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Poverty in the Roman World

Author(s):Atkins, Margaret
Osborne, Robin
Reviewer(s):Jongman, Willem M.

Published by EH.NET (July 2008)

Margaret Atkins and Robin Osborne, editors, Poverty in the Roman World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xiii + 226 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-521-86211-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Willem M. Jongman, Department of History, University of Groningen.

How successful was the Roman economy? For the last few decades, and in the footsteps of the late Sir Moses Finley, the prevailing opinion has been pessimistic: ancient Rome was a world without economic growth, and with great social inequality. Thus, only a small elite escaped life near subsistence, and even they did not escape the horrors of a demographic regime of high mortality. Thus the Roman economy never changed much over time: it was just a grim longue dur?e of poverty and underdevelopment. The fall of the later Roman Empire thus also became the “transformation of the world of late antiquity,” since there had been nothing much to decline from. In a sense, the medievalists had won the day: the Middle Ages had not been a Dark Age after the grandeur that had been Rome.

Perhaps surprisingly, this bleak view of Roman economic performance was barely ever validated empirically. Instead, research focused on possible explanations, such as elite economic mentality, technological stagnation or the scale and status of trade. Empirical research on the actual Roman standard of living was ? and is ? surprisingly rare. Perhaps this is because scholars thought it was self evident that all pre-industrial societies were desperately poor, and perhaps it was because the dominant tradition of writing history mainly from literary or at least written sources made them despair of the possibility of ever writing a real history of the Roman standard of living. Until recently the rare exception was the work of Peter Garnsey, the honorand of this volume. In two major books he argued that in antiquity the worst consequences of temporary food shortages were usually successfully avoided, but that poverty and malnutrition were endemic.

This is a Festschrift of the modern kind (i.e. an edited volume with a smallish number of substantial papers around a real theme, and with a real ? and excellent ? introduction) for Peter Garnsey, one of the world’s leading historians of the economy and society of ancient Rome. In one way or another, the authors are all pupils of Garnsey and thus the volume is not only a tribute to Garnsey the scholar, but also to Garnsey as one of the most successful graduate teachers of Roman history.

Real tributes often are irreverent, and the best teachers encourage their pupils to go their own way. That is indeed precisely what happens in some of these papers, and it happens most prominently in Dominic Rathbone’s excellent chapter on “Poverty and Population in Roman Egypt” (pp. 100-114). Rather than consider how it felt to be poor, or how poverty was perceived, he directly addresses the extent of poverty in Roman Egypt with a clear choice between three possibilities: first, there always was a lot of poverty, second, there was prosperity rather than widespread destitution in the early Empire, but quite a bit of poverty in the later (Christian) Empire, or, third, there never was much poverty, not even in late Antiquity, although the Christian church admittedly talked a lot about it. For the early Empire, Rathbone really does not see much empirical evidence for poverty in Egypt. Nor was there any general system of poor relief “because none was needed” (p. 109). Of course, there were years of bad harvests, but nothing chronic: “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” (p. 113). The situation in late antiquity was probably worse, even if Christian writers exaggerated this. Population declined, and social relations became harsher.

Two other papers, Neville Morley’s on “The Poor in the City of Rome,” and in particular Walter Scheidel’s on “Stratification, Deprivation and Quality of Life” elaborate on some of the consequences of this argument for social stratification. Morley (I think wrongly) attacks Purcell’s insistence on the prominence of immigrants of slave extraction in the urban population of the city of Rome, and reminds us of the importance of the corn dole for free citizens in the city.[1] Scheidel argues that if there was indeed some prosperity and economic success, Roman society should show more than a mass of desperately poor people, overlorded by a small elite of legally defined orders of senators, equites (knights) and decuriones (town councilors). The legal rigidity of that ranking obscures a far more varied stratification with many people of middling prosperity. Finally, Anneliese Parkin extensively probes the lack of a pagan ideology of almsgiving.

This revisionism stems from a significant paradigm shift that is currently unfolding. The new Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World is probably the best example of a new interest in economic growth in classical antiquity, and of the new awareness that especially Rome may have been rather successful for a pre-industrial economy. Part of that argument is, inevitably, that the standard of living was not always the same, but changed over time. Tentative reconstructions of Roman GDP such as we have are too tentative to reveal such change, but a host of direct archaeological indicators (shipwrecks, mining activity, building, meat consumption, stature, etc.) show quite dramatic growth from mostly the first century BC, until the late second century AD ? and dramatic decline thereafter.[2]

It is not surprising, therefore, that those papers in this volume that deal with poverty in the early Empire (first and second century AD) are mostly optimistic, whereas the bulk of the papers on later antiquity do indeed take widespread poverty for granted. As Peter Garnsey showed many years ago, social relations became increasingly grim from the second century AD, and the law turned oppressive.[3] Among free Roman citizens, a new distinction emerged, between the honestiores ? the honorable (and certainly rich) people ? and the humbler people, whose status increasingly came to resemble that of slaves. From the early third century AD nearly all free inhabitants of the Empire had become citizens, but some now were more equal than others. Caroline Humfress shows that this is not refuted by the late antique legal discourse on the rights of the poor: these pauperes were by no means the really destitute, but only the less well off. As such, I think it reflects the contraction of and increasing inequality within the upper strata of late Roman society.

The other papers on late antiquity are all concerned with Christian attitudes and behavior to the poor. As Greg Woolf observes, the prominence of the poor is indeed “due to their peculiar moral valency in Christian … thought” (p. 84). Christianity’s growth in, particularly, the third century was facilitated by its message of consolation to the poor, but from the age of Constantine it transformed into the new state religion. As Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe, Richard Finn, Lucy Grig and Cam Grey all show, defending the morality of the poor in a world of great social inequality became a discourse full of compromises.

Attitudes to poverty and the poor clearly changed with time. At some point in time (and it remains hard to decide when exactly), the poor both became more visible, and were looked at more charitably. It also seems likely that poverty became both deeper and more widespread in later antiquity. What is not yet clear from these fascinating papers is the precise chronology and relation between such changes in poverty and compassion.


1. N. Purcell, “The City of Rome and the Plebs Urbana in the Late Republic,” in The Cambridge Ancient History IX, 1994: 644-88; c.f. Willem M. Jongman, “Slavery and the Growth of Rome: The Transformation of Italy in the First and Second Century BCE,” in Catharine Edwards and Greg Woolf, editors, Rome the Cosmopolis, Cambridge, 2003: 100-122; and recently Tracy L. Prowse, Henry R Schwarcz, Peter Garnsey, Martin Knyf, Roberto Macchiarelli and Luca Bondioli (2007), “Isotopic Evidence for Age-related Immigration to Imperial Rome,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 132 (4): 510-19 for stable isotope analysis of human bone material from Ostia, demonstrating that most had not drunk the local water in their youth, and thus were immigrants from identifiable areas.

2. Willem M. Jongman, “The Early Roman Empire: Consumption,” in Walter Scheidel, Ian Morris and Richard P. Saller, editors, The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World, Cambridge, 2007: 592-618; and Willem M. Jongman, “Gibbon Was Right: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Economy,” in Olivier Hekster, Gerda de Kleijn and Dani?lle Slootjes, editors, Crises and the Roman Empire. Proceedings of the Seventh Workshop of the International Network Impact of Empire (Nijmegen, June 20-24, 2006), Leiden, 2007: 183-199.

3. Peter D.A. Garnsey, Social Status and Legal Privilege in the Roman Empire, Oxford, 1970.

Willem Jongman is the author of “The Early Roman Empire: Consumption,” in The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World (2007).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):Ancient