights perished
in the triumviral proscriptions need not be true either, and Dionysius of
Halicarnassus statement (6.13.4) that up to 5,000 young knights attended
the annual parade under Augustus is equally unprovable. All three contexts
are clearly conducive to exaggeration. Then again, Strabos reference to the
presence of 500 knights in both Gades and Patavium might give us pause
(3.5.3, 5.1.7). If we very conservatively reckon with 10,000 knights in the
late Republic, the ratio of voting centuries for equestrians and members
of the rst class suggests the existence of at least 40,000 citizens of the
latter category, although their centuries may well have been larger. But if
we stick, again very conservatively, to 40,000 rst-class citizens and assume
schematically that each of the remaining classes was one and a half times
as large as the next-higher one, we get 60,000 members of the second
class, 90,000 of the third, 135,000 of the fourth, 200,000 of the fth, and
615,000 almost or completely propertyless citizens. This model produces
225,000 third- and fourth-class households, out of a total of about 1.15
million households with 4 million citizens.
Under these circumstances,
expropriation and pauperisation would have been extremely widespread,
improbably though perhaps not impossibly so: as I summarise below, Roger
Bagnall nds that as many as two-thirds of the residents of the Hermopolite
nome in late Roman Egypt could in theory have been landless (though
probably were not). Even so, my model is best seen as a limiting case
that seems likely to understate the share of property holders in the general
population. More conservative assumptions that would reduce the number
of proletarians (to, say, not more than one-half or one-third of the citizenry)
Plut. Cic. 31.1, accepted at face value by Alf oldy (1984) 80. Did not a single knight miss the occasion?
Could the forum hold this many people (cf. Mouritsen (2001) 21)?
For the total number of citizens, see Brunt (1987) chs. 59.
Stratication, deprivation and quality of life 51
would primarily boost membership of the fth class, although such changes
would also swell the higher ranks.
Conversely, I nd it hard to imagine
how in any reasonable scenario the number of middling property-owners
could be (even) smaller than the 20 per cent share posited in my crude
minimalist model.
It is still possible to argue that these calculations presuppose what they
set out to demonstrate, i.e. that there was some kind of pyramidal con-
tinuum between top and bottom rather than (say) an hour glass-shaped
wealth distribution. In my defence, I should point out that what little
empirical evidence we have is consistent with my model. For instance, we
need to allow for at least 20,000 decurions in early imperial Italy, many
though by not necessarily all of them possessed of at least HS100,000.
a consequence, truly tiny membership in the rst three classes would hardly
have been possible. In the alimentary land register of Ligures Baebiani in
southern Italy, most estates fall in the range from HS25,000 to HS100,000,
i.e. the census brackets for the second, third and fourth classes. Within this
group, properties valued at HS25,000 to HS50,000 stand out, account-
ing for as many estates as in the range from HS50,000 to HS100,000.
While the alimentary inscription of Veleia in northern Italy omits estates
worth less than HS50,000, the lowest recorded range (from HS50,000
to HS75,000) accounts for more estates than any other comparable
Spread out over more than 400 Italian cities and their territories, my
225,000 third- and fourth-class households are sufcient to provide each
of these communities with several hundred solidly middle class families,
even if we assign a ve digit number of them to the capital itself surely
enough to shore up order and compliance with state demands, and to
check paupers and slaves. Not necessarily formally beholden to landed
elites as Mediterraneanist clients, they would have provided the backbone
sorely lacking froma hypothetical more extremely dichotomous society that
Rosenstein (2002) convincingly refutes Brunts claim that proletarians accounted for more than half
of all iuniores in 214 bc.
I note in passing that a similar set of assumptions the presence of 20,000 knights, 100,000 citizens
of the rst class, and lower classes twice as large as the next-higher one would yield 200,000
members of the second class, 400,000 of the third, 800,000 of the fourth, 1,600,000 of the fth,
and 1,900,000 proletarians, for a total of 5 million adult male citizens as proposed by Lo Cascio (e.g.
(1994)). The larger the elite was, the larger the base population must have been in order to preserve
a pyramidal pattern of stratication. The overall size of the Roman citizen population is therefore
a crucial issue. For the same problem, see below, pp. 524, on Egypt.
Duncan-Jones (1982) 304.
CIL 11.1455; Duncan-Jones (1976) 26 = (1990) 131.
CIL 11.1147; Duncan-Jones (1976) 27 = (1990) 132.
52 walter schei del
pitteda fewwealthy toffs withtheir entourage of slaves andfreedmenagainst
countless marginalised subsistence peasants and day-labourers. Collectively,
they would also provide a mass market for moderately priced manufactured
goods, cash crops such as wine, and even meat. And if these people existed
in the late Republic, they cannot simply have vanished under the early
monarchy, even if imperial sources show (even) less interest in sub-elite
groups. Nor were people necessarily ignorant of the census divisions of
a bygone age: after all, as far away as Egypt, citizens still declared their
property status in a way that suggests some awareness of the late Republican
classication scheme.
Egypt is also the only part of the empire where surviving land registers
and similar documents afford us a unique opportunity to trace patterns of
inequality in asset distribution in some detail. In a pioneering study, Alan
Bowman computed a Gini coefcient of .815 for land owned by citizens of
Antinoopolis and the residents of one of the four quarters of the city of
Hermopolis in most of the Hermopolite nome in the mid-fourth century
However, the omission of rural landowners from the underlying lists
might somehow slant the picture. For this reason, village registers are likely
to be more representative. Bowman calculated a Gini coefcient of .737
for a list of private landowners in the Fayum village of Philadelphia in
ad 216, a value which Roger Bagnall subsequently corrected to .532 (or
.516 for complete datasets).
However, this register understates inequality
by including some urban owners without providing information about
their holdings in other villages. A list of crown tenants and cleruchs in the
village of Kerkeosiris in the late Ptolemaic period (116/15 bc) produces a
low Gini coefcient of .374.
This pattern may be the result of ofcial land
allotments and tenancy arrangements that ensured more equitable access to
farmland. (In principle, it would be possible to envision a Gini coefcient
of close to zero in the immediate aftermath of a land distribution to military
settlers.) In a later study, Bagnall used tax assessments to establish group-
specic Gini coefcients for the village of Karanis in the Fayum in ad
308/9. The respective ratios are .638 for metropolitan landowners, broadly
in the same range as for Hermopolis, and .431 for villagers, similar to
Kerkeosiris. With all due caution, he suggests that landholdings among
Egyptian villagers tended to have only a moderate degree of inequality,
and this held true over time.
A later land register from Aphrodito in the
Antaiopolite nome (c. ad 525/6) yields a Gini coefcient of .623. Given a
Rathbone (1993a) 144.
Bowman (1985) 150.
Bowman (1985) 151; Bagnall (1992) 131.
Bowman (1985) 151.
Bagnall (1992) 1346.
Stratication, deprivation and quality of life 53
predominance of urban owners, this result is similar to the corresponding
ratio for Karanis.
Evidence of landownership from other provinces compares poorly with
the Egyptian record. While Richard Duncan-Jones was able to calculate
Gini coefcients for a variety of samples, ranging from .394 at Volcei in
Italy to .679 at Magnesia in Asia Minor, most of the datasets are vitiated
by serious inadequacies. The most complete list, the alimentary register of
Ligures Baebiani, gives a low Gini of .435.
As Bagnall acknowledges, all the Egyptian and other samples share a
fundamental problem: they omit landless residents, many of whom were
likely to be poorer than landowners. Hence, Gini coefcients of the asset or
income distribution of the entire population would necessarily be higher
than those derived from the distribution of landholdings.
The margin of
error primarily depends on the share of the landless in the total number
of residents. In order to account for their presence, Bagnall constructs a
model for the Hermopolite nome that indicates an overall Gini of .56 for
all landowners (urban and rural, locals and outsiders combined). In this
scenario, 59 per cent of villagers holdings and 88 per cent of those owned
by urban residents were surplus to their personal subsistence requirements.
Thus, on the extreme assumption that the entire agricultural surplus was
used to support landless labourers, as many as 65 per cent of all inhabitants
of the nome could in theory have been landless.
For our purposes, two of the points that emerge from Bagnalls model
nome matter most. Property was strongly concentrated among the top 10
per cent of all landowners. The model envisions 952 local urban landown-
ers, which translates to an elite segment of about 100 individuals, equivalent
to a municipal ordo decurionum in the West. In other words, there were few
if any large landowners outside a council-sized group. At rst glance, this
might be taken to support a dichotomous vision of Roman imperial society.
However, the model also generates 7,400 rural landowners, 59 per cent of
whom owned enough land to enjoy a net surplus. Bagnall refers to them
as a broad band of middle-range men capable of bearing public obliga-
It is hard to imagine that these people accounted for less than 20 to
Bagnall (1992) 1367.
Duncan-Jones (1976) 1533, (1990) 12942. Duncan-Jones initially argued that the differences
between these samples largely disappeared when comparisons of inequality were conned to the
same sectors of wealth (i.e. value brackets: (1976) 212; but cf. Bowman (1985) 150 n. 75), but was
rather non-committal later on ( (1990) 13840).
See Bagnall (1992) 13943 for a discussion of comparative evidence.
Bagnall (1992) 1389.
Bagnall (1992) 142.
54 walter schei del
25 per cent of the entire nome population (reckoning with 8,600 landown-
ers compared to between 8,600 to 16,000 landless residents), and I see
nothing that would keep us from identifying this group as a middle class
at least in purely economic terms. Thus, the concentration of a large per-
centage of all assets in the top 3 to 5 per cent of the population (assuming
that the top 10 per cent of landowners represented 3 to 5 per cent of the total
population) is in no way incompatible with the existence of a substantial
middling group of owner-producers. Moreover, it merits attention that the
Hermopolite model echoes my earlier guesstimate that at least 20 per cent
of Italian households belonged to the third and fourth census classes.
I conclude that there is sufcient evidence in support of the notion
of an economic continuum from a narrow elite to a steadily broadening
middling group as we move down the resource ladder. Sources ranging from
Republican Italy to imperial Egypt and Syria all point in the same direction.
It is perfectly possible to reconcile the dominance of a disproportionately
afuent elite with the presence of a substantial middle.
The relative size of the poor population, to return to our topic here, is of
course much more difcult to pin down. Some of the smallest landowners
might fall into that category (although they may have worked as tenants),
as well as some (many? most?) of the landless. Bagnalls model suggests that,
in principle, the majority of the nome population could have lived at a very
low level of subsistence. Whether this really happened is, of course, what
we would need to establish rather than merely assume. The key question
is among how many consumers the available surplus was distributed. This
takes us to the issue of ancient population size: the more people, the more
In the nal analysis, the vexing conundrum of Roman-period
population numbers is bound to overshadow the debate over overall living
standards. Whether ancient historians are particularly well equipped to
tackle this problem is of course a painful question.
poverty or depri vati on? measuri ng the quali ty of li fe
This brings me to my nal question. How are ancient historians supposed
to measure living standards anyway? Per capita GDP would be a measure
of dubious value, and not just because it is unknown.
Temins annual
Or maybe not (always)? Morris (2004) argues for parallel demographic and (intensive) economic
growth in archaic and classical Greece. Even if this is true, one wonders if the provinces of the
mature Roman empire experienced comparable dynamics. Eventually, Malthusian forces had to
prevail: Scheidel (2004), (forthcoming a).
I doubt it: see Scheidel (2001a) 4972.
On Roman economic growth, see Saller (2002).
Stratication, deprivation and quality of life 55
mean of about HS190 for the Roman empire, were it correct, would tell
us little about actual quality of life, or even how the Roman economy
performed within the constraints imposed by pre-industrial levels of pro-
ductivity. Observing that urbanisation and GDP tend to be correlated in
modern developing countries, Temin argues that likely levels of urbanisa-
tion in the Roman empire imply an average per capita GDP equivalent
to about $2,000, comparable to that of India.
But even if this were
in fact a meaningful parallel, what would it tell us about Roman living
conditions? In many ways, India is not at all like the Roman empire.
2000, mean life expectancy at birth had reached 63.3 years, at least twice
(or conceivably up to three times) as much as in the Roman empire. 57.2
per cent of Indian adults are classied as literate (including 45.4 per cent
of adult women), several times as many as in antiquity. Total enrolment in
primary, secondary and tertiary education amounts to 55 per cent, again
many times more than in Rome. 31 per cent of the population of India has
access to adequate sanitation facilities, and 88 per cent draw water from
improved sources, compared to none in Rome. Up to half of the population
has access to essential drugs, once more unlike anybody in Rome. 68 per
cent of one-year-olds are immunised against TB and 50 per cent against
measles, against none in Rome. Other features may have been much more
similar in both societies: for instance, 23 per cent of Indians are under-
nourished, and 47 per cent of all children aged 0 to 5 are underweight.
26 per cent of infants are born with low birth weight. At the same time,
infant mortality is 6.9 per cent, surely just a small fraction of the Roman
rate. Public expenditure on education amounts to 3.2 per cent of GDP,
against very close to zero in Rome. Conversely, defence absorbs 2.4 per
cent of Indian GDP, signicantly less than in the mature Roman empire.
Inequality in access to resources is pronounced, perhaps or perhaps not
in a way comparable to Roman conditions: 35 per cent of the popula-
tion falls below the national poverty line. In terms of material inequal-
ity, India performs markedly worse than in other areas, such as female
Temin (forthcoming).
The data for India are taken from the Human Development Report 2002, http://hdr.undp.org. For
Roman life expectancy, see Scheidel (2001b); for literacy, Harris (1989).
If the GDP of the Roman empire was HS1012bn (Temin (forthcoming)) and military spending
totalled HS650700m (Duncan-Jones (1994) 36), the latters share in the former would be between
5 and 7 per cent.
India ranks higher in the gender-related development index (#105 worldwide) than in the basic
human development index HDI-1 (#124). Conversely, its HDI-1 score minus its poverty ranking
produces a negative score of 13.
56 walter schei del
What is the point of this enumeration? It is obvious that we cannot judge
ancient Rome by the standards of the present. Yet the comparisonwithIndia
is useful because it shows how difcult it is to relate GDP to the overall
quality of life. Back in 1990, dissatisfaction with this conventional mea-
sure inspired the launch of the annual Human Development Report, whose
goal is to devise a series of indices that take account of a broad variety of
factors that impact upon living standards, including income, demographic
indicators, health, education, literacy and school enrolment, inequality in
income and consumption, priorities in public spending, unemployment,
energy consumption, refugee displacement, crime, gender empowerment
and inequality in education, economic activity and political participation,
and human and labour rights.
Comparisons between modern low-income countries readily highlight
the substantial scope of variation. For example, several countries today do
dramatically better in terms of various quality indicators than with regard
to GDP: Armenia, Tajikistan and Cuba are the leading examples. Others
underperform outside their GDP rankings, most notably countries that
draw income from mineral resources but are lagging in concurrent domes-
tic development, such as Equatorial Guinea, Oman and Saudi Arabia.
Seemingly related features do not fully coincide: while Zambia currently
ranks as the most poverty-striken country on earth (at least by its own
standards, with 86 per cent falling below the national poverty line), the
most extreme income disparities are found in Latin America, above all in
Honduras, where the poorest 10 per cent earn 0.6 per cent of total income
and the richest 10 per cent get 42.7 per cent. Swaziland and Brazil boast
the highest Gini coefcients. Nevertheless, hunger strikes most forcefully
elsewhere: the highest percentages of undernourished individuals, under-
weight children and underweight newborns are found in Burundi (66
per cent), Ethiopia (47 per cent), and Chad (24 per cent), respectively.
Adult illiteracy is worst in Niger, affecting 84.1 per cent of adults and 91.6
per cent of women. This survey could easily be extended to more developed
countries, with their divergent experiences with regard to crime, inequality,
gender roles and human rights.
It might be an exaggeration to say that while all rich countries resemble
one another, each poor society is poor in its own way. Even so, it is clear
that the particular mix of conditions in each of the latter varies signicantly
depending on local ecological and institutional characteristics. There is no
good reason to assume that the ancient Mediterranean was much more
homogeneous than, say, sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America today. Bruce
Frier, in a pioneering attempt to assess the quality of life in the Roman
Stratication, deprivation and quality of life 57
empire, looks at various factors only to pass an unfavourable verdict life
was short, literacy rare, and so forth, which means that the Roman state
did little to improve the lot of its subjects but fails to specify his criteria
of judgement and standards of comparison.
Just how much development
would the Roman empire have had to facilitate to count as a success?
Ian Morris focuses more narrowly on consumption (of material goods) by
considering a whole bundle of variables that permits us to get a rough idea
of the scale of change in overall consumption between 800 and 300 bc.
On this score, Greece did remarkably well by pre-modern standards. Yet
again, consumption is only part of the story. If we adopt the perspective of
the human development index, other factors also come into play, from the
political sphere to violence and gender discrimination.
We may never be able to construct a comparative index of human devel-
opment in the Graeco-Roman world. Even so, it is clear that different soci-
eties diverged signicantly in specic spheres. Thus, while classical Athens
would do relatively well in categories such as political participation, GDP
and asset equality, Roman Italy might boast better water supply and pub-
lic welfare, and fare somewhat better on gender equality. Graeco-Roman
Egypt would do comparatively well on womens rights as well as slavery
(in as much as there was less of the latter). Classical Athens and Repub-
lican Italy suffered heavily from violent conict whereas imperial Italy or
Roman Egypt did not. On average, none of these systems appear to have
achieved consistently higher levels of human development than the others.
We may conclude that the study of human well-being and deprivation in
the ancient world needs to be separated fromthe study of economic growth
per se.
This chimes well with Amartya Sens emphasis on human capabilities
rather than average output and consumption.
In his view, development
is not so much a matter of expanding the supply of commodities but of
enhancing peoples capabilities, that is to say, their ability to make use of
available resources. Attempts to measure deprivation are complicated by
the fact that it cannot be measured independently but is contingent on
social standards that dene poverty thresholds. Adam Smiths leather shoes
are the conventional example:
By necessaries I understand not only the commodities which are indispensably
necessary for the support of life, but what ever the custom of the country renders it
indecent for creditable people, even the lowest order, to be without. . . . Custom. . .
Frier (1997).
Morris (2004). See above.
See esp. Sen (1981); (1984) 32545, 51215, 5213; (1999) 87110.
58 walter schei del
has rendered leather shoes a necessary in England. The poorest creditable person
of either sex would be ashamed to appear in public without them.
While there may well be some kind of universal human threshold for signif-
icant physiological deprivation (in terms of sheer caloric intake), the capa-
bility to be sufciently well nourished is not simply a function of income
but depends on a variety of other factors such as health and nutritional
knowledge, which are in turn important indicators of overall development
and well-being. Entitlements within a family or household are likewise crit-
ical in determining well-being but not necessarily strongly correlated with
total family or household income: gender and age can be more important
variables. Slaves are perhaps the most extreme example, of little interest to
modern development economists but relevant to ancient historians. Legally
bereft of any property, they were the ultimate poor. In the near-absence of
formal entitlements, their income and well-being were tightly controlled
by their owners and supervisors, and could in principle (though perhaps
not protably) be fully decoupled from the level of their own inputs.
Thus, the existence and accessibility of a labour market is an important
index of capability, as are formal rights. More recently, Sen expanded his
entitlement approach by turning his attention to the inuence on well-
being of political freedoms (such as opportunities to select and scrutinise
the government, and freedom of expression), economic facilities (focusing
on distributional issues), social opportunities (such as arrangements for
education and health care), transparency guarantees (to curb corruption
and to build trust, arguably an essential feature of developed societies), and
protective security (from welfare to emergency relief ).
All of these are
interconnected, and affect the quality of life.
I think it would be a worthwhile exercise to re-congure and re-view our
evidence for different ancient societies to explore, in a systematic fashion,
the characteristics of each of these factors and their change over time. A
whole bundle of seemingly disparate but ultimately related features would
need to be taken into account, from political ideologies and practices to
land use, gender roles, schooling, accountability in government, food sub-
sidies and relief measures after natural disasters. As far as I can see, ancient
historians have not even begun to structure their enquiries in accordance
with the basic concepts and questions of human development studies. Peter
Garnseys Famine and Food Supply may serve as a rare exception. But given
Smith (1776) 3512.
Bradley (1994) 81106.
Sen (1999) esp. 3840 for a summary. On trust, see Fukuyama (1995).
E.g. Nussbaum and Sen (eds.) (1993).
Stratication, deprivation and quality of life 59
the sheer range of factors that help determine human deprivation and well-
being, most of the necessary work remains yet to be done. Our ultimate
goal has to be a comparative evaluation of different poverties: not just
the poverty of whoever counted as poor at the time (or by our own stan-
but also the relative poverty (and hence the wealth) of nations,
which was determined by particular congurations of social, political, eco-
nomic and ecological conditions that could be highly specic in terms of
time and place. From this perspective, all of (Roman) history contributes
to our understanding of poverty.
I.e. the standard approach of ancient historians so far: e.g. Prell (1997); A. Parkin (2001).
chapter 4
You do him no service: an exploration
of pagan almsgiving

Anneliese Parkin
Such organised material aid and services as the elite were prepared to extend
to their social and economic inferiors were not directed at the poorest
of Graeco-Roman society in the early imperial period. The marginal
women, slaves, foreigners, and to an extent children were rarely included
in municentiae or euergesiae, and while the marginal are not co-extensive
with the poorest, there is considerable intersection between the two groups,
not least for this reason. In the Greek cities, euergetism occasionally was
extendedto slaves andforeignmigrants, but of course whenthis didhappen,
they received by far the lowest proportions.
The destitute were never en
masse targets of aid. As Hendrik Bolkestein made clear long ago, Christian
charity did not develop out of pagan municence. The two were concerned
with fundamentally different sectors of ancient society. This does not mean
that no one ever gave to beggars before Christian charity swept the empire.
On the contrary, it merely indicates that benecentia was not aimed at
beggars. To investigate almsgiving in the early empire, we need to get away
from the discourse of euergetism and benecentia.
This point is worth stressing, because the lack of organised relief directed
at the destitute in this period has led historians to make rather extreme
claims about pagan almsgiving. It has been suggested, for example, that
it was standard in the pagan world to feel repulsed and depressed by the
sight of diseased beggars, yet not be moved to assist.
A recent study of
poverty in the early empire similarly claims that begging was ineffective in
antiquity, because almsgiving was not sanctioned by any prevalent form of

This chapter draws on a chapter of my doctoral thesis, Poverty in the Early Roman Empire, completed
under Peter Garnseys supervision in 2001. In addition to Peter, I would like to thank Margaret
Atkins, Richard Finn, Cam Grey, Valerio Neri, John Patterson, Art Pomeroy, Nicholas Purcell,
Dominic Rathbone, Walter Scheidel, Greg Woolf and the readers for Cambridge University Press, all
of whom had input into this work at some stage of its evolution. Any errors remaining are naturally
Whittaker (1993) 295.
Pomeroy (1991) 66, cf. 63 n. 36.
An exploration of pagan almsgiving 61
morality in the Graeco-Roman period.
Bolkesteins treatment of pagan
almsgiving, although much older, is considerably more useful, but its focus
on the inuence of oriental religion has given rise to a long tradition of
scholarship which can only conceive of almsgiving in a religious context.
This is partly a problemof terminology. For westernscholars, the vocabulary
and concepts of alms and charity are thoroughly imbued with Christian
connotations. They presuppose emotions of pity andkindness, whichhijack
our examination of donations to the destitute. Nonetheless, the vocabulary
of almsgiving and charity is used in what follows in what is intended to be a
culturally neutral way, for lack of other idiomatic English words. The aimof
this discussion is to steer pagan almsgiving well clear of the discourse of civic
municence and euergetism, and to explore the possibility of motivations
beyond the moral or religious.
It is difcult to get a clear idea of how private almsgiving functioned
before the expansionof Christianity. However, the presence of living beggars
in the pagan world, which is very well attested, is mute testimony that
people did give. Beggars were a normal part of at least urban, and probably
also rural life in the imperial period, yet it is not clear precisely who gave
to them, or with what motivations. The problem is, predictably, one of
sources: our elite writers are simply not interested in the dregs of their
society and their survival mechanisms. The comment available is minimal,
and often contradictory: the rhetoric of euergetism, for example, clashing
with the precepts of Stoic philosophy, or with the studied callousness of
satire. Moreover, one cannot and should not assume continuity of attitudes
across the social spectra. Reactions to begging may well have differed, for
example, from upper to lower classes, but this in particular is difcult to
assess from our elite sources. Some insight can be gained through the use of
comparative evidence, in particular the testimony of late antique Christian
sources, which are obviously much more interested in the plight of the
moti vati ons for almsgi vi ng: moral consi derati ons
Cicero and Seneca are perhaps our most forthcoming sources on pri-
vate pagan charity, and some of their comments look at rst glance very
Meggitt (1998) 166. Cf. Whittaker (1993) 294, who accepts that Plaut. Trin. 339 (to give to a beggar
is to do him an ill service) represents the view of the rich, whose interests lay not in general poverty,
which they regarded with indifference, but in marginalizing extreme poverty as a form of moral
Bolkestein (1939) 339. Note however that his discussion almost entirely concerns the Republic, and
he relies heavily on dramatic texts for his evidence.
62 anneli ese parki n
promising for this enquiry. Cicero says that if one has money, it should be
used for good deeds benecentia and generosity liberalitas through
which one may win fame and the love of the masses (amor multitudinis).
However, so that money is not wasted, it must be given only to suitable
(idonei), needy (indigentes, tenuiores, inopes) people, and in a measured way
(Off. 1.68, 2.367, 2.525, 2.612, 2.69). Seneca claims to help a needy per-
son, an egens or pauper (Clem. 2.6.2; Ben. 4.10.45; Ep. 120.2), and says that
he expects no other return than gratitude, and that it satises him to do
what is necessary: he calls such giving a social act, a socialis res (Ben. 3.8.3,
4.10.5, 4.11.1, 5.11.5). On closer examination, however, it quickly becomes
clear that the needy in question in both Cicero and Senecas thought are
respectable citizens, and not the most desperate members of their society.
Seneca advocates giving to a poor man of worth, who will be grateful, where
a rich man may not. Cicero provides more detailed guidelines: the wor-
thy should be virtuous and respectful, should have a special relationship
with the giver, and should give a return. This is the semiotics of patron-
age. Indeed, Seneca makes this explicit: tossing a beggar a coin does not
constitute a benecium.
Nevertheless, Senecas Stoic proclivities and the inuence of Stoicism on
Cicero make them productive sources in spite of themselves. Products of
their time and status, most of their thought on giving dwells on benecentia,
on the assessment of a good risk for a return of honour. But alongside this
runs a trickle of thought concerned with humanitas. Seneca, in particular,
if read carefully, gives a good deal away about private almsgiving when
engaged in Stoic didactics.
Liberality, doing good works and mercy (liberalitas, benecentia and
clementia) feature among the Roman virtues, and are symptoms of the
much-prized humanitas. Misericordia, or pity, however, is more compli-
cated and was not always portrayed as a positive characteristic.
The Stoics,
in particular, saw in it sickness and disturbance of the soul. Their ethics
dictated that the wise man was to feel no pain over the misfortunes of
his neighbour, for pity brings grief. Ciceros attitude to misericordia varies
according to context: on the one hand, he knows and articulates in his
philosophical discussions the Stoic line on pity, sometimes critically, some-
times less so.
On the other hand, in rhetorical writings designed to stir
Hands (1968) 7788; Aubrion (1989) 38391.
Cic. Tusc. 3.2021, where Cicero puts into the mouth of his protagonist the Stoic case against pity. The
gloss here is that a man who can pity anothers misfortunes can also envy himhis good fortune, which
Cicero considers awkward. In Tusc. 4.16, misericordia is simply listed among the Stoic aegritudines.
His treatment is more sympathetic at 4.56.
An exploration of pagan almsgiving 63
the emotions and appeal to a broader audience, misericordia appears as a
praiseworthy quality (e.g. Cic. Lig. 12.37; see also 12.29, where humanitas,
clementia and misericordia are linked together as desirable qualities). Thus
Cicero can observe that none of the virtues is more pleasing or admirable
to the people than pity. The internecine strife amongst the elite which
formed a backdrop to much of Ciceros thought perhaps made so great a
degree of emotional detachment as the Stoics advocated unattractive to him
when it came to political or forensic matters.
Stoicism was criticised for
recommending a pitilessness that was dangerous to the powerful (cf. Sen.
Clem. 2.5.2): in Ciceros time a lack of misericordia bore real and vicious
The inuence of the harsh Stoic attitude to emotion is more evident in
Senecas writing, in which we nd obedient acknowledgement that pity is
the error of a weak soul, which is brought low by the sight of a strangers
misery (Clem. 2.5.1, cf. 2.6.4). Seneca elaborates: pity comes fromthe sight of
misery and misfortune which has happened to people who do not deserve
it (Clem. 2.5.4). The wise man does not experience this weakness, but
gives alms to the anonymous poor in the street and is as ready to help as
someone who feels pity (cf. Cic. Tusc. 4.4357; Acad. 2.44.135; Sen. De Ira
1.9.2). This is an important statement. Not only does Seneca by implication
advocate almsgiving whilst rejecting that such acts must necessarily be the
consequence of pity, but he also implies that other, less enlightened, people
do give to beggars out of pity.
So it seems that Seneca and, to a lesser
extent, Cicero prize moral principles which are not necessarily in step with
the charitable practices of their society.
Indeed, the Stoics sternrejectionof
pity and other human emotions earned them criticism from other ancient
thinkers. Many people, Seneca has to admit, consider pity to be a virtue
(Clem. 2.4.4).
See Atkins (2000) 51415, for the fundamental impact of the civil wars on Ciceros thought.
Hands (1968) 85, 88 concludes from this passage that pity existed among the Romans as a natural
human reaction, even if the same people passed their days watching torture and death in the arena.
Cf. Veyne (1990) 30: pity for the disinherited, that pity which is so natural a sentiment when felt,
but which societies can endure for thousands of years without feeling, and which, in any case, they
feel only when major interests allow this to happen. Cf. Cic. Tusc. 4.56: the protagonist is made to
advocate the Stoic model of giving aid without feeling pity: misericordia is not useful, for we are able
to be liberal without feeling pity.
Prell (1997) 268.
Sorabji (2000) 389: Aristotle thought that pity was often appropriate and sometimes benecial.
The Epicureans appear to have taken a softer line than the Stoics on pity (see Diog. Laert.
Vitae Philosophorum 10.118). Both the rhetorical and tragic traditions actively sought to arouse
pity in the audience, and Levene (1997) 12849 argues that early imperial historians on the whole
view pity as a desirable response to misfortune, provided its objects have not authored their own
64 anneli ese parki n
The emotion of pity in Graeco-Roman thought has been identied as
being motivated not by religion, as in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but
by an ancient awareness of the ckleness of fate.
Seneca muses that rich
men are frequently reduced to beggary overnight, and marvels that people
can be blind to the slippery slope on which their fortunes rest (Ad Marciam
de Consolatione 9.1; cf. Ov. Tr. 5.8.1314 for the woman who once denied
food to the poor, now herself found begging). It is perhaps helpful to
view pity in a Graeco-Roman context as an empathic response in view of
an uncertain future. This is brought out in Aristotles denition of pity,
in which pity is the pain aroused by the sight of misfortunes happening
to people who do not deserve them. These are the kind of misfortunes
that might happen to the viewer, or to his friends, and that seem close
(Rh. 2.8).
This conceptualisation is deliberately very close to Aristotles deni-
tion of fear, effectively an extension of it.
Some people, observed Aristotle,
were more given to pity and fear than others, and consequently more in
need of catharsis (Pol. 8.7.1341b321432a16).
Of course he was thinking of
the arts, of achieving catharsis through, for example, the contemplation of
ruin on the stage, but one might argue that the sight of beggars and the
response of contributing to their upkeep functioned as a cathartic act in
real life. Anaximenes wrote that the rich do not pity the unfortunate in the
same way as the poor do: their pity is a product of their fear for themselves
(Stob. Flor.: Concerning the Reproach of Poverty 21).
Understanding this is the key to understanding the Stoic disapproval of
pity: pity was a self-regarding emotion, a pathos experienced by imagining
oneself in the place of the pitied, which undermined the Stoic ideal of being
untroubled by emotion, autarcheia. Pity was bad enough; pity linked with
fear was dreadful, suggestive of personal weakness and doubt about the
wisdom of the universe.
This is how the Stoic characteristic possessed of
a social conscience and given to act on it (koinonikos phusei kai praktikos)
manages not to be negated by Stoic rejection of pity: the aim is to help
without being disturbed in ones soul.
We must not lose sight of this: the
Hands (1968) 7899.
Sorabji (2000) 23; cf. Arist. Rh. 2.5.
Sorabji (2000) 291 argues that it is not an excess of pity per se that requires catharsis, but an excess
of grief associated with pity. Sorabji nds it difcult to imagine that experiencing too much pity
was a problem for many. See, however, Lucr. De Rerum Natura 3.31213 for the Epicurean view that
some people are naturally more prone to clementia than others: it is Lucretius view that one can be
excessively merciful. Sen. Clem. 2.6.1 claims that women, especially elderly ones, are immoderately
given to pity.
Hands (1968) 812.
Hands (1968) 82; cf. Cic. Tusc. 4.26.56; Bolkestein (1939) 143.
An exploration of pagan almsgiving 65
aim is to help.
Stoicism, the philosophy most antagonistic to feeling pity,
nonetheless advocates in our parlance taking pity. Pity (misericordia) is
incompatible with apatheia, but mercy (clementia) is laudable.
To his depiction of the ideal Stoic as a man who should not hesitate
to give a coin to a beggar, Seneca adds that this aid should be given as
from a man to a fellow man, and not be given as the majority give it:
that is, in a scornful way by those who wish to appear full of pity, but do
not wish to come near to misfortune (Clem. 2.5.1). It has been suggested
that Senecas recommendation of giving a coin to a beggar must refer to
giving to wealthy people who have suffered reversals of fortune.
is no reason to suppose so, however. Of course the aid of the respectable
fallen on hard times is a topos in literature, but this interpretation would
be entirely at odds with the Stoic precept that a man should be helped
out of common humanity. Herodes Atticus is reported to have quashed his
friends objections when they saw him give money to a beggar in spite of
their protestations as to the beggars bad character, by telling them that he
gave because he himself was a man (Gell. NA 9.2.7; cf. Diog. Laert. Vitae
Philosophorum 5.1.21). We can ght too hard to argue away every possible
reference to almsgiving. The admission of casual almsgiving need not pull
down the monolith of theory surrounding euergetism and benecentia. In
the case of Senecas coin for a beggar, the simplest explanation is probably
the correct one. It is surely right to say that the elite were more likely to help
their own peers fallen on hard times, but this is not to say that they never
helped anyone else. Granted, pity was traditionally and ideologically felt
for those who might be in a position to return it (cf. Arist. Poet. 13.1452b34
1453a7; Rh. 2.5.1383a10, 2.8.1386a25), but we must be open to possibilities
in social practice beyond concretely and self-consciously expressed beliefs.
The self-conscious and traditional line on beggars is that they should
be ignored. If aid is to be extended, it should be to citizens, who have
something to offer in return. Hence in De Vita Beata, Seneca observes that
the rich man should give, but not to the irredeemably poor, whom no
amount of money can save (De Beat. Vit. 23.524.1). Cicero advises much
the same thing in De Ofciis (2.54), and that it is an old-established idea
may be seen fromthe Plautus passage that gives this chapter its title. One of
the characters in the Trinummus cheerfully announces: You do no service
to a beggar by giving him food or drink, for you both lose what you give
Sen. Clem. 2.5.3 defends Stoicism vigorously on this point: no philosophy is kinder, more loving of
man and concerned for the common good.
Hands (1968) 84: i.e. the proximity of the beggars in the text to shipwrecked sailors.
66 anneli ese parki n
him and prolong his life for misery (Trin. 339). Scholars have argued for
a pervading mentality that ones lot was what one deserved when it came
to poor relief in antiquity.
And yet, beggars were a commonplace in the
early empire. Their continued presence can only be explained by a habit of
giving, by at least some members of society. We are justied in looking for
traces of a moral code that would explain this.
Bolkestein discusses the arai Bouzygeiai, which were traditional and evi-
dently ancient curses levelled against those who would not give water to the
thirsty, re to someone in need of it, burial to the unburied, or directions
to the lost.
By the early Roman imperial period, this list had come to
include the denial of a coin for a beggar or a crust for the starving. These
were considered to be trivial acts, because no reciprocity was expected. They
were gifts, according to Seneca, not to man, but to humanity. And thus he
excludes them from benecia: a benecium is a useful act, but not every
useful act is a benecium; some such acts are so trivial, that they are not
called benecia. Nevertheless, as he himself realises, such trivial acts were
of immense material value to the recipients. With such gifts, one was not to
consider the worth of the recipient, any more than one would expect any
return (Ben. 4.29.23; cf. Cic. Off. 1.51).
The extension of the standard
list of cost-free duties to include giving to beggars effectively normalises
beggars by associating them with respectable passers-by (cf. Cic. Off. 1.51,
where Cicero describes such duties as incumbent on everyone precisely
because they are cost-free). This concept seems to have had a long life,
surely underlying Heliodorus observation that the beggar gets easily out
of generosity what any other stranger would not get at all (Aeth. 6.10.2).
The arai Bouzygeiai must at one time have had a religious element. An
ongoing consciousness of this religious root may be seen in one of the Elder
Senecas Controversiae. In this Controversia, almsgiving is equated with the
ancient duty to bury the dead, in what is probably a tradition even older
than Plautus. Among those laws that are unwritten, and yet set in stone,
observes the speaker, are the obligations on all to give alms to a beggar and
throw earth on a corpse. It is wrong not to reach out a hand to the lowest,
he adds: this is humanitys common right (Controv. 1.1.14).
It seems possible that the echoes of this ancient morality might explainthe
otherwise rather mysterious phenomenon of beggars haunting Roman tem-
ples, as there is no other evident religious connection to be made between
mainstream Graeco-Roman religion and almsgiving.
E.g. Parkin (1997) 139.
Bolkestein (1939) 4712.
See Hands (1968) 467. Hands notes dryly that in the case of a corpse, one hardly had any choice
in the matter of return.
An exploration of pagan almsgiving 67
Insofar as begging is explicitly connected to religion in our sources, the
discussion is solely of eastern religions and cults, principally the priests
of Cybele. The itinerant priests of Cybele were supported by the alms
of the populace, to which they apparently had a religiously sanctioned
right: they, alone of religious beggars, were to be tolerated in Ciceros ideal
state, although then only on certain days (Leg. 2.9.22, cf. 2.16.40). Cynic
philosophers were linked by Epictetus to the begging priests of Cybele by
their comparable dress and bad behaviour (Arr. Epict. diss. 4.8.46). The
link is also implicit in their mutual right to public support, however, which
was ultimately derived from the perception that they were performing a
service for the community, pedagogic in the case of the Cynics, and religious
in the case of the priests of Cybele. From Apuleius depiction of the priests
of Cybele in procession, however, one suspects that much of their true
appeal was in their entertainment value (Met. 8.26, 28).
Cynics are by no means a category of religious beggars, but they are
perhaps worth considering as the pagan worlds only other full-time vol-
untary poor, in effect, the only other group licensed to beg. Respect, fear
and amusement are recorded as reactions to Cynics in our sources, but
also, perhaps, pity. Dio Chrysostom observes that many people in his day
thought that Cynics were madmen, unable to cope with real life (Or. 34.2)
and according to Julian, the common people of his era felt pity for those
mendicant philosophers whomthey sawto be living in true destitution (Or.
The Cynics may not always have received patience, respect or pity,
but even contempt, if coupled with a perception of genuine incompetence
for daily life, may still have led people to give them alms.
How do such reactions compare to those evoked by the involuntarily
destitute? Bolkestein looked at Senecas demand of a coin for the beggar,
and thought he had been inuenced by the writings of hellenised Jews,
such as Josephus and Philo. Bolkestein thought he detected the inuence
of oriental almsgiving stealing over the Roman world, bringing a growing
sense of obligation to the poor in the early empire, a result of the spread
of eastern religions, and of an economic and social assimilation of east and
This theory was refuted fairly quickly, through epigraphic studies.
A study of Roman epigraphy from the early imperial era found no trend
Cf. Or. 6.190d, asking whether a man who has taken up the garb of a Cynic thinks to impress
the crowd with it, and comparing the reception of a classical Cynic, whom he insists sickened and
repulsed 100,000 passers-by for every one or two who applauded him.
Cf. Artem. 3.42, on tolerance of and almsgiving to people with mental illnesses.
Bolkestein (1939) 435.
McGuire (1946) 12950. Bolkestein drew on three inscriptions found in Italy. All three show strong
oriental afnity and were commissioned by oriental immigrants or their descendents.
68 anneli ese parki n
indicating that people wanted to be remembered as lovers of the poor.
one claimed to love the destitute until the rise of Christianity as a power
in the late empire, when patronage of the poor became an ideological and
political force.
At least some of the elite appear to have found the poor interesting or
amusing, in a detached and unsympathetic way, decorating their homes and
gardens with statues of, for example, elderly shermen, or drunken elderly
women. Paul Veyne comments on the brutal, exaggerated naturalism of
the style in which these gures are rendered, which portrays malnutrition,
desiccation, age, and deformity. He claims that:
Old age and poverty are here nothing but a spectacle for the diversion of indifferent
aesthetes; the onlooker does not penetrate beneath the surface, nor does he ever
put aside his fundamental disdain.
However, not all our pagan sources express such detachment and disgust.
Pliny the Younger, while he does not specically discuss the destitute, shows
himself aware of and sympathetic to the desperate situations in which the
lower strata of his society could nd themselves (for example, in Ep. 3.19.6).
Elite attitudes vary, then, from an apparent distaste or lack of interest to
a vague if suggestive compassion. Programmatic statements on almsgiving
are few on the ground, but equally extreme, from Plautus do not give
to Senecas give without scorn. Yet this range should not be allowed to
obscure the overall reticence on the subject of beggars. Begging was not
considered a social problem: there is nothing about it in the early imperial
legal sources, explicable precisely because there is no obvious problem in
the subject to provoke legal interest. Nor is there much in the literary texts.
When Cicero dreamed of his ideal state, he only felt the need to curb
religious beggars: ordinary beggars do not seem to have disturbed him.
What all this means, of course, is that beggars were not a problem for the
Roman elite.
It is reasonably evident why not. Probably the rich did not in fact often
give to the destitute: they will have been largely protected from the atten-
tions of beggars in public by their servants, clients or lictors, and many,
entrenchedinthe doctrine of euergetismor benecentia, may genuinely have
Tod (1951) 186. Whittaker (1993) 297, notes that ILLRP 797, the sole example of someone being
commemorated as a lover of the poor, concerns a Greek peregrine. Veyne (2000) 11889 argues
that the objects in amans pauperis must be poor plebs who made up the conjunctural poor, rather
than the destitute per se.
Veyne (1997) 135.
Bolkestein (1939) 340.
An exploration of pagan almsgiving 69
believed that it was money not well used. There are one or two suggestive
references to beggars frequenting the doors of the rich. The gladiator in one
of the Declamationes Maiores falsely attributed to Quintilian, for example,
complains that he was left, starving, to beg around the doors of strangers
domus (9.12). But this does not necessarily imply that the rich emerged
to feed the destitute with their own hands: indeed, that seems unlikely.
Slaves of the household probably distributed kitchen scraps, and whether
this was done with or without their masters knowledge is now of course
Most gifts to the destitute must have come from non-elites. Primary
evidence for this is predictably meagre. Veyne has argued that a plebeian
morality distinct from the dominant elite one may be glimpsed in the
early imperial Dicta/Disticha Catonis, which advocates, for example, not
hoarding your wealth and not scorning those more lowly thanyourself. This
is a discourse, Veyne maintains, produced by life experience and common
sense, and born of concerns removed from the social and economic milieu
of the elite.
Senecas observation that many ing their alms to beggars in
scorn, keeping as far back fromthemas possible, is interesting in this regard
(Clem. 2.5.2). To some extent this mode of behaviour must have been a
reaction to the squalour and ill health which surrounded beggars. Certainly
evidence fromthe lower strata as fromthe upper indicates that people found
them repulsive. But the concern to maintain distance was perhaps also
born of a fear of contagion from the bad luck which beggars manifested.
Am I to become a beggar?, people would anxiously ask the Oracle of
Beggars were horrifying physically and metaphysically:
they evoked fear for what the future might hold. The interesting point,
however, is that fear and disgust manifested in almsgiving.
This exact pattern of reaction and action may been seen, for example,
in Artemidorus dream interpretation manual, Oneirocritica. Artemidorus
observes that those who are beggars, pleaders, pitiful or indigent signify
pain and worry to men and women because they are repugnant, help-
less and obstructive and there is nothing healthy about them. Giving to
them signies an impending loss, or even death, since only beggars among
men take without any return (Artem. 3.53). Not a very sympathetic dis-
course, but one that presupposes giving as a normative act (cf. Artem.
1.78). Similarly, Artemidorus says that seeing someone with a deforming
disease such as scabies or elephantiasis means concern and grief for the
dreamer, because repulsive sights wrench the heart and humble one (3.47).
Veyne (2000) 11923.
See Rostovtzeff (1957) 479.
70 anneli ese parki n
Moreover, the whims of a madman are indulged by all, and to dream of
themsignies wealth for a poor dreamer, because everyone gives to madmen
Artemidorus associates beggars with disgust and fear, but also with grief
and, arguably, pity. It has been claimed that Christians were the rst people
for whom pity was the deciding factor in almsgiving,
but we cannot be
certain of this, if we accept the probability that pagan almsgiving was mostly
practised by non-elites who had no interest in stern Stoic precepts. There
is a grave decit of sources which represent the views and habits of those
belonging to the lower strata of Graeco-Roman society, but such texts as can
be gathered suggest quite the opposite of this claim. A counter-argument
can be made that pity was certainly a factor in the impulse to give alms,
and that this motivation may be glimpsed especially in evidence concerning
particular subsets of the destitute.
Artemidorus evidence suggests the rst such category: people who were
sick, frail or disabled. Certainly there is not much evidence that the inrm
attracted pity, and aside from Artemidorus testimony, it is necessary to
fall back on elite reactions, and elite representations of non-elite reactions.
There is, however, enough evidence to treat with caution Veynes claimthat
paganism had abandoned without much remorse the starving, the old and
the sick.
Seneca urges his reader to ght feelings of distress at the sight
of the disabled or elderly beggar, arguing that the good man will not turn
away from someone with a disabled leg, or who is starved, dressed in rags,
elderly and in need of a staff for support. Rather, he will aid the worthy
and, godlike, look kindly on those in misery (Clem. 2.6.3).
One thing that is highly suggestive of the likelihood that disabled people
were pitied is the custom of faking injuries or disabilities, for which a
little evidence for this period survives. Horace, for example, mentions a
beggar with a feigned broken leg, while Martial lists among the people
whom he nds annoying in city life shipwrecked sailors who lie about
in the streets faking injuries (Hor. Epist. 1.17.589; Mart. 12.57.12).
