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Social welfare in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Marble bust of a Roman patrician from the mid-1st century BCE. The object is located in Palazzo Torlonia in Rome.

In the analysis of philanthropy, the article mainly focuses on the functioning of aid systems in ancient Rome, where they are most sharply outlined. Similar processes took place throughout the Roman Empire, but they functioned to a much lesser extent and were a reflection of what was happening in the centre.

Every organized human society, standing at a higher level of civilizational development, is faced with the problem of people who, as a result of various processes, do not fit into the existing social structure. This problem is of little importance in the case when these are few cases, of an individual nature, where the solution may be of an ad hoc nature tailored to a specific case. The situation is different when it is the result of systemic processes that shape a given social structure, and the process of pauperization covers large masses of the population while increasing the wealth of certain sections of the population. This gives rise to a dangerous disproportion, which may turn into inflammation, where ad hoc action does not fulfil its task, where the answer to the problem must be institutionalized action, of a permanent nature, maintaining to some extent balance in the system. Such are the hallmarks of philanthropy in ancient Rome.

The modern meaning we used to attribute to philanthropy, shaped in the spirit of Christianity, has little to do with philanthropy in ancient Rome. In the dictionary of foreign words under this term we read; philanthropist is “a benefactor, a benefactor supporting the poor, a founder practising charity”, at first glance, this meaning is practically no different from what we might use in relation to a benefactor of the Empire period. However, the reasons and motives for practising philanthropy were diametrically opposed: the modern philanthropist acts rather for his own reasons, and in antiquity, philanthropy was inseparable from public life, it was its necessary integral part. In Roman society, it was not enough to be rich or come from a “good family” to belong to the elite. Equally important, and sometimes more important, were the external signs of nobility. You had to document your aspirations with a sufficiently large and lavishly decorated house, which, according to Roman custom, was thronged every morning by a throng of people courting the patron, known as clients. It was also necessary to demonstrate an appropriately lavish lifestyle, to organize lavish parties, and above all to conduct charity work, which gave access to honours, privileges and public offices, bringing universal social respect. Thus, philanthropy in the ancient sense has the hallmarks of a social institution.

Social structure

In order to describe the various forms of assistance that were provided to a large number of people, one should first look at the social structure of the time. The main determinant of social position was property. At the lowest step of the social ladder were the poorest, the humiliores, and the plebs made up of poor people who had no great wealth. They were barred from all city honors, and at the slightest transgression, they were punishable by lashings, for the slightest offence they risk being sent to the mines, thrown to wild beasts in the amphitheatre, or crucified. They constituted the largest group of free citizens. Above them are the so-called decent people, honestiores, having at least 5,000 sesterces, this ensured them, in the case of a more serious offence, milder and less shameful penalties: banishment, confiscation, deportation. Some of them already had the right to hold minor government offices. Higher in the hierarchy were equites, i.e. those who have at least 400,000 sesterces, entrusting them with more important state offices. The ordo title was given to those citizens who had at least one million sesterces and only they had the right to hold the most honourable functions in the state. Of course, the individual estates were internally very diverse, but it is important that they were not tightly closed, and the vertical mobility in the social hierarchy was quite significant. Great estates collapsed, and new generations of affluents took their place.

The population of Rome under the Antonines was about 1,200,000 inhabitants (including slaves), although directly or indirectly one-third of the population, and perhaps even half of the population of Rome, lived from state charity. So they were huge crowds of people who had huge potential, over which the authorities tried to take control and leave it dormant.

Elderly people in ancient Rome

Elders played an important role in Rome, based on the privileges granted to them by Roman law. The Romans, however, did not speak very flatteringly about them. In connection with old age, there were problems: demographic, political, social, as well as psychological and medical. Different writers deal with them differently. An invaluable source of information about the demographic problem is the Ulpin Table – a document provided by an employee of Aemilius Macer. It can be inferred from it, based on testamentary records, that few Romans were over sixty.

Other records contradict this again. However, there were older people who were respected, namely those of whom the Republic could be proud and whom it needed. Especially in the face of political threats, the Republic relied on the elderly, and trusted their wisdom and prudence – it needed them! They were on top!

