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Begging in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Piggy bank for coins in the form of a begging girl from around 25-50 CE.
Author: Flickriver | Under Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

When analyzing the aspect of begging in ancient Rome, and even throughout the epoch, it is difficult to find reliable and clear sources. Such groups were created mainly by the elite and they did not intend to include the aspect of poverty in their works. It can be said that the elites created for the elites and there was no place to describe the tragedy of low-status people. On top of everything else, the Romans, who considered themselves cynics, believed that poverty preserves moral and human values. Paradoxically, Roman authors wrote much more about the wealth and extravagance of the community on the Tiber and its impact on the community and history than about the ubiquitous poverty.

Of course, in the sources, we can find individual mentions of the poor, which allows us to better understand the problem of begging in ancient Rome. In Rome, a poor person or simply a beggar was reduced to one and the same term. It was called pauper, mendicus, rogator, pusillus, ignobilis or pulex. All these terms referred to the insignificance of possessions and asking others to obtain the means of survival.

The attitude of the Romans towards beggars is best reflected in the literary works of the Romans, such as Plautus. One of his characters expresses the phrase: “to give a beggar is to do him and himself a bad favour”. Traces of the Roman reluctance to the problem of begging can also be found, for example, in Pompeii. There is also a graffiti inscription, the author of which said: “I hate the poor. If someone wants something for nothing, he is crazy; he has to pay for it.” However, there were exceptions. One of the inhabitants of the Cotiaeum is described in the tombstone as one who helped beggars because of his piety. Such attitudes began to appear more commonly along with the development and spread of Christianity, a religion that assumed help to those in need.

It is believed that in Rome alone, the number of beggars/very poor people was significant and could account for up to 4-8% of the population of pre-industrial cities. Converted into a millionth Rome, this gives a figure of 40,000-80,000 people.
In the sources, fortune appears as the cause of begging. The beggar appeared in literature as a reminder of a human destiny that is subject to inexorable divine judgments or the changeability of Fortuna – we remember, for example, from the Greek tragedies of kings (Odysseus) who became beggars. The charity seeker functioned, so also like memento mori.

It is commonly believed that beggars are provided by the elderly. This fact is confirmed by, for example, a poet from the 1st century CE. Martial. However, according to Christian sources, it was women and children who were most at risk of losing their livelihoods. It is hard to expect elderly people among beggars. The opposite thought, however, is expressed by Epictetus (a philosopher from the turn of the 1st and 2nd centuries CE), according to which “decrepit old men” dominate among those asking for alms (day and night). It is hard to believe, however, given that physical exhaustion and a relatively widespread reluctance to help among the Romans meant that the beggar had no chance of surviving to old age. A large number of people in need moved to Rome, where they hoped to improve their lives. Rather, they ended up in arches and slums (tuguria). However, there were groups that could count on help from their peers, such as Jews.

Apuleius, a Roman writer from the 2nd century CE who found a place for the beggar in his “Metamorphoses” must have been heading for such a figure. This is how he describes the poor: he is sitting on the ground, by the road to the bathhouse, covered in rags, almost naked, ad miseram maciem deformatus, covered with crusted dirt, yellow on the skin (paene alius lurore). Apparently, beggars were located at crossroads (trivia), where it was easier to get any advance payment (stips).
However, the texts of Roman cynics, who are dominated by images of figures with a stick, rags and bags, give us the most references to the poorest layer. Their lifestyle was compared to a dog’s lifestyle – they slept wherever it fell, as long as it was warm (e.g. a pile of dung), and ate on just anything or leftovers. Epictetus emphasizes, however, that no equal sign can be placed between a philosopher and a beggar. According to him, the cynic must look neat and healthy, otherwise, his teachings will not be convincing and no one will be interested in his arguments. Lucian of Samosata, also a cynic, notices that his villainous image scares away the spoiled and attracts the best.

Some images of beggars have been preserved from Roman culture. In Pompeii, for example, there are images of people with outstretched hands, which are interpreted as beggars asking for alms. However, the authors of these works were interested more in ugliness than the fact of the phenomenon. We also have an iconography of Saint Martin giving a naked man – Jesus. In addition, the sarcophagus cover from the third century CE, in the vicinity of Rome, shows two ladies who meet a beggar at the gate or arch they pass.

Belisarius, François-André Vincent
Belisarius, as a beggar and blind, is recognized by his ex-soldier. Belisarius (6th century CE) was the commander-in-chief of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I the Great.

As noted by Martial and Juvenal, beggars chose usually busy passages for their places, where there was a chance to attract wealthier people. Such places were the bridge (mons), the road leading downhill and forcing you to go slowly (clivus). Marcjalis also mentions arches, fornices, graves, stairs, and streets. The known so-called “ribbing passage” was a steep descent from via Appiaclivus Aricinus. Aricia was the first stop on the way to an estate in the south of Italy, so the beggars were hoping to get hold of the powerful ranks of Rome.
It should be added that beggars “operated” similarly to their present-day counterparts in areas characterized by a high degree of crime and illegal activities. Usually, there were also various types of fraud, prostitutes, and killers.

One should also consider the fate of the bodies of beggars after their death. Certainly, they were not buried, and their corpses became food for dogs and birds. Some died probably in fights and fights, or in arenas, where cripples and beggars were sometimes directed. So it can be said that there was an attempt to “deal” in some way with the begging phenomenon, for which praefectus urbi was probably responsible. They also resorted to expelling beggars and the underworld from the city in order to improve the quality and hygiene of social life. In the 4th century CE beggars were sold as farm work colonies and forced to work.

As we know, Roman authorities, wanting to please the crowd, distributed grain and food during games and public events. The beggars certainly benefited from it, which was noticed by the authorities with time. The distribution of food was associated with a disproportionate increase in the cost of maintaining beggars, the number of which gradually increased. It is certain that the poor took advantage of such opportunities as they could. In addition, they ate the meat of animals killed in the arena, died in transport, and were killed en route.

Until the spread of Christianity, beggars were presented as the opposite of wealth and were thrown into one bag together with the underworld. During crises, it was the poor who became the scapegoat for all dissatisfaction of the masses. The Romans believed that they were closer to slaves than to fellow citizens. If someone was supported, it was only for political gain. The Roman religion also did not encourage the poor. The situation began to improve with the development of Christianity in the Empire. Even Emperor Julian the Apostate himself was supposed to regret that the Romans professing the Old Roman faith do not have the habit of helping the poor, so characteristic of Christians. When Rome became dominated by the worship of Christ, the “beggar’s” model of life became attractive to those seeking salvation.

  • Madejski Paweł, Żebracy i żebractwo w starożytnym Rzymie przedchrześcijańskim, [w.] Kostuch Lucyna, Ryszewska Katarzyna (red.), Zbytek i ubóstwo w starożytności i średniowieczu, Kielce 2010

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