Philostratus Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Apollonius encounters an elderly
beggar in the theatre at Ephesus, who is eventually stoned to death. We are
told that when Apollonius rst sees this man, he has his eyes artfully closed,
as if blind (V A 4.10). We are also told that some of those who begged at
Prell (1997) 268.
Veyne (1990) 33.
W. C. A. Ker, the Loeb translator and commentator, understands this passage of Martials to imply
that the sailor is faking a missing limb, but observes that others take the reference to be to a piece
of the ship, or perhaps a painting of it (cf. Pers. 1.88; Juv. 14.302).
An exploration of pagan almsgiving 71
Jerusalem in this period feigned their lameness or blindness, but this was
a trick that depended on anonymity, and one could only get away with
it in busy spots such as gates or at festivals.
Faking illness or disability
is a common stratagem if sick and disabled people are very successful in
soliciting alms, as comparative evidence attests. John Chrysostom records
this phenomenon in fourth-century Antioch, and Ambrose too complains
of healthy people who attempt to improve their takings by deceiving people
with their clothes and bodies (John Chrysostom, De Eleem. 6 (PG 51.269);
Ambrose, Off. 2.76).
Comparative studies of begging practices indicate
that faking disabilities remains a common artice, with beggars waving false
limbs, and even mummied real limbs as evidence of their disability.
Aristotle writes that pity is the pain we feel when we see undeserved
misfortune, of the sort we can imagine striking ourselves or those near to us,
and this idea was picked up by Roman writers.
There are two interesting
facets to this conceptualisation of pity. The rst is the implication that pity
is contingent on innocence, the second that people felt pity when they
imagined disaster affecting their nearest and dearest as well as themselves.
Both of these points are strikingly illustrated inanother of the Elder Senecas
Controversiae 10.4 which discusses the culpability of a man who has
made a living from mutilating and raising exposed children, sending them
out to beg. This is a very interesting text, which provides evidence not only
for attitudes to disabled people, but also for attitudes to child beggars, the
second category suggested here as particularly provoking pity in this period.
Controversiae 10.4 paints a sinister picture of child beggars with stunted
frames, mutilated limbs and tongues cut-out because as Seneca would
have it the inability to beg is in itself a sort of begging (10.4.6). It is
unreliable evidence for social practice at the time: the Controversia is an
old one, with Greek antecedents, although that in itself may of course be
suggestive. If Senecas picture sounds far-fetched, a horror story invented
to spur a good argument, it is worth noting that the sale or kidnapping
and maiming of children still occurs among the beggars of modern Taipei,
as does the lending of children as beggars tools.
If children provoke
Hamel (1989) 21718.
Although there is no explicit mention of faking, this may also be implicit in CTh 14.18.1 (382 ad).
Chaudhuri (1987) 32; Schak (1988) 3031, 48: in the 1950s and 1960s the begging community in
Taipei used to drive out fakers, wanting to maintain a good reputation. They begged, and wished it
to be perceived that they begged, from desperation not dishonesty.
Arist. Poet. 13.1452b341453a7; Rh. 2.8, echoed in Cic. Tusc. 4.18; Sen. Clem. 2.5.4. Ov. Ib. 11720 is
suggestive of the reaction provoked by those whose misfortune was regarded as deserved.
Schak (1988) 467, 1967. Cunningham (1991) 56 notes that poor parents were reputably claimed
to be selling their children to work as beggars in Britain as late as the early nineteenth century.
72 anneli ese parki n
compassion, a society in which a social security network is unavailable or
not comprehensive may see them used this way, and if the sick provoke
more compassion than the healthy, then children are in danger of mutila-
tion. Centuries after Seneca, John Chrysostom can be found claiming that
poor parents were blinding their own children to make beggars of them
(John Chrysostom, In I Corinth. 21.5 (PG 61.17690) ). Begging children
apparently might evoke pity, then as now. Consider the evidence of the
jurist Paul on this point, who observes that equally culpable as the person
who smothers a child is someone who abandons it, or denies it food, or
displays the child in public places in order to arouse pity, which he himself
does not arouse (D. 25.3.4).
Of course, children did not necessarily command sympathy in the
Graeco-Roman world: many were callously exploited in slavery without
qualm. However, the portrayal of the reactions of the people from whom
the maimed children beg in Controversiae 10.4 is interesting. Seneca cites the
Roman orator Blandus as saying that a woman gives a beggar alms, if asked
for them, especially if she has exposed a child. As she hands over the money,
she thinks miserably perhaps this is my son (Controv. 10.4.20).
Does this
indicate the empathy of the lower strata with the destitute generally, or
specically pity for begging children? Perhaps both: the child is pitiful per
se, but loosely speaking it is also from, or potentially from, the womans
own circle. If a reection of historical reality, the Younger Senecas claim
(Clem. 2.6.1) that women, especially elderly ones, were particularly prone
to almsgiving could be explained in this light, since women were more
vulnerable than men to impoverishment, just as the elderly were more vul-
nerable than the young. Those for whomthe spectre of destitution held the
most power were perhaps the most generous. The woman who gives alms
in Controversiae 10.4 arguably gains catharsis through her charitable act.
Beggars in modern Taipei often address their marks (that is, their targets)
with terms of kinship connoting dependence, trying to imply a relationship
between the beggar and the begged-from.
In Blandus portrait are echoes
of the rhetoric of kinship, the old sentiment that ones own kin are owed
aid, but they have been overlaid with the uncertainties of contemporary
urban living, characterised by the fragmentation of families and severing
of kinship ties resulting from migration and slavery.
Cunningham(1991) 55 provides striking parallels fromthe outcry over the sale or theft of children for
chimney sweeps that swept England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Several respectable
women were said to have identied their lost sons in the sooty faces of the climbing boys.
Schak (1988) 49.
An exploration of pagan almsgiving 73
However, the disabling of the children adds another dimension. Their
maiming must have made them more likely to receive alms, and this link
is made explicit in the rhetoric: the children receive alms because they are
disabled (Controv. 10.4.19). The mutilation is depicted as raising a variety of
reactions, from disgust at the beggar masters inhumanity, to a resignation
that he has at least saved the childrens lives, and that life as a mutilated
beggar is better than death. Certainly the venture was imagined to have
paid off well for its perpetrator: many felt pity, enabling him to live off the
misericordia publica (Controv. 10.4.6).
Blandus comment also suggests the most likely source of these child
beggars. In all probability, most such children were the products of infant
exposure: a source of no-cost workers who could be made protable from a
very early age, and about whose fate no one would be concerned. Children
who were not raised because of physical disability were probably particular
candidates for this fate if they lived. Many children must have fallen into
destitution on the death of the family breadwinner.
These children of
the conjunctural poor, and particularly orphans, could have ended up beg-
ging. Martial and Juvenal both portray immigrant child beggars as a type
at Rome. Willingness to perform lower-skilled, illegal or shameful types of
work is one adaptation typically made in response to impoverishment, and
such income-generating activity is characterised by high family-member
participation. Infants employed as begging aids, and the use of older chil-
dren to guide disabled parents or to work unsupervised as beggars are very
widely attested in comparative contexts.
However, the majority of such
children probably did not become beggars. There were very many other
forms of labour available which children could perform, either as a contri-
bution to the nances of remaining family, or enabling themto be absorbed
into other households. Although parents, and in particular widows, cer-
tainly were sometimes sufciently desperate to sell their children or contract
them into debt-bondage, handing them over to a gang master of the sort
portrayed in Controversia 10.4 could only have been a last resort.
On balance, from the primary evidence available for almsgiving among
the lower strata, it appears to have been common, normal, although not
compulsory, to give to the destitute when they presented themselves. Cer-
tain types of beggars the elderly and frail, the sick or disabled, children
were given to at least in part fromcompassion. However, the argument that
Krause (1995) 13031, 138, 1412. Cf. Ter. Phorm. 939, 3578 for the plight of a girl whose mother
has died and who has no other relations; Firm. Mat. Mathesis 3.14.45, 4.4.3, 4.6.1, 4.10.4, 5.6.3,
Schak (1988) 1956.
74 anneli ese parki n
most charity was given by the non-elite rests on common sense rather than
on a mass of primary evidence. First, there were simply far more people in
the lower strata than in the elite. Even in the cities, the elite were a tiny
proportion, and individuals from the lower strata who had made good to
the extent that subsistence was no longer a struggle were still a minority.
Most people had to concern themselves with securing subsistence and were
haunted by the spectre of slipping into destitution. Second, non-elite peo-
ple had more exposure to beggars. In particular, people who worked in
public places, or travelled about unaccompanied and on foot, were easy
to approach. They were also more exposed, however, to forms of begging
which did not depend on a moral or compassionate reaction.
amoral moti vati ons for almsgi vi ng
The rst part of this discussion of pagan charity has attempted to showthat
dismissals of moral motives for almsgiving are too simplistic. It is possible
to argue further, however, that the whole assumption that there are no
other motives for almsgiving is awed. For this, it is helpful to make use of
comparative evidence, which gives clues as to what trends we can look for,
and how to interpret the scraps of evidence we have to work with.
Even in a society that recognises a moral or religious imperative to give
alms, there are many other reasons for which people give. At Kalighat
in Calcutta, pilgrims and worshippers at the shrine there admitted, when
interviewed, that they gave alms to the beggars out of disgust and frustration
as well as for religious reasons.
Importunity can be a powerful weapon,
and the desire to shake the beggar off is conspicuous in these accounts. The
fear of humiliation is another powerful motive. Several ancient sources
comment on Cynics vicious abuse of those who refused to give, which can
hardly have endeared the Cynics to the dignity-conscious Graeco-Roman
Philostratus tells the story of a man who made a living by accepting
bribes not to heckle the sophists, but who ended up being beatento deathby
one sophists retinue (V S 2.10 (587)). On the other hand, fear of abuse may
have worked in a beggars favour, eliciting donations from those anxious to
pre-empt or curtail public humiliation. Juvenal recounts that beggars who
made camp by the Via Appia at Aricia would mob the carriages of the elite
as they slowed down to climb the hill there. If the rich in their carriages gave
Chaudhuri (1987) 87.
E.g. Gell. NA 9.2.6. Cf. Diogenes Laertius claim that Diogenes used to practise begging from a
statue to accustom himself to rejection, but he considered alms his due, and would say so to his
targets, getting angry and abusive if refused (Vitae Philosophorum 6.46, 49, 59).
An exploration of pagan almsgiving 75
to the beggars who waylaid them, it may have been fromfear, if not of actual
violence, then of being harassed or shamed. This motivation should not
be underestimated. A surviving medieval epic on the Arabian underworld,
Abu Dulafs Qasda s as aniyya, illustrates the sorts of ways people can be
shamed or threatened into giving. The product of a culture with a very
strong religious exhortation to almsgiving, this text is a good reminder that
pity and religious feeling are not the only motives that move people to give:
He says that when [the beggars] go round shouting Amen!, they call down impre-
cations on the shopkeepers This is our greengrocer, strike him blind, O my
Lord! . . . And [they also cry] There is our butcher, strike him with paralysis, and
there is the cloth merchant, do not ever cure him! . . . And whoever repels them, is
anointed with the precious unguent of the anus [i.e. is pelted with faeces]. (Qasda
s as aniyya 1379)
Graeco-Roman society had a comparatively weak religious or moral char-
itable ethos, seldom recorded and probably haphazardly observed. The
inhabitants of the empire may have given out of a sense of pity or solidarity
at times, but we should probably expect a higher level of activity designed
to provoke almsgiving from amoral motivations than in a society such as
modern India or medieval western Arabia.
It is possible, for example, that in our period also, tabernarii were bullied
in their shops and stalls: shopkeepers crop up repeatedly in comparative
evidence as easy targets. They are particularly vulnerable, because they
operate in the public forum used by beggars, and because they fear having
customers put off. Shopkeepers in modern Taipei may be seen to try to
regulate times at which they are prepared to give, or to establish a reputation
for being a hard mark. Beggars play on peoples fear of contagion at market
stalls, threatening to dele goods, or actually deling them to make them
unsaleable, and thus win a forced gift. The Graeco-Roman perception that
beggars were unlucky and repulsive could certainly have worked in their
favour inthis way. The shopkeepers inTaipei report that it is difcult to beat
beggars off, because they have more time and manpower at their disposal,
and not much to lose. The beggars scare off business by day, but they also
inhabit the market at night, and if provoked can damage property in the
owners absence. Surrendering to this protection racket and giving small
amounts or waste products makes better economic sense.
observes that it is a very bad sign to dream of beggars entering as well as
ones house ones place of business, especially if they steal anything in the
dream (Artem. 3.53). At Kalighat too, shopkeepers often dislike the beggars
Schak (1988) 6062.
76 anneli ese parki n
because they think they deter customers. Others are more sympathetic,
and forge personal relationships with individual beggars, allowing them to
sleep in their shops at night in exchange for protecting the merchandise.
There is no difculty in imagining such scenarios for the Graeco-Roman
world, especially since beggars are located, at least in late sources, in the
This sort of aggressive begging is particularly prevalent in cultures where
destitute but able-bodied adult men have difculty in securing support.
There is no concrete evidence to suggest that people in the early imperial
period were loath to give to adult, able-bodied men. Idleness is not explic-
itly linked with begging, beyond vague venom directed at urban mobs
(for example, App. B Civ. 2.120; Sall. Cat. 37.7). It is possible, however,
that in general healthy men were particularly disadvantaged, because they
were perceived as capable of work they chose not to do. Able-bodied adult
men even in periods of chronic under/unemployment often receive
less sympathy from authorities and private benefactors than do the struc-
tural poor, and nd themselves classed automatically as undeserving poor.
Comparative evidence from later periods should prod us at least to look at
this possibility. Ambrose, for example, expresses his outrage that healthy
people, many of them itinerant, are asking the Church for charity, and
depriving the sanctioned poor of their alms. These people are motivated by
greed, says Ambrose, but they claim to be debtors, or to have been robbed
by bandits, and their claims should be thoroughly investigated to ensure
that recipients of charity are really deserving (Off. 2.76).
The concept of examination of beggars individual circumstances, of val-
idation and invalidation on the basis of health, is also seen in the earliest
piece of legal evidence we have explicitly dealing with beggars: the rescript
of the emperors Gratian, Valentinian II and Theodosius I dated 20 June, ad
This rescript was addressed to the urban prefect of Rome, Severus.
It ordered that beggars were to be examined with regard to their health
and age. Those who were found not to suffer from any debility if of slave
status were to be given to those who had informed on them. If free-born,
they were to become their denouncers coloni in perpetuity. This happens
Chaudhuri (1987) 8790.
Cf. John Chrysostom, Poenit. 7.6 (PG 49.332); In Gen. Hom. 65.5 (PG 54.564); In Gen. Serm. 5.4
(PG 54.603). Krause (1994) 166 n. 29 observes that this is a popular collection point for medieval
beggars too.
CTh 14.18.1; cf. CJ 11.26.1. See Grey and Parkin (2003). Cf. Justinians attempts to process the
unemployed poor ooding into the city of Constantinople in 539 ad. The old and sick were to be
maintained by the charitable, the rest were to be drafted into public building works, bakeries and
so on if they were strong (Nov. Iust. 80.5.1).
An exploration of pagan almsgiving 77
to be the oldest surviving reference to begging (mendicitas) in legislation,
but the underlying mentality which privileges the elderly and/or inrm
beggar appears to be much older. Our elite sources from the early imperial
period certainly show a general lack of understanding of the realities of
conjunctural poverty and underemployment, and a marked mistrust of the
apparently idle unemployed, loitering in the streets. Unemployment had
long been associated in Graeco-Roman thought with laziness and shame,
poverty and criminality.
To some extent this perception was gendered:
the portrayal of unemployed men as a social and political menace is char-
acteristic of the depictions of urban mobs in accounts of late Republican
It is common in such cases for able-bodied men who nd themselves
in distressed circumstances to develop compensatory strategies. First, they
may fake wounds or illnesses, as has already been discussed. Second, able-
bodied adult men may secure more sympathetic proxies to beg on their
behalves, and there is some evidence for this strategy also in the early
empire (Mart. 12.57.13; D. 25.3.4 (Paul)). The use of proxies can operate
on a small scale: the display of infants by beggars is very common, and at
Kalighat, the beggars make shows of family feeling, such as conspicuously
pious treatment of their parents.
On the other hand, exploiting others
as a business proposition by becoming a gang leader like Senecas child
mutilator is also very common in comparative evidence.
Alternatively, able-bodied adult men may be forced by necessity to com-
mit acts of extreme self-denigration or even self-harm, which evoke amuse-
ment or scorn, but which also provoke some return. John Chrysostom
claims to have witnessed many such desperate acts in the fourth century.
Poor men, hungry, desperate and mentally disturbed, unable to arouse any
pity from passers-by, are reported by Chrysostom to have sought attention
by chewing old shoes, banging nails into their own heads, and wading
into icy water. Chrysostom castigates his ock for watching these displays,
laughing and egging the men on by giving them money.
It is clear from Chrysostoms description that in the ancient world as
today, begging is not a homogeneous category: it blurs with providing
Pleket (1988) 272 traces a trend from Hesiod through to an Egyptian papyrus dating from the sixth
century ad (PFlor 295.5: an unemployed citizen is a mega kakon). Roug e (1979) 33947 claims that it
is characteristic of western thought in general to criminalise itinerant beggars and hence to persecute
them through the law.
Chaudhuri (1987) 32.
John Chrysostom, In Ep. I ad Cor. 21.56 (PG 61.1778). Cf. Firm. Mat. Mathesis 4.14.3, 4.14.15 for
links between intellectual disability, mental illness and beggary.
78 anneli ese parki n
entertainment and services, wanted or unwanted. Hence priests, magi-
cians, quack medical practitioners, peddlers and buskers are all sometimes
referred to in our sources as beggars.
Begging, work and entertainment
and extortion are generally a subject of semantic confusion, their divisions
very much in the eye of the beholder. The begging community in Taipei,
for example, do not consider busking to be begging, although most of their
social superiors do. In fact, they view many of their regular activities, such
as attending funerals, as work.
The common denominator is a request
for money at some point in the proceedings.
In the case of the Jewish woman in Juvenals sixth satire, itinerant work is
portrayed as beggary (6.5427). We could reject outright this description as
bigotry on Juvenals part, and reclassify this woman as a dream interpreter,
someone performing marginal work, but this renders reading our sources
very difcult, because we are no longer thinking in the same language as
them. It is more helpful to understand a vagueness in the categorisation
of begging and marginal work in antiquity. Artemidorus maintains that
he spent many years among dream interpreters working in markets and at
festivals, although they were deeply despised and insulted by some people
with a haughty air and raised eyebrow as beggars, charlatans and riffraff
(Artem. 1.pr.).
Seneca the Younger warns his reader that a wise man is not seduced by
the attery of a beggar (Constant. 2.13). The overlap between begging and
providing services can be very hazy: the offer of a ower, a sweet, or simply
a good-luck wish can serve either to incur obligation, or to ease the sordid
fact that a gift to a beggar is at root a one-way transaction, and to translate it
into the more pleasing idiomof exchange. Almsgiving in such a case is moti-
vated by a sense of obligation if not actual gratitude: it is glossed as payment
for services rendered. Exchanging alms for prayers might be acceptable,
but a callous remuneration for self-harm-as-entertainment is not the rela-
tionship that Chrysostom feels his ock ought to have with the destitute.
More appropriate would be pity for those perceived as genuinely unable
to earn another way, but the extremity of the acts in which these beggars
engage is well paralleledinbroader comparative evidence. InmodernChina,
Cf. for example Apul. Met. 1.4 for a sword-swallower invitamento exiguae stipis to more dangerous
Schak (1988) 29, 18890. Schak (1988) 504: forms of work for beggars in Taipei include keeping
a stud pig, quack dentistry, prostitution, busking, making or selling small things: some genuine
goods, some pseudo-services. Income is generally not derived solely from begging unless no other
options are available.
Cf. Vogelstein and Rieger (1895) 64: dream interpreters and soothsayers were regarded as only a
higher form of aggressive begging.
An exploration of pagan almsgiving 79
able-bodied adult men are forced into abject self-depreciation, verbal or
physical, which wins scornful alms.
It is a venerable tradition. Consider
for example these observations on pre-industrial China:
There are many reports of beggars mutilating themselves in front of others while
asking for alms: striking themselves with sticks or bricks; cutting themselves to
draw blood with sickles, knives, or razors, perhaps sprinkling the blood on a shop
oor; driving nails into the head; pounding the head on a wall, a cobblestone in
the street, or the head of another beggar; or lighting combustible materials on the
The impact is potentially two-fold: the mark who feels pity will give money
to prevent further self-harm, while the mark who feels no pity may pay for
the entertainment. In pre-industrial China, beggars were viewed as be-sai,
inadequate. It was a macho, competitive society, in which they were the
weak. They were also dirty, contagious and repulsive, but contempt did
not prevent giving: indeed, the total inequality in a sense allowed it.
interesting parallel can be drawn here with Graeco-Roman antiquity, also
a competitive society, and in which beggars were also seen as repulsive and
demeaned, and yet received alms. Giving to a beggar was, and had to be,
outside the normal paradigm of return. Self-demeaning by able-bodied
adult men is surely an attempt by those who might seem dangerously equal
to belittle themselves, to associate themselves with the structural poor, and
so achieve a paradigm shift.
Another of the Declamationes falsely attributed to Quintilian describes
a father who has bankrupted himself to ransom one of his sons, and who
nds himself spurned by the son he was unable to ransom. The father is
made to say that he does not require loving care of his son, merely alms.
The son need not offer food with his own hands; the father will be content
with scraps that are thrown to him, that he may carry away to eat. He
muses that giving someone food without showing them any compassion is
in itself a sort of revenge (Ps.-Quint. Decl. 5.9). The point is surely that this
is how strangers provide support, rather than how kin should provide it: in
a careless fashion. It actually sounds very similar to what Seneca advocates,
a generous act without pity. To give without compassion is a performative
reinforcement of the social hierarchy. Roman society was very concerned
with status: giving without return is a way of declaring ones superiority.
Beggars were widely despised, yet this need not have ruled out giving to
them. Indeed, it may have encouraged it. One could give as a symbol of
despite: recognising need, and making scorn visible through action.
Schak (1988) 47, 60.
Schak (1988) 60.
Schak (1988) 3031.
80 anneli ese parki n
If self-harm did not work, there was always violence against others, and
fear of this must underlie the permission recorded in the Theodosian Code
to raze the shelters of the homeless if it was perceived they were harbouring
There was great unease over waves of begging peasants during
rural crises in pre-industrial China: nineteenth-century Chinese scholars
and literary authors alike claim that beggars who were not given sufcient
alms turned to violent crime to make a living.
In modern Taipei there
are beggars who threaten passers-by with snakes, apparently a centuries-
old trick. Cursing people is both common and feared.
These curses,
reminiscent of the arai Bouzygeiai, carry us full circle again into the realm
of religion and magic. We know from Tacitus and Libanius that people
were terried of curses in the Graeco-Roman world.
Superstition can be
a powerful weapon.
Families involved in public rites such as weddings and funerals crop up
repeatedly in comparative evidence as easy targets for threats of this type,
concerned for their dignity and that nothing inauspicious should occur.
Jumping into the grave at funerals is popular among beggars in Taipei,
where people involved in religious observances are considered vulnerable,
because these are occasions fraught with status display and superstition.
Of course, if there is a religious expectation of alms, these are even more
powerful occasions (BuddhismandTaoismbothactively approve of begging
as an ascetic activity).
Such behaviour is not all negative: Chinese beggars
also take advantage of superstition by wishing people luck on auspicious
The children in Senecas Controversia 10.4 were in the habit of appearing
at both weddings and public sacrices, where they were perceived to be
unlucky omens (10.4.8). The most likely motivation for these appearances
is that they were paid to go away again.
The text also mentions that
the children presented themselves on holidays, which were supposed to
be cheerful occasions. Perhaps they too gained alms from superstitious
goodwill. Glimpsing this behaviour is a rare opportunity to recognise that
the poor are not always passive at the hands of their social and economic
Dio Chrys. Or. 40.89; CTh 15.1.39; cf. John Chrysostom, In I Cor. 11.5 (PG61.945). See MacMullen
(1959) 2089.
Schak (1988) 19094.
Schak (1988) 59.
See Gager (1992).
Schak (1988) 59, 62.
Schak (1988) 17.
Schak (1988) 54.
Modern Chinese beggars deliberately associate themselves with the extreme taboo of death (Schak
(1988) 345). As Graeco-Roman beggars were frequently characterised by ill-health, and sometimes
ate offerings off graves and slept in cemeteries, they may similarly have been regarded as tainted by
An exploration of pagan almsgiving 81
superiors. They can exploit societal disgust by manipulating it to their own
conclusi on
In any society, the response to beggars is likely to be differentiated, but it
remains worthwhile to beg even if only a tiny percentage of people respond.
Comparative studies indicate that people give to beggars in payment for
services rendered, or from fear or revulsion, or out of irritation, to persuade
beggars to move on, or from compassion, especially for sick and disabled
people. Compassion is also felt for those perceived to be unable to get
subsistence fromany other source: refugees, women without kin and so on.
People do not give if they suspect dishonesty or laziness, if they consider that
the beggars are making too much money, or are ungrateful.
The givers
motives are complex and vary from donor to donor, and from moment to
moment. Similarly, pretexts for asking are varied, and include the religious,
rendering services, threatening and abusing.
We can posit a model of this sort for the Graeco-Roman world: tidy
explanations do not ring true, and cannot help to explain the welter of
conicting views on begging evident in our sources. Some information can
be extracted from elite philosophy and moralising to explain the presence
of beggars in antiquity, in spite of minimal elite interest. Interpretation
of these fragments is aided by taking into account evidence from better
attested periods, since there is so little variation in the basic circumstances
of the destitute, and such a startling degree of continuity in the tactics and
responses of both those receiving and those giving.
Elite self-representation and lack of interest in our sources mask a reality
of desultory, but habitual, giving. There is more interaction between the
elite and the structural poor in the early imperial period than appears in
the primary sources if casually read, and more than modern scholars have
implied, concentrating as they do exclusively on euergetism and bene-
centia. Moreover, our tendency to view Graeco-Roman society as severely
hierarchical and vertical and to assume that all giving must have come from
the top has tended to blind us to the likelihood of low-level charity among
the lower strata. Among the destitute, the structural poor, unable to labour,
are the favoured targets for charity. The division of the indigent according
to labour potential in the imperial edict of ad 382 is the oldest surviving
ofcial acknowledgement of this distinction, but it was not a new idea in
Schak (1988) 4041, 46.
Schak (1988) 423, 45.
82 anneli ese parki n
the fourth century. On the contrary: the cultural currents that gave rise to
this edict are clearly visible, albeit not programmatically stated in the early
empire. Our sources indicate that unsupported sick or disabled people and
the very young tended to be more likely to arouse pity that was manifested
in almsgiving. Discourse surrounding the unsupported elderly of both gen-
ders is less clear-cut, but in many cases evident frailty may have provoked
a similar response to illness or disability. But while the handful of pagan
voluntary poor in this period received support despite being (in many cases)
able-bodied males, in general such men were severely disadvantaged if they
slipped from conjunctural poverty into destitution.
chapter 5
Writing poverty in Rome

Greg Woolf
It is the tenth hour of the Roman day. Business, siesta, bathing are done and
now it is dinner, otium following negotium. Mingled with otium the careful
performance of social ofcia as amici groom each other, the host balancing
his reciprocal ministrations with his peers, feeding his lesser amici who in
turn provide the audience that makes him great. All are friends, but the
polite Latin of friendship and the etiquette of the table allows for subtle
differentiations of status, just as eachdinner offers the chance or riskof social
demotions and promotions, of slights and compliments.
The cena, where
Roman ethics of patronage and deference met Greek symposiastic ethics of
equality and frank-speaking, was a privileged space for such renegotiations.
Literary cenae were natural vehicles for comment on these games of status
and friendship, and on the culinary and social codes they employed.
modern readers none of the diners were social inferiors in any signicant
sense. Except for the grandest and most offensive banquets dreamed
up by the satirists, we imagine a play around relatively slight differentials
among men who all owned property, who shared the same educational
background and so on. Yet images of poverty recur again and again in the
literary games that are an essential component of all written cenae and also
in the poetry performed at these and similar occasions, often composed by
poets who themselves claimed to be impoverished, for all their facility at
reading and representing the subtle gastronomic coding of the banquet.
My subject is not the ritual of the table even though that would
be an appropriate subject with which to celebrate Peter Garnsey nor

This is a much better chapter than the paper presented at the conference held in Cambridge in 2003
thanks to the criticisms and comments of its audience, of the editors, of John Henderson, Emily
Gowers and of the anonymous readers for Cambridge University Press. My thanks to all.
Saller (1982).
Oswyn Murray, especially in Murray (1985), has done more than anyone to show how this worked.
See also the papers gathered in Murray (1990) especially DArms (1990). Dunbabin (1998) shows the
implications for andof the physical settings of banquets andnotes the increasedemphasis onsignalling
hierarchy (rather than solidarity) through the arrangement of dining spaces fromthe early principate.
84 greg woolf
the mimetic elaboration of those rituals in Latin texts.
But the cena is a
good starting point for a consideration of the representation of poverty in
Latin literature.
The dinners of the wealthy were both a key setting for
the consumption of these images of destitution, and also utterly remote
from the Realien of poverty. Yet even social historians who would rather
rummage for evidence in the Subura or conduct interviews in the cramped
attics of insulae or the shanty towns built in Romes cemetery belt, are
often compelled to view the poor from the triclinia of the wealthy. It is a
constant complaint and an accurate observation that the Roman poor
are particularly difcult to see from this perspective.
That is no surprise, given that no society has ever created a literature con-
cerned with disinterested social reportage; that where the poor are promi-
nent it is due to their peculiar moral valency in Christian as in Jewish and
Islamic thought;
and that many genres epic and tragedy, erotic and
elegiac verse, history and forensic oratory, to cite just the most obvious
had only occasional need for the poor. Perhaps it is more surprising that
we have the images of poverty that we do have. Why bring the poor, even
occasionally, into the concert halls? Why dramatise their plight over dinner
or at a formal reading, a recitatio? Why should the rich man want to hear
his slave read out laments for the lot of a sector of society that neither knew,
or perhaps would ever know?
For those who produced and consumed this textualised poverty, the poor
must have seemed a distant and largely undifferentiated mass, the diachrony
of their individual tragedies blurring into a static background of endemic
misery. In the city, the houses of the rich were notoriously open, but not to
all. Ianitores restricted access to the communal areas of the house. As the rich
Roman ventured outside, he or she was escorted always by personal slaves,
some of them simple attendants, others specialists like the nomenclatores
whose role was to mediate between masters and chance encounters. On
formal occasions a crowd of (respectable) clientes might escort their patronus
out of doors, performing what Martial calls opera togata (toga-ed service).
Candidati in the Republic might be accompanied around the forum by
suffragatores. But often the wealthy were literally carried above the heads of
the throng in litters. They never had unmediated contact with the urban
poor. Lesser friends, and above all a mass of slaves, interposed themselves
Effects illuminated by Gowers (1993).
Anneliese Parkins unpublished Cambridge PhD thesis offers by far the best discussion of con-
junctural and structural poverty, the numbers of the various categories of poor, their health, their
accommodation and their diet. Whittaker (1993) is an excellent introduction to the subject.
Brown (2002) for an exploration of the revolution in the social imagination that brought this about.
Mart. 3.46.
Writing poverty in Rome 85
physically between the rich and the poor. Although there is every indication
that in Rome, as in other towns, the rich lived physically rather close to at
least some of the poor, they neednever have met. Whatever tenuous business
connections linked, for example, those who invested capital in trade with
the men who unloaded cargoes in the emporium, all was managed through
intermediaries of various kinds. Patronage never reached the abjectly poor,
for they had nothing with which to reciprocate the benecia of the rich.
Ranks of seating in the theatre displayed a social order, but the key divisions
were those it entrenchedwithinRomes elite. Fundamentally undemocratic,
Roman society was already ercely segregated, ercest of all at the top.
None of this was unique to ancient Rome. The physical separation of
poor and rich and the dramatic effects of their occasional confrontation
is a trope we are familiar with from our own cultural life, from The Prince
and the Pauper through many passages of Dickens to Tom Wolfes Bonre
of the Vanities. But each (elite) society has its own way of imagining that
gulf of misunderstanding and the effects of occasional encounters across it.
Members of the Roman property-owning classes moved through their city
as if sealed in protective bubbles. The poor were certainly visible. Dead and
alive they must have communicated a faint stench of uncleanliness, and
perhaps a raucous noise in the distance, but they remained at the edge of
the wealthys eld of vision, masked by drapes and perfume and the more
elevated conversation of attendants. The poor could rarely get physically
close. Steep hills on which wheeled transport and litters were forced to
slow to a walking pace, and the bottlenecks at bridges, offered beggars rare
opportunities to catch up with carriages. But even then the rich man was
surrounded by his servile outer defences.
All this is familiar territory of course. And the familiar illustration is the
complaint Juvenal puts into Umbricius mouth in Satire 3:
If duty calls the rich man rides there in a great litter,
the crowd parting before him. All the while he sits inside:
reading, or taking notes, or even snoozing:
the blinds drawn over the window make him sleepy.
Yet as we hurry along on foot, he overtakes us.
The mass of people surges ahead. Those behind us buffet my rib-cage,
poles poke into me. One man drops a beam
on my head, another bashes me with a barrel. (Satire 3.23946)
Garnsey and Woolf (1989) make this point in relation to the rural poor.
Si vocat ofcium, turba cedente vehetur / dives et ingenti curret super ora Liburna / atque obiter leget
aut scribet vel dormiet intus; / namque facit somnum clausa lectica fenestra. / ante tamen veniet: nobis
properantibus obstat / unda prior, magno populus premit agmine lumbos / qui sequitur; ferit hic cubito,
ferit assere duro / alter, at hic tignum capiti incutit, ille metretam.
86 greg woolf
Lets defamiliarise this for a moment. For the word illustration is a con-
venient camouage that allows the historian to conceal some controversy
over howwe should, or might, legitimately use passages of this kind.
I refer
to the recent debates over the social realism of satire and the legitimacy
of mining it for vivid vignettes of urban experience.
That debate is often
played out in terms that are too simple, or at least too extreme. Satire cannot
be convicted of unreliability simply on the grounds that it refers to other
texts and shares tropes with them: after all, those criticisms apply to most
academic papers. Nor can satire be defended simply by pointing to occa-
sional correspondence with archaeological data, as if satire were a witness
whose reliability on one matter can be established on the basis of whether
or not it tells the truth about others. The issue is an important one. Martial,
Juvenal and Pliny have been staples of the social history of the principate
for nearly a century and a half since Ludwig Friedlander wrote his com-
mentaries on them, and his analyses of it. Understanding how Latin poetry
appropriated the social world within which it was composed, performed
and read is an essential prerequisite for its use.
Juvenals Satire 3 has been much discussed recently. It is common ground
now to read Umbricius as himself an object of fun, his views a parody
of viewpoints perhaps often expressed, his persona a gure inconsistent,
extreme and far from committed to a simple life of retreat. His Rome is
a travesty, and in its congested streets there is no one except dives and the
populus. Either you are in the litter, or you are pushed off the pavement.
Where should we place the narrator and Umbricius themselves? Not among
the poor, certainly, if they are bothered by recitationes and can decamp to
the Crater of Naples on a whim. But if they are wealthy, why does the trafc
bother them? There is naturally no answer to this. Besides, the plight of
the poor man is only a small part of Umbricius condemnation, just as the
physical deciencies of the city have to ght for airtime with its moral,
cultural and social shortcomings.
Much Roman writing on poverty is of this kind. Indeed, my main claim
in this chapter is that there was no unied Roman discourse of poverty.
Perhaps the best way to showwhat I mean by this is to contrast poverty with
Braund (1989) on the question. Henderson (1999) exposes the problems inherent in all attempts to
extract social history from satire.
Scheidel (2003a) against Laurence (1997) on Scobie (1986). Scobie is in fact rather careful about
what inferences he draws from literary sources, and builds his picture largely on the evidence of the
Digest and archaeological information.
There is an urgent need, then, for a sociology of ancient literary practices, especially for the Roman
world. Fantham (1996) is maybe the best overall account of these dynamics. For an attempt to locate
literary activity relative to other aristocratic pursuits see Woolf (2003).
Writing poverty in Rome 87
objects of writing such as luxury or sexuality. Each of these may be said to
have become well demarcated and densely packed discursive elds. As such
they were cultivated for the many rhetorical ends they might be made to
serve. Over time, they came to be well provided with canonical exempla,
with stock citations and allusions, and they evolved their own classic for-
mulations, loci communes, and inspired cunning elaborations on the same.
Luxury and sex had many uses in the performative, deliberative and argu-
mentative terrains in which Latin rhetoric was deployed. They offered fuel
for political invective, they might make villains more magnicent or terri-
fying, they could even offer great culture-mythical narratives about moral
decline, or the means of debunking an idealised past.
Poverty, by contrast,
seems to have been less central, a topic generally evoked only in passing.
When poverty was needed, however, it could be evoked to great effect.
Perhaps no account of misery is as vivid as Lucretius account of the collapse
of the archetypal civilised society, classical Athens, under the impact of the
The account of the pathology of the disease, and of its progression
day by day leads into a catalogue of horrors: self-mutilation by the aficted,
the rapid death of carrion birds after they have fed on the infected corpses,
the spread of despair, the erosion of human values, neglect of the gods. The
nale is the collapse of the burial customs that the pious Athenians had
always followed, as each man looked after the burial of his own dead as best
he could.
Sudden disaster and ghastly poverty persuaded them to many new expedients.
For with great weeping they would lay out their own dead on the wood piled on
funeral pyres belonging to other families, and as they put the torches to the wood
were ghting bloody battles over them, rather than abandon their dead.
De Rerum Natura 6.12836)
Poverty here is collective, the condition of an entire society reduced by
disaster, an accompaniment to the end of that civilisation the creation of
whichLucretius hadchartedearlier inhis work. Yet this is not anapocalyptic
vision like the Norse account of the events preceding Ragnarok, the battle
at the end of the world. All that it has taken to return Athens at its peak to
original savagery is res subita et paupertas horrida, unforeseen disaster and
ghastly poverty. Poverty is damage, as potentially horric as it is collateral.
Edwards (1993) for some of these uses.
I am grateful to my colleague Dr Emily Greenwood for drawing my attention to this passage.
Multaque res subita et paupertas horrida suasit; / namque suos consanguineos aliena rogorum / insuper
extructa ingenti clamore locabant / subdebantque faces, multo cum sanguine saepe / rixantes potius quam
corpora deserentur.
88 greg woolf
But poverty was not the plot, not the centre of attention, and it was never
centre eld when the Romans contemplated the world, civility and history.
Howthen did Roman writers learn to evoke the plight of the poor? Just as
in the case of those impassioned denunciations of Roman imperialism put
into the mouths of barbarian enemies by Sallust and Tacitus, the voice of
the poor was impersonated by those who had been trained in the standard
exercises of the rhetorical schools. Poverty is in fact a common theme in
Seneca the Elders Controversiae, a collection of classic treatments of the
stock themes of the schools, a collection that presents itself as a didactic
tool aimed in the rst place at the authors sons, constituting a series of
exempla of speech rather than of heroic action. A good example is provided
by the themes of the ninth set piece in Book 2:
A rich man disinherits his three sons. He asks a poor man to allow him to adopt his
only son. The poor man wishes to agree, but his son refuses, and is disinherited.
A series of treatments follow, each treating the case from a different per-
spective, and each linked to the name of one of the famous orators Seneca
commemorates in this work. One of the most vivid is produced by Arel-
lius Fuscus the Elder.
The youth rst appeals to the rich man to choose
a fatherless youth, then to his father to set him any other task, and then
embarks on an attack on riches and praise of poverty. Riches do not bring
happiness to those who have them. The poverty of Romulus and the lial
love of Aeneas are cited. His father means more to him than riches ever
could. Riches might have corrupted him How I love you poverty, since
through you I remain innocent!
Renewed protestations of love for his
father are followed by exempla, those of Crassus and Croesus showing the
risks of wealth, those of Tubero and Fabricius showing how ancestral virtue
was associated with poverty in Rome.
An even more striking version is given by Papirius Fabianus,
Seneca describes in the preface as philosophus. The speech opens with a
vivid portrayal of a bloody battle, a condemnation of all war as parricide
(parricidium) and the allegation that the motive for war is greed for riches,
riches that will be used pointlessly. Buildings are raised so high that they
risk burning down or collapsing. The desire for luxury leads to desecration
of the earth through mining and deforestation, the wealth extracted brings
anxiety and fear. O poverty, how little known a good you are! and so it
goes on, cataloguing adynata and unnatural reversals of sea and land in
Sen. Controv. 2.1.48.
Quam te, paupertas, amo, si benecio tuo innocens sum!
Sen. Controv. 2.1.1013.
Writing poverty in Rome 89
elaborate building projects. The speeches from the perspective of the son
are followed by those taking the fathers part, in large part in defence of
wealth. Porcius Latro has the father declare It is the census that raises one
to senatorial rank, the census that separates Roman knights from the plebs,
the census that orders the army and decides who will judge in the forum.
Arellius Fuscus claims that antique poverty meant nothing because then,
everyone was poor. But in some sense it is Senecas subsequent discussion
which is most revealing. The orators are differentiated not by how they
treat poverty, but by the way they treat riches. Should the son attack the
rich man or riches itself? Should the son declare that he does not wish to
be rich, or that he would not know how to be rich?
Controversiae were in their nature extreme. They employed hard cases,
ostensibly to test the speakers ingenuity and teach them skills for use in
less exotic contexts. Other uses of these training exercises have been more
recently suggested.
Apart fromthe internal dynamics of the genre towards
competitive displays of virtuosity andwrittenversions of ex tempore speeches
to be read at leisure, the exercises perhaps also played a role in socialisation
and acculturation. The stock exempla, it has been suggested, played in the
Roman imagination a role analogous to myth or drama in that of classical
Athens; the preoccupations with honour, masculinity and physical bravery
perhaps helped form a public and masculine identity cast in those terms;
the reliance on formal and traditional modes of argument maybe bolstered
condence in custom; the dilemmas that opposed rival ofcia modelled the
moral dilemmas that characterised adult life; the insistence on lial pietas,
on keeping ones word, on obedience to the law all taught Roman virtues.
Poverty has a prominent place in this schematic universe in which Roman
boys learn to become Roman men.
Rhetorical exercises mapped the social universe as populations of char-
acteristic types: the general, the father, the slave, the magistrate and so on.
In this gallery, the poor man and the rich man were prominent gures.
Nor was this habit of thinking conned to the Schools. In the Dream-
book of Artemidorus, a key tool for discerning the meaning of a dream
was the identity of the dreamer affected by it: comparisons between what
the same dream meant for a poor man and a rich man are frequent. So,
dreaming of oneself as a baby was a good sign for a poor man (as it sig-
nied nourishment) but a bad sign for a craftsman, a wealthy man or a
married man (1.13). Dreaming one was pregnant is good if one is a poor
man, bad if one is a rich man, bad for a married man, good for a bachelor
Kaster (2001) for a brief introduction to this literature.
90 greg woolf
(1.14). It is a good thing for a young woman to dream her breasts are full
of milk, good too for an old woman if she is poor, bad if she is rich, good
if she is unmarried but bad if prepubertal (1.16). Intermediate conditions
were excluded from this world. As in the schematic and imaginary world of
the controversiae, the rhetoric of dichotomisation set the wealthy perilously
close to poverty.
Discussions of poverty are generated in the controversiae as part of a
discourse much more central to Roman culture, a discourse about wealth,
its risks, advantages, moral consequences and ethical possibilities. As in
New Comedy, to which the scenarios of controversiae often bear a striking
resemblance, much depends on a drama of role reversal. The rich man is
often threatened with impoverishment, and sons with being disinherited.
The scenarios also often include cases of unexpected inheritances. Reversals
of fortune are essential to the pocket narratives included in almost all the
scenarios. The opening scenario of Book 1 is a good example:
Two brothers were in dispute. One had a son. The uncle fell on hard times.
Although his father forbade him to, the youth supported him. As a result he was
disinherited, but made no complaint. He was then adopted by his uncle. The latter
received a bequest and became rich. Now the father has fallen on hard times, and
the youth is supporting him but against his uncles wishes. Now he is disinherited.
(Sen. Controv. 1.1)
Characteristically, nancial reversals are interlinked in the scenario with
shifting relationships and apparently conicting ofcia. The rst speaker,
adopting the persona of the son, ironically asks if he is being punished for
luxuria (when he has spent all his money supporting two aged men). There
follows a graphic evocation of the father, unable even to beg effectively since
the uncle is known to be rich, and of the son starving to death because of the
old mens quarrel. The third speaker evokes Marius, a beggar at Carthage, a
stock gure for the reversal of fortune but doubly relevant here to the theme
of impoverishment. Speaker after speaker taking the sons part evokes the
pangs of hunger, the decrepit appearance of the beggar, the humiliation of
begging and the double humiliation of begging in vain.
The situation is fantastic, of course, but the anxieties about impover-
ishment are perhaps characteristic of this social class. They are prominent
among the anxieties to which the Stoicismof Epictetus offers remedies.
his discussion of the various treatments of Controversia 2.9 Seneca devotes
For example Discourses 2.13.11 on the futility of worrying over things outside our control. But we
are anxious about our body, about our property, about Caesars opinion of us, but not about what
is within us; cf. 1.110.
Writing poverty in Rome 91
most attention to Fabianus the philosopher. These rhetorical set pieces drew
on subjects debated at length by Stoics, Epicureans, Cyrenaics and Cynics
among others. Are material goods indifferent or bad? Is the pleasure they
bring to be sought, despised or actively avoided? Are desire and the fear
of loss that goes with it, obstacles to contentment and detachment? Other
ancient sciences offered alternative approaches to the therapy of desire.
When Manilius in his Astronomica discusses the twelve athla (a technical
term in astrology sometimes translated as lots) into which his astrological
authorities divide human experience the rst place is given to Fortuna:
This is how it is known in astrology, because fortune contains in itself the main
characteristics of the home [domus]. All that attaches to the name of home: the
limit set on the number of ones slaves, how much land you will own, the size of
buildings it is given one to erect, all according to the degree of harmony in the
wandering stars of bright heaven. (Manilius, Astronomica 3.96101)
Wealth appears again as the subject of the sixth athlum while the twelfth
offers advice on success in general, itemised as decisions on whether or not
to take up positions, whether to go to law, whether to engage in overseas
trade, and whether to invest in arable crops or vines. The Dreambook of
Artemidorus offered itself as a manual to allow some categories of dreams
to be used to predict the future. As with astrology, many of the outcomes
deal with material prosperity or the reverse.
The controversiae played on the fear of sudden reversals of fortune. The
play they offer is at points fairly sophisticated. Desire for wealth was com-
monly condemned as avaritia and fear of losing it was for Stoics at least a
sign of a deciency in wisdom. The example of the doubly disinherited yet
virtuous son, offered young Romans respectable reasons for valuing their
wealth, along with the chance to play act at giving it all up for the sake of
honour and lial piety.