The rise of the empire changed that. Old people were still needed, and their abilities were used. During the late empire, the power of the father of the family (pater familias) lost its public importance.
Medicine in Rome did not treat old age in any special way – it was considered an incurable disease. During the time of Augustus, a treatise written by Celsus on the ailments of old age was written. It is a collection of medical advice and recipes.

Rome criticized and admired its elders. He treated them individually. He did not address the whole problem of old age. He appreciated the greatness of man, regardless of his age, and thus saved the dignity of the old man!

Forms of control or forms of assistance?

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.

The variety and momentum with which various complementary forms of assistance provided to citizens operated in ancient Rome can be compared to modern, comprehensive social welfare systems. One of the oldest forms of help was the institution of the clientele – the origin of this phenomenon is not certain and there are several theories about its origin. It is known that customers appeared within the tribal organization, as dependent people, but at the same time under the care of families, and later more powerful citizens. Formally, the patrician clientele ended in 400 BCE, with the granting of civil rights to the commoners, but practically continued throughout the existence of Rome. The basic duties of clients, a significant number of whom could be associated with a given patrician, included greeting him daily, accompanying him in his retinues and supporting him during elections.

From the poorest patricians to the great lords, every citizen was dependent on the mightier than himself by the same ties. The patron was obliged to receive his clients, invite them to his table, take care of them and give them gifts. If they lacked the means of subsistence, he gave them food, which they took in baskets, or more often, to save themselves trouble, he gave them cash gratuities. In Trajan’s time the custom became so widespread that the sum paid by each house did not differ from one another, resulting in a kind of “sportual” tariff, uniform throughout the city: in Rome, it amounted to 6 sesterces per day per head. For attorneys without jobs, teachers without students, and artists without commissions, this meagre allowance was the surest source of income. Clients who worked professionally added this sum to their salary and, in order not to be late to the shops or workshops, ran to collect the allowance before the day came. Since the measure of a Roman magnate’s power was the number of his clients, he would have jeopardized his reputation if he had not performed this morning ritual. Each client had to wait patiently for his turn, which was strictly marked, not by order of arrival, but by position in society – praetors before tribunes, equites before common citizens, freeborn before freedmen. Finally, they had to be careful not to call the patron by name, but to use the title dominus. Forgetting it threatened to return home empty-handed.

The poorest accumulated visits to increase their benefits. The richest, however, were not exempt from this obligation, because wherever you go in the Roman hierarchy, you could always find someone higher to whom homage was due, and in fact, only the only emperor had no one above himself. Women were excluded from all this dependence, and by custom, they abstained from both making and receiving such visits. Only widows who did not have male representatives broke from this rule. With the passage of time, however, the institution of the clientele lost its original character, and at the end of the Empire, it took on humiliating features, resembling more begging than a protective dependence.

However, the most popular form of helping was the distribution of grain – the so-called frumentations. Already in the times of the Republic, Gaius Gracchus led to a resolution on the sale of grain at lower prices from state granaries. At the dawn of a new era, 20 per cent of state revenues were allocated to this institution, and several hundred thousand people benefited from its benefits. You didn’t have to be poor to get fruition, citizenship and residence in Rome were enough. It concerned not so much the poor as the citizens, each of whom could buy a certain amount of grain every month. Julius Caesar in 44 BCE granted the privilege of free grain to some 150,000 people. Around 17 B.C.E. the number of those entitled to receive grain was between 40 and 50 thousand. In the times of Caesar and Augustus Anno (around 203), grain was distributed to 150,000 poor people free of charge, at the beginning of the reign of Septimius Severus, the number of wards was 175,000, which means an increase of 16.6%. According to historians, around 130,000 families were fed by the state during this period. In addition, occasional gifts should also be added: wine, olives, and sometimes salt. During the most important or more joyful state events, gold coins were thrown into the crowd, and high officials staged feasts for the populis romanisi. For example: Augustus, for giving him the power of a tribune for the twenty-first time and the consulship for the twelfth time (5 BCE), gave 60 denarii to each of the 320,000 citizens who constituted the city plebs at that time. This distribution concerned only adult men. Excluded from this were women and boys under the age of eleven, who were also part of the Roman commoners.

