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Poverty in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman piggy bank, made of bronze, in the shape of a homeless girl reaching for coins
Roman piggy bank, made of bronze, in the shape of a homeless girl reaching for coins. Dated on 25-50 CE | Photo: Mary Harrsch

According to Carl Gustav Jung, the individual culture of antiquity was higher and more developed than the modern one, at the price of a collective culture, which was handicapped compared to our times. For wonderful literary works by people like Cicero, multitudes of slaves had to work, whose efforts guaranteed the well-being of the upper classes.

In modern times, of course, there are also great disparities between the rich and the poor, but they nevertheless seem smaller than before. The fate of the ancient slaves and the poor (it is not always possible to put an equal sign between these two groups) is not interesting, so it is easy for a modern person to determine the entire epoch by the great personalities of that time.

However, using the testimonies of ancient authors, we can learn a little more about Roman poverty.

Juvenal often mocks in his satire the caricatured poor, who loves the circus and the distribution of grain (frumentationes). “Bread and circuses”, a well-known desire of the poor Roman people, does not apply to all of them, however. Not all of the “poor” were entitled to the aforementioned amenities. So they were more and less poor, more and less worthy plebs. The rich distanced themselves from the “rabble” stigmatized by Tacitus and ridiculed by Juvenal. This “rabble” are the poorest, extremely poor, with criminal ties. They are different from the “people”, plebeians with certain aspirations, that is, for example, workers working in the city. The rich often came into contact with the “people” both through distributions and the system of patronage, when the liberator became a friendly craftsman. “People” (active in urban life) is thus treated differently from “rabble” (marginalized), even though both of these groups qualify as poor.

Imperial legal doctrine divided society into honestiores (holders in the broad sense of the word) and humiliores (workers in general). The poor in Roman society were legally equal to those who did not belong to the ruling group. It was a prejudicial division that merged all the “poor” humiliores into one mass, and as we already know, the poor were not homogeneous. They included both the “dirty city scum” described by Cicero, as well as small artisans in contact with wealthy patrons. The rich preferred not to think about the gulf that separates their lives from those of the poorest. They wanted to marginalize the poorest, considering it a source of problems, such as the colleges of Publius Clodius from the times of the republic. They kept in touch with the “people”, seeing in them some aspirations to improve their fate. Interestingly, there is also talk (e.g. in Seneca) about opes paene inopes, meaning rich almost poor. They were “rich” senators and equites who could barely keep their lavish lives at a level worthy of their rank – and they had to do so to maintain their status. So there was a phenomenon analogous to that known to the Polish nobility, that is, “put yourself in and put yourself up.”

The division between slavery and poverty mentioned at the beginning is worth extending. Popular workers’ associations say a lot about this issue. These associations were closed to the poorest as they required an entry fee (up to 100 sesterces and amphora of wine) and a monthly fee. On the other hand, slaves were often accepted into them, which proves that poverty did not correspond to social status. We also know that a slave could become a liberator, and due to the patronage of the former master of the automaton, he was given a better place in the unwritten hierarchy of the poor, supporting the “people” and not the “rabble”. Moreover, a liberator could often cease to be poor (from a financial and not political point of view) and, as in the case of Petronius Trimalchio, put on lavish feasts, and even pretend to be a member of a high family. Trimalchio’s aspirations are not just a literary fiction of the eminent Petronius – during a Senate debate in 56 CE. it was admitted that “many senators and equites had such roots” (Tacitus, Annales, 37, 27).

Another aspect of poverty in ancient Rome is also the great disparity between rural and urban poverty. The former is ignored by the ancients because they have no contact with it, although it is much larger than the latter in scale. The poverty of the rural shepherds, who were said to have little more than the skins of their animals, was dangerous and easily escalated tensions. No wonder that shepherds often took part in slave uprisings of the 2nd-1st centuries BCE.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the games of wealthy Romans, which resembled the behavior of the French Marie Antoinette who lived hundreds of years later. Here, the bored rich people had (according to Seneca) entertainment consisting in playing in poor life in “small cells”, sleeping on mattresses, and eating modestly. These occasional quirks, of course, could not give a true view of the daily scarcity of the poor. Seneca himself undertook such an experiment – he wanted to live like a peasant for two days. He also took with him a slave wagon and food ingredients, which would only take an hour to prepare…

Author: Juliusz Rakowski (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Andrea Giardina (red.), Człowiek Rzymu, Wydawnictwo Bellona, 1997
  • Petronius, Cena Trimalchionis, tłum. Leopold Staff, Wydawnictwo Wydawnictwa Artystyczne i Filmowe, 1986
  • Tacitus, Annales, tłum. Seweryn Hammer, Wydawnictwo Czytelnik, 2004

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