Concerns over wealth were central to the Roman moralising tradition
from the creation of Latin literature onwards, not least for the reason Por-
cius Latro gives in the rst case discussed. The census was in some respects
the foundation for social order in the Republic.
Under the principate, new
property qualications separated senatorial and equestrian orders, eques-
trian procurators took titles from their salaries, and provincial taxes incor-
porated censuses of a new sort. Wealth in Rome was not simply a focus of
moral scrutiny (as it was in many ancient city states), nor was it important
Martha Nussbaums (1994) apt characterisation of much of the philosophy of this period.
Nicolet (1976) is fundamental on the Republic. The means by which wealth marked social status
changed but did not diminish under the Principate.
92 greg woolf
primarily because it was convertible to social or political capital. The institu-
tion of the census made wealth one of the most explicit and formal measures
of an individuals social standing and a key component of his public iden-
tity. One consequence was that impoverishment carried with it the threat
of a form of social death. For the grandest Romans it would entail formal
expulsion from the senate, or even the equestrian centuries and a conse-
quent check on careers in the public or the emperors service, as well as
the inability to sustain reciprocal exchanges of the kind needed to main-
tain social intercourse with ones social peers. Where other societies have
envisaged the category of the nobleman fallen on hard times but sustained
by his friends, or even the gallant gure who loses one fortune by accident
and wins another through his own resources, Romans seem to have found
it more difcult to imagine a return from penury by reputable means. Fear
of impoverishment must have been difcult to separate from fear of the
loss of ones social identity.
So maybe it is not surprising that the debate on wealth was central
to the work of poets, orators and philosophers alike. Poverty entered the
equation mostly as its opposite, sometimes even as an heuristic or rhetorical
construct: Wealthlessness, as it were, rather than Destitution. Just as Peter
Garnsey has shown how much ancient theorising on slavery was largely
a product of a preoccupation with liberty,
so poverty was evoked as a
vantage point from which to scrutinise wealth. Once evoked, of course,
there was more that could be done with the notion. But Latin writing
about poverty almost never had anything to do with the actual experiences
of those whom we would classify as the Roman poor.
Seneca the Younger offers plentiful examples of the deployment of
poverty in debates on the proper use of riches. Here is one from Letter
Doubtless what you seek from postponing your studies is that you may not fear
poverty. But what if you should seek it instead? Riches have shut off many a
man from the attainment of wisdom: poverty is unburdened and free from care.
When the trumpet sounds the poor man knows that he is not being attacked,
when Water! is called for he only seeks a way of escape and does not ask what
he can save; if the poor man must go to sea, the harbour does not resound, nor
do the wharves bustle with the retinue of just one individual. No throng of slaves
Garnsey (1996). For recent examinations of the Roman discourse of slavery, see Fitzgerald (2000)
and McCarthy (2000). Both studies in different ways show how literary representations of slaves
are never principally about slavery. Yet the ubiquity of slaves in some genres notably comedy
and satire set up expectations, norms and stereotypes that were richer and more complex than
portrayals of the poor man ever became.
Writing poverty in Rome 93
surrounds the poor man slaves for whose mouths the master must covet the
fertile crops of regions beyond the sea. It is easy to ll a few stomachs, when they
are well trained, and crave nothing else but to be lled. Hunger costs but little;
squeamishness costs much. Poverty is content with fullling pressing needs. (Sen.
Ep. 17.35)
It is easy to condemn passages of this sort as demonstrating a complete lack
of concern for the poor on the part of the Roman elite. Senecas argument
reads less offensively if we understand paupertas to be the absence of wealth
rather than a condition of life. To be fair to him, he follows up if you wish
to have leisure for your mind, either be a poor man or behave like a poor
man. For the Stoic, the idea that wealth was not necessary for wisdom and
that given a choice, wisdom was always preferable, was uncontroversial. To
clinch his argument Seneca quotes, as he often does, Epicurus: For many
the acquisition of riches has not put an end to their miseries, but simply
changed their character. Wealth or its absence is irrelevant. It is a matter
of indifference whether the sick mind nds itself in riches or in poverty.
His malady goes with the man. Poverty in passages of this kind and there
are a lot of them is constructed negatively, effectively as the absence of
riches, rather than in terms of the actual content of the condition.
Rhetorical modes of performance and composition, the dialectical char-
acter of philosophical writing, the comic technique of juxtaposing opp-
osites as in the Satyricon where Neronian aesthetes hang out with the
low life all these combine to construe poverty not as a clearly conceptu-
alised condition of Deprivation, but negatively as the Opposite of Wealth.
Projects of dichotomisation of this kind produce glimpses of a fantastic
Roman world created to illuminate the real one in the manner of the imag-
inary lands of Gullivers Travels. It is no surprise that any literal reading of
these texts (and so also all attempts to cut and paste them into reportage)
fails miserably.
If Senecas pauper seems reasonably comfortable to modern readers, then
Umbricius paints a terrifying picture of the lot of even those whom we
would regard as reasonably well off. The images do not add up because
Nempe hoc quaeris et hoc ista dilatione vis consequi, ne tibi paupertas timenda sit; quid si adpetenda
est? multis ad philosophandum obstitere divitiae; paupertas expedita est, secura est. cum classicum cecinit,
scit non se peti; cum aqua conclamata est, quomodo exeat, non quid efferat, quaerit; ut si navigandum
est, non strepitat portus nec unius comitatu inquieta sunt litora. non circumstat illum turba servorum,
ad quos pascendos transmarinarum regionum est optanda fertilitas. facile est pascere paucos ventres et
bene institutos et nihil aliud desiderantes quam inpleri. parvo fames constat, magno fastidium. paupertas
contenta est desideriis instantibus satis facere.
Duponts (1992), 3247 discussion provides a case in point, accepting the notion of a society divided
into rich and poor, but then forced to allowher poor security, leisure, slaves and a degree of opulence.
94 greg woolf
they are not part of the same picture. The sociologist misses any sense of
the gradations of poverty or any depiction of kinds of poverty between
that of the nobleman who has lost his fortune and is unable to keep up
with his peers, and that of the beggar starving to death in the street. The
declaimers in the controversiae deftly collapse the categories into one, as if
disinheritance would really reduce a senators son to starvation. The absence
of a unied and coherent view of poverty is very marked. Neither Juvenal
nor Seneca have much to gain in these particular contexts from portraying
a more gradated social hierarchy; elsewhere the condemnation that both
show to social climbers implies forcefully that no unbreachable gulf existed
between rich and poor.
Poverty as Unwealth admitted many other uses. One was in the construc-
tion of various kinds of the virtuous poor. Republican aristocrats toasting
turnips while receiving embassies, ploughing their own elds and dressed in
rough home-spun linen are one such category. The poor but loyal citizen-
soldiery, farming tiny plots in the hills and raising huge families between
campaigns of world conquest form another. Past virtue was often the past
before riches, whether riches won by war or acquired by avarice. These
themes have been well explored.
Bucolic poetry and lyric too sometimes
celebrate a simple life, rural rather than urban, an imaginary world in
John Lennons sense, with no ofcia, no politics, no possessions but no
real deprivation or hunger either. These worlds too were poor only in their
remoteness from what did preoccupy their readers. The absence of strug-
gles for wealth, status and security is noticeable. So too is their precarious
existence, idylls which Roman history periodically threatens to disrupt.
Many other texts could be evoked here, but I have chosen to conclude
with the epigrams of Martial, partly because he is so often mined for Realien
or just for nice illustrations for an argument about social history, but
partly because he shows what an ingenious and versatile poet could do with
Poverty could be the basis of invective. Take Epigram 1.92, an obscene
attack on a rival in love:
Cestus often complains to me with his eyes full of tears that you have poked him
with your nger, Mamurianus. You dont need to stop at the nger. You can have
Cestus all to yourself, Mamurianus, if he is the only thing you lack. If, on the other
Compare Scheidel (chapter 3) on the middling poor.
For instance in Lintott (1972) and Levick (1982).
Hor. Carm. 1.1, Verg. Ecl. 1 are loci classici, programmatically establishing their rural idylls just on the
margins of contemporary political strife. The Good Life they portray is in any case more a matter
of simplicity than poverty.
Writing poverty in Rome 95
hand, you have no hearth, replace nor bare bed frame; if you do not own even a
chipped Chione or Antiope beaker; if your loin cloth is stained and patched and if
a Gallic cloak covers only half your bum; if your only food is the smell of a grimy
kitchen; if you lie on your belly with the dog to drink lthy water: why in that
case I shall dig my nger into, not your bum for a bum that never shits is no
bum at all but into your one remaining eye. Dont call me the jealous type or
ill-intentioned. Just wait until youre full before you bugger about, Mamurianus.
The epigramis very Catullan, in its subject matter, in the homoerotic theme
and in the not so-casual Hellenisms, and in fact Catullan models have been
suggested, most plausibly poems 15 and 21.
Like Catullus 21 this epigram
abuses its victim, called Mamurianus (another echo of Catullus?) for his
lack of any comforts, but it goes further in painting a vivid picture of
the physical squalour of poverty. Most striking is the image of the pauper
lying on the ground to lap dirty water alongside a dog, or the outrageous
suggestion that he has so little to eat that he has lost the (proper) use of his
The association of the poor with dogs recurs in different forms in other
epigrams of Martial. The pauper lives like a dog, he eats like one, he com-
petes with dogs for food, and will be eaten by dogs rather than buried.
Martial could, in other words, offer much more graphic images of desti-
tution than those evoked by either Seneca. Martial pushes the association
harder. His paupers come to lead dogs lives, that is, they are dehumanised
and made morally remote from those with money. Wealth here accom-
panies or maybe even ensures humanity. The ideological bestialisation of
barbarians and slaves in Roman texts has been noted by others.
Put oth-
erwise we could see the association with dogs as a means of putting social
distance between rich and poor, between reader and poor and of course
between the rival lovers. Mamurianus abjection makes him an impossi-
ble competitor for his sophisticated rival, and also someone who can be
intimidated with impunity.
Saepe mihi queritur non siccis Cestos ocellis / tangi se digito, Mamuriane, tuo. / non opus est digito:
totum tibi Ceston habeto / si deest nil aliud, Mamuriane, tibi. / sed si nec focus est nudi nec sponda
grabati / nec curtus Chiones Antiopesve calix / cerea si pendet lumbis et scripta lacerna / dimidiasque
nates Gallica paeda tegit, / pasceris et nigrae solo nidore culinae / et bibis inmundam cum cane pronus
aquam, / non culum, neque enim est culus qui non cacat olim, / sed fodiam digito qui superest oculum /
nec me zelotypum nec dixeris esse malignum. / denique pedica, Mamuriane, satur.
Catullus 15 and 21 both addressing and threatening Aurelius, a rival for Catullus puer. In 21 Aurelius is
abused as starving and about to teach Catullus loved one poverty. Poverty is treated quite differently
in 23 and 24.
The image of dogs eating the bodies of the poor recurs more widely in Latin literature: see Scobie
Wiedemann (1986) on barbarians, Bradley (2000) on slaves.
96 greg woolf
The ferocious curse in Epigram 10.5 damns an abusive poet to exile even
from the community of beggars:
Let him wander through the city, an exile from the bridge and the hill
Let him be the least among the raucous beggars
Let him pray for the crusts of rotten bread thrown to the dogs.
May December be long and winter wet
May the shutting of the arcade prolong his miserable chill
Let him hail as blessed and lucky,
The corpses carried off on the litter of Orcus.
(Martial, Epigrams 10.5.29)
The dogs get to eat this pauper even before he expires, and he goes on to
the worst punishments of epic hell. The physical privations of life in the
open are vividly enough portrayed here.
But perhaps the most striking of these epigrams is 4.53 in which Martial
throws together pauper as dog and pauper as philosophical hero. Hes not
a Cynic hes a (real) dog. This poverty is for real. And this time it is not
poverty on the bridges or beside steep inclines: the ragged man is inside the
penetralia of Domitians sparkling new temple of Minerva, close in fact to
the streets in which Martial claims elsewhere his books are for sale. Poverty
is suddenly right up close. One of the poets comic creations, a familiar
gure on the literary scene as Martial evokes it, turns out to be actually
starving to death. (And I thought he was just a philosopher!)
Martial gets much more mileage out of poverty. There are reworkings
of conventional advice to spurn luxury and avoid the cares of wealth. The
theme is pickedupseveral times inruns of connectedepigrams. Epigram2.51
attacks Hyllas who has just one denarius but, although starving, spends it on
buying sex: your miserable stomach watches your arse pig itself . Epigram
2.53 offers the appropriately named Maximus advice on how to become
free through frugal living . . . except that frugal means drinking wine from
Veii and foregoing gold inlaid crockery. Epigram 2.57 presents an unnamed
gure cutting a dash in the Saepta in an amethyst gown but then pawning
a ring to buy his dinner. Epigram 2.63 winds up the sequence with the
story of Milichus spending HS 100,000 on a prostitute. Martial seems to
exploit the discontinuous nature of a book of epigrams to explore the same
theme from different perspectives. Exact sums of money occur relatively
frequently, making some contrasts exaggerated. Hyllas abuses one denarius,
Per urbem pontis exul et clivi / interque raucos ultimus rogatores / oret caninas panis inprobi buccas. /
illi December longus et madens bruma / clususque fornix triste frigus extendat / voces beatos clamitetque
felices / Orciniana qui feruntur in sponda.
Writing poverty in Rome 97
Milichus HS 100,000, yet each earns just one epigram of reproach. Gaurus
in 4.67 is described as poor, possessing only HS 300,000, and denied the
balance needed to acquire equestrian status by his praetorian friend who
preferred to patronise charioteers. Other sequences return to explore again
the ethical mineeld of the cena, the types of stingy host and gluttonous
parasite, the sportula and so on.
Perhaps the most discussed play with poverty concerns Martials self-
presentation as a poor poet. The theme recurs often and in different con-
texts. Epigram2.90affects to apologise to Quintilianfor the fact that Martial
is still poor, and prefers a simple life, to slogging his guts out in the law-
courts. Yet in the next two epigrams he successfully begs for the privilege of
the ius triumliberorumfromDomitian. And there are many poems in which
Martial advertises his poverty in the context of complaints about patrons
behaving badly. One sequence occurs in Book 5, a book which professes a
more serious tone in keeping with its dedication to Domitian. Obscenity
is banished (temporarily, of course), Horace and Virgil for a while eclipse
Catullus, and the emperor is held in view. So too is Martial. Epigrams 5.10
and 5.13 combine to claim that whereas most Roman poets have only been
recognised after their deaths, all Rome reads Martial; 5.17 and 5.19 aunt
his imperial patronage and his equestrian status, so it is a surprise in 5.13
to read I am, I confess, and always will be a poor man in a poem that
contrasts Callistratus huge freedmans wealth (libertinas . . . opes), his 100-
columned house, his Egyptian ousiai and north Italian ocks unfavourably
with Martials standing: quod sum non potes esse.
Latin poets claims to poverty have been much discussed.
It is certainly
true that even if we know of some very rich men composing poetry, for
many it offered a chance of upward social mobility. Yet this was mobility
within the upper part of the property-owning classes. Martial was a Spanish
landowner and a pupil of Quintilian before any patronage elevated or
enriched him. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to all those other poets
of allegedly slender means, Horace the ex-tribune, Tibullus, Catullus and
perhaps Lucilius. There is no real sense in which these men were poor;
indeed they often advertised the wealth and status their poetry had brought
them. The poor poet trope is so pervasive that we have become desensitised
to it. Interestingly it is not found with anything like the same intensity in
the Greek models that Catullus and his successors claimed for their own
new poetics. Was this because there was nothing quite like the Roman
census in the Greek world?
Saller (1983), Hardie (1983). For a slightly more literal reading of the texts see White (1982).
98 greg woolf
The puzzle remains: What are we to make of poems like the following
epigram (again from Martial)?
Rufus, a man just looked me up and down, as carefully as a slave merchant or a
gladiator trainer would, and when he had his look and pointed me out said You
there, are you that Martial whose mischievous verses are known to everyone who
does not have the ear of a Batavian savage? I smiled modestly and with a slight
nod acknowledged that I was indeed the man he thought. Why then he asked do
you wear such a rubbish cloak? Because I answered I am a rubbish poet. Please
avoid this happening too often to a poor poet, Rufus, and send me a decent cloak.
(Martial, Epigrams 6.82)
However we envisage Martials exact wealth he enjoyed imperial patronage,
that of many senators, a house on the Janiculum and a range of privileges
including the tribunatus semestris, and he boasts of these, and of his fame,
in many poems. He is not a senator, to be sure, and never casts himself in
the role of patron as Pliny does, but by no stretch of the imagination is he
poor. What is the function of this pretence?
Put otherwise, why was poverty such an attractive persona for a Latin poet
to adopt? Identifying poverty as a persona helps in several ways. For a start
it alerts us to the generic conditions within which poets claim poverty:
epigram, satire and other genres in which deference to patrons intrudes
beyond the preface. There is a metapoetic nod, then, to the slender muse,
but it is also the badge of false modesty, or the invitation Lets play patrons
and clients. Treating the poor poet as a persona also resolves the apparent
contradictions between different poems, apparent that is to those bent on
a biographical approach. Martials lack of a decent cloak in 6.83 doesnt
mean he cant out compete Mamurianus for the favours of Cestus in 1.92
and we dont need to invent a narrative of impoverishment to make the two
add up. Poverty for Martial is a (tatty) cloak put on for some purposes and
not others, and we should not expect coherence in his self-representation.
Epigram means never having to be consistent.
Other masks or cloaks served other purposes. When Martial puts on the
poor poets persona it is almost always to achieve a distance from wealth,
when his attack is directed against wealth, the wealthy or the abuse of riches.
So in the poem attacking the wealthy freedman Callistratus, the affectation
of poverty gives Martial a perspective, a kind of licence and marks out the
vast moral gulf that (Martial claims) separates them. I am what you cannot
Quidamme modo, Rufe, diligenter / inspectum, velut emptor aut lanista / cumvultu digitoque subnotasset /
tune es tune ait ille Martialis / cuius nequitias iocosque novit / aurem qui non habet Batavam? / subrisi
modice, levique nutu / me quem dixerat esse non negavi. / cur ergo inquis habes malas lacernas? /
respondi: quia sum malus poeta. / hoc nec saepius accidat poetae, mittas, Rufe, mihi bonas lacernas.
Writing poverty in Rome 99
become. In the poems on patronage, Martials feigned dependence gives
him the licence to criticise lapses of generosity.
There were other routes to
the same end. The poet of the Panegyric to Piso praises his patron as follows:
Which of your admirers, eloquent youth, come to your door a pauper without
being welcomed with generous indulgence and nding himself with an unexpected
income [censu]? (Panegyric to Piso 10911)
The poet goes on to praise Piso for treating his clients as equals, for not
patronising or mocking them in short for behaving in exactly the oppo-
site way to the boorish employer of Lucians Hired Intellectual forced to
suffer indignities and sing for his supper. Most houses scorn the friend of
slender means (tenuem amicum); his reputation (probitas) is a function of
his poverty. Piso does not want a crowd of harsh or ill-educated clients
(dura clientum turba rudisve) to precede him around the forum.
We have returned at last to the banquets of the leisured rich. Eloquent
poets, whose education and manners proclaim their status, play at paupers
to amuse and tease their hosts and extract from them a little of the wealth
about which they had been made to feel uneasy. The freedom of speech
allowed between pretended equals permitted a play of exaggerated inequal-
ity. Wealth itself, so opulently displayed in the mansions of the capital,
invited the scurrilous scurra and incited the praise of wealthlessness with its
alleged absence of care. The poet offered the rich man one way of cleaning
his wealth, just as Christian beggars would later allow bishops to present
themselves as lovers of the poor.
Poetic poverty illuminated the moral
perils of wealth, answered and mocked anxieties over impoverishment, and
introduced low comedy and vulgarity into their feasts. The poor them-
selves, abject and repulsive, were made innocuous because less than human
and ridiculous. Poetic poverty also offered graphic reassurances of the abso-
lute necessity of material wealth as a precondition of a civilised life. Here
it fed on and elaborated the overt role wealth had in structuring Roman
society, a role for which the census is a convenient symbol for us as for them.
Poverty, nally, was the darkness against which Roman civilisation shone
so brightly. For the wealthy, that is.
Cloud (1989) for a subtle demonstration of the stylised and non-realised nature of Juvenals poetics
of patronage. Hardie (1983) pursues the theme more widely.
Quis tua cultorum, iuvenis facunde, tuorum / limina pauper adit, quem non animosa beatum / excipit
et subito iuvat indulgentia censu?
Brown (2002).
chapter 6
Poverty and population in Roman Egypt

Dominic Rathbone
i ntroducti on
In the broad history of ancient poverty Roman Egypt is no exception.
Christianisation in the fourth century made poverty prominent. In Chris-
tian literature fromEgypt charity to the poor is a virtue preached constantly
and generally, enacted by individuals and the church itself. For instance, a
late antique pilgrim found the porch of a church in Oxyrhynchus crowded
with poor people sleeping over in anticipation of the weekly hand-out
on Sunday morning. When papyrus documents re-emerge in the late fth
century after their curious near disappearance during the previous hundred
years, they too attest regular support by church organisations for the poor
widows especially, but also orphans, the old and the inrm mainly in
the form of provision of foodstuffs and clothing.
In Roman Egypt of the
rst to third centuries ad, as elsewhere in the Roman world, there is no
comparable literature of poverty, no comparable ideology of charity and no
comparable documented institutions of poor-relief. The same seems largely
true of Ptolemaic Egypt.
Three main hypotheses are on offer for this striking difference. All have
been proposed for the Roman and Byzantine worlds in general rather than
for Egypt in particular, but they are transferable as models. First, that
poverty structural and conjunctural, deep and shallow, or however it is
categorised existed in Roman Egypt no less than in late antique Egypt,
but it is all but invisible to us because it was disregarded by the better-
off authors of our literary and documentary evidence, and perhaps also

Without Peters friendship and gently acute advice, I would be a much poorer historian. I would have
been poorer when I wrote this without the Research Professorship granted me by the Leverhulme
Example cited by Brown (2002) 12. I cannot nd any general study of Christian charity in later
Roman Egypt. The role of the church and of bishops is discussed by Wipszycka (1972) 11019 and
(1998); cf. Krause (19945) vol. 4.
Although I have a sneaking suspicion that investigation would unearth more Ptolemaic poverty.
Poverty and population in Roman Egypt 101
because we have little evidence from the megalopolis of Alexandria to
which the poor may have drifted. I suspect that many ancient histori-
ans, if forced to bet on the issue, would put their money here, but the
case is rarely argued. The principal exception is Krauses exhausting study
of widows and orphans in the Roman empire, which makes heavy use of
evidence from Egypt. Second, that late antique poverty was a new phe-
nomenon, and that poverty really was less prevalent in the Roman period.
An inuential example of this position is Patlageans book on economic and
social poverty in Byzantium of the fourth to seventh centuries, although
her Byzantium excludes Egypt. Patlageans basic argument is that there
was enormous population growth from the fourth to the mid-sixth cen-
tury, which, against a background of inelastic economic productivity and
a rigid social structure which perpetuated inequality in the distribution of
resources, created a new underclass of chronically poor people, especially
in cities. Third, that poverty was not a signicant phenomenon either in
the Roman empire or in late antiquity. Peter Brown has recently argued
that Christian leaders, spiritual and temporal, spun an exaggerated story of
the poor and their charity to them as a means of justifying their leadership.
Implicitly late antique socio-economic changes had not caused poverty;
it was the product, in Browns neat soundbite, of a revolution in social
This chapter is a preliminary exploration of the case of Roman Egypt
in the rst to third centuries ad, with the aim of clarifying from that
chronological side how we might begin to choose between these three
broad interpretative options or variants of them. Constraints of time and
expertise oblige me to leave exploration of the late antique side to others.
Because quantiable direct evidence for poverty is scarce, inference from
demographic conditions, insofar as we can reconstruct them, is an impor-
tant weapon in our armoury; hence my title Poverty and population in
Roman Egypt.
wi dows
The case of widows provides a useful introduction to the range of problems.
Widows were a special interest of church charity, and a personal interest of
some churchmenlike Jerome. As we will see, the traditional focus onwidows
is emotive and may mislead; the category we should consider is single adult
women. In the rst volume of his study, Krause uses demographic evidence,
Krause (19945); Patlagean (1977); Brown (2002).
102 domi ni c rathbone
much of it from Egypt, to argue that Roman society of the rst to third
centuries ad produced numerous widows who constituted up to 30 per cent
of all adult women. In his second volume he argues that most widows were
solitary and bereft of family support. Typically, in Krauses view, women
were married quite young, starting in their later teens, to older men; if they
survived childbirth they tended to outlive their husbands considerably and,
unlike widowers, they rarely remarried. The underlying assumptions of the
last point are that both widows and widowers wished to remarry, and that
widowers preferred and could get younger women.
Krauses presentation of the situation is open to some doubt. For Roman
citizens, McGinn has drawn attention to the problem of the obligation to
remarry imposed by Augustus legislation which, at least in intent, applied
quite far down the social scale.
Although Krauses story of solitary wid-
ows has been endorsed by Hanson, the tale of the known declarations for
the provincial census in Egypt, which was held every fourteen years from
the early rst century until 257/8, as presented by Bagnall and Frier in
a study published in the same year as Krauses work, is more nuanced.
Women did marry young and to older men, with an average age differ-
ence of 7.5 years. Like men, however, women often did remarry in case of
their rst partner, and also after divorce and we should add that divorce
was quite common in Roman Egypt and generally on equal terms. The
difference is that men routinely remarried well into their forties whereas
women were less likely to remarry after the age of thirty-ve. That means
that remarriage formed part of the general pattern of an age-gap in mar-
riage. Only older widows or divorcees passing child-bearing age tended
not to remarry. Nonetheless, since elder husbands tended to predecease
wives who had survived child-bearing, it is no surprise that around 65 per
cent of the women in the census declarations aged over fty are apparently
single, that is single in terms of legal status. And this is the real ques-
tion, more than hair-splitting arguments over reconstruction of the demo-
graphic data: how solitary, how susceptible to poverty, were older single
Women in Roman Egypt had some advantages. In divisions of fam-
ily wealth Egyptian custom treated daughters fairly equally with sons. In
McGinn (1999) 6224; cf. (2002) 668 on a possible shortage of socially desirable women. McGinn
argues for class differences, but the Gnomon of the Idioslogos (2930), from Egypt, species that the
annual ne for not remarrying applied to citizen women down to those with the census of the fourth
classis, and other penalties down to the third classis.
A. Hanson (2000); cf. Rowlandson (1998) 269: Most widows did not re-marry. Bagnall and Frier
(1994) 11820, 1237.
Poverty and population in Roman Egypt 103
contrast to most or all other provinces, they were not liable to the poll-tax.
Women landowners were exempt from liturgies imposed on property, or
at least from some liturgies such as the cultivation of unleased state land
(epimerismos), as we learn from their complaints when ofcials tried to
impose munera on them.
We do have a fair number of petitions from
single women to local and provincial authorities complaining of mistreat-
ment by ofcials and private persons, which often include appeals such as
since I am a woman who is helpless and alone, or You give help to all, my
lord Prefect, but particularly to women because of their natural weakness.
However, this plaint is now recognised to be a rhetorical ploy, analogous
to farmers claiming that they will be forced to abandon the land to the
loss of the annona (imperial grain supply). There is often reason to suspect
that these supposedly single women were not solitary. A petition was not
a formal legal document, and women petitioners did not have to use or
name a male guardian (kurios) indeed to do so would have undercut
the rhetoric of helplessness. A rather brazen case has a woman, widowed
and weak, repeatedly petitioning on behalf of her son-in-law.
Where we
have family archives, we discover that these same women could nd kurioi
when they needed them for other business, often relatives by blood or mar-
riage. More generally, these archives show sons caring for their widowed
mothers, in one case when the son was at Misenum and the mother in
Parkin has shown that caring for aged parents was custom in
Egypt, not law, as some scholars had held. But the custom had ofcial
support. A few cases suggest that landowners were granted some exemp-
tion from liturgies if they were engaged in feeding the old (geroboskia,
gerotrophia), which I suspect was an exemption specic to land ceded to
Poll-tax: Rathbone (1993c) 878, 97. Nor were they liable to liturgies on the person, but this was
presumably the case in all provinces. Exemptions: e.g. P Tebt. 2.327 = W.Chr. 394 (180s): a woman
without help, burdened with many years; P Oxy. 6.899 (ad 200) =Rowlandson (1998) no. 149, with
Rowlandson (1996) 912.
E.g. P Oxy. 50 3555 and 1.77.ii (from which the quotations come); cf. 6.899; 2.261; = Rowlandson
(1998) nos. 73, 177, cf. 149, 133, with comments at pp. 231, 354. Compare, e.g. P Oxy. 3.488 (2nd3rd):
a woman petitioner, using a kurios, does not claim helplessness but threatens to stop farming the
land. Petition for son-in-law: P Oxy. 8.1120 (early 3rd).
In P Oxy. 6.899 (n. 6 above) Apollonarion made two petitions in her own name, then a third through
a kurios. From Karanis in the later 290s we have two petitions in the names of the sisters Taesis and
Kyrillous, although they were minors, and agreements, tax-payments and another petition transacted
through two male relatives (P Cair. Isid. 59; 62; 63; 64; 104; 105) (64 = Rowlandson (1998) no.176),
and their papers were kept by the head of their extended family, Aurelius Isidoros. Caring sons:
Rowlandson (1998) archive E (early 2nd), the mother of Apollonios the strategos; G (later 2nd), Taesis
the mother of Apollinarios, a recruit to the Misenum eet; J (late 2nd), Satornila the mother of
several devoted soldier sons.
104 domi ni c rathbone
offspring in the legal form of a mortgage in the old sense (donatio mortis
Hansons analysis of the residence of the women registered in the extant
census documents adds some numerical detail.
Of the 290 women aged
13 or over, no co-resident husband is mentioned for 145, of whom 37 are
unmarried girls and 4 presumed partners of soldiers. That leaves 104 women
(36 per cent) who may be widowed, divorced, separated permanently or
temporarily, or never married. Of these 104, 63 are living with an adult son
or other male relation, 39 live inpredominantly female households, andonly
one, or possibly two, seem to have been lodgers in houses with no resident
kin, and the one certain solitary had her freedwoman living with her.
almost all the 290 lived with kin, and the census declarations accord with
the family archives that sons normally looked after widowed mothers. But
women who lacked adult male relatives were not helpless. Some of the 13 per
cent who lived in predominantly female households presumably had male
friends, and maybe some had unofcially cohabiting partners. Marriage
was a contract which regulated property arrangements; once a woman had
passed child-bearing age, formal marriage had little point and would only
have complicated existing arrangements for children by a previous part-
ner. Direct evidence is predictably scarce, but cases must lurk among male
lodgers of similar age, unrelated kurioi and affectionate male correspon-
dents. Other women, perhaps most of them, managed without regular
male assistance. Many unrelated kurioi, especially those of lower stand-
ing, may have been mere ciphers.
Some entrepreneurial women devised
their own methods of pension arrangement, such as having a young slave
girl trained as a musician and singer in the hope that when she came of
age I would have her to provide for me in my old age.
A hypothesis
worth considering is that, in relative historical terms, Roman Egypt was a
prosperous and peaceful society in which many older women did not seek
T. Parkin (2003) 21012. E.g. SB 8.9642/1 (Tebtunis, c. 112) =Rowlandson (1998) no. 147: Tamystha,
aged fty, gives half of her house to her daughter in return for lifelong accommodation and eventual
A. Hanson (2000) 1512, 1602, using the declarations listed and numbered by Bagnall and Frier
Declaration 145-Ar-20, but the lodger may be a second cousin; 215-He-1, an eighty-year-old with
her freedwoman.
Lodgers in census declarations: 179-Ar-9; 187-Ar-10; 243-Ar-3. Correspondents: e.g. Charitous and
her neighbour Pompeius Niger: SB 6.9120; P Merton 2.63. Ciphers: e.g. P Oxy. 6.899 (n. 6 above).
P Oxy. 50 3555 (n. 7 above), cited above for the phrase helpless and alone, which A. Hanson (2000)
152 takes at face value. But the petitioner reveals that she had the use of Eucharion, freedwoman of
Longinus, whatever his relation to her was. Cf. the solitary woman living with her freedwoman (n.
11 above).
Poverty and population in Roman Egypt 105
to remarry because they could and did lead independent and not solitary
Did the position of older single women worsen in Christian Egypt?
There was less divorce, it used to be believed, but instead there was moral
pressure against remarriage and unmarried cohabitation. Also, the terms of
marriage contracts became less favourable for women, supposedly as part
of a general depression of their status. Possibly society as a whole became
less prosperous and peaceful. On the other hand, recent studies paint a
much rosier picture of the de facto position of women in this era, and
Peter Brown has suggested that church support of widows was not part of
general relief of the destitute so much as a reward and protection from the
danger of impoverishment targeted at this group of loyal and respectable
I leave the question open to the widow-watchers of late
populati on and resources
It is a fact that poverty is barely heard of in the documents from Roman
Egypt. The word penes, poor, denoting a poor person, occurs only four
times in the papyri of the rst to third centuries, which comprise nigh
on 20,000 documents: once in a sub-literary text, and three times, used
in place of the more usual aporos (resourceless), in petitions from poor
men disputing their liability to liturgies allocated according to wealth.
cognates penia, poverty, andpenesthai, to be poor, do not occur evenonce.
The word ptochos, beggar, occurs three times in Roman-period texts, each
time in a metaphorical sense, twice abusive. The alternative prosaites, and
the verb prosaitein, to beg, do not occur at all.
The occurrences of penes
and its cognates in the works of the Alexandrian divines Philo (early rst
century) and Clement (late second century), and ptochos too in Clement,
are almost all in the context of biblical exegesis or general moralising and
are not a reliable index of poverty.
Physical disabilities were not uncommon in Roman Egypt, but did not
necessarily incapacitate or pauperise their sufferers. Ex votos and their
moulds found in village temples show that eye problems and broken limbs
Status: Rowlandson (1998) 1956, 21213, with further references. Widows: Brown (2002) 589.
Sub-literary: P Oxy. 3.471.95 (Acta Alexandrinorum). Petitions: PBrem. 38.21; P.Rein. 1.47.11; PSI
12.1243.18. These and the following comments about words are based on searches of the Duke Data
Bank of Documentary Papyri (DDBDP) and Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (TLG).
Ptochos: O.Narm. 6.4 (magical text?); SB 10.10354.10; SB 18.13931.8. Prosaites: in Mark 10.46 and
other Greek authors of the Roman empire.
106 domi ni c rathbone
were common afictions, but ones which the gods could cure, as, for exam-
ple, Serapis did through Vespasian at Alexandria in ad 70.
The papyri
attest many cases of impaired sight, often in petitions and particularly to
escape liturgies because I am old and blind. However, while cataracts
were doubtless common, full blindness was apparently rare, for in most
cases the men were still working, like the old smith with failing eyesight
who petitioned a large landowner to release him so he could return to his
home village and nish training his apprentices.
A number of men are
described as crippled (cholos and cognates), often meaning lame, or rather
with a limp, but Cholos and Cholion were personal names too, and the
men typically appear in documents because they are working or involved
in business transactions.
There was some scal relief for men ofcially
registered as disabled (see below), but it seems that most people worked
round their disabilities with the support of family, friends and others. A
nice example is a lady petitioning to protect a disabled cripple resident in
her orchard from scal hassle; presumably she was maintaining him as a
live-in gardener.
Elephantiasis, lastly, was rife in Alexandria according to
Galen, who blames the hot climate and coarse diet (both exaggerations),
but the only reference to a leper in the Roman-period papyri is to a modest
landowner, perhaps a military veteran.
The rarity of direct references in the Roman-period papyri to poverty,
destitution or begging is striking. I can offer two indirect arguments that
this makes more than a weak argument from silence for an actual rarity
of poverty. First, the many accounts of assaults and thefts, penned as peti-
tions by professional scribes in excited and exaggerated commonplaces,
provide no evidence of a destitute and criminal underclass, or of any con-
temporary notion that one might exist.
The perpetrators are normally
craftsmen, neighbours, ofcials, sometimes men whom I do not know,
but never beggars, tramps or the like. There is no known imperial legisla-
tion or governors edict about begging or vagrancy (not to be confused with
anachoresis: see below). Although some have seen the revolt of the Boukoloi
Ex votos: common in museums, but mostly unpublished. Vespasian: Tac. Hist. 4.812; Suet. Vesp.
7; Dio 66.8.12.
P Rein. 2.113 (late 3rd).
It is sometimes not clear whether cholos is an epithet or patronymic. E.g. a cripple listed as a liturgist
(P Lond. 12 (p. 155) 189.78; 2nd ad); lame estate workers (BGU 3.712.i.8, ii.20; c .190). In Alexandria
even the cripples work, in the imagination of the fourth-century SHA (Saturninus 8.6).
SB 6.9105 (2nd ad).
Galen 11.142 (K uhn). Maximus the leper, landowner at Karanis some time before ad 170: P Mich.
4.223.1189; 224 recto.2024; 225.1751. Scheidel (2001c) argues that Roman Egypt was wracked by
chronic lethal diseases; for some doubts, see Rathbone (2003).
Drexhage (1988) 31416, but not accepting his vision of chronic banditry; Bagnall (1989) 21114.
Poverty and population in Roman Egypt 107
(cowboys) in the Delta in the 170s as the result of chronic poverty due to
over-taxation, there are other elements, some perhaps millennarian, behind
this ill-understood event, which coincided with the Antonine plague in
And it is taxation which provides the second reason for discount-
ing chronic poverty.
Soon after the annexation of Egypt in 30 bc, the Romans instituted
an annual poll-tax in cash to which all male Egyptian inhabitants of the
province were liable from the ages of fourteen to sixty-two. The system
deliberately privileged those of higher status: men with Alexandrian or
Roman citizenship were completely exempt, the registered inhabitants of
metropoleis, the urban capitals of the nomes of Egypt, typically paid 8 dr.
per head, whereas villagers typically paid 16 dr., twice as much (some nomes
had different rates, but the same ratio).
An interesting test of the extent
of chronic rural poverty would be to check the rate of non-payment of the
poll-tax. No exemption or reduction on account of poverty was granted
for the poll-tax, whereas all other direct and indirect taxes were more fairly
levied pro rata. To take one example, we have a large number of poll-tax
records, unfortunately only partially published, for the Arsinoite (Fayyum)
village of Philadelphia in the 30s to 50s ad.
This provides a particularly
tough test for two reasons. First, the Arsinoite rural rate of poll-tax was
by far the highest in Egypt at 40 dr. per head, which with extras made
up a total charge (syntaximon) of 44 dr. 6 chalkoi, to which was added
the annual pig-tax of 1 dr. 1 ob., while the annual dyke-tax of 6 dr. 4
ob. was booked separately. Altogether these taxes were equivalent to the
average pay for around forty-ve days of agricultural labour in the second
century. It may be that Arsinoite villagers were free of some other taxes in
compensation, but this is not certain. Second, the years followthe excessive
inundation of autumn 45 which disrupted agricultural production in 46.
In ad 46/7, of 122 poll-taxpayers at Philadelphia recorded in an incomplete
register, 65 had paid their poll-tax in full by the end of the year, 21 had
made part-payments and 36 (30 per cent) had paid nothing. A certain level
of delayed payment was normal. These unusually high arrears persisted for
a couple of years, but normal payment had resumed by 50/1. For normality
we can compare Ibion Eikosipentarouron, another Fayyum village, where
Alston (1999).
Wallace (1938) 11634; see Parkin(2003) 15463 onthe upper age-limit perhaps sixty under Augustus
and Tiberius, and sixty-ve in the third century.
A. Hanson (1988). Frankly I cannot make coherent sense of all the various totals of taxpayers and
defaulters which she cites; full publication of the records will help to clarify the systems of collection
and recording.
108 domi ni c rathbone
in September 57 the tax-collector requested the writing-off against his target
for the poll-tax of the year just ended of some twenty-eight men whom he
claimed he was unable to pursue, probably well under 10 per cent of the
village taxpayers.
There are some hints in the poll-tax records of conjunctural poverty, or at
least cash-ow problems, but we would expect a greater amount of arrears
if rural poverty had been chronic. The obvious objection is that the poor
evaded registration or ran away, and the scal term of anachoresis (going
away) is standardly taken to denote decampment to escape taxation. How-
ever, evading registration in small village communities over the fourteen
years from birth to the age of liability would have been very difcult, for
Egypt did not have the uninhabited but liveable wilds known to Europe,
and anachoresis in fact just denoted absence, mainly of young unmarried
men, inthe normal expectationthat the taxpayer would either be registering
and paying in their place of temporary residence, or would settle the arrears
on their return, which they were allowed three years to do.
This is not the
place for full discussion of how the poll-tax worked and what changes were
made to its collection over time, such as holding villagers collectively liable
for their poll-tax (fromthe time of Trajan?). There is roomfor debate about
how far taxpayers could, or did, evade the poll-tax, about how common
amnesties for arrears were, and so on. My view, preliminary and instinctive,
is that few villagers in Roman Egypt were chronically unable to pay the
The relative absence of poverty in Roman Egypt cannot be attributed to
any state policy to prevent or alleviate it, although mistaken ideas of some
sort of poor relief still linger on in some modern studies.
On accession
an emperor might cancel tax arrears, as Nero perhaps did, while Hadrian,
after the poor inundations of 134 and 135, permitted delayed payment of the
poll-tax for ve years in Upper Egypt, four years in Middle Egypt and three
years in the Delta, but these were irregular and untargeted benecia.
Egypt the poll-tax was not levied on women, boys to fourteen and old men
SB 18.13862. Ibion Eikosipentarouron was probably a signicantly smaller village than Philadelphia
which had around 900 adult male taxpayers.
Braunert (1964) 14994 remains fundamental. Payment of arrears: A. Hanson (1988) 2734; e.g. P
Tebt. 2.353 (Herakleopolite, ad 192): a man returns to his village and pays off four years arrears of
poll-tax and other capitation taxes.
E.g. the editors comments on P Lond. 3 (p. 126) 911, followed by Wallace (1938) 13740 and
others, which is in fact the start of a list of aporoi, propertyless men, probably who owe tax arrears.
Wallace and others also take the merismos aporon, the collective imposition of individual arrears on
a community, as a poor tax.
Nero: A. Hanson (1988) 271; note also that arrears seem to be calculated anew from year 1 of Nero.
Hadrian: SB 3.6944 (ad 136).
Poverty and population in Roman Egypt 109
over sixty-two, but this just focused its burden directly on adult males.
Just as a propertyless man was free of liturgies assessed on property, so a man
who was ofcially registered as disabled (episines) or incapable (asthenes)
was exempt from liturgies on the person and also the poll-tax, although he
may have paid a special cash tax in place of liturgic service.
However, from
the extant registers it seems that very few men achieved ofcial recognition
as disabled, and the most common scal exemptions were those granted
on grounds of status and culture to citizens of Rome, Alexandria and
Antinoopolis, veterans, priests of main temples, public teachers, victorious
athletes. Some private non-familial help with taxes is attested. One function
of the associations formed by some priests, craftsmen and other workers
was collective covering of the cash taxes of individual members in distress.
After the tax reforms of the mid-third century scal patronage appears, rst
in the Heroninos archive for some workers on the estate of Appianus, but
I know of no case in the preceding three centuries of a patron paying the
poll-tax of poor men.
There was no general system of scal relief for the
poor, not least, in my view, because none was needed.
Similarly, there was no regular public provision of foodstuffs or other
necessities for the destitute. The Roman government, like that of the
Ptolemies, made emergency distributions to the citizens of Alexandria,
and from the second century there was a eutheniarch (civic food supply
ofcial) for each quarter of the city, which implies a more regularised sys-
tem of supply. Only the members of the Museum, and maybe the gerousia
(council of old men, a selective honour), were permanently maintained by
the state. Wheat distributions (siteresia), perhaps occasional, are known at
Hermopolis in the 60s for the restricted gymnasial group only, then at Anti-
noopolis for its citizens from its foundation in 130 by Hadrian, and similar
distributions in other metropoleis may be inferred from nds of lead tokens
probably used as tickets of entitlement. Ambitions grewin the third century
after the Severan municipalisation. We nd eutheniarchs in the metropoleis
Parkin (2003) 171 over-charitably calls this tax relief for the elderly.
Liturgies: e.g. P Flor. 3.312 (91); P Oxy. 36.2754.15 (111); P Phil. 29 (early 2nd); P Mich. 6.426.13, 22
(199/200). Poll-tax: e.g. SB 5.8025 (91/2); P Oxy. Census 220, 346 (91/2); SB 6.9105 (2nd ad; cited at
n. 20 above). These (and other) exemptions still lack a proper study: see meanwhile Wallace (1938)
114 n. 95; Lewis (1966) 51921 and (1982) 946. Against previous views, I take asthenes, like peros, to
be a synonym for episines, not a separate category of ill. J. C. Shelton, P Cair. Mich. 2 pp. 223,
acutely noted that at Karanis around ad 175 men exempt fromliturgies (he says poll-tax) as disabled
paid an extra guard-tax in cash instead.
Associations: e.g. P Mich. 5.243 and 244 (mid-1st ad). Patronage: I think that OGIS 666.1518 (Edict
of Tiberius Julius Alexander, ad 68) is about third parties assuming the debts to the state of tax-
farmers and other public contractors (cf. ll. 1015); the interpretation of Chalon (1964) 11022 does
not t well with the situation described.
110 domi ni c rathbone
providing, as a liturgy, wheat, wine and olive oil (also pork at Alexandria),
albeit probably still to groups dened by higher status. By the early third
century Oxyrhynchus was maintaining permanently the members of its
gerousia, and by the 270s it was operating a free monthly distribution of
wheat restricted to a numerus clausus of 3,000 adult male metropolites in
theory chosen by lot (plus 900 liturgists from villages, and 100 residents
from other metropoleis); in practice there were just over 2,900 registered
recipients which implies that all the potentially entitled males had been
Of course citizens, even citizens of the gymnasial group, could
be poor, but these distributions were not designed to help the poor but
to conrm and increase the privileges of status. Extant temple accounts
record no regular support of the poor, but temple complexes may have
been the prime location for the poor to seek and receive assistance in the
form of foodstuffs (and cash?) distributed in the sacrices and feasting at
private and public festivals. Roman Egypt was a relatively civic and unpo-
liced society, where the Roman authorities and local notables recognised
and acted on the need to solve food shortages, when they occurred, in order
to maintain peace and order.
Since the principle was admitted, the lack
of more regular support implies that there was no substantial element of
chronically poor to worry them into action, palliative or repressive.
More general economic considerations concur in this tale of relative
prosperity. Variation in the level of the annual Nile inundation affected
crop yields, and excessive or insufcient inundations could severely decrease
production. In macro-climatic terms, the Roman period should have been
relatively benecent, and indeed only one series of consecutive poor oods
and crops is attested, admittedly in a very incomplete run of data, in the
later 240s to early 250s.
