Classics Poverty in the Roman World
Neville Morley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0222


“The poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11); the ubiquity of poverty in the ancient world may account for the relative neglect of this topic by historians, but there are also significant problems of evidence. The literate elite who produced the majority of written sources regarded everyone other than themselves as poor and therefore contemptible, and had little to say about them; meanwhile, the poverty of those at the bottom of society makes it unlikely that they would have left a significant mark in the material record. For the most part, poverty as a socioeconomic theme appears only in passing in broader debates about Roman economic development and about living conditions in the city of Rome and the like; the topic is always contentious. Most of our evidence relates rather to the idea of poverty, above all in relation to Christian injunctions to charity and the ideal of asceticism as a means of getting closer to God.

General Overviews

Whittaker 1993 offers an excellent starting point, covering the whole range of issues around the poor in ancient Rome, especially problems of evidence and elite attitudes. Atkins and Osborne 2006 presents a range of perspectives on many different aspects of the topic, all well worth reading. Harris 2011 focuses on poverty as a socioeconomic phenomenon, in particular challenging more “optimistic” views of the general level of well-being in the Roman Empire (see Living Conditions). For the life of the peasantry—who can, at least on some definitions, be considered “poor”—see the account of North Africa in Dossey 2010. Freu 2007 is an important discussion of images of poverty in Late Antiquity.

  • Atkins, Margaret, and Robin Osborne, eds. 2006. Poverty in the Roman world. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511482700

    Important collection of chapters on different aspects of the topic, originating from a conference on “Poverty in the Roman World” in Cambridge in 2003 in honor of Peter Garnsey.

  • Dossey, Leslie. 2010. Peasant and empire in Christian North Africa. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520254398.001.0001

    Draws on a range of evidence to offer an account of peasant society in North Africa in Late Antiquity, and its relations with the upper classes.

  • Freu, Christel. 2007. Les figures du pauvre dans les sources italiennes de l’Antiquité tardive. Paris: de Boccard.

    A detailed study of the way poverty is discussed in late Antique Italian texts, focusing on key terms and their significance.

  • Harris, William V. 2011. Poverty and destitution in the Roman Empire. In Rome’s imperial economy: Twelve essays. Edited by William V. Harris, 27–54. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Theoretical discussion focusing on poverty as the inevitable consequence of the economic structures of the empire.

  • Whittaker, C. R. 1993. The poor. In The Romans. Edited by Andrea Giardina and translated by Lydia Cochrane, 272–299. Chicago and London: Chicago Univ. Press.

    Useful introductory survey of the problems in defining poverty and in finding adequate evidence.

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