Care for the lower classes of citizens took various forms, which is clearly evidenced by the issued laws. These include laws restricting food, feasting, and lavishness, in order to prevent the waste of money at the expense of the misery of fellow citizens. Hadrian’s legislation could be mentioned here, abolishing the basic plague of the then Latium, namely universal debt. An important role in the overall Roman aid system was played by all kinds of holidays and state celebrations. Festive days in Rome occupied more than half of the year, about 182 feasts were celebrated in a more or less solemn way. There were one or two holidays for every working day. As Fronto wrote in Principia Historiae (20): “Roman people are preoccupied with two things in particular: provisions and spectacles1” (populum Romanum duabus praecipue rebus, annona et spectaculis, teneri). “Since the people have no more votes to sell, the people that once gave power, dignities, legions, everything, henceforth with anxious anxiety desire nothing more in the world than two things: bread and circuses2” (…duas tantum res anxius optat panem et circenses).

The emperors, indeed, took upon themselves the care of both the food of the people and their entertainment. Through the monthly distribution of products in the Portico of Minucius, they provided her with her daily bread. Organizing performances in various religious and secular centres: in the Forum, in theatres, in the stadium, in the amphitheatre, in naumachias, they filled and curbed the free time of the population, kept it in constant tension with constantly new games and even on lean days, when financial difficulties compelled them to limit their generosity, but they endeavoured to provide the people with more entertainment than any commoner ever saw in any country.

In a city with 150,000 unemployed people relieved of work by Annona, and perhaps as many workers who have had nothing else after lunch all year round to work, how to sit back and who were denied the right to use this freedom to engage in politics, in this city spectacles filled people’s time, held their passions in check, guided their instincts and set them free. A people that yawns is ripe for revolution. The emperors did not allow the Roman commoners to yawn either from hunger or boredom. The spectacle became a great entertainment in the idle life of their subjects, and consequently an effective instrument of absolutism. Surrounding them with their care and wasting fabulous sums on it, the emperors consciously acted for the security of their power.

An example here is the Saturnalia festival – which lasted a week in December, patronized by Saturn, which was a reflection of Kronos – the ruler of the earth when humanity was experiencing a golden age. During them, there was a carnival atmosphere, and during the feasts, where the masters hosted their slaves, the happiness of equality and community of the beginning of humanity was remembered. During the holidays, all inequalities and quarrels disappeared, gifts were given to each other, and the operation of the courts and the execution of sentences were suspended. During the imperial period, games and performances were organized at that time, during which money and gifts were distributed among the audience.

Ave, Caesar! Io, Saturnalia!, Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Praetorian kneeling before the newly elected emperor Claudius.

As you can see, the forms of help in ancient Rome, as well as in the entire Empire, took various forms, from those that we would not consider today as help in the strict sense (I mean all kinds of entertainment organized by the powerful). It can be said that the main purpose of Roman philanthropy was not to help the masses of the population, although it did do so to a large extent, but rather to bind the population through a wide network of dependencies with the ruling elites and to prevent the emergence of possible disturbances in the social structure. Secondly, such an organized aid system, with such great disproportions in property that took place in the ancient Empire, did not allow for the accumulation of goods in the hands of the largest families, forcing the constant circulation of money, while supporting economic development. Thus, it can be concluded that the overall activity related to philanthropy bore clear functional characteristics, fulfilling its tasks not only for the benefit of certain groups on the social margin but for the benefit of the entire society.

  1. Own translation from Polish.
  2. Own translation from Polish.
  • Carcopino Jeorome, Życie codzienne w Rzymie w okresie rozkwitu cesarstwa, 1966
  • Radwan-Pragłowski Janusz, Frysztacki Krzysztof, Społeczne dzieje pomocy społecznej
  • Zelazowski Jerzy, Człowiek z marmuru czyli dobroczynność w miastach rzymskich
  • Wolski Józef, Historia powszechna - starożytność
  • Kolendo Jerzy, Wipszycka Ewa, Zabłocka Julia, Vademekum historyka starożytnej Grecji i Rzymu

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