Broadly speaking, the pattern of good and bad
crops can be tracked by looking at prices of wheat, insofar as some survive. It
should be said that wheat prices in Roman Egypt show uctuations typical
of a free market, but with a certain notional element in that the farm-
gate price always moved in multiples of 4 dr. per artaba (40 l / 30 kg).
Archives from the Fayyum villages of Philadelphia and Tebtunis can be
taken to indicate a crisis in the mid-40s, which it is tempting to link to
the so-called universal famine under Claudius. There does seem to have
been a blip in payments of the poll-tax, and arguably there was a rise in the
number of contracts made for short-term loans of cash, although the base
P Oxy. 40 (1976), with introduction by J. R. Rea; Alston (2002) 14951, 1912, 276; P Oxy. 43.3099
3102 (gerousia); Milne (1908) on tokens.
Festivals: Perpillou-Thomas (1993). Shortages: Garnsey (1988) 2519, 2656.
For this and the following points, see Rathbone (1997) 1904 and (forthcoming) with references.
Poverty and population in Roman Egypt 111
for comparison is suspect. However the local price of wheat rose by only 25
per cent, and only for a fewmonths. So too in autumn 99, when in his hype
of Trajan Pliny tells us that Rome was sending wheat to Egypt (probably
just cancelling shipments to Rome), the ofcial purchase price in Egypt was
temporarily doubled from 8 to 16 dr. per artaba, in a period when private
farmgate prices normally uctuated within the range of 6 to 12 dr. per
artaba. In the more real crisis of the 240s, against a background of farmgate
prices normally between 12 and 20 dr., wheat reached 24 dr. per artaba
and the prefect ordered the compulsory registration of all private stocks
of wheat with a view to state purchase at that price a unique measure,
although we do not know whether compulsory purchase actually occurred.
Measured by the index of the price rises which they caused, these crises are
relatively mild. There is an explanation. The time-lag between inundation
and main harvest in Egypt gave over six months advance warning of a
poor crop. The widespread availability of public and private granaries, a
dry climate, a tradition of using grain to effect payments including by giro
between granaries, and the slow process of amassing tax-grain, shipping it
to Alexandria, and then out into the Mediterranean, meant that there were
always large private stocks of wheat from previous years to see the country
through a poor year or two, and beyond that the vast safety-net of public
stocks which the state was prepared to sell to cap price rises at or just over the
upper limit of their normal range. In Egypt from the mid-rst to the later
third century on a crude average (median) it took an agricultural labourer
seven days to earn the price of an artaba of wheat, which provided more
than the basic subsistence for an adult male for a month. That is not a bad
ratio. Recently Scheidel has argued that real wages rose even higher after
the Antonine plague because of the shortage of labour; this is not proven,
but it is certain that the doubling of prices and wages which occurred in
the 170s/180s halved the real cost of xed-rate cash taxes, until the scal
reforms of the 250s replaced the old poll-tax, and probably other cash taxes
too, with new systems of communal assessments by quota.
Recent demographic studies of the Roman world, and of Roman Egypt
in particular, have tended to reconstruct a natural fertility pattern with high
rates of birth and mortality. Frier has proposed that research on the econ-
omy of Roman Egypt should look for data which support his hypothesis
that it was, in demographic terms, a high pressure r egime, by which he
means a society constantly on the brink of disastrous excess of population
to resources. Scheidel too draws a similar picture in his latest monograph,
Rathbone (1996); Scheidel (2002), with Bagnall (2002).
112 domi ni c rathbone
whose general vision, admittedly more implicit than trumpeted, is of a
relatively high population, ridden with chronic diseases, on a relatively
small area of land.
In a high pressure demographic r egime serious poverty
of all types should be expected. Despite the biological determinism of
the demographers, it seems to me that the economic, including demo-
graphic, data from Egypt point instead to a low pressure r egime, where the
population, while having the characteristics of a natural fertility pattern,
reproduced itself up to a total ceiling well below the carrying capacity of
productive resources available. I restrict myself here to some salient points.
Scheidel has doubted the traditional estimate of 25,000 km
of cultivable
land in Roman Egypt as too high, but two recorded assessment totals of the
land tax in kind, one on a division of the Arsinoite nome, the other on the
Oxyrhynchite nome, and archaeological evidence from many areas, show
that the traditional gure is more likely to be an underestimate. In the few
cases when we have data for calculating population densities in Arsinoite
villages of the Roman period, the gure never exceeds 120 persons/km
which is simply not compatible with any estimate of the total population
above 5 million. Admittedly the Roman data are thin and weak, but the
much denser data for the Ptolemaic Fayyum in the later third century bc,
including its chief city, produce a rural average of around 60 persons/km
which implies considerable growth to reach the Roman population levels
and underwrites the broad plausibility of the Roman data.
Here again, as with the question of the number and age of widows, the
exiguous data leave plenty of scope for arguments, mostly unproductive,
about calculations of carrying capacity. Instead, I want to shift the focus
to the distribution of resources, to what Sen called entitlement. Around
the time of the Roman annexation of Egypt it seems that the public (royal
and sacred) land in each nome, as distinct from the catoecic (settlers) land
which the Romans privatised, made up between 30 per cent and 50 per
cent of the territory of the nome. Over the next three centuries, the papyri
reveal a patchy but cumulative conversion of public into private land, albeit
withsome temporary reverse movement throughconscationof abandoned
property, the property of errant liturgists, andsoon. Alsoevident is a gradual
growth of large private estates, with an explosion just after the Antonine
plague which had provided a brief windowin which to acquire land cheaply.
By the fourth century, although some land was still called public and bore
a higher rate of tax, all land was privately owned; the formal moment of
Frier (2001) (the utility of his proposal is debatable); Scheidel (2001c).
Rathbone (forthcoming); P Count., ed. W. Clarysse and D. Thompson (forthcoming).
Poverty and population in Roman Egypt 113
change may have been Diocletians major tax reform of 297.
Public land
was subject to relatively high rents in kind compared to catoecic land, but
it had been a protected resource for the poor. In the Arsinoite nome, at
least in theory, plots of public land were periodically redistributed by lot
among each village community (diamisthosis). The Oxyrhynchite nome
had a different system, but a petition of ad 120 shows villagers defending
their community against an attempt by a landowner to take over their
public land.
Another opening for the poor, not restricted to members of
a community, was land conscated by the state. Registers of the late rst
to third centuries show that in every village there were always numerous
small plots of land on offer. Applicants could make a cash bid to purchase
them outright, or contract to pay a peppercorn rent for ve years.
was also an extensive phenomenon of private tenancies. My conclusion is
that the rural population of Roman Egypt had easy access to farmland,
the basic means of gaining a livelihood, which was partly regulated by
themselves with the protection and backing of the state. Roman Egypt had
a prosperous economy, it was highly monetised and urbanised, there were
numerous opportunities for earning cash in addition to the availability of
land, and even the small man and woman enjoyed a reasonable level of state
protection of their rights. This was not a breeding ground for poverty.
In the case of widows I tentatively suggested that their situation may
have changed for the worse in late antiquity, but that Christian rhetoric
also exaggerated the problem. In general terms I believe that there was more
poverty in late antique Egypt. That is not, as in Patlageans model, because
of population growth and urbanisation, at least in Egypt. While a period of
population growth from a trough in the fourth/fth centuries to a peak in
the sixth century can be discerned in Egypt, the peak population total was
still much smaller than the average in the Roman period. And documentary
and archaeological evidence both point to a dramatic repopulation of the
countryside, especially inthe sixthcentury, by large private andecclesiastical
estates founding estate villages, in tandem with a shrinkage of the urban
Insofar as poverty got worse, it was the result of other social
and economic changes: the extrusion of the poor from control of the land
Rowlandson (1996) 2769 is the best recent survey of land categories, including some comments on
the disappearance of public land, a major development which has never been properly investigated.
Documents also showvillagers ceding their holdings to others in perpetuity, perhaps meaning their
right to the share represented by the plot they currently farmed.
Rowlandson (1996) 8088. P. Oxy. 24.2410.
E.g. W Chr. 371 (late 1st ad); P Petaus 1323 (184/5); P Pheretnuis (195/6); cf. Rowlandson (1996)
Rathbone (2001); contra Alston (2001).
114 domi ni c rathbone
in favour of large estates, the virtual disappearance at the everyday level of
a monetised economy providing cash wages for casual labouring, a heavier
and less user-friendly form of state. But again the written testimonies for
poverty may be suspect to some extent. In the last years of Byzantine Egypt
John the Almoner, bishop of Alexandria, had ofcials seek out and register
all beggars and needy in Alexandria in order to facilitate delivery of his
charity, and perhaps also to publicise it. The total came to over 7,500,
a number which his biographer meant to impress, but if we guess that
the population at that time totalled 0.5 million, only 1.5 per cent wished
and were deemed suitable to receive Johns alms.
Even in Egypt of late
antiquity poverty may have been a bit of a poor show.
Leontius, Life of John of Cyprus 2 (Gelzer pp. 89).
chapter 7
A pragmatic approach to poverty and riches:
Ambrosiasters quaestio 124

Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe
i ntroducti on
Ambrosiaster, the author of a set of quaestiones and of commentaries on
the Pauline epistles,
appears to have been writing in Rome
in the last
third of the fourth century ad.
There is a long-running scholarly quest to
establish a personal identity for Ambrosiaster,
but it seems unlikely that
this will ever be determined conclusively. Nonetheless, it is possible to locate
Ambrosiaster more generally in an ecclesiastical context, for many of his
quaestiones exhibit stylistic tics which suggest that they were delivered orally
in church as sermons or catechetical lectures. Normally this would indicate
that Ambrosiaster was a bishop, since only bishops preached. However,
there is rm evidence that in Rome special dispensation was made for
presbyters to preach, since it would have been impossible for a bishop to
minister equally to the large number of churches in Rome.
It thus seems

I am grateful to Margaret Atkins for her incisive and helpful comments on several drafts of this
chapter, and to Gavin Kelly for helping to elucidate some tricky corners of Ambrosiastrian Latin.
Ambrosiaster, Quaestiones Veteris et Novi Testamenti, ed. A. Souter CSEL 50 (1908) and Commentarius
in xiii Epistulas Paulinas, ed. H. I. Vogels CSEL 81 (19669).
There are several pointers within Ambrosiasters oeuvre to the place of his writing. First, two phrases,
Amst. q. 115.16 and Rom. 16.4.1 explicitly state that the author is writing in Rome. Second, two
recensions of his Commentary on Romans, and , have urbs, where version has Roma, at for
instance Amst. Rom. 1.10.4 and 1.13.1; it may be that is a later recension of a text originally written
for a Roman audience, which is clarifying the city in question for an extra-Roman audience. Third,
Ambrosiaster uses venire and advenire to describe the journeying of people to Rome Amst. Rom.
argumentum 3 and ibid. 1.10.4. This suggests someone writing at Rome, envisaging people coming
as opposed to going there. Finally, Ambrosiaster displays a detailed knowledge of current events in
Rome; see, for example Amst. qq. 101, 105 and 114.
The dating of Ambrosiasters oruit is difcult, but the key pointer must be his reference at I Tim.
3.15.1 to the church . . . whose ruler today is Damasus. Damasus was pope from ad 36684, which
provides us with a rough dating for at least the Pauline commentaries. There is nothing to date
any of his work beyond the mid-380s, and a cluster of evidence for dating to around the 370searly
See Burn (1899); Morin (1899), (1903) and (1914).
See De Blauuw (1994).
116 sophi e lunn- rockli ffe
quite likely that Ambrosiaster was a presbyter at Rome, possibly at one of
the outlying cemetery churches.
David Hunter has demonstrated convincingly that Ambrosiasters works
t into a Roman tradition of resistance to extreme asceticism, and of a
defence of human sexual relations; he also suggests that Ambrosiaster is
the anonymous opponent with whom Jerome, during his brief sojourn in
Rome in the 380s,
engages on such matters.
If we accept the proposition
that Ambrosiaster adopted a moderate position towards marriage and child-
bearing, this provides an interesting point of comparison for his quaestio
124 (One work differs according to persons, whether it is to be praised or
This is a brief treatise which deals with another important
subject of ascetic debate in late Roman Christianity wealth and poverty,
and how these affected the moral worth of ones actions.
From the earliest days of the church, Christians had agonised over
wealth and whether they should possess it. Biblical texts, ranging from
Christs injunction to the rich young man, Go, sell that thou hast, and
give to the poor (Matthew 19.21), to the picture of the apostolic com-
munity in Jerusalem holding things in common (Acts 4.345), presented
Christians with an acute problem of interpretation; was it incumbent on
all Christians, or only on those with high spiritual ambition, voluntarily
to adopt a life of ascetic poverty? Rigorists like Jerome counselled rich
Roman women like Eustochium to renounce their wealth: You must also
avoid the sin of covetousness, and this not merely by refusing to seize
upon what belongs to others, for that is punished by the laws of the state,
but also by not keeping your own property, which has now become no
longer yours(Jerome, Letter 22.31).
But there was plenty of opposition
to ascetic conversion in Rome, particularly among the aristocracy. John
Curran shows how the ofoading of property and the renunciation of mar-
riage (and the heirs it would hopefully produce) threatened the security
Hunter (1989) also proposes that Ambrosiaster was a presbyter.
On Jerome, the classic account is still Kelly (1975).
See Hunter (1989). The moderate tone which Ambrosiaster adopts with regard to fasting in his
q. 120, as well as his defence of marriage and human sexuality in q. 127, could be read as an attack
on those of Jeromes party. The two clashed on other matters too; Jerome seems to allude in his
Letters 27, 38, 45 and 73 to positions taken by Ambrosiaster on matters theological, ascetic and
Unum opus differre secundum personas sive in laudem sive in condemnationem.
Avaritiae quoque tibi vitandum est malum, non quo aliena non adpetas hoc enim et leges publicae
puniunt sed quo tua, quae sunt aliena, non serves. This letter was written in Rome in ad 384, quite
probably coinciding with Ambrosiasters oruit there.
Poverty and riches in Ambrosiaster 117
and continuity of rich noble families, and united pagans and Christians in
Ambrosiasters quaestio 124 should be located within the context of this
Christian debate about the relative worth of poverty and riches, which
was part of a wider debate between moderates and ascetics in late fourth-
century Rome. In this quaestio, he addresses pragmatically the advantages
and disadvantages of rich and poor mens actual earthly status, rather than
programmatically trying to encourage rich men to strip themselves of their
wealth. He develops a moderate line which neither privileges the wealthy,
nor simplistically privileges the poor; instead, he evaluates the different
advantages of and temptations besetting rich and poor. He even leaves room
for the possibility that the rich mans actions will sometimes be enhanced by
his wealth a position which Jerome, that proponent of extreme renuncia-
tion, would have found unacceptable. Finally, while challenging the social
assumption that poverty is morally shameful, he nonetheless honours vol-
untary poverty more highly than involuntary, precisely because of its reli-
gious motivation. This involves a tricky balancing act; Ambrosiaster admits
that voluntary poverty has a high spiritual value, but does not present it as
the only way of life for Christians. This tallies with his view of celibacy as a
good, but as appropriate for clergy rather than for all men.
moderate and pragmatic approach to asceticism, covering poverty and
celibacy, has perhaps been eclipsed by the more dramatic and universalist
brand of asceticism found in the works of Roman contemporaries such as
I should acknowledge here the problematic way in which Ambrosiaster
polarises society into two categories, the rich and the poor, although
he occasionally hints at a broader range of experience within poverty and
wealth than suggested by the predominance of the simple categories of rich
and poor.
As has been amply demonstrated, most recently by Peter Brown,
historians run the danger of adopting these crude rhetorical divisions when
social reality was in fact rather more complex.
I leave to others the task of
establishing the boundaries between areas of shallow and deep poverty,
See Curran (2000) 280. Curran proposes, 294, that on the question of the disposal of property
and the continuation of family lines these moderate Christians [in Rome] and their non-Christian
colleagues found common ground, in the shape of their ancient senatorial values, on which to reject
extreme asceticism.
Hunter (1989) 294 shows that Ambrosiaster links celibacy with a sacramental ministry, and thereby
undercuts the value of lay asceticism.
See Amst. q. 124.6.
Brown (2002).
118 sophi e lunn- rockli ffe
and the problem of dening exactly who was rich, who poor and to what
extent. My purpose here is to deal with the categories that Ambrosiaster
uses on his own terms.
quaes ti o 1 24
In quaestio 124, Ambrosiaster considers eight actions, virtues or vices, and
applies to them the general logic of the parable of the widows mite at
Luke 21.14. In this story, rich men contribute abundantly to the collection
box, and a widow contributes but two small coins. Jesus explains that the
widow has cast in more than all of them, for she has donated all that
she had, whereas the rich men, who contributed much larger amounts,
did not give all that they had. The parable shows starkly how almsgiving
should not be praised or blamed according to the amounts being donated,
but rather relatively to the wealth of their donor, and it is this principle, of
evaluating a mans moral worth relatively to his means, which Ambrosiaster
The persons under consideration in this quaestio are the rich man and
the poor man dives et pauper. It might seem at rst glance that the title of
Ambrosiasters quaestio is strangely vague, stating that one work [opus] dif-
fers according to persons, whether it is to be praised or condemned.
ever, opus in early Christian usage had acquired the very specic meaning
of charitable work, particularly almsgiving, and thus the quaestio revolves
around the issue of dispensing from ones own property, and the vices and
virtues associated with wealth and want.
Ambrosiaster considers eight virtues, vices or actions in turn, and assesses
why each is to be seen differently in the poor and the rich man. The rst
three paragraphs concern wealth and almsgiving. In the rst, he commends
the paupers misericordia, his generosity in giving, above the rich mans,
and cites Luke 21.14.
In the second paragraph, on theft, he explains
that a pauper may be driven by need to rob and is thus not subject to
Unum opus differre secundum personas sive in laudem sive in condemnationem.
On opera as standing for bona opera, see P etr e (1948) 2579. The Christian vocabulary of alms-
giving involves the employment of words which would seem to have a wider application to a
more specic end. For example (again, see P etr e (1948) 22939) many early Christian authors,
including Ambrosiaster (as I discuss below), use misericordia not to mean mercy generally, but
Una est misericordia in divite et in paupere, sed aliter inputatur diviti et aliter pauperi, quia plus
laudanda est in paupere quam in divite.
Pauper enim de exiguitate sua largiri non timuit.
Poverty and riches in Ambrosiaster 119
the same blame as a rich man, who has no such excuse.
Indeed, rich
men are wont to rob the poor, a multiplication of their crime.
The third
paragraph considers iustitia, a term which here refers back to almsgiving
and the idea of giving to each his due; Ambrosiaster himself says else-
where that misericordia is called iustitia (Amst. II Cor. 9.9). Here, he
commends the poor mans almsgiving, because he is in a greater state of
We then turn to pride and humility. Superbia is insane in the poor man
since he has nothing apart from want to be proud of,
and humilitas is
more admirable in the rich man because he needs to dismiss the elevating
possibilities of riches, whereas the pauper is already humbled with regard to
his means.
The rich man is also more commendable in matters academic
(something which may give us pause for thought): he doubles the honour
of his wealth by applying himself to doctrina and studium, whereas the poor
man has nothing apart from his academic labours to recommend him.
This is a rare instance when we are given an insight into the variety of
experience within the broad category of poor; a poor man who could
recommend himself through study is a very different spectacle from the
beggar on the street.
Finally, Ambrosiaster covers lust (libido) and chastity (pudicitia). A pau-
per is to be condemned the more for lust, since he does not have the means
to satisfy it and will be drawn into committing further sins in his quest for
the rich man is also to be condemned for lust, since he can sin
safe in the knowledge of his probable immunity.
Chastity is praiseworthy
in both the poor man and the rich man, but it is especially commendable
Furtum in paupere et divite unum peccatum est, sed divitem plus facit reum, quia pauper per inopiam
facit furtum, dives autem, cum habundet, non contentus suo tollit aliena.
Et, quod peius est, solent pauperes expoliare.
In egestate enim servare iustitiam magnica res est.
Superbia una est, sed plus damnanda in paupere est quam in divite, quia dives copia elatus est, pauper
autem in egestate superbus, quod ad insaniam pertinet . . .
Quid enim magnum est si pauper humilis videatur, quem ipsa inopia humilem facit? magnicum autem
si hic, qui dignitate et copiis commendatur, inclinet se non sibi vindicans quod mereri se novit.
Pauper enim, cum nulla praerogativa commendaretur, operam dedit ut haberet unde posset requiri; dives
autem, cum non deesset unde commendaretur, adhibito labore auxit se, ut duplici genere necessarius
The possibility of raising oneself socially through study reminds us of Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus
20.5: for I was born in the country of a poor and uneducated father yet I have achieved distinguished
status in these times through such important studies.
Pauperem enim ipsa egestas revocare debet a cupiditate luxoriae; cogitare enim debet quia unde hoc
impleat non habet et, dum hoc festinat implere, alia multa mala admittat necesse est . . .
Divitem autem deliciarum copiae lacessunt ad voluptatem libidinis, praeterea quia securi sunt de inpuni-
tate scientes venalia esse iudicia et nec redargui se ab aliquo.
120 sophi e lunn- rockli ffe
in the latter.
There then follows an ample digression on the rex pudicus.
If a king resists temptation, this is particularly worthy of glory, since he has
all men and laws in his power, and might do as he wishes on earth.
I turn now to consider the biblical cadences of quaestio 124. Ambrosiaster
takes the moral of Luke 21.14 that virtue is affected by ones means and
assesses whether a range of actions, virtues and vices should be praised or
condemned, whether they are worthy of gloria or poena, depending on the
nancial standing of the man who performs them. Ambrosiaster does not
consistently present the poor man as morally advantaged by his poverty,
as one might expect if this were to be a straightforward piece of inversion
whereby a poor man is counted spiritually richer because of his poverty.
The whole quaestio appears to be inspired by the parables in Luke which
circle around the problems besetting poor and rich men with regard to
salvation. Ambrosiaster alludes to the New Testament explicitly only twice.
Initially, he summarises the moral of Luke 21.34: Whence also the poor
woman, when the rich men gave many things, alone deserved to be praised
by God, because she did not fear to dispense from her penury (Amst. q.
124.1). At the end of the quaestio, he also alludes to Luke 18.2: but this [rich]
man, who in domination neither fears the laws nor blushes on account of
men, is of great glory if he holds himself in check (Amst. q. 124.8).
There is also a distinct echo of Luke 12.478 in the rst paragraph: For
the rich man, if he does not do this [dispense to the poor], will be ogged
[vapulabit] (Amst. q. 124.1); vapulabit echoes the Vetus Latina text of this
passage which Ambrosiaster would have used.
Ambrosiaster may be inspired by the Lucan story of the widows mite in
this quaestio, but his attitude towards the rich and the poor is not as stark
as that of Luke, who was the most socially radical of the evangelists, and
whose Gospel features several stories criticising the vainglorious rich. For
instance, in his account of the sermon on the plain, there occurs after the
beatitudes (Luke 6.2022) a series of warnings to the rich and powerful But
Pauperem enim potest humilitas revocare, ne quod vult possit implere, aut timor legum; dives autem, cum
multis suffragantibus causis ad voluptatem possit inlici, laudabilis est . . .
Quod si rex pudicus sit, multum est gloriosum, ut omnia in potestate habens non contingat, quod scit
impune a se posse eri.
See Luke 18.2: there was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man.
Compare Amst. q. 124.1: dives enim, si hoc non fecerit, vapulabit with Luke 12.47 in the Vetus Latina,
itself quoted elsewhere by Ambrosiaster (at his Col. 3.5): qui autem scit voluntatem domini sui, et non
paruerit ei vapulabit multis.
Poverty and riches in Ambrosiaster 121
woe unto you that are rich! (Luke 6.246), in the manner of Ecclesiastes
this is wholly absent from Matthews version of the beatitudes
(Matthew 5.311). Where Matthew has blessed are the poor in spirit, Luke
has simply blessed are the poor. All in all, Luke insistently promotes the
righteous poor and condemns the wicked rich to an extent not found in any
of the other Gospels, although it is also a feature of the epistle of James.
His Gospel contains an unambiguous message that the rich man will nd
it more difcult to be saved than the poor man.
Ambrosiaster deploys allusions to Luke to produce a rather different,
more nuanced, picture of poverty and riches. He allows that, as the widows
poverty rendered her meagre offering generous, thus sometimes a rich mans
greater wealth renders his virtue more laudable than that of a poor man.
He saves some possibility of virtue for the rich, rather than suggesting
that their material riches always spiritually impoverish them. Ambrosi-
aster not only saves the rich man in this quaestio; it is striking that his
substantial oeuvre
does not refer to the scriptural passages which con-
demn riches most explicitly. There is no direct reference in any of his
writing to Mark 10.1731/Matthew 19.1626 (where Jesus says it is eas-
ier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to
enter into the kingdom of God), nor indeed to Luke 1.4655, which we
know as the Magnicat, wherein the mighty are put down and the humble
We nd a similar reluctance to engage with ascetic biblical texts in
the Cento of Proba, a Roman noblewoman whose oruit coincides with
Ambrosiasters. Proba says nothing about the renunciation of riches, and
urges the distribution of wealth among relatives, not among the wider
Clark has pointed out that Probas telling of the story of the rich
young man omits Jesus injunction to sell his goods for the sake of the
poor, instead urging the youth more vaguely to learn . . . contempt
for wealth.
But where Proba chose to interpret her texts in a moder-
ate and selective fashion, Ambrosiaster completely omitted to mention
the most famous scriptural texts dealing with the renunciation of wealth.
This should perhaps not surprise us, given that Ambrosiaster opposed the
Ecclesiastes 10.1617: Woe to thee O land, when thy king is a child, and thy princes eat in the
morning! Blessed art thou O land, when thy king is the son of nobles, and thy princes eat in due
season, for strength, and not for drunkenness! Tobit 13.12, 14, and Isaiah 3.1011 also exhibit this
antithetical scheme, on which in general see Dodd (1968) 110.
See Countryman (1980).
Ambrosiasters writings ll four fat volumes in the CSEL series.
Proba, Cento 475481.
E. A. Clark (1986) 140. For a translation of Probas Cento, see Plant (2004).
122 sophi e lunn- rockli ffe
general imposition of another related ascetic practice, celibacy, on ordinary
clement of alexandri a
We shall now turn to an important text in the pre-Ambrosiastrian tradition
of defending the rich mans possibility of achieving salvation. Clement of
Alexandria, one of the very few writers with whose work Ambrosiaster had
at least a passing acquaintance,
appears to have written Who is the rich
man that shall be saved? for a wealthy audience. In this piece he is striving
to direct his ock away from a literal interpretation of Mark 10.1731, in
which the rich man is admonished by Jesus to sell all he has and give to the
poor. He shows that it would not benet the church if all rich men were to
give away their wealth: For if no one had anything, what room would be
left among men for giving? (Clement, Quis Dives 13). They must relinquish
the passion for their possessions rather than the possessions themselves:
Riches, then, which benet also our neighbours, are not to be thrown away . . .
So let no man destroy wealth, rather than the passions of the soul, which are
incompatible with the better use of wealth. (Clement, Quis Dives 14)
Clement argues along Stoic lines that riches are morally indifferent (adi-
aphora) of themselves, and affect ones virtue only as far as one uses them
well or badly:
That then which of itself has neither good nor evil, being blameless, ought not to
be blamed; but that which has the power of using it well and ill, by reason of its
possessing voluntary choice. (Clement, Quis Dives 14)
Thus a rich man is not to be condemned automatically for being rich, but
for whether or not he dispenses alms, and if so, howgenerously and in what
Clement begins his sermon (as it undoubtedly was) with a condemnation
of those who bestow laudatory addresses on the rich, and suggests that
it appears to me to be far kinder, than basely to atter the rich and praise
them for what is bad, to aid them in working out their salvation in every
possible way. He continues by explaining how virtues alone affect ones
salvation, not means:
See Amst q. 127.33, referring to Matt. 8.14 and Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 3.52, although this
is admittedly a very passing reference to the fact of Peters being married with children.
See Countryman (1980).
Poverty and riches in Ambrosiaster 123
Salvation does not depend on external things . . . but on the virtue of the soul,
on faith, and hope and love and brotherliness and knowledge and meekness and
humility and truth, the reward of which is salvation. (Clement, Quis Dives 18)
In this respect we can see that Ambrosiaster stands in the tradition of
Clement when he defends the possibility of the rich man being saved, but
renes the general principle that wealth should not be condemned of itself,
but only if it is used badly. Ambrosiaster, in a blow-by-blow analysis of
different vices, virtues and actions, applies the principle of relative praise
and blame in a series of pragmatic examples. In all, he explains that ones
degree of wealth must be taken into account because it makes some virtues
harder and others easier to pursue, some vices harder and others easier to
roman law
Quaestio 124 does not take its structuring device of differential reward
and punishment solely from the example of Christian texts. An altogether
different world also informs the tone of this piece: that of the law-courts.
Again, the problem of Ambrosiasters identity intrudes. His interest in legal
matters has been conclusively demonstrated, although it is impossible to
ascertain from this what, if any, personal involvement he might have had
in the legal system.
There are obtrusive references to advocates and men
in court in paragraph six of quaestio 124, and the text is underpinned by
the general legal principle of differential punishment. We must assume that
this principle would have been familiar to his Roman audience.
The title of the quaestio sets out its purpose: to establish howfar an action
differs according to persona. Roman legal practice discriminated according
to a variety of factors,
as Claudius Saturninus, cited in the Digest, lists:
These four categories [of punishments: for things done, said, writtenor counselled],
however, must be considered in seven aspects: the motive, the person, the place,
the time, the quality, the quantity and the outcome. (D.
Ambrosiasters interest in and knowledge of Roman law and legal procedure has been the source of
critical comment over the years. Humfress (1998) demonstrates convincingly that the prominence
of legal language and argumentation in the writings of ecclesiastics in this period is a result of their
receiving a career-orientated education in forensic rhetoric. Applying this principle to Ambrosiaster,
we can surmise that although he may never have practised as an advocate or iurisconsultus, he probably
received an education in forensic oratory. It has been suggested, on the basis of shared references
to otherwise lost laws, that Ambrosiaster was also the author of the Collatio Legum Mosaicarum et
Romanorum; see, e.g. Souter (1927) 41.
See Garnsey (1970).
124 sophi e lunn- rockli ffe
Among these factors, persona was extremely important. Persona may be
taken as ones status in society, as one of the honestiores or humiliores, which
was determined by a number of factors, including birth, wealth and ofce,
although it could also indicate whether one was slave or free, alien or citizen.
In Roman law, persona was a factor taken into consideration during a trial,
as a man of lower status was more likely to be impugned as an unreliable
witness. The persona of both perpetrator and victim was also taken into
account when determining punishment:
The person is looked at in two ways: the person who did the act and the person who
suffered [it]: for slaves and freemen are punished differently for the same crimes,
and differently, too, someone who dares [to wrong] a master or parent as opposed
to an outsider, and who [offends] a magistrate as opposed to a private person. (D.
Thus a man of lower status would, if judged guilty, be punished more
harshly than a person of higher status who had committed the same crime.
There is ample evidence in the Theodosian Code that men of high and
low status were punished differently; for instance, harbourers of robbers
were threatened with corporal punishment or forfeiture of property, in
accordance with the rank of the person and at the discretion of the judge.
(CTh 9.29.2)
Ambrosiasters explicit use of a discriminatory policy by wealth alone
in quaestio 124 is somewhat unusual, partly because persona was only one
aspect of the usual raft of factors determining punishment of a crime, and
partly because wealth was only one factor determining ones persona. More
striking still is Ambrosiasters rejection of the Roman legal principle of
discriminating consistently in favour of the privileged and against men of
low status. He proposes instead that judgement in the afterlife will be more
exible and less biased, sometimes favouring the rich man, and sometimes
the poor man. A nal distinctively novel legal aspect of this quaestio is its
concern with reward as well as punishment; since Ambrosiaster is dealing
with the judgement of God rather than that of an earthly law-court, he
considers salvation as well as damnation.
I shall focus here on the surprising threat that Ambrosiaster makes, refer-
ring to Luke 12.478, that a richmanwho fails to dispense to the poor will be
whipped, presumably in the life to come. Despite its scriptural inspiration,
the idea of a rich man being whipped would have been an unlikely and
unwelcome prospect for the privileged members of Ambrosiasters audi-
ence. Men of high status were exempt from corporal punishments in most
cases apart from more serious crimes, and this was itself one of the most
Poverty and riches in Ambrosiaster 125
important privileges of being a notable, as much for reasons of pride and
honour as physical suffering.
Menof high status who submitted to degrad-
ing punishments such as whipping and hard labour (originally inicted on
slaves and aliens) suffered a concomitant loss of honour (existimatio).
So Ambrosiasters offhand remark would have been somewhat controver-
sial, ignoring the fact that, on earth at least, rich men were generally exempt
from such degrading and potentially lethal forms of punishment. Further-
more, the story he alludes to in Luke focuses on a slave who failed to serve his
master correctly, and whose whipping would probably not have unnerved
Ambrosiasters audience; that is, a punishment originally meted out to
a slave in a parable is now deemed appropriate as a post-mortem punish-
ment for the rich man whose virtues and vices he is dissecting. Ambrosiaster
has imaginatively deployed a biblical allusion to subvert Roman legal expec-
Ambrosiaster also contradicts current legal practice in his assessment of
the relative gravity of a rich man and a poor man committing theft, excusing
the pauper to some extent on the grounds that he was driven to crime by
need. Another expression of this idea is found in Ambrose: the question
may be asked of the robber: you were rich, why did you seize on the goods
of others? Need did not force you, poverty did not drive you to it. Did I not
make you rich, that you might have no excuse? (Ambrose, Off. 1.16.63).
This is a Christian attitude towards mitigating circumstances, not a Roman
legal one; punishment of theft never took into account the means of the
thief, and in fact a lower status thief was liable to harsher punishment than
a higher status thief.
ri ch and poor: blessed or shameful?
Thus far I hope to have demonstrated the interaction (or perhaps colli-
sion would be more accurate) of two very different thought-worlds: that
of Lukes social radicalism, and the principle of differential punishment
enshrined in Roman law. There is a further context in which Ambrosiasters
attitude towards wealth and poverty must be considered: the conict
between received Roman ideas of shameful poverty and blessed riches,
and the Christian gure, inverting such norms, of the blessed pauper.
Brown (1992) and Bauman (1986). Harries (1999) 141 argues that towards the end of the fourth
century for serious crimes of violence, treason, magic or forgery [and adultery] members of the elite,
if convicted, could now be liable to the same, or similar penalties as their social inferiors.
Bauman (1986) 151, citing D. 48.19.28. pr.
126 sophi e lunn- rockli ffe
We should not seek monolithic ideologies of poverty in Christian writers,
especially those like Ambrosiaster who never wrote on poverty or riches per
se, but rather appreciate that the rhetoric of paradox (you think the poor are
shameful, but actually they are exalted in the eyes of God) only works if the
social assumption that is being inverted, namely that the rich are worthy
and the poor are to be despised, was still widely held. The inversion of
received values was not achieved once and for all by the rst Christians, but
was in constant need of reassertion and renewal. For every reference exalting
the humble, lowly and despised, there is another which will demonstrate
that humility, lowliness and disgrace continued to dominate perceptions of
poverty. This may be a function of the very language of poverty, as Denise
Grodzynski has shown that vilitas (lowliness, poverty) was a category for
use in penal law. It associates economic poverty, obscure birth, and dubious
Ambrosiaster shows us that many still considered involuntary poverty to
be shameful, but he argues for a more humane attitude towards the poor,
stressing that the disgrace of poverty is only an appearance.
First, what attitude did Ambrosiaster take generally towards rich men?
Althoughhe accommodates the possibility of a virtuous richmaninquaestio
124, elsewhere he denounces a class of wicked rich people. Their sins are
overwhelmingly carnal they are indicted for feasting greedily on fatted
animals and banquets (Amst. I Tim. 4.7) and are oppressed by excess. In
a memorable image, he describes the man weighed down by feasting and
drinking as like a man looking at himself in a dirty mirror, in which he can
only dimly perceive his real self (Amst. q. 120.3). This is complemented by
an apocalyptic picture of social relations:
Why is it that here sinners are safe through their power, while some mock the law,
paupers are oppressed, an indictment is composed against the just, those acting
well are [seen as] a scandal, the pious go without, the evil ourish, the wicked and
corrupt are held in honour, greedy and rapacious men are enriched, and the judge
is venal? [In the next world] those who used their power to despise the statutes
or made a mockery of the law by sharp practice in their pursuit of wickedness, so
puffed up in these ways that they might have appeared to trample on justice itself
they shall be brought low and overthrown and shall be subjected to torments.
(Amst. q. 4.2)
We are reminded of the pagan Ammianus and the ascetic Jeromes appalled
denunciations of the self-indulgence, frivolity and excess of Rome in this
Grodzynski (1987). A signicant problem with this article (which she herself admits) is that it is
restricted to analysis of the Theodosian Code.
Poverty and riches in Ambrosiaster 127
More generally, there is in this period plenty of criticism, literary
and legal, of the potentiores abusing their power, although whether such
criticisms signify a real shift in behaviour or not, is more difcult to estab-
Ambrosiaster thus falls in line with some of his contemporaries in
his denunciation of the actual excesses of the rich. He also explicitly con-
nects rich mens avarice and the high prices responsible for poverty in his
commentary on Ephesians:
. . . the miser usurps and hoards those things which are Gods for himself, so that
avarice denies those things which [God] granted to the use of all communally,
when thus it gathers them to itself so that others might not use them. This matter
means that all things are sold at a high price with the result that paupers cannot
live. For if these things were not hoarded, abundance of all things would create
cheapness. (Amst. Eph. 5.5)
This is a rather simplistic chain of causation, but one which excuses paupers
from responsibility for their situation, and shows that the acquisition of
wealth can be sinful.
Ambrosiaster also repeatedly explains that the poor, although they may
seem contemptible and shameful, are in fact to be helped and honoured
for their poverty. In a disconcerting piece of exegesis of Pauls bodychurch
metaphor, he compares the poor with male genitalia. Paul writes And those
of our members which are unseemly, have greater respectability, which
Ambrosiaster interprets as follows:
It is clear that our private parts, which seem shameful, cover themselves with
respectability in avoiding public display, so as not to obtrude irreverently. In a
similar way, some of the brothers, who are, through their neediness and way of
dressing, unseemly, are nevertheless not without grace, because they are members
of our body. For they are accustomed to go about girt up in dirty little garments
and barefoot. Although, therefore, they seem contemptible, they are more to be
honoured, because they usually leada cleaner life; for what seems to mendespicable,
is generally judged by God to be beautiful. (Amst. I Cor. 12.23)
Here he employs the familiar device of inversion; what is disgraceful among
men is honoured by God. He stresses that what seems to be shameful, is not
actually so, and then advances an interesting, and subversive thesis, that
despising lowly people will only encourage them to further fecklessness:
But regarding the despised and lowly, an exhortation is necessary, to ensure that
some honour is given to them, so that they may become useful; otherwise, through
See Ammianus, Res Gestae 28.4, on the vices of Roman society, and Jerome, Ep. 22 on the vices of
Roman Christian society.
See Harries (1999) 143.
128 sophi e lunn- rockli ffe
the fact of their being despised, these people, in whom there is a need for further
progress, will become more negligent about themselves. (Amst. I Cor. 12.24)
If Ambrosiaster expresses a certain sympathy for the despised poor, he
reserves his highest praise for the ascetics who have reduced themselves
to poverty: the saints of II Corinthians. He writes approvingly of them
as subjected not to beggary, but to God (Amst. II Cor. 9.1314), and
characterises the differences between voluntary and involuntary paupers
For people who are publicly in need are those who can be called the poor. The
saints are distinguished from them, because these are servants of God, devoting
themselves to repeated prayer and fasting. (Amst. II Cor. 9.9)
It would seem that, much in the vein of the relative merits of the pauper
and the rich man of quaestio 124, a once-rich pauper is more to be esteemed
than an always-poor one, for the former has had to give something up,
whereas the latter has never had anything to lose. But Ambrosiaster was
not a zealous promoter of asceticism. As we have seen, he was an ascetic
moderate, preaching celibacy as appropriate to the clergy,
and he nowhere
suggests that voluntary poverty is incumbent upon all Christians. It is
certainly not necessary for achieving glory in the next life; as quaestio 124
demonstrates, gloria could be achieved by dives and pauper alike, although
each should be ready to be judged for their particular virtues, vices and
actions, relative to their wealth.
conclusi on
Ambrosiaster adapts the Roman legal principle of discriminating according
to personae, proposing that the rich man will, in Gods judgement to come,
not always be punished more lightly than the poor man because of his
status, as was established practice on earth. Instead, the rich man will
be judged according to whether his richness makes his virtue more or
less laudable, his vice more or less reprehensible. That is, the principle of
differential punishment remains, and the comparison is still between two
different classes of men, differentiated by means, but discrimination is not
consistently in favour of the rich man.
I suggested in my introduction that Ambrosiaster was probably a pres-
byter, and that a number of his quaestiones have the appearances of sermons.
There is, however, nothing in quaestio 124 to show explicitly that this too
See Hunter (1989).
Poverty and riches in Ambrosiaster 129
was preached, either as part of a service, or more informally as, for instance,
a lecture for catechumens. It could equally well be a private communication
to a particular individual, or a more general, abstract meditation dealing
with a specic problem. However, its tone and message show clearly that
Ambrosiaster himself was a moderate and pragmatic Christian thinker, who
was willing to deal with the actuality of the differing wealth of his fellow
Christians, rather than merely condemning wealth outright and praising
poverty as always spiritually superior. This puts him in a long Christian
tradition of defending the rich man, of whom Clement of Alexandria
is perhaps the most famous. It also identies him rmly as less icy and
more exible in his attitude to renunciation than his more rigorous ascetic
opponents, such as Jerome.
chapter 8
Portraying the poor: descriptions of poverty in
Christian texts from the late Roman empire
Richard Finn, OP
It is now rightly taken for granted that in their promotion of almsgiving
Christian preachers of the late fourth and fth centuries gave a newvisibility
through and in their texts to the poor and the very poor. This was the
thesis ably advanced by Michael De Vinne in his still unpublished work,
The Advocacy of Empty Bellies: Episcopal Representation of the Poor in the Late
Empire, and cited with approval by Susan Holman in her recent discussion
of how the poor are portrayed in sermons by the Cappadocian Fathers:
Because the better off throughout the Roman empire largely fail even to see
the many destitute that wander through the streets of their cities, clergymen
strive to render these unfortunate fully visible.
This heightened visibility
is indeed of great potential importance to the social historian seeking to
construct an image of the poor and an account of the various forms of
poverty experienced in this period. Chrysostoms assessment of how many
at Antioch were rich, poor or between these two extremes is well known:
if both the wealthy, and those who rank immediately behind them, were
to distribute amongst themselves those who lack bread and clothing, you
would have difculty in nding one poor person for every fty or even
every hundred of the others.
Yet such visibility in Patristic texts is not because the texts offer any
simple windowon the past or constitute a distortion-free mirror in which to
viewlate antique society. Judith Lieu aptly put the point in her book, Image
and Reality, on the Christian presentation of Judaismin the second century:
literary presentation cannot automatically be taken as directly mirroring
external reality but frequently meets particular needs, internal or external
to the literature itself.
Michael Devinne pointed out the way in which
preachers repeatedly drew on images from the theatre, from gladiatorial
games and shows, in order to claim for the poor the gaze which otherwise
De Vinne (1995) iv.
Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthews Gospel, 66.3; PG 58. 630.
Lieu (1996) 2.
Poverty in Christian texts from the late Roman empire 131
avoided them. The poor were to be dramatised, even heroised, in this
way so as to distract people from immoral spectacles. If the poor become
visible, in what guise are they seen? If to be made visible is to be seen
from a given vantage point, in a limited perspective, what is hidden as
well as revealed by the strategies of late antique preachers and writers? In
this chapter, I examine the nature and extent of the heightened visibility
given to the poor in many Christian texts of this period, looking at how
the poor appear but also disappear in two different genres: sermons, and
lives of the saints. In the case of sermons I shall largely restrict my examples
to a single corpus: Augustines Enarrationes in Psalmos. I shall suggest that
rather than seeking simply to heighten the visibility of the poor, Augustine
seeks to foreshorten social distances, and to present in a certain light those
whom the sermons aid among the urban destitute. They must not simply
be seen, but seen to be worthy beneciaries. In the case of saints Lives I
shall range more widely, but focus mainly on two Greek lives fromthe fth
century: Mark the Deacons Life of Bishop Porphyry, and the Life of Hypatios
by Callinicus. These lives of the saints do offer heightened visibility of the
poor, in particular the conjunctural poor, those who did not live for the
most part in destitution, but were vulnerable to destitution. Yet here, too,
we must recognise how biblical models and gures hide at least as much as
they reveal about poverty in the late empire.
I begin with the Enarrationes. It is not, I admit, a wholly representative
corpus of late antique sermons not least because a number of expositions
are not sermons at all, but are either brief exegetical notes, such as exist
for Psalms 132, or detailed written commentaries, such as the thirty-two
expositions of Psalm 118 which were composed for a clerical elite and with
which I am not here concerned.
Michael Fiedrowicz and Anne-Marie La
Bonnardi` ere have pointed out that relatively few of the sermons originated
in eucharistic celebrations at Hippo, and that while only a very few appear
to have been preached in Lent or Eastertide, including one in Holy Week
(En. in Ps. 21, s.2), a seventh, some seventeen, were delivered on vigils or
feasts of the African martyrs, when time was not such a pressing issue.
Many sermons, Fiedrowicz surmises, were probably delivered at Matins
or Vespers.
Yet, there is no wholly representative corpus of late antique
sermons; and the size of the corpus offers a broad sample of Augustines
popular preaching. It includes sermons preached on a variety of occasions
in a number of different places, whether in Hippo, Utica or at Carthage,
Kannengiesser (1962) 364.
M. Fiedrowicz, Introduction, in Boulding (2000a) 17; La Bonnardi` ere (1971) 734.
132 ri chard fi nn, op
and over a period of at least several decades before the early 420s, if not the
thirty-ve years suggested by La Bonnardi` ere.
It may be said at the outset that neither the notes nor the sermons offer
detailed or extended description of the destitute or of the conjunctural
poor, though Augustine offers the occasional glimpse into the lives of the
latter. They probably include the Christian shopkeepers or stall-holders
who set up in the streets when the festival games were held in the circus
at Carthage.
Further on in the same sermon we can sense the drudgery,
the sheer hard work, which was the lot of many poor men and women, as
Augustine notes the different uses of baskets for washing, spreading dung,
and earth-moving.
Elsewhere we are reminded of the ordinary work from
which the saints in heaven are freed: sowing, ploughing, cooking, grinding,
and weaving.
It is the world of harvest songs, but in which a man slackens
and skives as soon as the employer looks the other way.
Among the
servants working on the great estates are those who have to clean out the
drains and latrines.
The fate awaiting some of the suddenly impoverished
is seen when Augustine mentions the debtor who is due to be ogged or
perhaps hanged unless someone rst steps in to pay off his debts.
vulnerability of many to the depredations of the powerful, and the search
for security through patronage which it fostered, is seen in the plaques
(tituli) which Augustine describes as placed by the front door and naming
some magnate whose wrath might pursue anyone attacking the property
and household.
The Enarrationes repeatedly return to a defence of Gods
justice fromthe charge that he leaves the richto ourishthroughwickedness
and the poor to suffer their injustice, and this theme is another indicator
of that vulnerability to violence and impoverishment to which many were
The absence of extended description should certainly not be
taken to imply that the Enarrationes are unconcerned with the poor, or
simply fail to describe them, though the latter would be true in large part
of slaves and children. The concern with the free poor becomes clearer
when we examine the promotion of almsgiving to be found in these texts.
La Bonnardi` ere (1971) 734.
Casas in vicis faciunt, August. En. in Ps. 80.2. Where there is only one sermon on the psalm, I give
the psalm number followed by the section of the sermon; where there is more than one sermon, I
give the psalm number, then the sermon number, followed by the section of the sermon. I give the
reference for the critical edition of the Latin text only when discussing the sense of larger passages.
Mundare, stercorare, terram portare, cophino t, En. in Ps. 80.9.
En. in Ps. 85.24.
En. in Ps. 99.4; 93.12.
En. in Ps. 103, s.4.10.
The Latin (suspendendus) can bear either reading. A further technical sense of the verb meaning to
freeze assets should be rejected: the rhetorical context makes clear that Augustine envisages a major
calamity. Boulding (2002) 238, translates as due to be hanged. En. in Ps. 85.18.
En. in Ps. 21, s.2.31.
E.g. En. in Ps. 93.
Poverty in Christian texts from the late Roman empire 133
Of the forty-three expositions of Psalms 132, eleven of which appear
to have been given as sermons in something close to their extant form,
only one contains unambiguous promotion of almsgiving.
By contrast,
of the next seventy-six expositions on Psalms 3398, among which only
seven are noted by Possidius as having been dictated and are unlikely to
have been delivered as sermons,
thirty-two, a little under half, contain
to a greater or lesser degree direct or indirect promotion of almsgiving.
These are not sermons wholly devoted to almsgiving or the use of wealth,
but almsgiving is either one topic among others, is validated in passing,
or is promoted at the close of a sermon on other topics.
One might be
tempted to explain the contrast between these groups of texts as a uke
due in part to the content of Psalms 3298, such that the latter themselves
referred more often to the poor, but this is an unlikely explanation given
Augustines explicit hermeneutic principle in the Enarrationes: he does not
read as a reference to the materially poor verses which we might take as
plainly referring to them: it is by no means the poor who have nothing
whom scripture seems to speak of when praising the poor.
The contrast
in promotion between these two groups is more likely to be an indication of
a bishops duty to raise alms through preaching, his need to be seen to act in
this way as a champion of the poor. We may usefully compare these gures
with that for the promotion of almsgiving in Augustines other collected
sermons, where 113 sermons of 567, a little under one-fth, contain some
such promotion.
How visible are the poor and very poor in this promotion? How does
Augustine choose to describe them? In a few cases they are wholly invisible.
The beneciaries of almsgiving in these cases are not adverted to at all.
In a much larger number of cases the very poor who feature in the sermons
among the Enarrationes as worthy recipients of alms are described only in
the most general or abstract terms as being in need; they are indigentes or
egentes, where that need is normally understood rather than said to arise
from material deprivation.
The language may seem unexceptionable, but
it is far from neutral and has much work to do. Evelyne Patlagean long ago
saw with respect to the Greek-speaking eastern empire that this tendency
The eleven are those indicated as sermones ad populum or ad plebem in the judgement of the Maurist
editors (En. in Ps. 18, s.2; 21, s.2; 25, s.2; 26, s.2; 29, s.2; 30, s.24; 31, s.2; 32, s.23). They make
explicit mention of their liturgical context and differ markedly in style fromeither the more extensive
written commentaries (En. in Ps. 110) or the briefer exegetical notes.
On Psalms 67, 71, 77, 78, 82, 87 and 89.
E.g. En. in Ps. 66.7.
E.g. En. in Ps. 90, s.2.13; 95.15.
En. in Ps. 93.7.
E.g. En. in Ps 53.3; 72.26; 76.4.
E.g. En. in Ps. 36, s.1.2; 37.24; 64.8.
134 ri chard fi nn, op
of Christians to use the language of need to describe the poor was to
be contrasted with the pagan preference to describe them in terms of their
social identity.
So, by not presenting the listener with specic groups, with
named or otherwise delineated individuals, froma given social stratum, the
promoter of almsgiving removes or mutes a traditional interpretative frame
which taints the very poor with that contempt due to inferiors, while
avoiding the question of whether any particular individual is a worthy
recipient of alms. A frame which distances the rich or better-off from the
poor, or the conjunctural poor fromthe very poor, is replaced by one which
draws them together as sharing a like plight, equally needy in different
respects. Augustine is a master of this rhetoric:
Give alms, atone for your sins, let the needy person rejoice in your gift, so that
you may rejoice in Gods gift. That man is in want; you, too, are in want; he is
wanting something of you, and you are wanting something of God. When you
despise the person who wants something of yours, will not God despise you for
wanting something of his? Supply, then, what the needy person lacks, so that God
may ll your inner being.
Augustine mutes the contempt which otherwise threatens to frustrate the
call to almsgiving by removing the social frame in which such an attitude
is a conventional response, but he further seeks to engage with and turn
this response to his own charitable advantage. The analogous relationships
between rich and poor, God and man, force the rich to nd themselves in
the same place as the poor, all too easily on the receiving end of that very
contempt which they would visit on the destitute. Their own position can
be secured only by eschewing such contempt in the practice of almsgiving.
The better-off are deftly hoist with their own petard. One may question
Maria Bouldings translation at this point, because where I translate ille
literally as that man, she species the person as the pauper.
To be so
specic is to do the opposite of what Augustine intends at this point, to
reopen a social distance he has foreclosed.
To step outside the Enarrationes for a moment, we see Augustine playing
a similar game in Sermon 389 where the congregation are urged to give
ordinary bread to the needy (panem terrenum) so as to receive the bread of
Patlagean (1977) 25ff.
Fiant eleemosynae, redimantur peccata, gaudeat indigens de dato tuo, ut et tu gaudeas de dato Dei. eget
ille, eges et tu; eget ille ad te, eges et tu ad Deum. tu contemnis egentem tui, Deus non te contemnet
egentem sui? ergo impleto tu egentis inopiam, ut impleat Deus interiora tua. En. in Ps. 37. 24; CCSL
Boulding (2000b) 164.
Poverty in Christian texts from the late Roman empire 135
How is it that he will give to you when you do not give to someone in need? One
wants something of you, you want something of another. And although you want
something of one, and another wants something of you, he wants something of
someone needy, but you want something of one who lacks nothing. Do as you
would be done by.
What happens here, however, is that the analogous relationships so insisted
upon by Augustines short and alliterative parallel phrases, suddenly and
nally give way to an uncomfortable dissimilarity. The poor man stands
before a man who is himself in need. The other man stands before God who
lacks nothing. The social divide between the needy and the self-sufcient,
dishonouring the former and honouring the latter, is relocated to place men
side by side before God.
More frequently Augustine, like many other Latin preachers, chose to
speak simply of the very poor as poor, pauperes, with little or no further
specication as beggars, widows, orphans, the sick, disabled, debtors or
the elderly inrm specication he could easily have given.
It is indeed
noticeable how little he has to say about widows, whatever Peter Browns
expectations of him. Augustines common practice in the Enarrationes is in
fact to describe recipients of alms in terms combining pauper with a further
expression of general need or want, a combination which may suggest ben-
eciaries low down the social strata, but which remains ambiguous about
just how far down.
The language of unspecied need and unquantied
poverty presumably allows the preacher to win alms for distribution with-
out restricting his own freedom to determine those beneciaries. It allows
what may be the limited and targeted almsgiving to certain groups and
individuals to represent or stand for gifts to the poor in general, thereby
fullling the demands of the Gospel. For, as Margaret Atkins has pointed
out, Christ did not command his disciples to aid only some and not others.
Pauper, as we know, can stretch fromthe relative poverty of a smallholder
(in classical Greek usage, the penes) to the near-total destitution of the
beggar. We can see the former sense when Augustine invites his listeners to
imagine the poor man whose small house and land are desired by a rich
neighbour to whom he is accustomed to bow and defer, in whose presence
he is expected to stand, but whom he can approach for nancial help with
some limited expectation of success:
Quomodo tibi dabit qui non das egenti? eget ad te alter, eges ad alterum. et cum eges ad alterum et eget
ad te alter, ille ad egentem eget, ad quem tu eges nullius eget. fac quod circa te at. Serm. 389, Revue
Benedictine 58, p. 51.
E.g. En. in Ps. 36, s.3.6; 44.29; 49.8 and 20; 66.9;
E.g. En. in Ps. 36, s.2.21; 38.12; 49.12;
136 ri chard fi nn, op
If his immediate neighbour happens to be a poor man, who either nds himself
in difculty, so that he might sell, or who can be squeezed, so that he is forced to
sell, then, the rich mans eye is drawn, he has hopes for the villa. His soul conceives
the plan: he hopes that he can acquire the small farmstead and lands of the poor
man next door. And when this poor man is in real difculties, he comes to his
richer neighbour, whom he is perhaps accustomed to oblige, give way to, and greet
with head bowed, rising at his approach. He says, I beg you, give me something;
I am in real difculty, I am being pressed by my creditor. But the rich man only
answers: I dont have the ready means to hand.
The passage again suggests the insecurity to which many in the late empire
were exposed by debt and the impoverishment they might suffer as a result.
Elsewhere Augustine speaks of a poor man who may be a dependent,
tenant farmer, or client of the rich man (cuius inquilinus, cuius colonus,
cuius cliens est).
I realise that these terms have both technical and non-
technical senses, but my interest here is in the range of material and social
deprivation that is covered. Pauper clearly need not mean pauper; those so
named may be free from the obloquy associated with destitution, and may
not be social pariahs. It is possible that promoters of almsgiving favoured
the suitably vague or elastic term pauper because it lent the limited but real
respectability of the penes (borrowing the Greek term) to those who were
far poorer.
The more graphic or detailed the portrayal of the destitute in sermons
the greater the risk of triggering that conventional response of contempt
already mentioned. Augustine refers on a number of occasions to Dives
and Lazarus, and follows his biblical text in calling Lazarus a pauper. We
may note, however, that where he describes the scene in greater imaginative
detail, and elaborates on the story by inviting his congregation to picture
those wealthy individuals who pass by Lazarus, he thinks that his hearers
will imagine the rich as holding their nose and spitting at the man:
How do you imagine those execrable men who passed by the poor man covered
with sores as he lay in front of the rich mans door? Were they perhaps in the habit
of holding their noses and spitting at him?
Si vero iuxta vicinus sit pauper, qui vel in necessitate positus est, ut possit vendere, vel premi potest, ut
cogatur vendere, inicitur oculus, speratur villa; impraegnata est anima, sperat se posse adipisci villulam
et possessionem vicini pauperis. et cum patitur iste pauper necessitatem, venit ad ditiorem vicinum suum,
cui forte obsequi solet, cui deferre, cui venienti adsurgere, quem inclinato capite salutare: da mihi, rogo
te; patior necessitatem, urgeor a creditore. et ille: non habeo modo in manibus. En. in Ps. 39.28, CCSL
En. in Ps. 93.7.
Quomodo putatis detestatos homines transeuntes ulcerosum pauperem iacentem ante divitis ianuam?
Quomodo forte hunc occlusis naribus conspuebant? ibid., 36, s.2.7; CCSL 38.351.
Poverty in Christian texts from the late Roman empire 137
It is possible that the passers-by are attempting to ward off evil on com-
ing into near contact with such an unlucky gure.
But I doubt that such
apotropaic behaviour is free fromcontempt, value-free. What I nd intrigu-
ing is that Augustine encourages his congregation to redirect their contempt
at these rich passers-by. The adjective applied to them could so easily have
been used by them of Lazarus.
We can test the thesis that Augustine must avoid too great a visibility
for the destitute by examining how he uses a normal word for a beggar,
mendicus. The word occurs thirty-three times in the Enarrationes in sixteen
different texts. It is noticeable how rarely the word is used to describe the
poor recipients of alms in only ve of those texts. Beggars so-called appear
in the Enarrationes primarily for other reasons. The beggar is someone who
steals because of destitution.
He is insolent or proud.
The Exposition of
Psalm 75 offers an interesting juxtaposition: Augustine rst represents or
redescribes the wealthy who are obsessed by love of material goods as like a
poor man or perhaps a beggar dreaming of a wealth which he does not truly
enjoy. The preacher goes on to contrast such people with Zacchaeus, citing
Luke 19.8, how the tax-collector donates half his property to the poor, pau-
peres, and goes on to urge the congregation not to disdain the outstretched
hand of the poor man or pauper.
The beggar carries with him the bad
odour of social humiliation which Augustine has turned in this example
against the rich. He repeatedly uses the gure of the beggar as an image of
the Christian, the preacher or the church before God, thereby communi-
cating the essential humility of the Christian life and the great gap between
creatures and Creator. A word which would in other circumstances mea-
sure the social gulf within the Christian community instead sets that entire
community over and against God. Social distance within the community
is as nothing compared with this. So, just as the language of unspecied
poverty when used literally foreshortens social distances, so, too, does this
language of specic poverty when mendicus is used metaphorically of the
Christian community.
What about the cases where the beggar, mendicus, does gure as the
recipient of alms? In one case the beggar features as the third recipient
in a series of three he is the hardest challenge: let each one of you ask
yourself how you behave towards a poor holy man, to a brother in need,
how you behave towards a needy beggar.
In two other cases, the beggar
I am grateful to Gillian Clark for alerting me to this interpretation.
En. in Ps. 72.12.
En. in Ps. 48, s.1.3;
En. in Ps. 75.9.
Interroget se unusquisque vestrum qualis est erga pauperem sanctum, erga indigentem fratrem, qualis est
erga indigentem mendicum; En. in Ps. 121.11; CCSL 40.1811.
138 ri chard fi nn, op
who comes up seeking alms is contrasted with the just man whom the
donor must look for, and by giving to whom the donor can hope to be
welcomed into heaven:
You give to the beggar who accosts you as he passes; you look for the just person
to whom you should give, thanks to whom you will be welcomed into the eternal
mansions. For the one who welcomes a just person in the name of the just one,
will receive the just persons reward. The beggar looks out for you, you must look
out for the just person. Give to everyone who asks you is said of one person; let
your alms grow sticky in your hand, until you nd the just person, to whom you
should give it is said of another. And if they are not found for a long time, look
out for them for a long time, and you will nd them.
Both types of almsgiving are distinct, though both are required. Augustine
insists: let no one tell you that Christ commanded that we should give to
Gods servant but not to the beggar.
Elsewhere Augustine castigates the
Manichees for their refusal to give even a bread roll (buccella) to starving
but the general impression given in these examples is that the beg-
gar is a less signicant and less worthy recipient, all too likely to be a rogue;
it is possible that some Christians had been advocating what Augustine
expressly forbids giving only to fellow Christians through the church and
refusing beggars in the street.
We might determine from all this that the presentation of the poor in
Christian sermons reveals less about them than it does about the attitudes
of those supposed to be their donors and benefactors. It measures the
strength of ill-will easily excited against the destitute. And such a conclusion
chimes with a comment by Basil in one of his sermons that beggars trod
a tightrope between appearing too well-dressed to need alms, as a result
of clothes they had been given, or so ill-clad in rotting rags as to excite
only disgust.
Elsewhere Basil berated the wealthy for punching beggars.
Christian donors were by no means exempt from the temptation to lash
out at those they were meant to help. This is the context in which to assess
Jeromes famous description to Eustochium in Letter 22 of that wealthy
Roman matron punching the old woman at St Peters who had the temerity
En. in Ps. 102.12 and 103, s.3.10.
Das mendico transeunti et petenti; quaeris et iustum cui des, per quem recipiaris in tabernacula aeterna;
quia qui recipit iustum in nomine iusti, mercedem iusti accipiet. mendicus te quaerit, iustum tu quaere.
de alio enim dictum est: a omni petenti te da: et de alio dictum est: desudet eleemosyna in manu tua,
donec invenias iustum, cui eam tradas. et si diu non invenitur; diu quaere, invenies. En. in Ps. 102.12,
CCSL 40.1462.
En. in Ps. 103, s.3.10.
En. in Ps. 140.12.
Basil, On Detachment; PG 31, 556.
Basil, On the Wealthy, 6 in Courtonne (1935) 61, PG 31 296C.
Poverty in Christian texts from the late Roman empire 139
to beg for a second coin in alms.
Our pugnacious matron reveals the knife-
edge between compassion and disgust.
If the visibility of the very poor in these sermons is strictly limited, and
muchabout themremains necessarily hidden, this is of course partly because
they come clothed in the language of the Scriptures. Such language is the
natural idiom of Christian discourse, but has the happy consequence of
underpinning almsgiving by appeal to the authority of Scripture. Patristic
preachers could and did appeal to well over 100 different scriptural texts
in their defence of almsgiving. Augustine avoids texts which emphasise
redemptive almsgiving in atonement for sin. Among the texts most fre-
quently cited by him to promote almsgiving in the Enarrationes is Isaiah
58.7 (Break your bread to the hungry . . . clothe the naked), a text which
his congregation were used to hearing in the liturgy on fast days.
He also
makes frequent appeal to Matthew 25.356, and 25.40 (what you do to the
least of these, you do to me). Here we see the further theological value in
rendering the poor in indenite terms: the face of Christ can more easily
be super-imposed on those who are themselves faceless. As Augustine puts
it: you have Christ seated in heaven, but beseeching help on earth.
The identication of Christ with the poor was of course commonly used
by promoters of almsgiving, and to observe this is to make a point made
many times before. But it may be worth noting that in Augustine it has
a theological value beyond its moral worth as a stimulus to generosity. By
looking on the poor and needy of their own society Christians are to grow
in their understanding of the humble Christ:
Look with favour on the poor, the needy, the hungry and thirsty, those who travel,
the naked, the sick, those in prison; have in mind a poor person like this, because
if you have one like him in mind, you are mindful of him who said: I was hungry,
thirsty, naked, a traveller, sick, and in prison.
The Enarrationes are texts in which Augustine is at pains to stress our
common identity as members of Christs body under a common head. The
foreshortening of social distance which aids almsgiving is an integral aspect
of this Christology.
To conclude this part of the discussion, if the many sermons among
the Enarrationes are in any sense typical of wider preaching practice, they
Jerome, Ep. 22.32.
La Bonnardi` ere (1971) 98.
Habetis Christum in caelo sedentem, in terra petentem. En. in Ps. 36, s.3.6.
Respice et pauperes, egentes, esurientes et sitientes, peregrinantes, nudos, aegrotos, in carcere constitutos;
intellege et super talem pauperem, quia et si super talem intellegis, super illum intellegis qui dixit: esuriui,
sitiui, nudus, peregrinus, aeger, in carcere fui. En in Ps. 40.2; CCSL 38.450.
140 ri chard fi nn, op
throw into relief those few far more graphic descriptions of the poor with
which we are familiar, above all, the portrayal of the starving in Basil of
Caesareas sermon In Time of Hunger, but also the topos found in sermons
of Chrysostom, Pseudo-Chrysostom, and occasionally in Augustines ser-
mons outside the Enarrationes, which describe the sufferings of the very
poor from extreme cold in winter. We should be wary of mistaking the
exceptions of full visibility for the rule of what is at best a disguised visibil-
ity. Augustine sacrices the visibility of specic poor individuals or groups
to the foreshortening of social distances. This of course returns us to the
thorny relationship of text to life: does the preacher, like a painter, offer
merely a subjective perspective on an objective social scene, even a trompe
loeil, or does the preacher, unlike the painter, actually shorten the distances
he describes, using the authority he holds in the Christian community to
rewrite the social contract? If marginalisation is a social construct, such
that how we speak of people by placing them under a certain description
is a determinant of how we treat them more generally, then what we are
witnessing here is an attempt to deconstruct that treatment.
I nowturn fromthe indenite portrayal of the poor in Christian sermons
to contrast their more specic portrayal in saints Lives. Let me make clear
at the outset that I do not presume that saints Lives are always wholly
historically reliable documents. Certainly not everything in the Life of St
Porphyry is true, and some have questioned the bishops very existence, but
I agree with Claudia Rapp, Raymond Van Dam and others in believing
that most of that text is historically trustworthy and was composed shortly
after the bishops death in around 420.
In any case the conventionality
and verisimilitude which characterises many of the portrayals I shall discuss
in this and other texts mean that they both reveal and occlude forms of
poverty regardless of whether they are fact or ction.
Saints Lives are at rst glance far more revealing of the circumstances
in which the very poor were to be found in late antique society. They
seemingly allow us to place the destitute on the civic map. It is noticeable,
for example, howoften they report encounters with the sick destitute in the
street or along the roadside. The monk Hypatios found peasants weak from
hunger or disease lying in the road whom he brought into his monastery.
According to Mark the Deacon, in the late fourth century Porphyry, the
future bishop of Gaza, found a young man, Barochas, lying dangerously
ill in the street at Jerusalem, whom he rescued, nursed back to health, and
Claudia Rapp in Head (2001) 55.
Callinicus, Life of Hypatios 4.6 and 9.4; Bartelink (1971) 86 and 104.
Poverty in Christian texts from the late Roman empire 141
kept on as a household servant.
The anchorite Julian Saba was famed for
healing a cripple whom he found begging at the palace gates in Antioch.
The Alexandrian scholar Eulogius came across a beggar without hands
or feet who was found accosting people in the marketplace, and whom
Eulogius took home as a (not wholly willing) companion in the ascetic
Martin found the beggar with whom he shared his cloak at the city
gates. This should not in itself surprise us. You expect beggars to be found
on thoroughfares, at crossroads, because they will search out or be left in
places where the large number of people who encounter them increases
how much they are likely to receive in alms. The picture tallies with what
we know from pagan sources. Libanius in Oration 7 portrays the naked
and half-naked beggars, some crippled, sitting and standing in the cold at
Antioch, probably near the entrance to the baths, who cry out for alms in
the hope of receiving a piece of bread or an obol from the passers-by.
There is clearly a question, however, about how far this heightened
visibility of the sick or crippled in saints lives is inuenced in different ways
by biblical modelling, by Christs healing of the blind beggar Bartimaeus
on the road out of Jericho (Mark 10.4652), by the parable of the Good
Samaritan (Luke 10.3037), and by the story of the apostle Peters encounter
with the crippled beggar at the temple gate in Jerusalem (Acts 3.110). The
inuence of biblical models may operate rst at a literary level: authors of
saints Lives sought to show the conformity of their heroes and heroines
to Christ and his apostles, so that they are shown giving help to the poor
in the same way as their biblical exemplars. In this context, however, we
should note the judgement of Valerio Neri that the high number of sick
and disabled beggars in Christian texts of the period cannot be explained
solely in terms of biblical stereotyping, and reects one facet of late antique
That is surely correct, but leads to consideration of a further type
of biblical modelling: Christians may have modelled their own behaviour
on the scriptural episodes. If not all the very poor are equally visible to
modern eyes in late antique Christian texts, were they equally visible to
Christians in the late Roman world? Biblical models may not only now
determine what we see of poverty in these texts, but may also then have
inuenced the shape of Christian poor relief, as holy men and women
thought to relive or re-enact episodes from the Scriptures. The Lives offer
intriguing evidence in particular for the adoption and later employment
Mark the Deacon, Life of Porphyry 14, in Gr egoire and Kugener (1930) 13.
Theodoret, Historia Religiosa 2.19, in Canivet and Leroy-Molinghen (19779) 1.238.
Palladius, Lausiac History 21, in Bartelink (1974) 106.
Libanius, Or. 7.12, in Foerster (190323) 1.2, 3734.
Neri (1998) 54.
142 ri chard fi nn, op
of the very sick. This form of charity practised by Bishop Porphyry and
Eulogius is paralleled in the story found in a letter by Paulinus of Nola:
Paulinus took in a near-starving old man from the rural peasantry (ex
rusticanis) whom he then placed with his friend Victor. The man was later
reborn presumably in baptism. This form of Christian poor relief has
so far received very little attention.
Saints Lives have the great merit of allowing us to see something of the
conjunctural or episodic poverty which threatened those who lived not in
destitution but on its margins, whether as farmers in the countryside or as
labourers or artisans in the cities. The Life of Hypatios tells how in winter
especially the rural poor crowded into Rouphinianes in search of food
grain that had been stored for use as alms by Hypatios and his monks.
Paphnutius, in his Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt, allows us to see the
ever-present threat of impoverishment for the rural poor through debt and
the inability to repay debts, like the poor maninsouthernEgypt who sought
out Abba Aaron when his creditor had threatened to seize his vineyard.
Theodoret in the short life he presents of the famed ascetic Abrahames
allows us to glimpse the violence or bullying to which villagers in Lebanon
were exposed when the tax-collectors arrived.
The latter text also suggests
the power of Christian almsgiving to reshape social relations among the
rural poor. From outright hostility towards Christianity and to the monks
who have settled near them, Abrahames pagan villagers are won over to
acknowledge him as their prostates or patron, when he pays their taxes for
them; they build the church in which he then serves for some three years.
The Life of Porphyry, however, offers a helpful corrective at this point
to what might otherwise be a simplistic vision of the benets conferred
by Christianity. It recounts how a tenant farmer in one village attacked
Barochas, now acting as an agent for the bishop of Gaza, when Barochas
refused to give him further time with which to pay what he owed to the
church. The pagan rst pleads for extra time. When he turns to violence he
is helped by his fellow farmers.
Such violence may reveal the belief that
pagans in authority would shield the perpetrators from justice, but is also
a measure of the desperation inspired by conjunctural poverty a poverty
which enriched the church. Income which among other things supported
almsgiving to the urban destitute was drawn in part from the hard labour
of the rural poor.
Paulinus of Nola, Ep. 23.9.
Callinicus, Life of Hypatios 31.5, in Bartelink (1971) 206.
Paphnutius, The Histories 109, in Vivian (1993) 1256.
Theodoret, Historia Religiosa 17.23, in Canivet and Leroy-Molinghen (197779) 2.3640.
Mark the Deacon, Life of Porphyry 22, in Gr egoire and Kugener (1930) 19.
Poverty in Christian texts from the late Roman empire 143
Elsewhere the economic realities behind almsgiving tend to be obscured.
We can compare the fate of Barochas with what Synesius relates in one of
his letters to Theophilus, the all-powerful bishop of Alexandria, about the
virtues of Dioscorus, a bishop in Cyrenaica: I think that the destitute of
Alexandria owe him a great debt of gratitude for labouring in their elds,
quickly going everywhere, winning harvests fromunproductive ground and
making the most of his opportunities.
It was not in fact Dioscorus who
laboured for the poor of Alexandria.
The Life of Porphyry gives a brief glimpse into the conjunctural poverty
to be found within the cities. It tells how the bishop, forced to climb across
the roofs at Gaza so as to escape lynching froma pagan mob, came across an
orphaned girl. The girl, fourteen years old, lived at home with her elderly
and paralysed grandmother, presumably a widow, and the girl worked to
support them both.
The house and the food which the girl provides for
her visitors showthat the women are far fromdestitute, though their state is
said to be one of destitution(ptocheia), and they later accept a generous daily
alms fromthe bishop of four miliaresia, some 192 ob., indications of relative
poverty. As the story suggests, episodic poverty threatened wherever illness
and death weakened a households ability to gain an adequate income. In a
society where perhaps some forty per cent of children had lost their father
by the time they were fourteen or fteen a great many such widows and
orphans were to be found among the penetes at risk of destitution.
But if it
is sheer chance that Bishop Porphyry encounters a widowand orphan on his
roof-top journey, is it a coincidence that these women, biblical archetypes
of the virtuous poor, appear in the Life? Where are the many other urban
poor? Some are the destitute who receive smaller sums in alms, 6 ob. at the
dedication of the new church, 10 ob. during the Easter fast.
Others are
probably to be found working on the new church at Gaza rising amid the
ruins of the pagan temple complex, the Marneion. Mark the Deacon was
concerned to show Porphyrys generosity to these workers, paying them
their wages, and paying them more rather than less.
This might suggest
that non-payment of wages was a common risk faced by labourers; it might
also indicate the need to pay more if people were to be engaged on a project
tcnv cuci ypiv cgtitiv co: c :cu, tv Atcvoptic ouut:cycu, cv :cu, ,pcu, tstcvt,
:cyu tcv:cyc0 ,ivutvc, sci t tpcv gpcu, tst,cv sci :c, scipc, tcpio:utvc,. Ep.
66, in Garzya and Roques (2000) 3.183.
Mark the Deacon, Life of Porphyry 97100, in Gr egoire and Kugener (1930) 747.
Krause (19945) 3.9. On the high number of children who lost their father before puberty and even
higher number who lost their father before the age of twenty-ve, cf. Saller (1994) 189.
Mark the Deacon, Life of Porphyry 94, in Gr egoire and Kugener (1930) 723.
Life of Porphyry 83, in Gr egoire and Kugener (1930) 66.
144 ri chard fi nn, op
viewedwithviolent hostility by a great many pagancitizens. But the authors
interest is in displaying the bishops virtue, not in the labourers plight.
To conclude, there is no doubt that Christian writers and preachers
gave the poor a new visibility in the late empire, but this visibility is not
necessarily the portrayal of specic individuals and groups; furthermore,
the type of visibility differs between genres. We do wrong to think typical
of sermons the oft-quoted graphic accounts of shivering beggars; it is the
indenite poor who are recalled to mind. Preachers might indeed do the
destitute poor a disservice by describing them in specic terms likely to
excite contempt. If some things were hidden as well as revealed, this was to
the benet of those to be aided by alms. Not all visibility is a virtue, and
Christian preachers and authors had to tread a careful line between the need
tomake the poor visible andthe needtomake themattractive as recipients of
alms. Saints Lives allowus to see poverty in far greater detail than is possible
in sermons. They reveal something of the widespread conjunctural poverty
endemic to the period as well as of utter destitution. Yet in each genre
there is no escape from the gravitational pull of the Scriptures, whether in
describing or in selecting the poor who are presented to view.
chapter 9
Throwing parties for the poor: poverty and splendour
in the late antique church

Lucy Grig
This chapter seeks to address a big question: how were ideas of poverty
transformed by the church in late antiquity? In approaching this question
it also asks how this church was itself able to come to terms with its own
teachings on poverty in the light of its own ever-increasing wealth and
splendour. This in turn leads us to consider how Christian writers, often
themselves bishops, the princes of the church, represented both poverty
and splendour. In this way I hope to provide something of a new take
on the well-trodden subject of Patristic debates on poverty, particularly by
focusing on questions of aesthetics and representation, through examining
discourses regarding church decoration and its relationship to poverty and
At the heart of the discussion is a slightly contrived conceit: the com-
paring and contrasting of two texts which give accounts of what I have
admittedly loosely described as parties for the poor. These two texts pro-
vide interesting takes on early Christian approaches to poverty and wealth.
While both the events depicted within the texts and their historical status
differ, this juxtaposition nonetheless provides a striking introduction to the
complex web of ideas and ideologies to be found in late antique Christian
texts. In the course of my discussion I shall be considering what might be
considered both representation and reality, remaining alert to the power
of metaphor and allegory while trying to avoid the problemof the occlusion
of the late antique poor themselves.
My rst account of a gathering of the poor comes from one of the best-
known Christian martyr stories: that of St Laurence. The passion of this
popular martyr was told in a number of late antique texts but the version
of the story I am interested in comes from the Peristephanon of Prudentius,

This chapter beneted from the astute comments of its various readers and listeners, both known
and anonymous, with particular debt to Margaret Atkins and Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe. Translations
of Paulinus make use of those of P. G. Walsh.
146 lucy gri g
written at the start of the fth century.
The scene is set in the city of Rome
during the age of the persecution of the Christians. The urban prefect, the
cruel agent of a ruler consumed with a fames pecuniae, summons Laurence,
a deacon, to present the riches of the church of Rome before him. Our
hero Laurence asks for three days in which to assemble his hoard and the
prefect agrees in covetous anticipation. At the appointed time, instead of
bringing the fabulous riches the avaricious prefect is expecting, Laurence
presents him with a horde of the poor and suffering, clamorous for alms,
explaining that they constitute the true treasures of the church. As a result,
this being a martyr story, he is martyred horribly.
The Laurence story is a neat fable about the transformation of worldly
values inChristianity, but its apparent simplicity is of course deceptive. This
is a story told by an establishment poet of the Theodosian r egime,
the backdrop of a church that did not necessarily look like the church of
the poor and suffering. This church was patronised by the emperor and his
family; its basilicas gleamed with mosaics and precious metals, which play
a leading role in the account of our second party.
The scene of the second get-together is again the city of Rome, this
time at the end of the fourth century. Pammachius, a devoutly Christian
senator, had lost his wife, Paulina, and as part of the funerary rites he gave
a banquet for the poor of Rome in the basilica of St Peters. Our account
of this party comes from the letter of consolatio written to Pammachius by
his friend Paulinus of Nola, ascetic, poet and saint.
A description of the
banquet forms a set piece at the heart of Paulinus literary letter.
And so you gathered together the patrons of our souls, a multitude of poor people,
all those deserving of alms from the whole of Rome, in the basilica of the Apostle.
(Paulinus, Ep. 13.11)
This poverty party is oftencitedby ancient historians discussing the charity
of the rich.
However, I am here really more interested in the literary
construction of this party, rather than the event itself. The way Paulinus
describes the gathering is revealing of broader discourses embracing both
poverty and Christian aesthetics.
Prudentius, Peristephanon 2. Near contemporary accounts and discussions include Ambrose, Off. 1
and Hymn 13 and August. Serm. 3025 and Serm. Denis 13. The earliest prose passiones are the P. SS.
Xysti, Laurentii et Yppoliti and the Passio Polychronii. See further Grig (2004) 13641.
Prudentius himself discusses his imperial preferment: Praef. 1921.
Ep. 13, written 396.
Itaque patronos animarum nostrarum pauperes, qui tota Roma stipem meritant, multitudinem in aula
apostoli congregasti.
A recent example is its discussion in the Cambridge Ancient History: Marcone (1998) 3423.
Poverty and splendour in the late antique church 147
First, we may point out that Paulinus himself was not present at this
event: he writes that he has only just heard of the death of Paulina, via
a letter from a friend (13.1). So why does Paulinus choose to describe
Pammachius own party to him? One part of the answer is provided by
Catherine Conybeare: that this letter was actually intended for an audi-
ence wider than its ostensible single recipient, and aimed both to publicise
Pammachius charity and to encourage others to act likewise.
However the
event also gives Paulinus an ideal opportunity to use his imaginative powers.
Physical absence seems to pose no problem: Paulinus almost suggests that
the event is created in his imagination, and has been summoned up by his
powers of visualisation when he writes for it seems to me I see . . . (13.11).
A concentration on the visual and on the spectacular is a striking feature in
a number of late antique texts and in this sense we can see Paulinus letter as
both typical and characteristic.
Paulinus describes the banquet as a spec-
tacle, writing For my part, I feast on the lovely spectacle of this great work
of yours (13.11).
He then goes on to develop an extended ekphrasis where
the massed poor are played off against the splendour of their architectural
background, the venerable basilica of St Peters.
Paulinus begins his account by leading us into the basilica, taking us
through its splendid entrance, through that venerable hall, with its deep
blue front which smiles from far off (13.11).
A little later on we come
through the colonnade to admire the next range of architectural features,
as well as the gathered paupers:
You brought the apostle himself so much delight when you lled the whole of his
basilica with dense companies of the destitute, either where under its lofty height it
stretches far beneath the central ceiling and from far off the glittering tomb of the
apostle draws the eye and gladdens the heart of those who enter, or where, under the
imposing roof, twin colonnades spread forth at the sides, or where, stretching out,
the shining atrium is merged with the entrance, where a rotunda roofed with solid
bronze adorns and shades a fountain, which rushes forth to minister to our hands
and faces, not without a mystical appearance, surrounding the gushing waters with
four columns. (Paulinus, Ep. 13.13)
Conybeare (2000) 456.
Videre enim mihi video.
See on this theme Roberts (1989) passim.
Pulchro equidem tanti operis tui spectaculo pascor.
Per illam venerabilem regiam cerula eminus fronte ridentem.
Quanto ipsum apostolum adtollebas gaudio, cum totam eius basilicam densis inopum coetibus stipavisses,
vel qua sub alto sui culminis mediis ampla laquearibus longum patet et apostolico eminus solio coruscans
ingredientium lumina stringit et corda laeticat, vel qua sub eadem mole tectorum geminis utrimque
porticibus latera diffundit, quae praetento, nitens atrium, fusa vestibulo est, ubi cantharum ministra
manibus et oribus nostris uenta ructantem fastigatus solido aere tholus ornat et inumbrat, non sine
mystica specie quattuor columnis salientes aquas ambiens.
148 lucy gri g
The basilica as constructed by Constantine had been built to impress. The
apse was covered in gold foil, the altar was gilded silver and the tomb of
the Apostle was enclosed with bronze plaques, further decorated with por-
phyry pilasters and imported Greek columns, while gold and silver lighting
xtures adorned the nave.
Further additions or moderations by the time
of Paulinus letters seem to have included a coffered ceiling, doubled aisles,
a vestibule and a substantial atrium, and a fountain roofed with a bronze
What is pleasing to the eye is not just the beauty of the basilica: the
poor themselves provide a happy spectacle (laetum spectaculum) for God
and the company of heaven (Ep. 13.14). This emphasis on spectacle appears
frequently in late antique Christian texts and here, as elsewhere, its use is
polemical. This happy spectacle can be protably contrasted with the tra-
ditional sort of spectacle which many clergymen sawas a powerful enemy.
More particularly, the spectacle put on by Pammachius can be contrasted
protably with those put on by his fellow senators: You give spectacles for
the church; you are a candidate not for vainglory in the arena but rather
for eternal praise (Ep. 13.16).
The key word here in this discourse about
Christian euergetism is munerarius: as we shall see, the word munus and its
cognates crop up frequently in our texts.
The party at St Peters makes for a striking contrast with the gathering
put together by St Laurence as narrated by Prudentius.
To start with, the
settings differ greatly. The church building which serves as the location
for Laurences gathering is unspecied,
and its very unremarkableness is
key as this is how the deacon can have his fun confounding the prefects
covetous expectations. Laurence summons the prefect, promising a nave
(atrium) gleaming (fulgere) with gold, its colonnades (porticus) gleaming
with piled-up coins (Per. 2.1736). What he actually presents, of course,
As described in the Liber Ponticalis 34.
Poetic descriptions can be difcult to fathom but see the literary documentation on St Peters
assembled in Krautheimer (1977) 165279.
Augustine, for instance, insistently presented Christian narratives as offering spectacles superior to
those of the ludi in his sermons, e.g. Serm. 301.1; En. in Ps. 39.9.
Ecclesiae munerarius, nonharenae nec inanis gloriae sedaeternae laudis ambitor. Cf. Ambrose ina similar
vein, contrasting the works of Christian charity (hospitality and the ransoming of captives) with
traditional works of euergetism (paying for circus games, theatrical performances and gladiatorial
and beast shows): Off. 2.109.
One thing they have in common is claims to comprehensiveness, to totality. Pammachius had
gathered those from the whole of Rome deserving of alms (qui tota Roma stipem meritant), Ep. 13.11,
so too had Laurence found all who ask for alms (omnes . . . qui poscunt stipem), Per. 2.143.
It is clear, nonetheless, that the gathering takes place in a church: reference is made to the paupers
gathering pro templo, 2.164, while the prefect follows Laurence ad sacratam ianuam, 2.178, to see the
wealth lying in sanctis, 2.172.
Poverty and splendour in the late antique church 149
is a ragged sight (inculta visu examina, 2.180): the deacons gangs of the
poor (catervae pauperum), lovingly described in all their suppurating glory.
(There is a man with empty eye-sockets, another with a shrivelled arm, one
with legs of unequal length, another with ulcerated limbs, 2.14556.) These
paupers are not only seen but heard: the prefect is greeted by a cacophony
of their cries for alms (fragor rogantum, 2.181).
By contrast, Paulinus (Pammachius) paupers are a different matter,
somewhat less gruesome, a lot less vocal, and decorously arrayed within
a sumptuous basilica. Paulinus description of St Peters, as we have seen,
focuses on its shininess: glittering gleaming (coruscans, nitens); he evokes
the bronze roof, the fountains, the colour of the facade. The vision of a
church shining with money that was ironically expounded by Laurence in
Prudentius poem seems to have been made un-ironically material. More-
over, Paulinus was clearly not exaggerating in his praise of the setting. If
we look at the list of precious donations made to St Peters by the Emperor
Constantine, listed in the Liber Ponticalis, we quickly get wearied by their
sheer weight. A small sample will sufce.
3 gold chalices each with 45 prase and jacinth jewels, each weighing 12 lb . . . . .
a gold paten with a tower, of nest gold with a dove and adorned with prase and
jacinth jewels and with pearls, 215 in number, weighing 30 lb . . . the altar itself,
of silver chased with gold, weighing 350 lb, decorated on all sides with prase and
jacinth jewels and pearls, the jewels 400 in number . . . a censer of nest gold,
decorated on all sides with jewels, 60 in number, weighing 15 lb. (Liber Ponticalis
The focus on brightness in churches, emphasised in many late antique and
Byzantine ekphrases, is about more than just pounds of weight in precious
metals. Churches were seen not just as receptacles but indeed as generators
of light.
While today a small number of brightly coloured mosaics remain
in situ, we have to imagine all the glittering liturgical accoutrements also
as well as the effect of the many silver lamps which once hung
from the ceilings of churches and chapels.
Articial light both represents
Calices aureos III cum gemmis prasinis et yacintis, singuli qui habent gemmas XLV, pens. sing. lib. XII . . .
patenam auream cum turrem, ex auro purissimo cum colombam, ornatum gemmis prasinis et yachintis
qui sunt numero margaritis CCXV, pens. lib. XXX . . . ipsum altarem ex argento auroclusum cum
gemmis prasinis et yaquintis et albis ornatum ex undique, numero gemmarum CCCC, pens. lib. CCCL;
tymiamaterium ex auro purissimo cum gemmis ex undique ornatum numero LX, pens. lib. XV.
See here Gage (1993) 3940.
Some examples of ecclesiastical silver plate from this period do survive; for an interesting discussion
of the corpus see Leader-Newby (2004) ch. 2.
A beautifully evocative description of this effect is given by Prudentius in his hymn On the Lighting
of the Lamps, Cath. 5.141.8.
150 lucy gri g
and evokes natural light, and in itself could constitute an offering to God,
original source of all light. One of the reasons why gold was such a pow-
erful and resonant material was its perceived close relationship to light; as
Dominic Janes has put it, gold suggested or embodied light which was sent
by God as a metaphor of faith.
For many late antique Christians the shiningly obvious metaphorical
powers of light corroborated the idea that material beauty was a natural
and indeed necessary counterpart to spiritual enlightenment. Describing
the entrance of St Peters, with its nitens atrium and impressive furnishings,
Paulinus comments:
Such adornment is appropriate for the entrance of a church so that the performance
of the mystery of salvation within may be indicated by a striking construction
without. (Ep. 13.13)
Paulinus attitude here was certainly put into practice when it came to the
decoration of his own church.
Paulinus was the proprietor of a pilgrimage complex at Nola, which
hosted the visits of the aristocratic and ascetic elite of the empire who came
to call, as well as a mass of more lowly pilgrims.
Paulinus directed and
oversaw a whole host of improvements and renovations at Nola. He was
understandably proud of his domain, and enjoyed expounding on its glories
in symbolically charged ekphrases for the benet of those who had not been
able to view the embellishments with their own eyes. He dedicates, for
instance, two of his Carmina (278) to providing virtual tours of the new
buildings at Nola.
The original basilica and shrine, Paulinus tells us, have
been elaborately renovated and extended.
The new improved complex benets from the interplay of courtyards,
colonnades, porticoes and fountains, while the interiors of the cult build-
ings are decorated variously with gural and decorative paintings, panelling
and marble. In his descriptions, moreover, Paulinus makes a point of con-
trasting the new splendour with what it replaced: marble replaces cheap
stucco in one case (Carm. 27.3934), and the cabbages and manure of a
vegetable plot in another (Carm. 28.2768).
The material and spiritual go
Janes (1998) 146.
Decet enim ingressum ecclesiae talis ornatus, ut quod intus mysterio salutari geritur spectabili pro foribus
opere signetur. We can compare the idea of the sacrament as an external sign of internal grace; for
one expression of this notion see Augustine: Sacricium ergo visibile invisibilis sacricii sacramentum,
id est sacrum signum est, De civ. D. 10.5.
See here Mratschek (2001).
For a useful commentary see Goldschmidt (1940).
This is a favourite theme of Paulinus: cf. Carm. 18.1689 and the metrical inscriptions he wrote as
an integral part of his decorative programme, given in his Carm. 30.
Poverty and splendour in the late antique church 151
together: Paulinus hopes that these material renovations will spur on his
own spiritual improvements. He asks rhetorically
How, therefore, can this construction present me with a model, by which I can
cultivate, build, and renew myself inwardly, and make myself a suitable lodging
for Christ? (Carm. 28.27981)
Despite all this material splendour, Paulinus is famous, in his own time as
well as in modern historiography, for his renunciation of the world.
wealthy aristocrat who had attained consular rank through his governorship
of Campania, he made a public renunciation of his secular position and
wealth in 394.
However, on occasion, as an aesthete as well as an ascetic,
Paulinus was able to have it both ways. As he himself boasted (somewhat
disingenuously, it must be admitted), as proprietor of the lavish domus of St
Felix he possessedmore as the saints servant thanas a senator (Carm. 21.458
9). Meanwhile, as a poet as well as the leader of a monastic community,
Paulinus was able to play on his poverty in sophisticated fashion, as we
see in his Carmen 18, which takes as its biblical motif the Gospel story of
the widows mite (Mark 12.414; Luke 21.2). This poem is one of Paulinus
Natalicia, his birthday poems for St Felix: it represents, as he tells us at its
start, his gift of service owed to the saint, to whom he has made a vow of
service. The poemis hence anexplicit carmine voto or carmen pro muneribus:
an annual poem which constitutes his munus as client of the saint.
It is in this munus context that Paulinus gives something of a mini-
inventory of the precious donations which adorn the shrine of St Felix.
I grant that others may outdo me in the precious gifts they bring and in the
lavishness of their service, when they provide ne curtains, made of gleaming
white linen or of material coloured with bright shapes, for covering the doorways.
Let some polish smooth inscriptions on pliant silver, and overlay the holy portals
with the sheets of metal they afx there. Others may kindle light with coloured
candles, and attach lamps with many wicks to the vaulted ceilings, so that the
hanging torches cast their ickering ames to and fro. (Carm. 18.2937)
Quoniam igitur nunc ista modo mihi fabrica formam / praebebit, qua me colere aedicare novare /
sensibus et Christo metandum ponere possim?
For the comments of Paulinus contemporaries see Trout (1999) 210; note toothe striking accusations
of Frend (1969).
Paulinus himself discusses his renunciation in his Carm. 21.413f.
On Paulinus adaptation of this classical theme see Witke (1971) 839 and Junod-Ammerbauer (1975)
esp. 1821.
Cedo, alii pretiosa ferant donaria meque / ofcii sumptu superent, qui pulchra tegendis / vela ferant
foribus, seu puro splendida lino / sive coloratis textum fucata guris. / Hi leves titulos lento poliant argento
/ sanctaque praexis obducant limina lamnis. / Ast alii pictis accendant lumina ceris / multiforesque cavis
lychnos laquearibus aptent, / ut vibrent tremulas funalia pendula ammas.
152 lucy gri g
In this description colour, metal and light abound: silver lamps hang by
the altar, expanses of silver line doors, which, in turn, are decorated with
inscriptions. Even the textiles are special: Paulinus evokes glimmering white
linens, and brightly patterned and coloured cloths.
Such descriptions (however valuable for art historians) are undercut,
however, by Paulinus rhetoric: even while lovingly listing the precious gifts
at Felixs shrine Paulinus is keen to contrast them with his own, superior,
poverty. With an artfully backhanded compliment, he praises the charity
of the rich:
I give place, indeed, to all those richer in worthless gold, who empty up their
pockets, heavy with coins, to give the poor their ll, who open up their rich store
rooms with generous hand. (Carm. 18.4042)
It is only rhetorically, of course, that Paulinus claims to give place (cedo)
to the rich, whose gold he declares worthless (vacuo . . . auro). Paulinus is
only too aware of the true value of his poetic eloquence as he contrasts his
munus with that of these rich givers:
Nor are they slowtooffer various gifts, dishes richinfood, candles, curtains, lamps
certainly generous but mute; I, having nothing, pay my debt, as a servant, frommy
own resources: offering service with the gift of my tongue. Though I am a lowly
victim, I offer my own person, on my own behalf. But I shall not fear rejection,
for the offering of a poor mans service does not seem lowly to Christ, who happily
received two coppers, the wealth of the holy widow, and praised them. (Carm.
So far we have only had the preliminaries: Paulinus gift proper is a miracle
story: the comically touching tale of a poor manwhohas his twooxenstolen,
but has them returned by St Felix. The humour lies in the presentation of
the stubborn persistence of the rustic, who holds Felix responsible, and
tells him so, vowing that he wont stop bothering him unless the cattle are
returned. The amused saint leads the oxen home in order that he might get
some peace. The farmer shows his thanks to the saint not with a gift to his
shrine, but through praise and prayer. The moral of the story links in neatly
with the Gospel story, as well as with Paulinus own self-presentation: he
identies himself with the poor peasant, who fulls his gift to the saint not
Cedo equidem et vacuo multis potioribus auro, / quis gravis aere sinus relevatur egente repleto, / qui
locuplete manu promptaria ditia laxant.
Nec segnius illi / fercula opima cibis, ceras aulaea lucernas, / larga quidem sed muta dicant: ego munere
linguae, / nullus opum, famulor de me mea debita solvens / meque ipsum pro me, vilis licet hostia, pendo.
/ Nec metuam sperni, quoniam non vilia Christo / pauperis obsequii libamina, qui duo laetus / aera, piae
censum viduae, laudata recepit.
Poverty and splendour in the late antique church 153
with a heavy coin or an insensate tribute, but with the spontaneous, living
gift of tongue and mind (Carm. 18.4434).
Now Paulinus identication
with the poor rustic is a neat performance to tie up the themes of the poem,
but is scarcely to be taken seriously: the comic nature of the story precludes
any real identication between the tactless yokel and Paulinus, auctor and
skilled practitioner of Christian eloquence.
Paulinus poverty, moreover,
as I have already noted, is a rather specialised form: certainly not to be
compared with that of the unfortunate indigents invited to Pammachius
poverty party. In Patristic discourse voluntary poverty is always rated far
above its involuntary counterpart.
Paulinus believed that material renunciation was not as important as
its spiritual counterpart. He claimed on several occasions, moreover, that
material renunciation was, ultimately, the easy bit: intellectual and spiri-
tual renunciation of the matters of the world was harder to achieve and
to maintain. For instance, writing to his friend Sulpicius Severus on the
quest for ascetic perfection, Paulinus deployed an athletic metaphor to this
Wherefore, having abandoned or parted from the temporal things honoured by
this world is not the end of the stadium course but rather the start; it is not the
winning post but the starting gate. (Ep. 24.7)
According to Dennis Trout:
By emphasising, instead of complete renunciation, intellectual detachment from
wealth and mastery over, or proper use of, riches, Paulinus writings frequently
obscured the more radical implications of the ascetic project.
However, other Patristic writers would doubtless have agreed with Paulinus
when he asked rhetorically, What good will come of doing without riches,
if I remain rich in sin? (Ep. 40.11).
The parable of the camel and the needle
was consistently read allegorically and its signicance was understood to
lie in relation to the quest for Christian perfection rather than as a call to
material renunciation.
Non aere gravi nec munere surdo, / munere sed vivo linguae mentisque profusus.
I see more distance between Paulinus and his rustic than does Witke (1971) 889.
Quamobrem temporalium quae in hoc saeculo habentur honorum relictio sive distractio non decursus
stadii sed ingressus nec ut meta sed ianua est.
Trout (1999) 133.
Et quid proderit caruisse divitiis, si remanemus divites vitiis?
This persistent allegorisation of the camel and the needle pericope is attacked in the Pelagian treatise
De Divitiis 10.1; on its Patristic interpretation generally see Pizzolato (1986).
154 lucy gri g
Ultimately Patristic writers agreed that neither poverty nor riches held
intrinsic moral or spiritual worth, or indeed its opposite. The idea of the
importance of intellectual and spiritual detachment from riches was not, of
course, unique to Paulinus, but was favoured by Augustine among others.
A corollary to this was the view that it was the use rather than possession
of riches that was signicant.
Paulinus was in the Patristic mainstream
when he wrote to Pammachius that it is not riches but mans use of them
which is blameworthy or acceptable to God (Ep. 13.20).
The rich man
could be virtuous; moreover, the existence of both rich and poor was part
of the divine scheme where they were bound to each other in a symbiotic
relationship. After all, as Paulinus wrote elsewhere, God could have made
all men equally rich, had he wished to:
For, dearly beloved, the all-powerful Lord could have made all men equally rich
so that no man would have need of another. But, in his innite goodness, the
merciful and pitying Lord devised a plan so that he might test your intentions in
that regard. He made the one man wretched, so that he might recognise the man
of mercy. He made him penniless in order to exercise the wealthy. (Ep. 34.6)
While the poor clearly needed the charity of the rich in order to survive,
the rich needed the poor for the good of their souls (Paulinus called the
poor in St Peters the patrons of our souls: patroni animarum nostrarum), it
being their religious duty to feed the poor from their own superuity.
Paulinus, material splendours and renunciation, riches and poverty went
There was without doubt a range of Patristic approaches to the issues
of wealth and renunciation. Jerome, a correspondent of both Paulinus
and Pammachius, often expressed more rigorous views. Jerome wrote to
Paulinus in 395, having heard of his public act of renunciation, on the
subject of the ascetic life (Ep. 58). While congratulating Paulinus on his
decision Jerome, typically, could not avoid giving plenty of advice and
Most interestingly, Jerome criticises the spending of lavish
amounts of riches on the decoration of churches and advises Paulinus that
he would do better to concentrate on spiritual improvements:
See for instance August. Ep. 157. 2331, written in response to Pelagian teachings.
Non divitias sed homines pro earum usibus esse culpabiles vel acceptos deo; cf. August. Ep. 157.23f.; Serm.
Nam potuerat, dilectissimi, dominus omnipotens aeque universos divites facere, ut nemo indigeret altero;
sed innitae bonitatis consilio sic paravit misericors et miserator dominus, ut tuam in illis mentem probet.
fecit miserum, ut agnosceret misericordem. fecit inopem, ut exerceret opulentum.
Cf. Augustine, Superua tua necessaria sunt alii, Serm. 39.6.
For instance, Jerome advises Paulinus immediately to disburse himself of all his worldly goods (Ep.
58.7); it seems that Paulinus did not in fact do so, for practical reasons: see here Trout (1999) 1456.
Poverty and splendour in the late antique church 155
The true temple of Christ is the soul of the believer; embellish it, clothe it, offer it
gifts, welcome Christ into it. What use are walls shining with jewels while Christ,
in the person of the poor, is dying of hunger? (Ep. 58.7)
This is an important theme for Jerome, who elsewhere criticises lavish
spending on church decoration not just as a misdirected priority of the
clergy but as a serious vocational failing.
The differing approaches to
aesthetics in these two eminent Christians are clear.
While Jeromes epistolary friendship with Paulinus never really devel-
oped beyond the supercial, that with Pammachius seems to have been
more profound. Jerome, like Paulinus, wrote Pammachius a letter of con-
solation after the death of Paulina (Ep. 66). Here the famously acidic critic
of the Roman aristocracy is full of praise for Pammachius, particularly in
the light of his charitable activities. Like Paulinus, Jerome makes much of
the contrast between Pammachius and his fellow senators. Pammachius is
willing, we learn, to associate with the indigent. His home is thronged with
the poor, not with clients, likewise he mixes freely with paupers, instead of
being surrounded by a sycophantic entourage (Ep. 66.56). While, charac-
teristically, taking the opportunity to warn against pride and complacency,
he gives a picture of Pammachius as the friend of the poor, willing to slum
it with the most humble:
Certainly, you go on foot, you dress in a dark tunic, you make yourself the equal
of the poor, you enter courteously into the apartments of the poor, you are the
eye of the blind, the hand of the weak, the foot of the lame, you carry the water
yourself, you chop wood, you build up the re. (Ep. 66.13)
As well as this hands on approach Jerome also praises charity of a more
mainstream kind. For instance, he praises the xenodochium (hospice) built
by Pammachius at Portus (Ep. 66.11).
It is the charity exercised by
Pammachius on the death of Paulina, however, which lies at the heart of the
discussion in this letter. While other husbands put owers on the tombs
of their wives, Pammachius honours Paulinas memory with almsgiving
(Ep. 66.5). The paupers of Rome have become the co-heirs of the childless
Verum Christi templum anima credentis est: illam exorna, illam vesti, illi offer donaria, in illa Christum
suscipe. quae utilitas parietes fulgere gemmis et Christum in paupere fame mori? Cf. the very similar
comment in a despairing letter written after the Sack of Rome: Auro parietes, auro laquearia, auro
fulgent capita columnarum et nudus atque esuriens ante fores nostras in paupere Christus moritur, Ep.
Cf. Ep. 52.10; for a more conciliatory comment on the same theme see Ep. 130.14.
Esto, incedas pedibus, fusca tunica vestiaris, aequeris pauperibus, inopum cellulas dignanter introeas,
caecorum oculus sis, manus debilium, pes claudorum, ipse aquam portes, ligna concidas, focum extruas.
We learn in Ep. 77.10 that Pammachius had built this as a joint venture with Fabiola, a Roman
aristocrat who had undertaken dramatic public penance after the death of her second husband.
156 lucy gri g
Paulina, they are fed by her jewels, clothed thanks to her silks (Ep. 66.4
5). You might expect a harsh social critic of the aristocracy like Jerome to
observe that it is easy to hand over jewels and silks once one is already dead,
and that Paulina would have done better had she donated them while she
was alive, but Jerome here is not in satirical mode.
Pammachius party for the poor is not mentionedby Jerome, althoughwe
might at rst sight think that it would have been an obvious subject. For one
thing, the banquet provides a neat counterpoint to Jeromes famous vignette
about the fake charity of the rich, narrated in his letter to Eustochium. In
this anecdote the noblest woman in Rome ostentatiously hands out single
coins to a line of poor people outside St Peters but punches an old woman
in the face because she tries to procure a second coin (Ep. 22.32).
It is of
course dangerous to argue ex silentio
but perhaps we can speculate that
Pammachius poverty party is passed over by Jerome because he considered
such a visible and ultimately tokenistic act rather too reminiscent of typical
aristocratic charity?
Pammachius was really something of an ascetic lite but he was a pillar of
the community and of the church. He was precisely the kind of gure that
the church hierarchy in the late fourth century needed to cultivate, and was
beginning to have considerable success in so doing.
The contradictions
embraced by the late fourth-century church, contradictions that are so
strikingly embodied in the contrast between Pammachius party for the
poor and that of St Laurence, can be further illuminated by returning to
the story of Laurence as told by one of the most successful Christians of
the time, Ambrose of Milan.
Ambrose uses the story of St Laurence and his paupers in his treatise of
c. 390, Off. (On Duties).
The bishop seems to have been an eager devotee
of the Roman martyr, writing a hymn to him (Hymn 13) and also providing
a neat version, perhaps the rst, of the saints famous quip, delivered while
being grilled alive: turn me over, I am done on this side (Off. 1.207).
In his famously vituperative letter to Eustochium Jerome satirises ascetic women who wear thread-
bare dresses for show but nonetheless maintain trunks full of lavish clothing: Ep. 22.32. However,
as Curran (1997) observes, Jerome was, perhaps unsurprisingly, far softer on his friends than on his
Cf. Ep. 58.2; Vita Hilarionis Eremite 10.
We should perhaps also bear in mind that Jerome is writing two years after the death of Paulina: he
writes biennium tacui, Ep. 66.1.
On the aristocratisation of Christianity at this time see Salzman (2002) ch. 7.
This work has generally been known in modern scholarship as De Ofciis Ministorum although this
longer title has no validity in the manuscript tradition, nor in the works of other early Christian
writers; see here Davidson (2001) 12.
Assum est, inquit: versa et manduca.
Poverty and splendour in the late antique church 157
However, the Laurence story also serves a more substantive function for
Ambrose in his discussion of the proper use of the riches of the church. In
his actions Laurence was of course enacting two of the traditional duties of
the deacon: acting as steward of church funds and as minister of alms to the
However, for Ambrose the emphasis falls entirely on the sacerdos:
it is the sacerdos who holds the wealth of the church in stewardship and all
uses of the churchs wealth lie at the priests discretion. There are several
key uses of this wealth: to help those in need and to decorate the church:
Above all, this becomes the priest: to decorate Gods temple in a tting
manner, so that through this nery the dwelling of the Lord is resplendent
(Off. 2.111).
It is important to note that it is not the use of church funds for lavish
decoration that is the moot point here. The Laurence story is in fact used
to stress the importance of using the churchs resources for the succour
of the needy. Ambrose argues The church has gold not to keep, but to
pay it out, and to come to the assistance of those in need (Off. 2.137).
Laurence, Ambrose reminds us, preferred to distribute the churchs gold to
the poor, rather than to conserve it (Off. 2.140). While this constitutes a
favoured principle of the bishops,
the episode is also cited in self-defence
in a specic case. Ambrose was eager to justify the fact that in 378 he had
taken a unilateral decision to melt down the church plate in Milan in order
to ransom prisoners of the Goths, far away in the Balkans.
This had not
been one of the bishops more popular acts and it is notable that even
some twelve years later Ambrose still feels the need to defend himself (Off.
As discussed by Peter Brown, this dispute constitutes just one episode in
an ongoing battle over who was to be the authorised giver in the church: the
bishop or the inuential members of his ock. In melting down the church
plate, after all, Ambrose would also have been obliterating the names of
the Christian family donors whose names were doubtless engraved on the
Now there is more to the episode than naked one-upmanship.
(For one thing, we should bear in mind that the obliterated names would
have been there for intercession as well as self-aggrandisement.)
The key
Unlike Ambrose, Prudentius makes this explicit in his account: caelestis arcanum domus / dis
gubernans clavibus / votasque dispensans opes, Per. 2. 424.
Et maxime sacerdoti hoc convenit, ornare Dei templum decore congruo, ut etiam hoc cultu aula Domini
Aurum ecclesia habet non ut servet, sed ut eroget, et subveniat in neccessitatibus.
Cf. Ep. 18.16.
Ambrose, Off. 2.13642; cf. 2.70; Socrates, Hist. Eccl. 4.25.
Brown (1992) 96.
I owe this point to Richard Finn.
158 lucy gri g
point remains, however, that, according to Ambrose and other episcopal
colleagues, the bishop held stewardship over the riches given to the church,
as God managed all riches on earth.
The sacerdos, therefore, reserved the
right to use ecclesiastical resources as he saw t.
Here we have an extreme
example of the exercise of stewardship.
The specically episcopal angle to this debate, as elucidated by Brown,
is doubtless important, but the issue of poverty and splendour went far
deeper than the prerogative of bishops and went to the heart of the nature
of late antique Christianity. God and Gold
were generally able to go
together quite nicely. The symbolic and metaphorical spell cast by both
earthly and heavenly riches was protected as it was inverted, even while
stories like the Laurence fable were popular and aristocrats like Paulinus
divested themselves of their worldly goods.
Ideas of poverty and the poor were undoubtedly transformed by the
churchinlate antiquity. Anal example shows this strikingly, andconcerns a
third poverty party, back in the neighbourhood of St Peters. This gathering
took place around sixty years before Pammachius (c. 33540) and was
hostedby a very different kindof senator. Our author this time is Ammianus
Marcellinus, our benefactor, the politician Lampadius:
Being unable to tolerate the agitation of the plebs, who often urged that many
things should be given to those who were unworthy of them [i.e. performers], in
order to show both his generosity and his contempt for the mob, [Lampadius]
summoned some beggars from the Vatican and enriched them with valuable gifts.
(Amm. Marc. 27.3.6)
Lampadius had something of a tricky relationship with the plebs Romana:
on another occasion a mob tried to burn down his house (Amm. Marc.
27.3.8). His party at St Peters was a demonstration of contempt because he
was refusing to play by the traditional rules of civic euergetism, which deter-
mined that the generosity of the rich was not supposed to be aimed at those
who truly required it. The episode functions as a salutary reminder of just
how far the world had changed by the time of Paulinus and Pammachius.
However, as I have sought to argue, the late antique transformation
Defending himself over a local dispute in a letter Augustine carefully discusses the bishops lordship
over the patrimony of the church, using the noun dominus and the verb dominare: Ep. 126.79.
Interestingly, Possidius tells us that Augustine also melted down church vessels in order to support
the needy; moreover, he tells us that Augustine actually used Ambrose as an authority when justifying
his act against carnal opponents: Vita Aug. 24; further on this theme, and for other examples, see
Sternberg (1996).
Now see also Brown (2002) passim.
To quote the title of Janes (1998).
Plebis nequiens tolerare tumultum, indignis multa donari saepe urgentis, ut et liberalem se et multitudinis
ostenderet contemptorem, accitos a Vaticano quosdam egentes, opibus ditaverat magnis.
Poverty and splendour in the late antique church 159
preserved the social and economic hierarchies of Roman society even as
they were inverted metaphorically.
The rich, dealing with their property in the manner approved by the
clergy of the church, remained the assumed audience, as well as the imag-
ined subject, for and of Patristic discourse.
This argument was made in
an inuential article of Ramsay MacMullens.
MacMullen examined the
sermons of preachers from both East and West and observed that they
were consistently aimed at the haves rather than the have-nots. Eminent
preachers like John Chrysostom and Augustine told their wealthy congre-
gation howthey should use their property correctly. We should imagine our
bishops as addressing persons very much like themselves, fellowhonestiores
Even rare instances of total material renunciation preserved the order of
things: the whole point of renunciation was that you had to have something
to give away in the rst place. (Moreover, as Augustine said, even the poor
could be guilty of avarice: in which case they were just like the rich who
happened not to have any money!)
The involuntary poor, meanwhile,
remained the Other, even if their importance had been radically trans-
formed by the rise of the Christian church. The church needed the rich and
the rich needed the poor. (The poor of course also needed the rich but they
were always constituted as the object rather than the subject of Christian
discourse.) The church as an institution also needed the poor: poverty
provided a key justication for the stewarded wealth of the church.
The imaginary poor served a valuable metaphorical function in Christian
discourse, while dealing with the real poor, of course, required a more com-
plex strategy.
This discussion is perhaps guilty of having fallen under the
spell of Patristic discourse in continuing to focus on the poor in just such a
metaphorical way. As ever, one feels bound to comment that the poor were
It could of course be argued at this point that the emergence of the bishop as a new social actor
constituted a great change in the social and economic hierarchy of Rome; however in many respects
the bishop slotted into this hierarchy in highly traditional fashion. See now on the bishop as social
leader in late antiquity, Rapp (2005) esp. ch. 7.
It is of course misleading to speak of the rich as a unied group as such, not least because so many of
those so-called would have denied the label; other chapters in this volume provide a more nuanced
account of the gradations among both rich and poor, while this discussion must, due to limited
space, concentrate on other matters.
MacMullen (1989).
MacMullen (1989) 511.
E.g. En. in Ps. 51.4, 83: the problem lay in the desire for, rather than the possession of, wealth in
As Peter Brown aptly comments The theme of the love of the poor exercised a gravitational pull
quite disproportionate to the actual workings of Christian charity in the fourth century: Brown
(1992) 78.
160 lucy gri g
good to think with. Yet it must be acknowledged at the same time that the
poor were very rarely used to think with in pre-Christian Rome. Here we
have an enormous conceptual, as well as institutional change. The power
of metaphor held its sway over Christian discourse, however. Just as the
church Fathers argued that the camel and the needle needed to be under-
stood metaphorically, so Paulinus argued that material renunciation was
less valuable than its spiritual counterpart and that beautiful ecclesiastical
buildings could stand as a model for interior transformation. Ascetics, as
we have seen, often went in for aesthetics.
From one angle at least, we can see Pammachius party in St Peters as a
neat encapsulation of the role of the poor in the late antique church. While
the poor presented by Prudentius in his account of the Laurence story were
deliberately made gruesome to t the demands of the fable, those assembled
by Pammachius have become decorously invisible amidst the splendours of
the imperially adorned basilica of St Peters.
The deeply symbolic nature
of Paulinus description of the party has the effect of obliterating the actual
poor still further.
The real poor of course really existed, bothinside the churchandwithout.
More or less face-to-face encounters with the indigent would have made
up an unavoidable part of daily life. (Though one remembers the infamous
comment of the (then) Housing Minister, Sir George Young, who said
the homeless are the sort of people you step over when you come out of
the opera.) The problems involved in face-to-face charity were ironically
highlighted in Jeromes satirical account of the noble lady in St Peters (Ep.
22.32). On another occasion, however, we nd Jerome sympathetically
acknowledging the distaste suppurating indigents provoked, even in the
most charitably disposed.
Fabiola looked after the poor and deformed in
person while
I know of many wealthy and devout persons who, on account of their weak
stomachs, carry out this work of mercy by the agency of others, showing money
with their purse, rather than with the hand. (Ep. 77.6)
It is ironic that while he describes a spectaculum the spectated actually seem to have disappeared
from view.
That is, sympathetic towards the sensibilities of the rich.
The inrmities listed by Jerome are reminiscent of those attributed to Laurences paupers, for
instance: Describamnunc ego diversas hominumcalamitates, truncas nares, effossos oculos, semiustos pedes,
luridas manus, tumentes alvos, exile femur, crura turgentia et de exesis ac putridis carnibus vermiculos
bullientes? Ep. 77.6.
Scio multos divites et religiosos ob stomachi angustiam exercere huiusce modi misericordiam per aliena
ministeria et clementes esse pecunia, non manu.
Poverty and splendour in the late antique church 161
Fabiola, due to her great faith was, unlike so many others, ready and able to
tend to that poor wretch whom we despise, whom we cannot bear to look
at, and the very sight of whom turns our stomachs (Ep. 77.6).
it seems likely that in late antiquity, as today, the rich left face-to-face works
of charity to institutions such as the church.
In late antiquity the haves were told by their preachers, probably for
the rst time, that they had a duty to the have-nots, to people, in Jeromes
words, just like us, formed out of the same clay, made up of the same
elements (Ep. 77.6).
The rich sitting in church were alternately courted
and admonished. A cynical reductionist would of course note that this is
how a religious system works: the failure of the congregation to obey every
stricture of their priest is what keeps themcoming back. This failure is what
entails the need for penance and, its crucial counterpart, almsgiving. Riches,
both real and metaphorical, remained both as crucial and as omnipresent
as poverty in the late antique world.
Ille, quem despicimus, quem videre non possumus, ad cuius intuitum vomitus nobis erumpit.
Nostri similis est, de eodem nobiscum formatus luto, isdem conpactus elementis.
chapter 10
Salvian, the ideal Christian community and the fate
of the poor in fth-century Gaul
Cam Grey
Around the middle of the fth century ad, Salvian, presbyter of the church
at Marseilles, delivered a blistering broadside at the conduct of his fellow
Christians. Aconsiderable portion of this diatribe, under the title De Guber-
natione Dei (Concerning the Governance of God, abbreviated here as DGD)
has survived, and the themes and tenor of the work are clear.
The text
reveals a senior member of the Gallic clergy attempting to come to terms
with what he perceived to be the eclipse of Roman culture and society in
Gaul and elsewhere in the western provinces of the Roman empire. Salvian
ascribed this decline not to the destructive inuence of barbarians, but
to a decline in the morals of Romans themselves (DGD 5.4.1618, 5.6.25;
cf. Ep. 9). Indeed, he suggested that it was only among barbarians and
marginalised groups such as the Bagaudae that civilised Roman behaviour
could now be found (DGD 5.5.212).
Salvian focused considerable attention upon the depredations of the
imperial tax machinery, the abuses visited upon small landowners by the
members of the curial class, and the desperate ends to which these drove
the poor. As a consequence, his testimony was long a staple for scholars
seeking conrmation that the late Roman empire was in inexorable decline,
as a result of barbarian invasions, high levels of taxation and a fragmenting
social fabric.
In particular, Salvians observations concerning the nature of
relations between landlords and tenants in fth-century Gaul (DGD Book
5) were long placed alongside the legislation De Patrociniis Vicorum in the
Theodosian Code and Libaniuss Oration 47 Against Protection Systems, and
used as a fundamental building block in arguments for the emergence of
Lambert (2000) 115 dates the text to the rst half of the 440s. It is possible that it is to be identied
with the text called by Gennadius (De Viris Illustris 68) De Praesenti Iudicio: Pellegrino (1940) 6064;
Badewien (1980) 19 with n. 5. Citations will be made from the edition of G. Lagarrigue, Salvien,
Oeuvres, 2 vols. SC 176; 220 (197175). Translations are my own.
Summaries of the scholarship may be found in Clausing (1925); Krause (1987). Badewien (1980)
10910 gives a brief account of Salvians place in the debate.
Salvian and the poor in fth-century Gaul 163
a new, harmful type of patronage relationship labelled patrocinium in the
late Roman period. Patrocinium was interpreted as part of a general trend
towards venality and corruption in the period, and a signicant contribut-
ing factor in the downfall of the Roman state. Additionally, it signalled
the end of the independent peasant proprietor and the beginnings of the
medieval serfdom, as small agriculturalists were inexorably consumed by
larger, more powerful landowners, and transformed into dependent tenant
The historiographical concept of Patrociniumis not as rmly entrenched
in the scholarship as it once was.
Scholars nowrecognise that rural patron-
age differed fromprovince to province, and question the validity of combin-
ing disparate sources from disparate regions in pursuit of one overarching
Indeed, it seems clear that the legislation, Libanius and Sal-
vian all focus upon different aspects of rural patronage relationships in the
period. Where the concern of the legislation is for the transferal of rev-
enues to the imperial coffers
and Libanius complaints should be situated
within the context of a socio-economic competition between curiales and
military men,
Salvians testimony must be interpreted with an eye to the
overarching purpose of his work namely, to denounce the undoubted
guilt of the vast majority of self-professed Christians for their numberless
and atrocious sins.
Perhaps for lack of other evidence, Salvians text continues to occupy
a central place in scholarship concerning the nature of rural tenancy and
patronage relations in late antiquity. But, to date, there has been little
written on the ways in which Salvians literary, religious and moral purpose
might affect the picture he paints of the fate of the poor in late Roman
Gaul. In this context, recent accounts of the ideas and preconceptions
underpinning Salvians work offer some valuable insights. These treatments
have focused upon Salvians representations of the various barbarian groups
withwhomhe andhis fellowGallo-Romans came into increasingly intimate
contact over the course of the fth century, and sought to place themwithin
the broader context of his work as a whole.
It is the purpose of this chapter
Recent restatements, with further references, may be found in Krause (1987) 812; Giliberti (1992)
197; Mircovi c (1997) 2930; Marcone (1998) 3623.
See in particular, Carri e (1976); Lepelley (1983); Garnsey and Woolf (1989).
Brown (1971) 85 argues that the evidence for the harmful effects of rural patronage is effectively
limited to Gaul and Egypt. Carri e (1976) is strict in his application of Libanius evidence only to late
fourth-century Syria.
Krause (1987) 734, 84. Also Petit (1955) 189 at n. 4.
Petit (1955) 3767; Carri e (1976) 174, 1667; Krause (1987) 86.
ODonnell (1983) 26.
See, in particular, Maas (1992); Lambert (2000); also ODonnell (1983).
164 cam grey
to arrive at a similar strategy for reading Salvians account of the options
available to the rural poor in fth-century Gaul.
The discussion will be structured in the following way. First, I sketch
briey what is known of Salvian, as a preliminary to situating himwithin his
historical, religious and literary contexts. Next, I offer some observations
about his purpose in writing the De Gubernatione Dei, acknowledging
the critical role his religious beliefs played in that portrayal. With this in
mind, I explore Salvians construction of the ideal Christian community,
before focusing attention upon the various ways in which he employs the
motifs of poverty and the poor in his text. In particular, I note Salvians
manipulation of the contradiction in contemporary attitudes towards the
poor, between a developing argument that they are worthy of charity and
a lingering conviction that they are to be despised. Finally, I explore the
various components in Salvians picture of the fate of poor peasant farmers
in fth-century Gaul, teasing out the information he provides indirectly for
the strategies available to them in response to the circumstances in which
they found themselves.
salvi an the man and hi s work
There is little material from which to construct a picture of Salvians life.
Beyond the meagre testimony of Salvians own surviving works, the fullest
independent source is Gennadius, who, like Salvian, was presbyter of the
church at Marseilles. Gennadius includes Salvian in his De Viris Illustribus,
a continuation of the series of short biographies of Christians originally
devised by Jerome. He observes that, at the time he was writing in around
480 ad, Salvian lived on in senectute bona. From this and Salvians apparent
familiarity with the devastation of Tr` eves and Cologne in the early fth
century (De Gubernatione Dei 6.13.72; Ep.1.5), it has been conjectured that
he was born somewhere in northern Gaul shortly before 400 ad.
His use of legal language and concepts makes it likely that he had some
kind of legal training as a young man, possibly at Arles.
Later, he married
a certain Palladia, whose parents were initially pagans, but who later con-
verted to Christianity. Salvian and Palladia had a daughter, Auspiciola, and
the family appears to have gone into some kind of ascetic seclusion, prob-
ably in the rst instance at the monastery of Honoratus at L erins.
Cf. Pellegrino (1940) 726; Badewien (1980) 1418.
Pellegrino (1940) 178; Badewien (1980) 15.
Although they did not necessarily share the lifestyle of the monks at L erins in all particulars:
Pellegrino (1940) 22.
Salvian and the poor in fth-century Gaul 165
caused them to become estranged from Palladias parents for some time
(Ep. 4). Salvian later left L erins presumably with his family and took up
a position as presbyter at Marseilles, where he wrote the De Gubernatione
Salvian occupied a position of respect within the Gallic ecclesiastical
hierarchy, although he appears never to have held a bishopric. Gennadius
accords himthe title of magister episcoporum, perhaps an allusion to the fact
that Salvian instructed several future bishops while staying at the monastery
at L erins, and wrote numerous homilies for bishops as well (Gennadius,
De Viris Illustribus 68). Although Gennadius attributes a lengthy list of
works to Salvian, there survive only the De Gubernatione Dei, a series of
four instructional letters to the church written under the pseudonym of
Timothy (Ad Ecclesiam) and a small collection of letters.
ai ms and purpose of the de gubernati one dei
The scope of the De Gubernatione Dei, and the circumstances in which
Salvian wrote it, encourage a comparison with the monumental De Civitate
Dei of his slightly earlier African contemporary, Augustine of Hippo. For
a long time, such comparison took the form of a contrast between the
two. Much was made of the dissimilarities between Salvians attempts to
come to terms with the vicissitudes of his age and those of Augustine.
Contrasts of tone, audience and message seemed to render any attempt
to draw parallels between the two problematic.
In addition, perceived
differences in their attitudes to the Pelagian heresy were long interpreted
in modern scholarship as a decisive factor in placing the two on opposite
sides of an insurmountable doctrinal gulf.
Certainly, the two wrote with very different aims in mind, and their atti-
tudes to the causes of Roman societys troubles diverge wildly. In Salvians
conception of divine providence, it was tting for God to punish Romans
who professed Christianity, but did not practise it.
His work was envisaged
as medicine for the sick and harsh medicine at that (DGD pr.3). Such a
project is in stark contrast to the measured tones of Augustine.
Badewien (1980) 18.
See Lamberts comments, with further references: Lambert (2000) 11618, 12930; cf. Pellegrino
(1940) 21128, who also includes Orosius.
For a succinct discussion of the issues surrounding the identication of Salvian as Pelagian or
semipelagian, see Badewien (1980) 17699; also ODonnell (1983) 2730, and the important cau-
tions of Lambert (1999) 1223 with n. 22.
Cf. Badewien (1980) 3150; Lambert (1999) 11718.
See ODonnell (1983) 34; also ODonnell (1979) passim.
166 cam grey
the most recent scholarship on Salvian has moved beyond a simple contrast
of the two, and focused instead upon similarities in the preoccupations
that motivated them, and the preconceptions that underlie their works. In
this context, the two may be taken as complementary rather than conict-
ing examples of a broader struggle among contemporary Roman Christian
thinkers to come to terms with the disquieting circumstances in which they
found themselves.
Salvian poses his central problem at the beginning of the third book
(DGD 3.1.2):
And so, one might ask, if everything in this world is controlled by the care, gover-
nance and judgement of God, why should the circumstances of the barbarians be
so much better than our own? And, even among us, why is the lot of the good man
so much harder than that of the bad? Why should honourable men sicken while
wicked men grow stronger? Why does everything succumb to authorities that are
largely unjust?
Salvians answer focuses attention upon the conduct of the very people who
asked the question namely, the wealthy, aristocratic Romans who formhis
audience. In Salvians opinion, the current travails they suffer are a direct
consequence of Gods judgement and punishment of their sins. He argues
that it is their failure topay attentiontoGodthat is at the root of the problem
(DGD 3.9.41). He concludes the book with a damning denunciation of the
collective hypocrisy of contemporary Christian communities, observing
(DGD 3.11.5960):
Thus it is the case that even we who are said to be Christians lose the force of so
great a name through the vice of depravity. 60. For it is of absolutely no benet to
carry a sacred name without morals, since a life that is at variance with our claim
denies the honour of an elevated title through the meanness of unworthy acts.
ODonnell (1983) 26 notes that even when ancient Christians were divided by doctrinal differences
far sharper than those that separated the Gaulish monks from the African Augustine, they were
yet much closer to each other in preconceptions and preoccupations than are any of them to the
few moderns who still read their words. Lambert (1999) 129 with n. 39 is more cautious about
similarities in their attitudes.
Quaeritur itaque . . . si totum quod in hoc mundo est cura et gubernaculo et iudicio Dei agitur, cur
melior multo sit barbarorum condicio quam nostra; cur inter nos quoque ipsos, sors bonorum durior
quam malorum; cur probi iaceant, improbi convalescant; cur iniquis vel maxime potestatibus universa
Quo t ut etiam nos, qui Christiani esse dicimur, perdamus vim tanti nominis vitio pravitatis. 60. Nihil
enim omnino prodest nomen sanctum habere sine moribus, quia vita a professione discordans abrogat
inlustris tituli honorem per indignorum actuum vilitatem. Unde cum paene nullam Christianorum
omnium partem, paene nullum ecclesiarum omnium angulum non plenum omni offensione et omni
letalium peccatorum labe videamus, quid est in quo nobis de Christiano nomine blandiamur, cum
utique hoc ipso magis per nomen sacratissimum rei simus, quia a sancto nomine discrepamus. Nam ideo
plus sub religionis titulo Deum laedimus, quia positi in religione peccamus.
Salvian and the poor in fth-century Gaul 167
Since we see almost no Christians anywhere, almost no corner in all our churches
not lled with every offence and the stain of every mortal sin, why is it that we
atter ourselves with the name of Christian? Surely we are made more culpable in
this matter by that most holy name, since we are at odds with it. Therefore, we
injure God more greatly under the title of religion, because we sin after we have
been placed in religion.
These two themes, of hypocrisy among professed Christians and the col-
lective guilt of the group, are fundamental to Salvians rhetorical purpose.
They underpin his account of the various atrocities visited upon Roman
society by its own members in the books that follow, and infuse his account
of the relations between rich and poor in contemporary Roman society.
Salvians principal aim, then, is tocondemnthe sins of his contemporaries
and highlight the breakdown of the Christian community of his time.
The centrality of this aim offers a caution against approaches to Salvians
text that accept his testimony as a true and factual account of the world
in which he lived. It seems more protable to acknowledge that Salvians
religious and moral presuppositions condition and shape his interpretation
of the processes and phenomena he observes.
Consequently, any reading
of Salvians account of the fate of the poor in the fth century should
begin with his attitude to the proper structure of the Christian community,
and the mutual responsibilities of rich and poor towards each other. These
attitudes, in their turn, must be read through the lens imposed by Salvians
oft-expressed opinion that the Romans themselves are responsible for their
current sufferings.
salvi ans i deal chri sti an communi ty
In reconstructing Salvians ideal Christian community, we are required
to cast our net widely over his text. Its various components are nowhere
explicitly linked to each other. Rather, they emerge piecemeal in the course
of his work. In addition, the characteristics that he chooses to identify
and focus upon are determined by his overriding interest in demonstrating
the vices of contemporary society, and proving that it was these vices that
had caused the predicament in which Roman society found itself. Salvians
position is uncompromising and confrontational. In his construction, the
Romans of his time were impious, unchaste, greedy and bereft of masculine
Cf. Lambert (1999) 121.
Cf. Lambert (1999) 126.
Lambert (2000) 103, 104; also ODonnell (1983) 33; Maas (1992) 277, 280.
168 cam grey
virtues. They had stopped observing a proper relationship of reciprocity
with God, and with each other.
Throughout his work, ve themes in proper communal relations recur.
In each case, Salvian draws a contrast between the ideal circumstances
in which this practice might once have occurred and its current perver-
sion in his own time. The rst theme is just behaviour by agents of the
state, leading to an equitable balance between public and private spheres.
Salvian sees the most perfect embodiment of this in the early Republic
(DGD 1.2.10).
He singles out the Fabii, the Fabricii and the Cincinnati
for particular praise, observing that they directed all their attention, all
their efforts, to the common good, and contributed to the growing wealth
of the state by their individual poverty.
As magistrates, these individuals
pursued the glory of the state rather than their own wealth (DGD 1.2.11;
cf. 3.9.46 for contemporary magistrates). In such circumstances, the pri-
vate desires of individuals were subordinated to the common good of the
This link between individuals and the community can be developed
more fully. In his exposition of actions that displeased God in the past,
Salvian devotes much attention to specic examples, where individuals in
positions of power behaved in particular ways, with dire consequences for
the community as a whole. He justies this tactic with the argument that
the actions of individuals impact upon the well-being of the group (DGD
6.1.2; cf. 7.17.75, 7.19.81). The implication is that in the ideal community,
individuals in positions of power and inuence should feel a responsibility
to their community, motivated by the knowledge that their actions have
the potential to impact upon the group as a whole.
This sense of responsibility is at the heart of the second theme, too
namely, the importance of reciprocity in vertical relations, and the mutual
obligations that such relations entail. Much of his attention focuses upon
the proper relationship between God and his people or, more properly,
the absence of such a relationship in his own time. In the process, though,
he sketches the essentials of enduring, reciprocal relationships of exchange
between individuals of unequal status that is, patronage relationships.
In a discussion of the actions undertaken by the residents of cities under
Although he rejected traditional Roman religious practices including the continuing ritual of
consuls consulting the sacred chickens (DGD 6.2.12) Salvian still found virtue in the Roman past
(DGD 1.2.1011). Cf. Lambert (1999) 1258.
Omnia scilicet studia omnes conatus suos ad communia emolumenta conferrent et crescentes reipublicae
vires privata paupertate ditarent.
Salvian and the poor in fth-century Gaul 169
attack by barbarians, he observes that reciprocity is at the heart of human
relations (DGD 6.17.94; cf. 7.2.89):
It is the custom in human life that thanks should be given to lenders of favours
and that those bestowing gifts should receive a return for their gifts.
In Salvians construction, the recipients of benets have a responsibility to
acknowledge and repay those benets in a manner that is in accordance
with their means, and the deserts of their benefactor. He also makes it
clear that those in a position to be benefactors should acknowledge a moral
responsibility to those less powerful or fortunate than themselves. Again,
acknowledging this responsibility is part of the proper observance of Gods
teaching. He notes, for example, the affection and charity of the Goths and
Vandals characteristics, he reminds his audience, that the Lord teaches
us are the chief of virtues (DGD 5.4.15).
These characteristics are part
of a broader set of attitudes that benefactors should possess, which can
be grouped under the rubric humanitas. Again, this theme is most clearly
expressed as an absence in contemporary relations. In his critique of the
type of protection currently offered by the powerful to the weak, Salvian
observes (DGD 5.8.39):
I would not consider this serious or unworthy, indeed, I would rather thank this
public spirit of the powerful to whom the poor give themselves, if they did not
sell those patrocinia, if, when they claimed to be defending the poor, it could be
attributed to their humanitas and not to their greed (cupiditas).
So, Salvians ideal community is characterised by a sense of mutual respon-
sibility between powerful and powerless, rich and poor.
This vertical harmony is complemented by horizontal harmony. The
third theme that emerges from his text is the importance of unity of pur-
pose within the community. Expanding further upon his characterisation
of the Goths and Vandals as proper followers of Gods teaching, he argues
(DGD 5.4.15; cf. 8.4.20) that Almost all barbarians, at least those who are
in the same tribe with the same king, love each other; almost all Romans
persecute each other.
The unity of purpose that Salvian observes among
Id etiam usus vitae humanae habet ut referatur gratia faeneratoribus gratiarum, et recipiant vicem
munerum munerantes.
Quam praecipuam dominus docet esse virtutem.
Nec tamen grave hoc aut indignum arbitrarer, immo potius gratularer hanc potentium magnitudinem
quibus se pauperes dedunt, si patrocinia ista non venderent, si quod se dicunt humiles defensare, human-
itati tribuerent, non cupiditati.
Omnes se fere barbari, qui modo sunt unius gentis et regis, mutuo amant, omnes paene Romani mutuo
170 cam grey
the barbarians can also be connected with his vision of the role that magis-
trates and the powerful should play in the community that is, the personal
interests of the individual are of secondary importance to the greater good
of the group.
Another factor uniting a community is its proper observance of Christian
law as contained in the Bible. This fourth theme is a critical component
of Salvians argument that pagan barbarians are not as sinful as Romans.
Salvian accepts that Roman Christians possess knowledge of the true law,
and argues that pagan barbarians do not. As a consequence, the sins of the
former, committed in full knowledge of the laware greater than those of the
latter, committedinignorance (DGD4.14.68; cf. 4.16.79, 3.6.25, citing Luke
12.47). On the basis of this argument, Salvian concludes that the barbarians
should be considered morally superior to their Roman contemporaries
(DGD 7.6.25; cf. 4.13.6064).
The fth theme that Salvian stresses is the centrality of the paterfamilias
in the community, and the inuence he has over both his immediate family
and his dependents. Drawing primarily upon evidence for the detrimental
effects of this inuence, he suggests that it is the behaviour of the pater-
familias that determines the reputation and standing of the household.
In addition, it is the wealthiest and most powerful households that deter-
mine the character of the whole community. To illustrate his point, Salvian
gives an account of the sins of the Africans, as a preparation for his argu-
ment that the Vandals were a cleansing force when they took Carthage.
He portrays the residents of Carthage, in particular, as sexually promiscu-
ous, proigate, cruel and blasphemous. He concludes with the observation
(DGD 8.3.14):
But, you say, not everybody does these things, but only the most powerful and
those in the most exalted positions. Let us agree that this is the case. But, since
the wealthiest and most powerful households represent the crowd in the city, you
can see that the entire city was polluted by the sacrilegious superstition of its few
powerful members.
Weaving through Salvians diatribe against the vices of current Roman
society is an essentially conservative vision of a community, resting upon
On the originality of this idea, see Paschoud (1967) 301; Maas (1992) 276.
This is even true, he argues, in southern Gaul, where the women appear to wield somewhat more
inuence and power than elsewhere (DGD 7.4.17).
At, inquis, non omnes ista faciebant, sed potentissimi quique ac sublimissimi. Adquiescamus hoc ita
esse. Sed cum ditissimae quaeque ac potentissimae domus turbam faciant civitatis, vides per paucorum
potentium sacrilegam superstitionem urbem cunctam fuisse pollutam.
Salvian and the poor in fth-century Gaul 171
long-established Roman social conventions, and blending them with ele-
ments taken fromthe Judaeo-Christian societies of the Old and NewTesta-
ments. Salvian envisages a society with strong and mutually binding verti-
cal alliances, and horizontal connections that facilitate harmony within the
group. This community is united by its common observance of a prescrip-
tive code of behaviour, drawn primarily fromthe words of the prophets and
apostles. Those who inuence the way that this community functions are
the secular magistrates, in the public sphere, and the heads of the wealthiest
households, in the private. It is within the context of this matrix of ideas
that Salvians account of the fate of the poor in fth-century Gaul must be
salvi ans portrai t of the poor
But who, precisely, are the poor to whom Salvian refers? Salvians charac-
terisation of poverty differs according to context. He speaks of a variety
of poverties and poors in a number of different discourses.
to the particular point he is attempting to make, for example, poverty
is idealised as a remedy for proigate living (DGD 6.9.52; cf. 7.5.22),
or held up as a pathos-laden example of a fall from a previous state of
dignity and honour (DGD 5.8.44). Likewise, the poor themselves receive
no consistent characterisation. Rather, they seem to function as a slid-
ing point of comparison for the rich, who are the real target for Salvians
barbs. Thus, Salvian can be observed both identifying with and distin-
guishing himself from the poor. In the rst case, he distinguishes the
wealthy few from the majority of the population, including himself. His
aim here is to emphasise the wrongdoing of the wealthy in levying new and
oppressive burdens upon the poorer members of their communities, as a
means of satisfying their own social obligations. Salvian observes bitterly
(DGD 5.7.31):
But we the poor accede to your will, O rich men. What the few order, we all pay.
What is so just, so civilized? Your decrees burden us with new debts: at least make
those debts common to all of us. For what is more unjust and unworthy than that
you alone, who make us all debtors, should be immune to debt?
See Finn, Chapter 8 in this volume, for poverty as a deliberately vague and elastic term.
Sed adquiescimus pauperes vestrae, divites, voluntati. Quod pauci iubetis solvamus omnes. Quid tam
iustum, quid tam humanum? Gravant nos novis debitis decreta vestra: facite saltim debitum ipsum vobis
nobiscum esse commune. Quid enim iniquius esse aut quid indignius potest quam ut soli sitis immunes
a debito, qui cunctos facitis debitores?
172 cam grey
Clearly, Salvians point is that the rich are not fullling their obligations
towards their communities. Rather, they are evading their scal responsi-
bilities, leaving the poor not only to fend for themselves, but also to pay
the taxes that are more properly to be extracted from the wealthy. However,
it seems clear that the poor in question are not completely destitute and
excluded from the community. For one thing, they are subject to taxation,
and therefore probably small landowners at the very least.
Elsewhere, Salvian distances himself from the poor. In some circum-
stances, he speaks as one of the wealthier members of the community who
are exploiting and despoiling the poor (DGD 5.8.36). Even the church and
its ofcers are involved in these actions. Describing the extent of the social
cancer aficting contemporary Roman society, for example, he remarks
upon the almost complete absence of aid granted to the poor, even by mem-
bers of the church (DGD 5.5.19). In another context, he offers a vignette
in which he is asked by a man whom he describes as pauper, miser and
egestuosus to act as a patron or intercessor (DGD 4.15.745). The man is
suffering at the hands of an individual who is clearly much more powerful,
since he is described as a praepotentior. The story is part of a demonstration
that contemporary Romans keep neither Gods commandments nor even
His more minor precepts or requirements. Salvian argues that individuals
use Christs name as an oath, and even swear by Christ to carry out sinful
and illegal acts. In this case, it seems that the poor man is at risk of los-
ing his property to this powerful gure. He asks Salvian to intercede, and
implore the rapacious potentate not to take the possessions and livelihood
of a miserable and poverty-stricken man away from him.
However, when
confronted, the aggressor replies that his actions are taken in fullment
of an oath. Faced with this agrant outing of Gods commands, Salvian
melodramatically removes himself from the affair what more could I do,
to whom the affair was shown to be so just and holy?
Here, as in the
case of the wealthy increasing the burden of taxation, the pauper in ques-
tion appears to be a small landowner, rather than a completely destitute
Salvian does speak of the destitute, placing them alongside widows and
orphans as victims of the wealthy. However, even here, it is not clear that
the poor he has in mind are the completely poverty-stricken, or merely
those who have fallen from a previous condition of wealth and status.
After noting that even the small number of good men in the community
Ne homini misero et egestuoso rem ac substantiam suam tolleret. Cf. the language of DGD 5.8.39.
Quid enim amplius facerem, cui res tam iusta obtendebatur et sancta?
Salvian and the poor in fth-century Gaul 173
are unable or unwilling to act on behalf of the poor, Salvian observes
Meanwhile, the poor are ravaged, widows lament, orphans are trampled upon, so
much so that many of them, who are not of obscure birth and have been properly
educated, ee to the enemy lest they die from the pain of public persecution.
It seems, then, that the poor of whom Salvian speaks, and with whom
he appears to have had some experience, are not so much beggars or the
rural poor as the lesser members of local aristocracies and, perhaps, small
landowners. That is, there is a disjunction in Salvians presentation of the
poor between the idealised beggars of Christian discourse, and the poor
of Salvians own experience.
However, this does not render his picture
useless as a mere collection of purely rhetorical tropes. Rather, it highlights
the fruitfulness of poverty and the poor as tools in Salvians project, and
signals the value of reading through the uses to which he puts the processes
he observes to the reality of those processes.
For Salvian as for other Christian moralists of the time, the poor could
function as a weapon to wave at the rich. As a consequence, his description
of themis subject tothe same contradictions andpressures that underpinthe
works of other Christianwriters who commenteduponthe place of the poor
in their new, evolving Christian society.
Like their pagan predecessors,
Christians viewed the poor in ways that were complex and sometimes
contradictory. The non-Christian texts reveal fear and loathing, amusement
and indifference as well as pity and fellow-feeling as legitimate reasons
for giving alms to a beggar.
This complex collection of emotions and
responses continued to infuse Christian discourses over poverty. There
emerged the idea that as recipients of alms the deserving poor, at least,
assumed a role as moral guardians of the souls of their benefactors.
the deep mistrust of the poor by the rich did not disappear, as Ambroses
concern that con-men might prey upon the unsuspecting alms giver reveals
(Off. 2.767; cf. Cic. Off. 2.62).
Inter haec vastantur pauperes, viduae gemunt, orfani proculcantur, in tantum ut multi eorum, et non
obscuris natalibus editi et liberaliter instituti, ad hostes fugiant, ne persecutionis publicae adictione
Cf. Van Dam (1985) 43; Drinkwater (1992) 21011.
See Finn, Chapter 8 in this volume. Also Brown (1992); Grey and Parkin (2003).
Parkin, Chapter 4 in this volume; Whittaker (1993) 2734; Grey and Parkin (2003) 289; cf. Toner
(1995) 6971, with further references.
See Grig, Chapter 9 in this volume. Also Brown (1992); Grey and Parkin (2003) 291; Garnsey and
Humfress (2001) 124.
Cf. Lunn-Rockliffe, Chapter 7, and Finn, Chapter 8, both this volume. This argument is further
developed in Grey and Parkin (2003) 28993.
174 cam grey
In the De Gubernatione Dei, Salvian draws upon both these strands in
contemporary attitudes towards the poor. Within the explicitly Christian
discourse surrounding the role of the poor in regulating the moral health
of the community, Salvian suggests that the wealthy are neglecting their
obligation to care for the poor. He cites with approval the epistle of the
apostle James (James 2.57, in DGD 3.10.52) who emphasises the special
place occupied by the poor in the kingdom of Heaven, and rebukes his
audience for ignoring and dishonouring these individuals. Clearly, Salvian
is well aware of the potent symbol that charity towards the poor represents
for his contemporaries.
Alongside that discourse, Salvian manipulates the visceral distaste for
the poor felt by his contemporaries and their attendant feelings of moral
superiority. He notes that many of his listeners might assume the vices and
crimes of which he speaks to be characteristic of slaves and the lowest of
men (abiectissimi homines, DGD 3.10.5051; cf. 4.3.13). Salvian builds upon
this assumption, developing a theory of relative guilt based upon the social
status of the individual. This theory manipulates the ideological paradigm
that the poor are to be despised, arguing that the sins of those who are
superior to the lowest classes are worse precisely because their behaviour
should be better (DGD 4.12.578; cf. 4.6.29):
If a person who sins is more honourable, so, also is the odium of his sin greater. 58
Theft is an evil crime in all men, but, without doubt, it is more to be condemned
when a senator steals something . . . Where the privilege is higher, the fault is
Employing this stratagem, Salvian is able to concentrate upon the sins of the
wealthy in his description of the moral wrongdoing of Roman Christians,
for in his construction, it is the actions of the wealthy that determine the
character of the community as a whole.
Salvians criticism of the behaviour of the wealthy, aristocratic Roman
Christians who constituted his audience is relentless. The moral and the-
ological preoccupations which underpin that critique provide a frame-
work for his presentation of vertical relationships between large and small
landowners, whom he labels rich and poor. That framework, in turn, con-
ditions the picture that emerges, but it does not wholly distort it. To reject
his text utterly on the basis of its rhetorical excesses is to discard much that
is potentially valuable for scholars seeking the realities of relations between
Si honoratior est persona peccantis, peccati quoque maior invidia. 58. Furtum in omni quidem est
homine malum facinus, sed damnabilius absque dubio si senator furatur aliquando . . . Ubi sublimior
est praerogativa, maior est culpa.
Salvian and the poor in fth-century Gaul 175
rich and poor in rural contexts in late antique Gaul. Current approaches to
those relations throughout the late Roman empire emphasise heterogeneity
rather than homogeneity. The nal section of this chapter builds on this
scholarship, discussing the various elements of Salvians portrait, offering
some comments about his combination of those elements into an appar-
ently cohesive whole and emphasising by way of conclusion the two levels at
which his text can be read as both a carefully constructed diatribe against
the moral turpitude of his contemporaries and an inadvertent indication of
the wealth of opportunities open to peasant proprietors in late antiquity.
relati ons between ri ch and poor
Salvian paints a bleak picture of relations between rich and poor in fth-
century Gaul, both collectively and at the level of the individual. He empha-
sises the abrogation by the rich of their responsibilities to their commu-
nities, and the effects that this had upon the poorer members of those
communities. Coupled with an ever-increasing tax burden, this behaviour
of the wealthy reveals in the starkest possible terms the ills of contemporary
society, and the distance between it and the ideal community that Salvian
envisages. In place of a functioning commonwealth, underpinned by unity
of purpose and a sense of mutual responsibility, Salvian presents anarchy
and a society in disarray (DGD 4.6.30; cf. 5.8.42):
For, who can speak eloquently enough about this banditry and crime? The Roman
state is either dead or certainly drawing its last breath in that one corner where it
still seems to retain some life. It is dead, strangled by the chains of taxation as if by
the hands of robbers, but many rich men whose taxes are borne by the poor can
still be found. That is, a great number of rich can be found whose taxes are killing
the poor.
Here, Salvianis joining a chorus of many voices inbemoaning the oppressive
nature of the tax burden, and the behaviour of curial elites. Similarly,
in presenting the poor as either eeing or wanting to ee their lands in
the face of the depredations of the tax-collector (DGD 5.7.28), he offers
another reprise of a familiar theme in the literature of the period. It is
not my intention here to challenge the validity of Salvians complaints,
Nam, illud latrocinium ac scelus quis digne eloqui possit, quod, cum Romana respublica vel iam mortua,
vel certe extremum spiritum agens in ea parte qua adhuc vivere videtur, tributorum vinculis quasi
praedonummanibus strangulata moriatur, inveniuntur tamen plurimi divitumquorumtributa pauperes
ferunt, hoc est, inveniuntur plurimi divitum quorum tributa pauperes necant.
176 cam grey
although in recent scholarship his overwhelmingly pessimistic picture has
been somewhat modied.
It is, however, worth moving beyond these general complaints, to focus
upon the particular phenomena that Salvian identies and the connections
that he draws between them. Salvian suggests that, as a consequence of this
crushing tax burden, small landowners are unable to hold on to their land,
and so they seek out the rich and become their dependents (DGD 5.8.38):
Therefore, because they cannot do what they really want, they do the only thing
that they can do. They give themselves to the care and protection of the upper
classes. They make themselves the captives [dediticii] of the rich and pass over
practically into their jurisdiction and control.
He characterises this arrangement as a new type of relationship, based
not upon humanitas or mutual obligations, but upon a perversion of the
commercial logic of the marketplace (DGD 5.8.4041):
Behold what the aids and patrocinia of the great men are! They grant nothing
to their dependents [suscepti], but only to themselves. For by this agreement,
something is given to the parents temporarily, so that in the future everything can
be taken away from the children. Therefore, some of the great men sell everything
that they offer and, of course, for the highest price. Because I have said they sell, I
wish that they would sell according to the common and accepted custom! Perhaps
then something would remain to the buyer. For this is a new type of buying and
selling: 41. the seller gives away nothing and receives everything; the buyer gets
nothing and gives away absolutely everything.
Salvian suggests that these poorer landowners enter into some kind of mort-
gage arrangement with their wealthy neighbours, which ends inevitably in
their dispossession. However, they remain responsible for the tax burden
of the land that they no longer possess (DGD 5.8.42). As a consequence,
he suggests (DGD 5.8.43):
Some of those of whom I speak, who are either wiser than the rest or necessity has
made them wise, having either lost their homes and farms by such encroachments,
Ergo quia hoc non valent quod forte mallent, faciunt quod unum valent: tradunt se ad tuendum
protegendumque maioribus, dediticios se divitumfaciunt et quasi in ius eorumdicionemque transcendunt.
Ecce quae sunt auxilia ac patrocinia maiorum: nihil susceptis tribuunt, sed sibi. Hoc enim pacto aliquid
parentibus temporarie attribuitur, ut in futuro totum liis auferatur. Vendunt itaque, et quidem gravis-
simo pretio vendunt maiores quidam cuncta quae praestant. Et quod dixi vendunt, utinam venderent
usitato more atque communi! aliquid forsitan remaneret emptoribus. Novum quippe hoc genus vendi-
tionis et emptionis est: 41. venditor nihil tradit, et totum accipit; emptor nihil accipit, et totum penitus
Nonnulli eorum de quibus loquimur, qui aut consultiores sunt aut quos consultos necessitas fecit, cum
domicilia atque agellos suos aut pervasionibus perdunt aut fugati ab exactoribus deserunt, quia tenere
non possunt, fundos maiorum expetunt, et coloni divitum unt.
Salvian and the poor in fth-century Gaul 177
or ed before the tax gatherers, and being consequently unable to hold on to them,
seek out the farms of the rich and great, to become their tenants [coloni].
Salvians account links the dispossession of independent peasant propri-
etors, the evasion of scal responsibilities by large landowners and the
emergence of a new, commercially motivated, type of patronage relation-
ship between the two one which served to disadvantage these small
landowners-turned-tenants even further, by placing the burden for taxation
squarely upon their shoulders. By portraying the poor as making themselves
the captives of the rich (DGD 5.8.38), Salvian evokes the fates of captured
prisoners of war (dediticii) and paints a picture of the poor losing their
rights of citizenship in contemporary Roman society. He observes that the
poor are received as strangers [advenae]; they become natives [indigenae]
by the legal precedent of residence [habitatio] (DGD 5.9.45).
As Salvian
describes it, the poor have been excluded from the community except in
cases where they can be taxed (cf. DGD 5.8.35). The new type of relation-
ship between rich and poor that he describes is a perversion of the relations
that should exist between the two in the ideal community. It is based not
upon humanitas, but upon cupiditas. It is not quasi-familial in nature, but
resembles more closely relations between strangers, or interactions in the
By adopting this construction, Salvian is combining a series of sepa-
rate phenomena into a discrete, conceptual whole in support of his argu-
ments for the extreme sinfulness of the aristocracies of Roman Gaul. Simply
put, Salvian is constructing a picture of relations between large and small
landowners and, by extension, rich and poor which suits his rhetori-
cal purpose. Consequently, the package that he offers is contrived. But its
component parts offer much to scholars attempting to reconstruct rural
labour relations in the period, and contemporary perceptions of those rela-
tions. Indirectly, he provides evidence for the ability of small landowners
to respond to the circumstances that faced them, by exploiting existing
relationships or entering into new ones.
The separate phenomena that constitute Salvians composite picture can
be explored independently. By adopting such a strategy, it may be possible
to postulate the decision-making processes of small landowners in each
case, and assess the light it sheds upon the fate of the poor in the period.
Nam suscipiuntur ut advenae, unt praeiudicio habitationis indigenae. It is possible that Salvian has
in mind the legal concept of the origo here, which appears to have grown in importance over the
course of the fourth and fth centuries as a means for identifying a clear hierarchy of responsibility
for the tax burden of a particular estate or eld through registration of tenants in the tax rolls.
178 cam grey
Two such phenomena are of particular signicance. First, Salvian speaks of
a transfer of property from poor to rich as one of the concomitants of the
new type of patronage relationship he describes (DGD 5.8.39):
For, all those who appear to be defended give to their defenders almost their entire
livelihood [omnem fere substantiam suam addicunt] before they are defended; thus,
in order that the fathers may have defence, the sons lose their inheritance. The
protection of the fathers is secured by the beggary of their offspring.
Again, Salvians focus is on the rapacity of large landowners, and the inap-
propriate relationships that result fromtheir greed. But, if small landowners
are indeed giving away putative or actual ownership of their property, it
is worth examining the process in a little more detail. By portraying this
as some kind of mortgage arrangement, Salvian signals that this is not a
sale in the conventional sense of the word. There is precious little evidence
with which to esh out Salvians impressionistic picture, but two motiva-
tions seem plausible. Perhaps this is further evidence of a phenomenon
that can be traced in other sources of the period the fraudulent transfer
of property, in order to evade scal burdens.
In such circumstances, the
donor ostensibly gives up responsibility for the land in question, in return
for protection from the tax-collector. Equally, this might be an insurance
mechanism against the predations of a wealthy neighbour, as Salvian him-
self signals when he confronts his audience with the observation (DGD
Where can you nd any one living beside a rich man who has not been made poor,
or included among the poor? Indeed, by the encroachments of the powerful the
weak lose their belongings, or even themselves along with their belongings.
Such a strategy may be observed in a recently discovered sermon of
Augustine, who observes (Dolbeau 6.2):
Omnes enim hi qui defendi videntur, defensoribus suis omnem fere substantiam suam priusquam defen-
dantur addicunt; ac sic, ut patres habeant defensionem, perdunt lii haereditatem: tuitio parentum
mendicitate pignorum comparatur.
Witness, for example, a mid-fourth-century law directed against curiales attempting to ensure that
their registered property falls below the 25 iugera necessary for membership of the curia (CTh 12.1.33
(342, East)).
Quotus quisque enim iuxta divitem non pauper aut actus aut statutus est? Siquidem pervasionibus
praepotentum aut sua homines imbecilli aut etiam se ipsos cum suis pariter amittunt.
Sunt enim multi quod novimus, nam exemplis plena sunt omnia qui timentes perdere res suas
aliquorum potentium titulos gunt, ut per hoc factum, alius possideat, alius terreat. The text can
be found in Augustine, Vingt-six sermons au peuple dAfrique, ed. F. Dolbeau, Coll. Des

Augustiniennes. S erie Antiquit e 147, Paris (1996) 513.
Salvian and the poor in fth-century Gaul 179
For there are many people with which we are well acquainted, for there are all
sorts of examples who, afraid of losing their own holdings, erect the markers of
some powerful men, so that through that deed the one shall possess the land, and
the other shall be the source of terror.
Here, a small landowner attempts to safeguard his property by pretending
that his eld is owned by a more powerful man. Such an act could have been
carried out without the knowledge of that man, but would seemto be more
effective if he were aware of the poor mans actions. This, in turn, signals
the potential for a close relationship between the two, one that is founded
on mutual trust and the expectation of reciprocal benets. Of course, such
a tactic carried with it clear dangers indeed, in Salvians construction, the
wealthy landowners promptly abuse this trust and appropriate the land for
themselves. Signicantly, though, it is neither the only possible outcome,
nor the only outcome that Salvian envisages.
A second possible decision, connected by Salvian with the above, is the
process whereby small landowners choose to become the tenants (coloni) of
the wealthy (DGD5.8.43). Again, Salvian emphasises that this is a conscious
decision, before suggesting that it is a wise choice in the circumstances.
Early commentators, working within the paradigm of the colonate of the
late Roman empire as an institution barely one step removed from serf-
dom and/or slavery, chose to interpret this as another example of Salvians
sarcasm surely if becoming a colonus was the best option, things were
indeed grim for the peasantry of late Roman Gaul. But recent scholarship
aimed at detaching tenancy in the late Roman period from the histori-
ographical concept of the colonate has taken a more sympathetic view
of the socio-economic condition of coloni.
Within this context, arrange-
ments between large landowners and their less wealthy neighbours emerge
from the sources as much more variegated and complex than the paradigm
of an inevitable degradation in the status of free peasant proprietors to the
status of bound coloni allows.
One constant in these relationships is the close connection between ten-
ancy and patronage. A man owning land of his own might in addition
work as a casual labourer for a more powerful landowner, thus facilitating
a patronage relationship. He might also rent land from another, opening
up the possibility for a similar relationship with that landlord. Indeed, it
is likely that a tendency for long-term tenancy contracts encouraged the
development of a patronage relationship between tenant and landlord, and
Carri e (1982) and (1983) remain fundamental. See also Vera (1997). A convenient summary of the
historiography may be found in Scheidel (2000).
180 cam grey
their families (e. g. Columella, Rust. 1.7.3; Lib. Or. 47.13). In spite of the
impression that Salvian gives of the decision to take up a tenancy rela-
tionship being made only after a small landowner has lost his property,
tenancy and ownership of land need not be mutually exclusive, and func-
tion most characteristically as complementary elements in a small farmers
risk-aversion strategy. Consequently, Salvians presentation of the decision-
making process may have more to do with aristocratic attitudes towards
banausic labour and dependence on others than with the realities of life for
small peasant proprietors.
Indeed, in alluding to the greater wisdom of peasants who choose to
become coloni, Salvian appears to regard an arrangement of tenancy as suf-
cient grounds for the tenant to expect his landlord to act in the manner
of a patron, and provide him with a greater degree of security and protec-
By focusing upon this aspect of the relationship, Salvian reveals a
keen personal and societal interest in safety and security. This, in turn, can
be connected to the undoubted transformation and upheaval of the period.
The contemporary sources suggest that one strategy adopted by the poorer
members of rural communities was to diversify, to extend their networks
of vertical alliance as broadly as possible, and to place greater expectations
upon existing relationships. Salvian attests to this strategy when he speaks
of fraudulent transfers of property and the decision to enter into a tenancy
arrangement with a wealthy individual. This latter tactic might carry with it
certain tangible benets, particularly if it was accompanied by registration
of the tenancy arrangement in the tax rolls.
conclusi ons
Salvians De Gubernatione Dei provides only eeting glimpses of the desti-
tute in late Roman society. The poor of whom he speaks are more charac-
teristically small landowners, or less wealthy members of local aristocracies.
However, his text remains valuable as both an example of an author enlist-
ing the motif of poverty in pursuit of a grander moralistic purpose, and
a series of windows through which to glimpse the fate of small landown-
ers in fth-century Gaul. Salvian masterfully manipulates the phenomena
Cf. the Italian senator Symmachus, for example (Ep. 7.56), who justies his intercession on behalf
of a tenant of his elds not with reference to the obligations placed upon a patron, but simply to
his role as the mans landlord. He describes his arrangement with his tenant as if it were a patronage
Restrictions on landlords removing or expelling registered tenants: CTh 13.10.3 (357, to Dulcitius
consularis Aemiliae); CJ 11.48.7 (371, Gaul); CJ 11.63.3 (383, East). Remedies in the event of a landlord
raising rents: CJ 11.50.1 (325, East); CJ 11.50.2 (396S, East).
Salvian and the poor in fth-century Gaul 181
he observes, and combines them into a coherent whole. He portrays a
peasantry forced by a punitive tax burden and the avarice of their wealthy
neighbours to seek out the protection of powerful landowners. In so doing,
they are forced rst to mortgage their possessions thus dooming their off-
spring to penury and nally to become the dependents of the individuals
to whomthey had originally gone for help. The images he presents, and the
connections he makes between them, t with his aim of contrasting cur-
rent congurations with his ideal of social relations. In contrast to the har-
mony and unity of purpose evident in Salvians idealised Christian commu-
nity, contemporary Romans have abandoned mutually reciprocal relations
between rich and poor, and plunged instead into a condition of discord and
Salvian emphasises this point further by employing the motifs of pur-
chase and sale in every conceivable context. The ethos of the marketplace
taints not only relations between rich and poor, wealthy and powerful, but
also those within families. In a situation where accepted practices of patron-
age are replaced with exchanges predicated upon dispossession and mone-
tary value, patres familias are forced to surrender their childrens inheritance,
thus abrogating their responsibilities to their families. Salvians project here
is to confront his audience with the immorality of their behaviour, and
to sound a warning to them that their behaviour was not unnoticed, and
would not go unpunished.
Indirectly, however, Salvian provides evidence that allows a slightly less
pessimistic interpretation of the fate of poorer members of rural commu-
nities in late Roman Gaul. This is not to deny the force of his complaints
about the behaviour of curial elites, or the weight of the tax burden in
the period. It is simply to challenge the assumption that the phenomena
which Salvian observes and chooses to emphasise were universal. Salvians
anecdote about his encounter with the man who swore an oath to destroy
his poorer neighbour indicates that the poor of whom he speaks were not
necessarily as devoid of aid and options as he suggests. Rather, the oppor-
tunity existed for them to exploit or initiate relations with other powerful
gures, in order to obtain the security or protection that they needed. His
account of peasants transferring property to the hands of the wealthy and
powerful resonates with other evidence from the period, which hints at
a more complex set of motivations than simply the desperation to which
Salvian ascribes this tactic. And his presentation of the decision to become
a tenant of the wealthy as a wise choice points to the continuing existence
among peasants of a collection of strategies for managing risk and avoiding
subsistence crisis.
182 cam grey
It seems that some of the poor, at least, were still able to choose the
types of relationships in which they became involved in this period. Salvians
De Gubernatione Dei remains a fundamental source for the fate of these
individuals in rural contexts in late antiquity. But one must be wary of gen-
eralising from the picture he provides, and regard with caution the extreme
contrasts that he draws between the conditions they faced in his own day
and the security they might enjoy in his idealised Christian community.
chapter 11
Poverty and Roman law
Caroline Humfress
i ntroducti on
In 454 ad a perplexed praetorian prefect wrote to the emperor Marcian,
requesting imperial clarication of a legal ambiguity which was causing
great confusion in the law-courts. The prefect sought a denitive impe-
rial ruling which would remove the difculties that judges and litigants
were experiencing in interpreting a law of Constantine excluding low and
degraded women from being partners in marriage with men of high sta-
tus. The particular issue was whether the poor belonged to this group.
Behind this issue, however, lay the deeper problem: how to identify and
classify the poor as a subset within Roman civil society. Marcians Novel 4,
issued in response to the praetorian prefects enquiry, purports to provide
an answer to the rst problem, but circumvents the second, which is the
more fundamental. Peter Garnsey has alerted modern historians to the dif-
culties and complexities surrounding any attempts to formulate an exact
taxonomy of the Roman poor or indeed of poverty itself.
The emperor
Marcians legislative response to his praetorian prefect offers us some com-
fort in our modern interpretative difculties: late Roman legislators, judges
and litigants experienced denitional problems at least equal to our own
in attempting to classify and categorise their poor.
In fact classical Roman lawyers had been notoriously uninterested in
dening a class or category of the poor, whether according to either
juridical or economic criteria. In David Daubes memorable phrase: The
have-nots, the vast majority of citizens, were right out of it.
jurisprudence thus tends to discuss the poor man incidentally; the jurists
were not interested in, for example, the truly destitute but in those who
were relatively poor, including, and perhaps especially, formerly afuent or
comparatively secure (idoneus) citizens who had become poorer. In imperial
Garnsey (1991a); Garnsey and Woolf (1989).
Daube (1969) 72.
184 caroli ne humfress
legislation fromthe early fourth to mid-sixth centuries references to poverty
and the poor per se occur with relative frequency. Does this point towards
a new awareness of the poor as a separate economic and/or juridical class
within the law of the late empire?
And does the identity of the poor come
more sharply into focus in later Roman law than in classical law?
a new category of the poor i n late roman law?
Marcians Novel 4 would seem, on a rst reading at least, to support the
idea that juridical attitudes concerning poverty and the poor underwent
a radical shift in the late empire. Moreover, Marcian points towards the
reign of the emperor Constantine as the catalyst. Mid-fth-century liti-
gants, appearing before the praetorian prefect Palladius, were apparently
arguing contrary interpretations of an ambiguous Constantinian consti-
tution issued 118 years previously. Palladius himself was at a loss as to
how to proceed and thus turned to the emperor Marcian for a denitive
ruling (Marcian, Novel 4.1).
The Constantinian text in question, origi-
nally read out in Carthage in 336, had been included in the 438 Theodosian
Code at 4.6.3 under the title Natural Children and their Mothers; it effec-
tively prohibited legal unions between high-status men and low-status (or
indeed no-status) women.
Senators, perfectissimi and high-ranking local
magistrates were to become foreigners in the eyes of Roman law, to lose
the protection that their Roman citizenship guaranteed to their elite civil
status, their considerable property and their high-class households, if they
attempted to transfer any gifts or inheritances to children not born of
a union betting their rank and dignity. Maintaining the integrity and
status of the top-ranking social groups, their (often ctional) cohesive-
ness, what they did with their property, who they donated their wealth
to, who they married and how they transmitted their patrimonies, had
long been a driving concern within Roman civil law. In keeping with this
traditional concern, Constantines 336 constitution had listed the relevant
female types whomhigh-status menmarried at their peril. This list included
slave women, freedwomen, actresses and their daughters, as well as com-
mon trades-women and the daughters of pimps and gladiators. Amongst
As suggested by Patlagean (1977) 1117.
Excerpts from Marcians Novel 4 were included under two separate title headings in the sixth-century
Codex Justinianus: CJ 1.14.9 (excerpts the preamble to Marcians Novel 4 with additions) and CJ 5.5.7
(excerpts from sections 2 and 3 of Marcians text).
For discussion of CTh 4.6.3 in the context of Marcian Novel 4 see Arjava (1996) 213; Evans Grubbs
(1999) 28394; Evans Grubbs (2002) 1668; and Humfress (2005).
Poverty and Roman law 185
this standard roll-call of socially stigmatised women, however, the drafters
of the Constantinian text also included a rather more ambiguous cate-
gory of low and degraded (humilis vel abiecta) persons. The interpretative
confusion which the emperor Marcian had to clarify arose specically in
connection with this particular Constantinian phrase.
Marcians Novel 4 sought to elucidate exactly what type of low and
degraded persons Constantines category should cover in practice. Could
the phrase lowanddegradedpersons be treatedas a synonymfor the poor?
Some fth-century litigants certainly thought so: Hence Your Excellency
has asserted that great doubt arises in the courts in regard to marriage, as
to whether this phrase should be applied also to freeborn women who are
poor and whether, therefore, the command of the lawexcludes such women
from marriage with senators (Marcian, Novel 4.1). In order to resolve the
ambiguity, Marcian sought out the original intention behind Constantines
law. He looked back to the spirit of Constantines imperial rule and decided
that an emperor who judged so conscientiously concerning morality could
never have intended a meaning so manifestly unfair:
Far be such an evil from these times, that poverty should be believed to have been
sent as a disgrace upon any person, when in very many cases moderate resources
often achieved much glory and when straitened fortunes were a testimony of self-
restraint. For who could suppose that Constantine of sainted memory, when he
prohibited the nuptial couches of Senators to be contaminated with the vileness of
polluted women, preferred the gifts of fortune to natural virtues; that he considered
the status of free birth as inferior to riches because riches can be taken away by a
variety of circumstances, but the status of free birth cannot be taken away, once a
woman has been born to it? (Marcian, Novel 4.1)
The early fourth century was evoked by Marcian as an enlightened time
when poverty was no longer seen as a disgrace. In that golden Constantinian
age wealth and riches were rightly understood as eeting gifts of fortune,
rather than necessary indicators of natural virtue.
Having thus identied a new spirit behind Constantines legislation,
Marcian laid down a new denitive legal interpretation for the phrase
humilis abjectaque persona:
Therefore We remove all doubt that had been injected into the minds of certain
persons, and all those regulations shall remain and endure perpetually with the
Absit, ut hoc nefas ullis temporibus, ut credatur cuiquam dedecori data esse paupertas, quum saepe
plurimis multumparaverint gloriae opes modicae, et continentiae fuerit testimoniumcensus angustior. Quis
arbitretur, inclitae recordationis constantinum, quum geniales senatorios thoros contaminari pollutarum
mulierumfaece prohiberet, fortunae munera bonis naturalibus praetulisse? Et divitiis, quas varietas casuum
tam potest adimere quam tribuere, postposuisse ingenuitatem, quae auferri non potest, si semel nata sit?
186 caroli ne humfress
strongest validity which were sanctioned in regard to the marriages of Senators
by the constitution of Constantine of Sainted memory. We do not judge that a
woman shall be understood to be low and degraded if although she is a poor
person (pauper), she was nevertheless born of freeborn parents. But We estab-
lish that senators and any persons endowed with the high rank of perfectissimi
shall be permitted to unite themselves in marriage with the daughters of free-
born persons, even though they are poor, and there shall be no difference between
such freeborn women and those of riches and a more opulent fortune. (Marcian,
Novel 4.2)
Henceforth the phrase humble and abject persons should be interpreted
simply as the generic category under which all the other types of infamous
women mentioned in Constantines 336 lawcould nowbe grouped. Section
3 of Marcians Novel concludes We believe without any doubt that this is
what Constantine of sainted memory meant in the sanction which he
promulgated. Our pious mid-fth-century emperor looks back to the rst
Christian emperor and perhaps excuses his imperial predecessor too readily.
The phrase low and degraded persons could easily have been intended to
cover the poor in early fourth-century legislation. On the other hand,
a category of the low and degraded certainly had enough elasticity for
litigants and their legal advisors to argue that a poor free person should be
included within it.
Legislative attempts such as Marcians Novel 4 to control the marriages
and inheritance strategies of high-ranking members of Roman society were
by no means unique to the late empire. In the specic context of spousal
wealth (or lack thereof ) legal experts well before Constantines era had
argued that unions should not be contracted between individuals with
vastly different economic resources. Moreover, in cases where one spouse
was poorer than another the Roman civil law prohibited any (signicant)
transference of wealth between them.
The emperor Caracalla apparently
believed that spousal gifts were prohibited because marital feeling should
be based in the heart not in the bank balance; rather more pragmatically,
Caracalla continues, marriage agreements shouldnt look as if they were
made for money (D. 24.1.3.pr.; Ulpian, Sabinus Book 32). According to the
Severan jurist Paul the legal prohibition on gifts between husband and wife
should not be interpreted as if they do not love each other and are hostile,
Ideoque omnemdubitationem, quae quorundammentibus iniecta fuerat, auferentes, manentibus et solidis-
sima in perpetuum rmitate durantibus cunctis his, quae super matrimoniis senatorum sanxit constitutio
divae memoriae constantini, humilem vel abiectam feminam minime eam iudicamus intelligi, quae,
licet pauper, ab ingenuis tamen parentibus nata sit. Sed licere statuimus senatoribus et quibuscumque
amplissimis dignitatibus praeditis, ex ingenuis natas, quamvis pauperes, in matrimonium sibi adscire,
nullamque inter ingenuas ex divitiis et opulentiore fortuna esse distantiam.
See Crook (1967) 106.
Poverty and Roman law 187
but as between people united by the greatest affection and merely afraid
of poverty (inopia) (D. Paul, Sabinus Book 7). For Paul the ties
that bind were love and fear of nancial ruin. Finally, the jurist Ulpian
advised that if a woman married a man who subsequently looked as if he
might become insolvent, she should start legal proceedings for the return
of her dowry as soon as it became apparent that her husbands resources
were dwindling (D. 24.3.24.pr.: Ulpian, Edict Book 33). A womans duty
to get rid of her husband on the grounds of imminent insolvency was also
upheld by the emperor Justinian in 528 ad (CJ 5.12.29. pr.). Bankruptcy,
and the social stigma attached to it, was viewed as a constant threat to elite
The emperor Marcians insistence, however, that natural virtues could
exist alongside poverty and his 454 ruling that there should be no differ-
ence between poor and rich freeborn women certainly appear to be radical
social statements. The idea of a blame free indigent poverty is far removed,
for example, from Ulpians remark that Poverty is no excuse for a woman
leading a shameful life (D. Ulpian, Lex Iulia et Papia Book 1).
We may thus be tempted to use Marcians 454 law as evidence for a broader
social phenomenon in late antiquity, as part of a slow but inevitable seep-
age of Christian preaching into Roman law; a Christian preaching which
urged a levelling of traditional moral distinctions based on wealth and the
lack thereof.
But was Marcian really a most Christian emperor who had
taken the Gospel injunction to be a lover of the poor to heart? We need
to look more closely at who exactly Marcian was identifying as the poor
(the pauper) in his constitution.
The word pauper should in fact be understood in Marcians Novel 4 as a
term of comparison: according to Marcian there was to be no distinction
between poor freeborn women and those of riches and a more opulent for-
tune (opulentiore fortuna) (4.2, quotedabove). The poor womaninquestion
had some wealth, just not as much as some others. As Marcian conceded
when he looked back to the age of Constantine, in very many cases moder-
ate resources (opes modicae) often achieved much glory (4.1, quoted above).
Moderate resources might offer an avenue for social advancement, not no
resources at all.
In section 1 of his Novel 1, issued in 450 and addressed to all the peoples
of the empire, Marcian had already reiterated a (by that time) well-worn
piece of imperial rhetoric for the benet of his legal ofcials. In the process,
Marcian again made allusion to poverty as a relative concept: provincial
Evans Grubbs (2002) 168 notes that ideas about the blamelessness of poverty are present in Marcians
Novel 4, and adds in parenthesis that they were no doubt inuenced by Christian teachings.
188 caroli ne humfress
governors must oppose a spirit of integrity to riches and not look up to
those who possess a higher fortune nor look down on those who possess
Whatever doubts we might have about fair and universal access to the
late Roman legal system, the litigants who attempted to take advantage of it
were expected to have at least a modicum of economic resources. Litigation
was not cheap, even in the court of the most morally upright provincial
governor. Moreover, in a forensic context, assessments as to whether an
individual was to be classied as rich or poor could depend wholly on
the circumstances of the particular case at hand. Three centuries before
Marcian the jurist Gaius dened the word rich thus: Rich (locuples) means
one who is sufciently well off in relation to the size of the thing for which
the plaintiff seeks restitution (D. Gaius, XII Tables Book 2).
By analogy with Gaius principle, we should be wary of identifying a xed
concept behind the word pauper in Roman legal sources its intended
meaning was context specic, relative to the concrete legal situation being
envisaged or discussed.
In Marcians Novel 4 the pauper worthy of marrying a senator was most
probably a woman of (what we might term) middling means, perhaps
even a woman of high rank who had lost her family patrimony and had
thereby become poor or rather poorer. She was certainly not one of the
destitute permanent poor, for example a free-born vagrant or beggar, or
the freeborn daughter of a subsistence farmer. The emperor Marcian was
not by any means suggesting that all poverty is innocent and blame-free
nor that all poor women should be thought worthy of elite marriages. The
social standing of a slave woman, a freedwoman, or indeedof any infamous
female (as detailed in Constantines original law) was in no way redeemed
or advanced by her poverty and suffering.
As with the bulk of both classical and post-classical Roman private law,
Marcians 454 ruling is blind to the truly destitute and those who lived
precariously at the edge of subsistence. In the Digest, for example, there are
only two explicit discussions of a destitute man in the context of Roman
private law. One comes fromthe jurist Tryphonius and envisages a situation
in which a man who thinks he is very poor makes a will, and then dies before
nding out that the business dealings of his slaves have infact made himrich
(D. Note that this man was evidently not without resources.
The second comes from Celsus and discusses a hypothetical case in which a
very poor man is forced to give up his household gods and ancestral graves
Compare, for example, CTh 1.16.7 (Constantine to the provincials, 331): the ears of the judge shall be
open to the poorest on equal terms with the rich. An imperial order which implies that, in practice,
they were not.
Locuples est, qui satis idonee habet pro magnitudine rei, quam actor restituendam esse petit.
Poverty and Roman law 189
(D. 6.1.38). Note that Celsus poor man still has a family domicile to lose.
The jurists opinions, for the most part, moved in elite circles; just as the
intended audience for Marcians 454 law were the same high-ranking elite
men that its marriage provisions targeted. Marcians refusal to subsume the
poor under a category of low and degraded persons thus amounts to a
specic injunction that high-ranking men and the social circles they move
in should not treat poverty as a moral blot on an otherwise honourable
free-born woman, who nonetheless possessed a modicum of wealth.
A further important point to note about Marcians 454 ruling is that
free-born status in fact trumps poverty as a socio-legal indicator of status.
Regardless of her wealth (or lack of it) a woman must be born to free-
born parents if her marriage to a high-status man was to have any legal
standing. Reasoning hypothetically, this implies that a daughter born to
fabulously wealthy freed parents could not qualify. According to Marcians
text, Constantine should be regarded as a lover of the honourable and
a conscientious judge of morals, not because he loved the poor per se
but rather because he believed that the status of free birth was a more
valuable possession than riches: For who could suppose that Constantine
of sainted memory . . . considered the status of free birth as inferior to
riches (Marcian, Novel 4.1, quoted in full above). Riches may come and go,
but a womans juridical status as free-born is permanent. It is not simply
gradations as to wealth or poverty that Marcian was interested in upholding
as legislator: it was also the ideological value of free-born status and Roman
poverty, slavery and roman legal practi ce
Marcians stress on the pre-eminent value of free-born status picks up on an
idea which was fundamental to the Roman civil law of persons and which
certainly survived Caracallas so-called grant of universal citizenship in
212 ad. As the jurist Paul neatly put it, Liberty is a thing beyond price
(D. 50.17.106: Paul, Edict Book 2). Even the most destitute free-born indi-
vidual has (metaphorical) riches beyond estimation. A text included in an
early fourth-century epitome of Paul expands on the practical implications
of this ideology:
Those who in the face of dire necessity or in order to guarantee them sustenance
sell their children, do not prejudice their free status: for there is no price label
attached to a free man. (Paul, Sent. 5.1.1 = FIRA ii: 386)
Qui contemplatione extremae necessitatis aut alimentorumgratia lios suos vendiderint, statui ingenuitatis
eorum non praeiudicant: homo enim liber nullo pretio aestimatur.
190 caroli ne humfress
A child born free to a desperately poor family might be factually sold
as if he or she was a slave, but in the eyes of the Roman jurists this
sale could not prejudice that childs true civil status. The dire neces-
sity of destitute poverty might engender shameless acts, but the civil
law provided a remedy. A rescript of the emperor Caracalla castigates a
mother for exactly such a sale and instructs her to approach a competent
You admit that you have done an illegal and shameful thing in putting forward
for sale your children born free. But because what you have done should not be
disadvantageous to your children, you should approach a competent judge to have
the matter proceeded with in accordance with due law. (CJ 7.16.1)
Establishing whether someone was in fact a slave or not, and thus whether
their sale was legal or illegal, could be complicated. It can be difcult to
tell a free man from a slave (D. 18.1.5: Paul, Sabinus Book 5) and eco-
nomic indicators of poverty or wealth were supposed to be of no help.
Classical Roman law had established exact procedural regulations for a
legal case concerning freedom (a causa liberalis).
When a free person
appeared as a defendant in such a case (or indeed a slave appeared as a
plaintiff ) he could not act for himself; a Roman citizen had to be found
who would assert free status on his behalf. Crucially, this assertor or sponsor
also had to assume the considerable costs of the litigation and Constan-
tine specied that a poverty-stricken sponsor who found himself unable
to pay up should be thrust into the mines (CTh 4.8.8, 322). Hence, in
theory at least, when the civil status of even the most poor and destitute
citizens was challenged, they were to be given their day in court. Perhaps
ironically, neither of the two late Roman legal arenas which modern histo-
rians have identied as the poor mans courts (i.e. the episcopalis audientia
and the tribunals of defensores civitates) were ever granted the necessary
juridical competence to hear cases concerning freedom.
Neither should
we assume that the higher courts of the empire resounded in practice
with pleas on behalf of beleaguered poor persons of indeterminate legal
Rem quidem illicitam et inhonestam admisisse conteris, quia proponis lios ingenuos a te venumdatos.
sed quia factum tuum liis obesse non debet, adi competentem iudicem, si vis, ut causa agatur secundum
ordinem iuris.
See D. 40.12, CJ 7.16 and CTh 4.8. Hermann-Otto (1999) discusses causae liberales under the late
Republic and early empire.
On the episcopalis audientia in the context of the poor of Christ see Harries (1999) 2034. For the
defensor civitatis/defensor plebis see Frakes (2001).
Poverty and Roman law 191
Two laws of Constantine, issued in 319 and 322, treat the relationship
between indigent poverty and bureaucratic intervention more directly
by ordering the public or state provision of alimentary relief to the most
desperate poor (CTh 11.27.1 and 11.27.2). These two Constantinian consti-
tutions have been cited as evidence for the thesis that Christian ideals about
charity and blame-free poverty had already begun to seep into Roman leg-
islation by the early fourth century.
However, the legal evidence from the
Severan age already discussed encourages a reading of both of these Con-
stantinian constitutions as particular responses to age-old Roman legislative
concerns. CTh 11.27.1, addressed to Ablabius, enacts that the imperial sc
would provide alimentary relief for poverty-stricken parents, who would
otherwise be driven to the crime of parricide:
A law to stay the hands of parents from parricide [parricidium], and to bring
happier fulllment to their prayers, shall be written out on tablets of bronze or
wax or on linen cloth and posted in every city in Italy. It shall be incumbent on
your ofce to ensure that if any parent shall produce a child whom on account of
poverty he cannot raise, then food and clothing shall be furnished forthwith; for
no delay can be tolerated in the matter of the rearing of a child. We command our
sc and imperial estates [res privata] without discrimination, to make provision for
this. (CTh 11.27.1)
A previous Constantinian constitution, issued less than six months before,
had already targeted the crime of parricidium as particularly heinious: CTh
9.15.1 (given 16 November 318) denes parricide as the killing of a par-
ent, child or any person at all of such degree of kinship that killing him
is included under the title of parricide and orders a return to a particu-
larly nasty form of archaic punishment (known as the poena cullei) for the
offence. The text of CTh 9.15.1 thus looks back to the late Republican lex
pompeia de parricidio (55 or 52 bc) for its denition of parricide, but reaches
even further back into archaic Roman law for a punishment which tted
the crime: being sewn into a sack with a serpent and drowned.
By reiter-
ating the archaic poena cullei the drafter of this Constantinian constitution
See Roug e (1990) and Brown (2002).
Aereis tabulis vel cerussatis aut linteis mappis scripta per omnes civitates Italiae proponatur lex, quae
parentum manus a parricidio arceat votumque vertat in melius. Ofciumque tuum haec cura perstringat,
ut, si quis parens adferat subolem, quam pro paupertate educare non possit, nec in alimentis nec in veste
impertienda tardetur, cum educatio nascentis infantiae moras ferre non possit. Ad quam rem et scum
nostrum et rem privatam indiscreta iussimus praebere obsequia. Corcoran (1996): 279 and 310 argues
convincingly for emending the date of CTh 11.27.1 to 13 May 319 (contra MSS 315 and Seeck 329).
See Berger (1953) 618 (art. Parricidium). The late Republican lex pompeia de parricidio seems to
have substituted the penalty of aquae et ignis interdictio for the archaic form of execution by culleus
(see D. 48.9); Constantines text excerpted at CTh 9.15.1 self-consciously abolishes the former and
resuscitates the latter. For further discussion of CTh 9.15.1 see Martino (1976).
192 caroli ne humfress
acknowledged parricide as a public crime par excellence. Constantines 319
poor relief measure, issued less than six months after CTh 9.15.1, should
thus be understood as part of an age-old Roman legislative concern with
public order and maintaining the family unit. As striking as it may seem
to us today as an ancient precursor to the welfare state, Constantines 319
poor relief was originally dreamt up as a preventative measure against a
quintessentially anti-Roman public crime.
Three years later CTh 11.27.2, on the other hand, ordered that imperial
ofcials in Africa were to provide clothing and food to the desperate and
destitute who otherwise might be driven to sell or pledge their children:
We are aware that provincials, aficted by shortage of food and lack of resources,
are putting up their children for sale or giving them as a pledge. If any one should
be found in this situation, with no family revenues to support him and keeping
his children alive only with grave difculty, he shall be aided by the sc before
he falls victim to calamity. The proconsuls and governors and treasurers through-
out Africa shall have the power to grant the sustenance that is required to all
those whom they nd to be locked into pitiful poverty, and forthwith to provide
the appropriate provisions from the storehouses. It is repugnant to my nature to
permit anyone to be so consumed by hunger as to be driven to shameful crime.
(CTh 11.27.2)
Those who qualied for state assistance under the terms of CTh 11.27.2
were parents of either free-born (or possibly free-d) children, whose destitute
poverty might otherwise have driven them to commit a shameful deed:
selling or pledging their own children into slavery. Note here the echo
from Caracallas early third-century rescript (quoted above) admonishing a
mother for the illegal and shameful deed of selling her free-born offspring.
By acknowledging this highly specic context of Constantines 322 poor
relief legislation, we once againplace himwithina legal traditionstretching
back to the early empire and indeed beyond.
Traditionally the cities of the empire had carried a certain responsibility
for their urban poor; by analogy masters were supposed to be responsi-
ble for adequately clothing and feeding their slaves, and freedmen were
Provinciales egestate victus atque alimoniae inopia laborantes liberos suos vendere vel obpignorare cog-
novimus. Quisquis igitur huiusmodi repperietur, qui nulla rei familiaris substantia fultus est quique
liberos suos aegre ac difcile sustentet, per scum nostrum, antequam at calamitati obnoxius, adiuvetur,
ita ut proconsules praesidesque et rationales per universam africam habeant potestatem et universis, quos
adverterint in egestate miserabili constitutos, stipem necessariam largiantur atque ex horreis substan-
tiam protinus tribuant competentem. Abhorret enim nostris moribus, ut quemquam fame conci vel ad
indignum facinus prorumpere concedamus.
See also CJ 4.43.1 (Diocletian and Maximian, 294).
Poverty and Roman law 193
supposed to support a patron and his family struck by extreme poverty.
Not all freedmen undertook this obligation with good grace. The mid-
third-century jurist Modestinus cites an imperial constitution which laid
downthat a freedmanwho abandonedor violently assaulteda patron, whilst
the said patron was suffering fromthe effects of illness or poverty, should be
forcibly enslaved again (D. Modestinus, Manumissions). Book 34.1
of the Digest collects together Republican and classical juristic discussions
on a variety of both voluntary and legally obligated welfare arrangements,
including private alimentary legacies. Slaves, patrons and some of the urban
poor thus already had a limited number of basic welfare schemes to fall
back on. Constantines two laws (CTh 11.27.12) were innovative in the
sense that it was now the imperial sc which assumed a responsibility for
a limited number of poor citizens, who were in danger of committing acts
already dened by Roman law as illegal and morally reprehensible. We
may well ask, moreover, what chance Constantines two poor relief laws
had of being implemented. Constantine apparently did not set up any
specic institutional structure, as the second-century emperor Trajan had
done with his (operational and effective) alimentary scheme for numerous
Italian towns. In any event, it was a traditional imperial concern for the
moral health of the empire, rather than any creeping Christian morality,
which lay behind Constantines ad hoc legislation for (bureaucratic) poor
The emperors Theodosius I and Valentinian II made similar provisions
for desperate parents forced to sell their free-born children on account
of poverty. Each also envisaged different scenarios for the buying back
of free-born children who already had a price on their head. According to
Theodosius Is constitution, free-born children sold into slavery by poverty-
stricken parents could be restored to their original status as long as they
had spent a decent amount of time as slaves thereby compensating the
purchaser (CTh 3.3.1, 391). Valentinian II ruled that a free-born child sold
because of the pressures of famine could be recovered by paying back the
purchaser the original sale price, plus a fth (Nov. Val. 33, 451). With both
these later laws, it is the value of free-born status (alongside what should be
equitably due to the purchaser) that provoked the emperors into action. As
the drafter of Valentinian IIIs Novel 33 explains, a hungry person considers
nothing shameful and nothing forbidden as his only care is to live however
On the obligations of freed persons vis-` a-vis patrons see CJ 6.3.1 (204); D. 38.1.41 (Papinian, Replies
Book 5) and D. 25.3.9 (Paul, Rights of Patrons sole book).
194 caroli ne humfress
he can; but, the text continues I [i.e. the emperor Valentinian] judge that
it is wrong that freedom should perish . . .
poverty and the chri sti an church: vi ews from the
legi slators desks
Constantine and the emperors who followed him were more than willing
to leave any regular and general welfare provision for the poor to ofcials
within the Christian church. Late Roman emperors (the apostate Julian
included) recognised that ecclesiastical efforts to alleviate the sufferings of
the chronically poor were a good thing for the empire as a whole. In this
sense we might conclude that a newawareness of the poor entered into late
Roman legislation, via measures designed to make the churchs provision
of poor relief easier.
This is surely a much more signicant development
than Constantines 319 and 322 invitations to the poor to seek help from
imperial scal representatives. Yet even with respect to the church, the
emperors strove to strike a balance between the maintenance of the civic
fabric of the empire and the enabling of Christian charity.
In 326 Constantine ordered that great numbers of people should not
be added rashly to the ranks of the clergy (CTh 16.2.6, addressed to the
praetorian prefect Ablabius). When a Christian cleric died someone should
be chosen to replace him who had no municipal kinship or wealth of
resources. If a citys councillors and clergy were ghting over someone,
and he was either a decurion or a wealthy man, he had to be delivered to
the city. If, on the other hand, the disputed person was poor or at least
lacking moderate resources he was free to take ecclesiastical orders (pre-
sumably because such a poor person would be of little use in alleviating
his fellow municipal councillors nancial burdens anyway). Thus, con-
cluded Constantine, the wealthy must assume secular obligations, and the
poor [i.e. the poor would-be cleric] must be supported by the wealth of
the churches. Likewise, later Roman emperors attempted to set limits to
the number and type of individuals employed by the church for charitable
purposes. A law of 416 limits the number of attendants to the sick to 500
in the city of Alexandria and orders that the wealthy and those who would
purchase this ofce shall not be appointed, but rather the poor from the
guilds, in proportion to the population of Alexandria (CTh 16.2.42). The
church was to support the poor, at least partly, by employing them.
See for example CJ (451).
Poverty and Roman law 195
The emperor Valentinian I opened up a further source of support for the
poor, by ruling that Christian clerics who frustrated the proper business
of the courts should be ned 50 pounds of silver, with the money going
to aid the poor rather than the imperial sc (CJ 1.4.2, 369). According to
a 384 constitution (CJ 1.54.5) it was a well-known fact that judges could
also divert money paid in judicial nes to the upkeep of specic public
buildings, the maintenance of public race-courses or to other necessary
objects! Judicial nes against litigious clerics were to support the poor, but
individual magistrates could choose to allocate the proceeds from other
nes to fund the entire populaces public entertainment and welfare. In 428
Theodosius II instructed his imperial magistrates to be wary of heretical
clerics who claimed they could not pay their nes; if the said clerics should
pretend poverty, such nes shall be exacted from the common body of
clerics . . . or even from their offertories (CTh 16.5.65). Having raided the
collection plate, Theodosius II specied that these nes were to be paid to
the imperial treasury.
In 321 Constantine famously conrmed the validity of private gifts left as
inheritances or legacies to the Catholic church (CTh 16.2.4). This law does
not mark out the poor as recipients, but the practice of leaving testamentary
bequests toany givenchurchor cleric for the specic benet of the poor was
quickly established. In principle the legality of these charitable bequests was
upheld by later Christian emperors; however the practice posed yet more
classicatory headaches in terms of establishing who exactly the poor
were. One specic problem was that a bequest left simply to the poor
was strictly speaking a gift made to uncertain persons and under Roman
law such bequests could be classied as invalid.
Once again, the emperor
Marcian stepped up to the task and in 455 ad ruled denitively that A
bequest left by a will or a codicil to the poor, shall not be considered void,
as having been bequeathed to uncertain persons; but in every respect shall
stand as valid and unimpaired (CJ 1.3.24). The bequest was thus conrmed
as legally valid, but who exactly was to receive it? Who was to benet as
the poor? In 531 the emperor Justinian attempted to tackle this issue (CJ.
1.3.48, addressed to the praetorian prefect John of Cappadocia). Section
3 of Justinians constitution states that if a testator has indiscriminately
appointed the poor as his heirs, the rst in line to obtain the inheritance
is to be the church-run asylum or hospital for the poor within the city
closest to where the testator had lived. For who is any more indigent . . .
For anearly fourth-century restatement of this principle see Ulpiani Epitome (tituli ex corpore Ulpiani):
22.46 = FIRA II: 2845. For the early sixth century see Inst. Iust. 2.20.25.
196 caroli ne humfress
asks Justinian, than persons who are oppressed with want, laid up in a
hospital, aficted with bodily sores, and unable to obtain food essential
for their survival? Section 5, however, identies a further challenge: What
if there were more than one hospital for the poor in any given city? In
that case, the inheritance was to be given to the most needy establishment,
as decided by the local bishop. But what if there were no hospital in the
city? Then the inheritance, according to Justinian was to be received by the
metropolitan bishop himself or one of his administrative ofcials (section
6). Justinians insistence that such bequests should not be treated as invalid
and indenite can be read as evidence for the fact that, in practice, they
often were. One avenue open to churches in combating this classicatory
difculty was to have their own legal experts (defensores ecclesiae) dictate the
last wills and legacies of dying persons to them. Having a skilled defensor
of the church dictating the will must have signicantly reduced the chance
of the testament being challenged on the grounds of any indeterminate
wording or intention; according to the imperial chancellery, however, it
also opened the way for fraudulent acts on behalf of the church. In fact
the emperor Justin had already legislated vociferously against this as he
termed it most shameful (turpissimum) ecclesiastical practice (CJ 1.3.40,
The custom of leaving charitable bequests to particular churches or cler-
ics could also pose classicatory challenges to ecclesiastical administrators.
Canon 24 of an early fourth-century synod held at Antioch refers to the
difculty of systematically keeping what should belong to the church and
the poor separate from that which belongs to clerics as private individu-
als (Synod of Antioch (341) Canon 24).
In 419 an assembly of bishops
at Carthage attempted to remove any ambiguity by deciding that a cleric
who entered orders as a poor man had to place all his subsequent property
acquisitions under the control of the church. Provisions were also made,
however, for said clerics still to take personal inheritances: If something
has come to them in a private capacity through the generosity of an indi-
vidual or in family succession, then they should do with it what suits their
purpose (Canones in Causa Apiani 32 = CCL 149.144). Attention also had
to be paid to who exactly was leaving a bequest to the church for the benet
of the poor. Gifts from heretics, for example, should be rejected. Rather
aptly, the fourth Council of Carthage ruled that bishops also had to reject
See also Canon 12 of the 343/4 Council of Serdica on bishops who possess very little private property
in the city, but have great possessions in other places, with which they are, moreover, able to help
the poor.
Poverty and Roman law 197
any gifts from individuals who were known to have oppressed the poor
(pauperes) during their lifetime (fourth Council of Carthage (held in 436,
or possibly 398), Canon 94 = CCL 149.352). The 451 ecumenical Council
of Chalcedon tackled the problem of Christians who might be tempted to
view the poor themselves as suspect characters: Canon 11 states that any
poor person who has to travel between churches should be sent on his
way with letters pacical (entitling the bearer to eleemosynary assistance),
rather than letters commendatory (entitling the bearer to be automatically
admitted to communion). Apparently commendatory letters ought to be
given only to persons who are above suspicion. The category of the poor
needed elucidation in canon and Roman law alike.
the vi si bi li ty of the poor i n classi cal and
post- classi cal roman ci vi l law
We should not look to the lawyers and their works for a precise denition
or rounded picture of what constituted poverty or qualied as the poor.
Perhaps poverty was visible to them on a day to day basis in a way that did
not require much denition or conceptual theory, as they picked their way
along city streets fromhome to client to court?
Poverty came to the notice
of classical jurists qua jurists when a particular individuals (or groups) lack
of nancial means had some concrete legal effect or implication. Gaius
opinion that a private legal action brought against an adversary who lacked
any nancial means was useless is representative (D. 4.3.6: Gaius, Provincial
Edict Book 4).
No one who lacked the capacity both to pursue and defend
suits was of much interest to either a teacher of the civil lawor a professional
jurist. By contrast, the late third-century jurist Hermogenianus seems to
offer a more promising general economic criteria for classifying the poor.
Under the title De accusationibus et inscriptionibus (On Accusations
and Indictments) the compilers of the Digest included Hermogenianus
statement that some persons were excluded from lodging a public criminal
accusation on account of poverty, such as those who possess less than
fty aurei (D. 48.2.10: Hermogenianus, Epitome of Law Book 6).
statement was read by Patlagean as a postclassical denition of poverty.
Three texts includedinBook 2 of the Digest, however, specify that the sumof
An idea suggested in an entirely different context by Ringen (2005) 3.
Nam is nullam videtur actionem habere, cui propter inopiam adversarii inanis actio est.
Nonnulli propter paupertatem, ut sunt qui minus quam quinquaginta aureos habent (this reproduces
the entire text at D. 48.2.10).
Patlagean (1977) 15.
198 caroli ne humfress
50 aurei was the amount to be forfeited if an individual summoned another
to court and then was unable to prosecute the case to its conclusion.
from providing a postclassical denition of poverty, Hermogenianus was
simply reasoning out that anyone who could not afford to forfeit a 50 aurei
penalty could not initiate a public criminal suit. Hence the sum of 50 aurei
should not be taken as a general benchmark for who counted as poor in
late third-century jurisprudence.
There is no denition of the concept of poverty per se in either clas-
sical or post-classical legal texts; but Roman legal experts were interested
in case-specic instances of poverty insofar as they impinged on certain
specic juridical contexts and especially legal obligations. This casuistic
approach to the poor could result in nuanced discussions of poverty and
its social implications. Take for example the effect of poverty on contractual
obligations Modestinus states that poverty is undoubtedly a legal ground
for the dissolution of partnerships (D. Rules, Book 3); Ulpian, on
the other hand, advises that partnerships between rich and poor could be
legally valid and indeed protable:
Partnerships are formed in all goods, or in some business, or for the collection of
a tax, or even in one thing. Moreover, a partnership may be formed with validity
even between people of unequal wealth, since the poorer man makes up in services
what he lacks in material resources by comparison with the other. (D.
Edict Book 31)
According to Ulpian, the poorer man could provide (bodily) services to
make up for his lack of wealth. Business contracts between rich and poor
individuals were deemed legally valid, but it was left to the relevant parties
themselves to arrive at a mutually benecial agreement. A similar casuistic
approach to poverty occurs in the context of legal guardianship. Under
the early empire poverty unequal to the task and burdens of guardianship
was usually accepted as a valid excuse (or vacatio) for not assuming this
compulsory public burden.
Poverty could exempt an individual from
having to act as a guardian, but a poor man who chose to undertake the
obligationshouldnot be assumedautomatically untrustworthy onaccount
of his poverty. In Ulpians opinion:
D. 2.4.12: Ulpian, Edict Book 57; D. 2.4.24: Ulpian, Edict Book 5; and D. 2.4.25: Modestinus,
Penalties Book 1.
Societas autem coiri potest et valet etiam inter eos, qui non sunt aequis facultatibus, cum plerumque
pauperior opera suppleat, quantum ei per comparationem patrimonii deest.
See D. (Paul, Views Book 2): Usually poverty which is unequal to the task and burdens of
tutelage is accepted as an excuse; Frag. Vat. 143 = FIRA II: 495; and CJ 5.42.2.pr. (260).
Poverty and Roman law 199
We think someone an untrustworthy tutor if he is of such a character as to make
him untrustworthy; but a tutor who, although he is poor, is nevertheless loyal and
careful should not be removed as untrustworthy. (D. 26.10.8: Ulpian, Edict Book
In other words, a mans moral character might withstand the challenges
of poverty especially, we may be tempted to add, if that poor man had
formerly been rich.
Under the early empire an individual could be excused from numerous
patrimonial obligations, as well as the burden of guardianship, by pleading
poverty. This principle was apparently established by the emperors Marcus
and Verus (161169 ad): Poverty [paupertas] rightly gives exemption if
someone can prove himself unable to meet the burden and this is in a
rescript of the deied brothers (D. 27.1.7: Ulpian, Excuses).
Ulpian was
also careful to note, however, that nancial circumstances could be subject
to change:
(1) A temporary, not a permanent, exemption is conferred on those who lack the
resources for the munera or ofces which are imposed; for if a patrimonium is
increased by honourable means according to desire, an estimate will be made at
the appropriate time whether someone is suitable for the function to which he has
been appointed. (2) The indigent do not undertake patrimonial burdens because
of the actual constraint of destitution, but they perform the services which are
prescribed for their bodies. (D. Ulpian, Opinions Book 3)
The excusatio of poverty was to be granted non perpetua sed temporalis. If a
go-getting individual improved his nancial situation to the point where
he could full a given public burden, he lost his excuse.
Those who
were poverty-stricken and remained so, however, could nonetheless serve
the public good through physical labour (for example in bridge-building,
road-repairing etc.).
The practice of pleading lack of appropriate nance as a legally valid
excuse for not fullling certain public munera continued into the late
empire. Under Constantine we nd decurions, as well as shipbuilders,
Suspectum tutorem eum putamus, qui moribus talis est, ut suspectus sit: enimvero tutor quamvis pauper
est, delis tamen et diligens, removendus non est quasi suspectus.
The same text is included in the fourth century Frag. Vat. 240 = FIRA II: 511. See also the CJ texts
excerpted under title 10.52: de his qui numero liberorum vel paupertate excusationem meruerunt and
Inst. Iust. 1.25.6.
(1) Decientiumfacultatibus ad munera vel honores qui indicuntur excusatio non perpetua, sed temporalis
est: nam si ex voto honestis rationibus patrimonium incrementum acceperit, suo tempore, an idoneus sit
aliquis ad ea, quae creatus fuerit, aestimabitur. (2) Inopes onera patrimonii ipsa non habendi necessitate
non sustinent, corpori autem indicta obsequia solvunt.
See also D. (Paul, Views Book 1) = Paul, Sent. 1.1.a 21.
200 caroli ne humfress
army veterans and farmers seeking exemption from specic burdens on the
grounds of poverty. We should note that late Roman legislators apparently
expected their audience to know a person of poor and humble status when
they saw one: a constitution from 394 prohibits the public placing of any
pictures representing a pantomime actor dressed in the costume of a poor
lowborn person (humilis) next to an imperial image (CTh 15.7.12). However,
appearances and social assumptions could be deceptive. A series of fourth-
and fth-century laws testify to a number of experimental dodges and
rackets employed by private individuals in order to manipulate the poverty
exemption. For example, certain persons were convicted of fraudulently
pleading exceptions from munera on the basis of poverty, having previously
transferred all of their property to a third party who was in on the racket
(CTh 13.6.1, 326). A constitution of 381 testies to a particularly ingenious
taxation dodge involving poverty:
If any person should cut down a vine with sacrilegious pruning hook or should
lessen the fruit of productive branches, so that he might thereby evade the due
payment of his taxes, and if by a clever lie he should allege a state of poverty, immedi-
ately upon detection he shall undergo capital punishment, and his property shall
pass to the ownership of the sc. (CTh 13.11.1 = CJ 11.58.2.pr.)
Defrauding the tax man was apparently a Roman, as much as a mod-
ern, pastime. Judges could also be bribed to grant exemptions from public
munera (and note here the irony of bribing a judge in order to achieve
an exemption nominally grounded on a plea of poverty!). Or else judges
could simply make mistakes in their assessment of an individuals poor
status. A constitution of the emperor Theodosius II notes that it is a com-
mon fault for property held jointly to be neglected, as it is considered that
he has nothing who has not all (CJ 10.35.2, 443). Thus a litigant might
seem poor because he owns no property wholly, but in fact be relatively
well off through a shared ownership scheme. From this particular judi-
cial perspective, a suitably wealthy individual might lurk behind the garb
of every poor person who stood before the court. In practice, the gen-
uinely poverty-stricken individual would have lacked both the monetary
resources and the necessary patronage to work the legal system to their
Si quis sacrilega vitemfalce succiderit aut feraciumramorumfetus hebetaverit, quo declinet demcensuum
et mentiatur callide paupertatis ingenium, mox detectus capitale subibit exitium et bona eius in sci iura
migrabunt. illo videlicet vitante calumniam, qui forte detegitur laborasse pro copia ac reparandis agrorum
fetibus, non sterilitatem aut inopiam procurasse.
Poverty and Roman law 201
poverty and puni shment under the empi re
Late Roman criminal law meted out differential punishments for rich and
poor. This was hardly an innovation. As Peter Garnsey identied in his
1970 monograph, Social Status and Legal Privilege, early imperial crim-
inal law developed a broad distinction between the humiliores and the
honestiores: a distinction based on socio-legal status but also underpinned
by differentials in economic resources. The classical Roman jurists who
worked with this distinction recognised that inicting a pecuniary ne or
conscating someones property would not function as a punishment for
those who possessed nothing to begin with. From a criminal law perspec-
tive, the only thing that destitute poor individuals really possessed was their
bodies: hence the destitute, like slaves, were liable to torture and corpo-
ral punishment (D. Ulpian, Edict Book 3). According to Ulpian it
was a general rule of Roman public law that prefects and governors could
physically punish an individual for a public or private crime, if that indi-
vidual would otherwise escape a monetary penalty because of poverty (D. Ulpian, Disputations Book 8).
A constitution of 392 clearly demonstrates that this classical principle
was still in operation, albeit in a new context: if a chief tenant on an
estate knowingly harboured Christian heretics, and if he should despise
the penalty of monetary loss because of his poverty and low degree, he should
be beaten with clubs and condemned to deportation (CTh 16.5.21). Two
laws of Constantine specify that pauperes who could not pay up must be
thrust into the mines, thereby suffering a loss of civil status (if they had any
to begin with) as well as hard labour (CTh 1.5.3 and 4.8.8). The emperor
Julian was especially eloquent on this subject: if any rich men concealed the
property of a proscribed person their own property was to be proscribed.
If however, Julian continues, these offenders have through poverty been
cast into plebeian vileness and impurity we command that they shall pay
for the damages by corporal punishment (CTh 9.42.5, posted at Rome on
9 March 362).
This connection between low (plebeian) status, poverty
and corporal punishment continues in legislative rhetoric up to at least the
Justinianic period, evidencing a remarkable continuity with earlier imperial
Hos praecipimus, si locupletes sint, proscriptione puniri, si per egestatemabiecti sunt in faecemvilitatemque
plebeiam, damnatione capitali debita luere detrimenta.
This continuity still stands even if we admit that later legislative texts replaced the precise phraseology
of honestiores and humiliores with a less technical vocabulary (see Patlagean (1977)). For a more
general discussion of attitudes towards poverty under the early empire see Focardi (1988).
202 caroli ne humfress
A late fourth-century innovation, however, is the explicit reference to
poverty itself as a punishment for particular crimes. CTh. (380)
lays down that a (high-status) person convicted of such an atrocious crime
as treason must be punished not only by deportation but also by poverty.
CTh, issued nineteen years later, details howthe punishment of per-
petual poverty must be meted out to the children of individuals convicted
of conspiring against the lives of men of illustrious rank. The conspira-
tors sons cannot inherit from either agnatic or cognatic kin, nor can they
receive anything from the wills of extraneous persons (non-relatives), thus
they shall be needy and poor perpetually and death will be a solace to them
and life a punishment. The conspirators daughters, on the other hand,
are permitted to eke out a subsistence survival by accepting the Falcidian
portion owed to them from their mother: For the sentence ought to be
lighter in the case of those persons who we trust will be less daring because
of the frailty of their sex (CTh In 405 the penalty of poverty was
also established for particular groups of Christian heretics. Donatists and
Montanists who practised rebaptism were to be brought before the provin-
cial governor so that the offenders shall be punished by the conscation of
all their property, and they shall suffer the penalty of poverty, with which
they shall be aficted forever (CTh 16.6.4.pr.). It was left up to the relevant
judge and his legal assessors to arrive at a judicial sentence which tted
both the crime and the convicted criminal. Hence, once again there is no
general or constant denition of poverty, rather the tacit recognition that
the poor would include those lacking all property.
conclusi on
As Marcians Novel 4 demonstrates there was dispute among litigants, advo-
cates and perhaps judges in the mid-fth century as to whether the poor
belonged within a class of low and degraded persons, who by a law of
Constantine were forbidden marriage with men of high status. Marcian leg-
islated against such an interpretation of Constantines law, insisting that an
equation between the poor and lowand degraded persons could not have
been Constantines intention. Some modern commentators have shared
Marcians condence in reading the mind of Constantine as revealed in the
legislation of his reign. They have been over hasty in detecting the inuence
of his religious beliefs in the laws, and too ready to seek in them and
nd innovation. Circumspection is also appropriate in approaching
Marcian: he evidently held that poverty was no disgrace, but the poor
whom he had in mind were not the truly destitute, but the relatively poor,
Poverty and Roman law 203
those of modest resources. Moreover, Marcian was at least as much inter-
ested in upholding the dignity of Roman free-born status as of poverty.
Constantines laws against the sale of children into slavery by indigent par-
ents show that he too held great store by free-born status. He was not, by
any means, the rst Roman emperor to take a stand on this. Where Chris-
tian emperors did innovate was in encouraging, directly and indirectly, the
charitable efforts of the church insofar as those charitable efforts did not
detract fromthe welfare of the Roman res publica. Finally, despite the rise of
the Christian church and an ecclesiastical / monastic culture of the visible
poor, late Roman legislators like their classical juristic predecessors were
uninterested in any conceptual understanding of poverty per se.
The jurist Iavolenus famously cautioned that all denitions in civil law
are dangerous, as rare indeed is the denition which cannot be overthrown
(D. 50.17.202: Iavolenus, Letters Book 11). When tackling the topic of the
poor in late Roman law, we would do well to remember this jurisprudential
maxim. Each reference to poverty and the poor in late Roman law must
be read in its particular case-specic context; the pauper is only visible
case-by-case, in classical and post-classical Roman law alike.
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Abramenko, Andrik 42
Abu Dulaf 75
Aeneas 88
aesthetics 145
Africa 192, 193
Alexandria 101, 106, 107, 109, 114, 143
Alf oldy, G. 41, 42
almsgiving 23, 21, 38
Christian 18, 11819, 122, 13044, 15556, 172
non-religious 1617, 6082, 173
other religious 61, 6667, 80
see also benefaction; poor relief
Ambrose 19, 71, 75, 76, 125, 173
Ambrosiaster 18, 11529
Ammianus Marcellinus 126, 158
anachoresis 108
Anaximenes 64
Antinoopolis 52, 109
Antioch 71, 130, 141
Synod of 196
Aphrodito 52
Apollonius of Tyana 70
Appian 50
Apuleius 67
Arabia 75
arai Bouzygeiai 66
archaeology 30
Arellius Fuscus 88, 89
aristocracy 9, 150, 18486, 189,
sins of 166, 177
see also honestiores; senators
Aristophanes 11, 13, 35
Aristotle 7, 1113, 14, 64, 71
army 8, 23, 37
Arsinoe 112, 113
Artemidorus 6970, 75, 78, 88, 89, 91
asceticism 11617, 12122, 128
see also renunciation
askeri 4142
assiduus 49
Astrampsychus, oracle of 69
astrology 91
Athens 6, 11, 15, 16, 4647, 57, 87
augustales 42, 45
Augustine 5, 18, 13140, 159, 16566
Augustus 8, 37, 39, 50, 102
avarice 88, 89, 91, 127, 135, 137, 146, 177, 178
Bagnall, Roger 50, 5253, 54, 102
banking 47
banquets 8384, 99, 126
see also parties
barbarians 162, 163, 166, 16970
Basil of Caesarea 138, 140
beggars 17, 31, 90, 96, 114, 141
able-bodied 7677
and non-Christian almsgiving 6082, 158
use of word 18, 105, 106, 13738
see also almsgiving; destitute; law; poor;
benefaction 3, 6, 910, 60, 66
Christian 169
bishops 18, 115, 145, 156, 165, 196
see also poor relief, ecclesiastical
Bolkestein, H. 2, 3, 60, 61, 66, 67
Boukoloi, revolt of 106
Boulding, Maria 134
Bowman, Alan 52
bribery 21, 22, 200
Brown, Peter 2, 3, 9, 101, 105, 117, 135, 15758
Brunt, Peter 44
Buddhism 80
Burke, Edmund 23, 25, 27
Byzantium 101, 133
Calcutta 74, 75, 76, 77
Callinicus 131, 140, 142
capabilities 57
Caracalla 10, 186, 189, 190
Carthage 170, 196
fourth Council of 196
Index 221
Catiline 8, 14, 23, 25, 26, 27
Cato 13
Catullus 95, 97
celibacy 117 see also marriage; asceticism
Celsus 188
census 16, 48, 89, 9192, 97, 99, 102
Chalcedon, Council of 197
charity 56, 60, 100, 101, 164
see also almsgiving; poor relief; xenodocheia
chastity 119
as beggars 7173, 77
exposure of 71, 73, 80
sale of 19, 71, 73, 18990, 192,
see also infant mortality; orphans
China 7879, 80
Han 41, 44
Qin 41, 53
Qing 48
Christ 121, 138
and rich young man 116, 121, 122
as example 18, 141
identied with poor 139, 155
praises poor 118, 152
Christ, Karl 43
Christianisation 2, 9, 68, 100, 15860, 187, 191,
Christianity 11, 17, 101, 105, 201
architecture and decoration of 14748, 149,
15051, 15455, 157
see also bishops; presbyters; poor relief
Cicero 25, 50, 6163, 65, 67, 68
Cincinnatus 13, 35, 168
citizenship 78, 12, 34, 39, 189
loss of 177, 184
see also status, political
Clark, E. A. 121
Clement of Alexandria 105, 12223
clientage see patronage
Clodius 8, 27, 50
clothing 35
coloni see tenants
comedy 99
common good 168
community 19, 3435, 38, 16671
unity of 16970
Constantine 149, 18486, 18890, 195, 199,
Constitutio Antoniana 10
consumption 57
contracts 198
Conybeare, Catherine 147
corruption 163
countryside 35, 53, 94, 113, 14243, 162
see also economy; agricultural; peasants
covetousness 116
Crassus 88
crime 31, 33, 35, 106, 119
see also punishment; theft; violence
Croesus 88
Curran, John 116
curses 80
Cybele 67
Cynics 67, 74, 91, 96
Cyrenaics 91
Daube, David 183
deacons 157
debt 12, 22, 24, 132, 136, 142
see also taxes
decurions 42, 45, 194
De Ligt, Luuk 45
defensor ecclesiae 196
democracy 1112
Demosthenes 11
destitute 12, 1617, 18, 35, 188
absence of 106, 19293
categorisation of 20, 29, 32, 172
see also beggars; poor; poverty
De Vinne, Michael 130
dicta Catonis 69
diet 3, 4, 30, 32, 47, 55, 56, 58
Dio Chrysostom 67
Diocletian 113
Dionysius of Halicarnassus 50
Dioscorus 143
disability 5, 7072, 10506, 109, 14042
divorce 102, 105
dogs 95, 96
Domitian 97
dowry 35, 187
dreams 6970, 75, 78, 8990, 91
Duncan Jones, Richard 5253
Ecclesiastes 121
economists, political 2127, 39
economy, agricultural 4, 5, 36, 37, 45
see also countryside
education 55
Egypt 16, 17, 45, 5052, 57, 10014, 142
population 10514
Ptolemaic 52, 100, 109, 112
elderly 68, 72
elite see aristocracy; wealthy
emperor 9, 15, 34
empire, Roman 2, 8, 911, 25, 29, 37, 39, 4552
see also poor relief, imperial; treasury, imperial
England 48
222 Index
Ephesus 70
Epictetus 67, 90
Epicureans 91
Epicurus 93
episcopalis audientia 190
epitaphs 31, 35, 38, 67
equites 44, 50
Eulogius 141
Europe, western 47
Eustochium 116
exclusion 3335, 177
Fabianus 91
Fabiola 16061
Fabricius 88, 168
family 30, 34, 38, 72, 73, 77, 79, 10304
see also children; marriage; paterfamilias;
parricide; widows
famine 23, 33, 110, 140, 193
fate 64
Fayum 45, 112
see also Ibion Eikosipentarouron; Karanis;
Felix, St 15152
Fiedrowicz, Michael 131
Finley, Moses 6, 11, 14
Finn, Richard 18
oods 107, 110
food 4, 5, 7
distribution of 45, 10910
shortage of 5, 15, 21, 110
supply of 1, 33, 38, 39
see also diet; famine; grain; poor relief
fortune 91, 185
Foxhall, Lin 46
free-born 30, 31, 18586, 18990, 192,
freedmen 30, 31, 38, 44, 19293, 195
responsibility for patrons 193, 195
French Revolution 23, 24
Friedlander, Ludwig 86
friendship 83
Frier, Bruce 56, 102, 111
funerals 78, 80, 146
Gades 50, 52
Gaius 188, 197
Garnsey, Peter 3, 43, 58, 83, 92, 183,
Gaul 19, 16282
Gaza see Mark the Deacon
GDP 5455, 56
gender 40, 102 see also women; widows
Gennadius 16465
Gini coefcient 46, 5253, 56
God 126, 12728, 132, 150, 154
disobedience to 172: see also sins
judgement of 124, 16667
human beings before 135, 137, 140,
see also providence
goldsmiths 45
Goldstone, Jack 47
Good Samaritan 14042
Goths see barbarians
Gracchus, Tiberius 37
dole 67, 9, 14, 24, 26, 27, 33,
prices 11011
storage 111, 142
supply of 38
Gratian 76
Greece 1, 6, 9, 13, 4548, 57, 60
Grey, Cam 19
Grig, Lucy 19
Grodzynski, Denise 126
guardianship 19899
Hadrian 10, 108
hagiography 18, 131, 144
Hands, A. R. 3
Hanson, A. E. 102, 104
Hanson, Victor 48
Harris, William 44
health 40
see also disability; illnessi
Heliodorus 66
heresies 165, 201, 202
Hermogenianus 19798
Hermopolis 52, 53, 109
Herodes Atticus 65
Hesiod 13
Himmelfarb, G. 28
Histria 45
Holland 48
Holman, Susan 130
homeless 80
honestiores 10, 4042, 43, 124, 201
Hopkins, Keith 7
Horace 70, 97
Horden, P. 10
housing 7, 47
Human Development Report 56
humanitas 62, 63, 169, 17677
Hume, David 16, 21
Humfress, Caroline 1920
humiliores see honestiores
humilis 183, 200
humility 119
Index 223
Hunter, David 116
Hypatius see Callinicus
Iavolenus 203
Ibion Eikosipentarouron 107
illness 33, 35, 69, 70, 112, 143
see also disability; plague
immigrants 34, 38, 39, 73
see also migration
impoverishment 90
India 5556
Industrial Revolution 36
inequality, economic 36, 47, 55, 56
injustice 17173, 175, 197
see also taxes, oppressive
insolvency 187
Isaiah 139
Islam 41, 48
Italy 16, 31, 36, 37, 4851, 57
James, St 121, 174
Janes, Dominic 150
Jerome 138, 160, 161
and asceticism 116, 117, 126, 15456
Jerusalem 71, 116
Jews 67
John Chrysostom 71, 72, 77, 78, 130, 140
John the Almoner 114
Jongman, Wim 44
Josephus 3
judges 200, 202
Julian 67, 201
Julian Saba 141
justice 119, 168
Justin, the emperor 196
Justinianic Code 187, 19596
Justinianic Digest 12324, 188, 197
Juvenal 27, 31, 74, 78
Satire 3 35, 85, 86, 9394
Satire 10 25, 26
Kalighat see Calcutta
Karanis 45, 52
Kerkeosiris 52
king 120
Krause 10102
Kwassa waumma 41
La Bonnardi` ere, Anne-Marie 13132
labour 78, 35, 37
Lampadius 93
land 45, 6, 33, 37, 47, 113, 17579, 180
ownership of 46, 5354, 18081
public and private 11213
landless 5, 8, 5354
landlords see tenants
Laurence, St 19, 14546, 148
law 17, 34, 43
on begging 12, 17, 68, 76
canon 19697: see also under individual
councils and synods
Christian 170
Roman: 12325, 18303 see also Constitutio
Antoniana; Justinianic Code; Justinianic
Digest; Theodosian Code
see also law-courts; litigation; status
law-courts 123, 190
Lazarus 13637
Lebanon 142
legacies 19, 37, 184, 186, 193, 19596, 202
L erins 16465
letters, pacical and commendatory 197
Libanius 80, 141, 16263
Liber Ponticialis 149
Lieu, Judith 130
life expectancy 4, 34, 47, 55
see also mortality, infant
Ligures Baebiani 51, 53
literacy 28, 40, 55, 56
litigation 188, 190, 19798, 200
liturgies 103, 105, 106, 109
Lucian 99
Lucilius 97
Lucretius 87
Luke, St 118, 12021, 12425, 137
Lunn-Rockliffe, Sophie 18
lust 119
luxury 9, 17, 24, 26, 87, 90
criticism of 13, 88, 89
goods 7, 45
MacMullen, Ramsay 159
Manichees 138
Malthus, Thomas 2324, 25, 36
Manilius 91
Marcian 19, 183, 18489, 193, 195
Marcus Aurelius 199
Mark, St 121, 122
Mark the Deacon 131, 140, 14243
marriage 80, 102, 105, 116, 183, 18487
Marseilles 162, 16465
Martial 17, 70, 9499
Martin of Tours 141
martyrdom 146
Marx, Karl 36
Matthew, St 121, 139
McGinn, T. A. J. 102
medicine 55
Menander 11
metallisation 48
224 Index
middle class 16, 30, 32, 4254, 94,
see also poverty, relative
migration 31, 38, 72
Modestinus 193, 19596, 198
money 38, 113, 114
Morley, Neville 5, 7
Morris, Ian 46, 47, 57
Morstein-Marx, R. 39
mortality, infant 28, 55
mortgage 176, 178
munera 148, 151, 152, 194, 199200
see also liturgies
Neri, Valerio 141
Nero 108
New Comedy 90
Nola 15051
oligarchy 1112, 46
orphans 143, 17273
Orpheus 100, 101
Osborne, Robin 46
Ottomans 41
Oxyrhynchus 100, 110, 112, 113
Paine, Thomas 23, 36
pagans 134, 142, 14344, 170
Palladius 184
Pammachius 14648, 15556, 160
Panegyric to Piso 99
Paphnutius 142
Papirius Fabianus 88
Parkin, Anneliese 3
Parkin, T. 103
parricide 19192
parties 19, 14561
Patavium 5052
paterfamilias 17071
Patlagean, Evelyne 2, 3, 101, 113, 133, 197
patronage 16, 19, 38, 47, 62, 83, 84, 17880
as security 132
by poor 154
literary 97, 98
paying tax 109, 142
patrocinium 163
poor excluded from 34, 36, 38, 85
reciprocity within 16869
see also benefaction; freedmen
Paul, St 12728
Paul the jurist 72, 18687, 189
Paulinus of Nola 19, 142, 14655, 160
peace 39
peasants 33, 37, 152, 18081
see also countryside; economy
Peloponnesian War 46
Peter, St 141
Petronius 93
Philadelphia in Fayum 52, 107, 110
Philo of Alexandria 3, 105
philosophers 67
see also under names of individuals and schools
Philostratus 70, 74
pity 71, 11819
see also poor, pity for
plague 87, 107, 111, 112
Plato 1213
Plautus 65, 66, 68
plebs 43, 44, 45
Pleket, Willy 44
Pliny 68, 98, 111
Plutarch 50
poetry 15153
poets, represented as poor 9799
Polybius 14
poor relief 3, 23
civic 6, 45: see also grain, dole; xenodocheia
ecclesiastical 101, 114, 19496
imperial 108, 19193
see also charity
poor, the
adoption of 141
as blessed 12528, 146, 148, 174
as vicious 14, 25, 27, 39
contempt for 5, 15, 134, 13637, 158, 164,
fear and disgust of 70, 7475, 79, 81, 13839,
16061, 173
friendship with 155
pity for 61, 625, 67, 7073, 79, 171, 173: see
also humanitas
shame of 35, 38, 12528
virtuous non-Christian 1215, 62, 74,
virtuous Christian 11821, 171, 173, 187
visibility of 17, 18, 13040, 141, 144, 160,
see also beggars; destitute; patronage; poverty;
population 2324, 31, 36, 37, 47
see also Rome, population; Egypt, population
Porcius Latro 89, 91
Porphyry, bishop of Gaza see Mark the Deacon
Possidius 133
potentiores 42
abolition of 25
artistic representation of 68, 200
conjunctural 5, 73, 77, 108, 132, 14244;
meaning of 1, 2829: see also subsistence
Index 225
denition of 1, 16, 2736, 40, 5759, 17173;
in law 183, 18687, 19798
explanations of 25, 10001
Greek view of 1115
literary representation of 17, 2527, 29, 39,
8399, 13044, 14561, 163
relative 11, 15, 19, 59, 171, 183, 18788
social analysis of 3236
structural 1, 6, 2829, 36
terminology of 11, 103, 105, 13334, 13536,
voluntary see asceticism; renunciation
see also beggars; destitute; poor; subsistence
power, political 79, 1415, 34, 168
preaching 115, 13040, 159, 165
Prell, Marcus 2, 3
presbyters 11516, 157, 192, 19496
pride 119
Proba 121
private 23
redistribution of 22, 23, 24, 36
rights to 47
see also land; wealth
prostitution 31
providence 165, 166
provinces 910, 23, 33
see also Africa; Egypt; Gaul
Prudentius 145, 148
Pseudo-Chrysostom 140
Pseudo-Quintilian 69, 79
punishment 12325, 20102
corporal or capital 120, 12425, 132, 191, 193,
divine 126, 165, 166
nes as 19293, 195
poverty as 202
Purcell, N. 10, 29, 31, 34, 37
quality of life 40, 55
Quintilian 97
ransom 157
Rapp, Claudia 140
Rathbone, Dominic 17, 32
reayya 41
reciprocity 16869
redistribution 12, 4054
renunciation 117, 122, 151, 153,
see also asceticism
Republic, Roman 48, 168
see also Rome, city of
rhetoric 8889, 90
see also poverty, literary representation of
civic 6
of Man 23
legal 40
city of 69, 1415, 16, 17, 2139, 8399, 11517
in literature 8399
population 1, 78, 9, 38
see also Laurence, St; St Peters, Rome
Romulus 88
Rosenstein, N. 37
Runciman, W. G. 42
St Peters, Rome 19, 13839, 14650, 156, 158, 160
Sallust 14, 25
salvation 120, 12223, 124, 128
Salvian 3, 19, 16282
sanitation 55
satire 61, 8586
Say, Jean-Baptiste 2425
Scheidel, Walter 16, 20, 32, 11112
Scripture 131, 139, 141, 143, 144, 153, 171
see also under individual books
security 180
Sen, Amartya 57, 58
senators 44, 148, 151, 18486
Seneca the Elder 14, 66, 7173, 80, 8889, 90, 91,
Seneca the Younger 3, 6164, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69,
70, 72, 78, 9294
Serapis 106
serfdom 163
seviri 42, 45
sexuality 87
Shaw, George Bernard 21
shopkeepers 7576, 132
sins 163, 166, 170
see also poor; vices; wealthy
Siphnos 6
slaves 3, 24, 47, 69, 72
masters responsibility for 19293
owning of 35, 45, 84
status of 30, 58, 190
see also children, sale of
Smith, Adam 22, 23, 24, 25, 36, 57
Solon 5
Sparta 47
splendour 14561
sportulae see bribery
economic 10, 4054, 9192: see also census;
middle class
legal and political 3, 6, 10, 18, 30, 40, 12425,
183, 18488: see also honestiores; humilis;
free-born; slaves
226 Index
status (cont.)
social 3, 7, 10, 9192, 134, 174
Stoics 11, 16, 61, 6465, 70, 9091, 122
see also Seneca the Younger
Strabo 50
study 119
subsistence 28, 29, 32, 33, 37, 44, 54
see also poverty, conjunctural
Suetonius 9
Sulpicius Severus 153
Synesius 143
Syria 45
systacts 43
Tacitus 26, 80
Taipei 71, 72, 75, 78, 80
Taoism 80
taxes 12, 36, 113
evasion of 178, 200
in Egypt 103, 10709, 111
oppressive 142, 162, 17172, 17577
see also patronage; treasury
Tchalenko, G. 45
Tebtunis 110
Temin, Peter 49
temples 105, 110
tenants 16263, 17677, 17980
tenuiores 42, 5455
theft 38, 125, 174
Themistocles 6
Theodoret 142
Theodosian Code 19, 80, 124, 162, 184
Theodosius I 76, 146, 192, 193
Theodosius II 19293, 195, 200
Theophilus 143
Thucydides 14
Tiber 38
Tibullus 97
Toner, Jerry 44
torture 201
towns 5, 910, 33, 35, 41, 53, 72, 143
see also urbanisation
trade 35, 47, 50, 52
Trajan 19192, 193
transport 10, 38
treasury, imperial 163, 193, 195
see also poor relief, imperial
Trout, Dennis 153
Tryphonius 188
Tubero 88
tyranny 25
Ulpian 187, 19899, 201
unemployment 21, 31, 77
urbanisation 5, 37, 55
Valentinian I 19293, 195
Valentinian II 76, 19293
Valentinian III 192, 19394
Valerius Maximus 35
Vandals see barbarians
Van Dam, Raymond 140
Veleia 51
Verus 199
Vespasian 106
Veyne, Paul 2, 16, 68, 69, 70
vices 16768
see also poor; sins; wealthy
violence 8, 106, 142
against poor 132, 13839, 142,
of poor 21, 39
virtues 23, 18, 62, 63, 88, 89, 12223,
and free birth 185
see also poverty; wealthy
Vittinghof F. 43
vulnerability 33, 3536, 132, 136
war 25, 33, 47, 48
wealth 10, 17, 36, 9093, 9899, 189
denition of 188
obligations of 174
use of 69, 8889, 15354, 15758, 159: see also
almsgiving; benefaction
see also impoverishment; luxury; property;
splendour; wealthy
wealthy, the 22, 11718, 152, 159, 161
perspective of 26, 61, 8485
relations with poor 62, 6869, 74,
sins and vices of 11820, 123, 12627, 13537,
174: see also avarice; injustice; taxes,
virtues of 26, 11821
see also Christ; Clement of Alexandria; wealth
Whitaker, C. R. 2
widows 73, 135, 143, 17273
in Egypt 17, 100, 10105
in Luke 21 118, 12021, 151, 152
winter 140, 142
women 72, 18486
see also widows
Woolf, Greg 14, 17
work 5, 1314, 15, 44, 73, 14344
xenodocheia 155, 19596
Young, Sir George 160
Zacchaeus 137