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

Introduction

“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/CBO9780511482700Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    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.

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

      DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520254398.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      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.

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

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

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        • 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.

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

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          • 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.

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

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            Definitions and Social Structure

            Modern studies of poverty note that it is always a problematic and politicized term; as noted in Himmelfarb 1984, a classic study of the idea of poverty, different approaches to definition and classification produce radically different results, and “the ‘natural,’ unproblematic poverty of one age becomes the urgent social problem of another” (p. 8). The vast majority of inhabitants of the Roman Empire were, either by modern standards or in comparison to the wealthy elite, poor, and historians often use “the poor” as a synonym for the mass of the population or, in the case of Rome, the plebs. The question is, as Morley 2006 argues against Purcell 1994, whether we can identify a subset of the population, either in the city of Rome or across the empire, which was substantially poorer than the average. This is closely related to debates about the economic development of the empire and the average level of wealth, as discussed in Scheidel and Friesen 2009. If virtually everyone lived close to subsistence level, falling below the average could only be a short-term result of adverse circumstances (so-called conjunctural poverty); whereas if the average was higher, we can more easily imagine a group enduring “structural” poverty in the medium and long term.

            • Himmelfarb, Gertrude. 1984. The idea of poverty: England in the early industrial age. New York: Knopf.

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              Classic account of 18th- and 19th-century attitudes toward the poor; important because many of the most influential studies, such as that of Thomas Malthus, were written during this period.

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              • Morley, Neville. 2006. The poor in the city of Rome. In Poverty in the Roman world. Edited by Margaret Atkins and Robin Osborne, 21–39. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

                DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511482700.003Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                Seeks to offer a qualitative definition of “the poor” in Rome, in the absence of direct evidence, in terms of exclusion, shame, and vulnerability.

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                • Purcell, Nicholas. 1994. The city of Rome and the plebs urbana in the late Republic. In The last age of the Roman Republic. Vol. 9 of Cambridge ancient history. 2d ed. Edited by John A. Crook, Andrew Lintoot, and Elizabeth Rawson, 644–688. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                  General survey of the urban masses and their place in Roman society, emphasizing the importance of ex-slaves and migrants, and doubting the existence of a permanent class of poor free-born residents.

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                  • Scheidel, Walter, and Steven J. Friesen. 2009. The size of the economy and the distribution of income in the Roman Empire. Journal of Roman Studies 99:61–91.

                    DOI: 10.3815/007543509789745223Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                    An attempt at reconstructing the wealth of the empire and the division of this wealth between different sectors of society, including an estimate of the Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality).

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                    Living Conditions

                    The only concerted attempt at trying to establish the living conditions of the poor specifically is Scheidel 2006. Otherwise, the topic is treated in the context of broader discussions of different topics. Garnsey 1998, Garnsey 1999, and Scheidel 2006 offer a sober view of the diet and nutritional status of the mass of the population, contrasted with the optimistic views in Jongman 2007 and Kron 2005; Garnsey 1988 offers an important discussion of the survival strategies of the peasantry and their vulnerability to the political power of the cities. Storey 2013 considers urban housing, while Scobie 1986 and Morley 2005 discuss living conditions in the city of Rome, which generally indicate a range of possibilities from relative prosperity to absolute squalor. Graham 2006 offers a reassessment of the fate of the poor after death, questioning the traditional assumption that they would invariably end up in mass graves.

                    • Garnsey, Peter. 1988. Famine and food supply in the Graeco-Roman world. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

                      DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511583827Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                      Classic account of the prevalence of food crisis in classical Antiquity, considering both the risk management strategies of the inhabitants of the countryside and the means the great cities used to protect their own food supplies, even at the expense of the peasantry.

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                      • Garnsey, Peter. 1998. Mass diet and nutrition in the city of Rome. In Cities, peasants and food in classical Antiquity: Essays in social and economic history. By Peter Garnsey, 226–252. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

                        DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511585395.016Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                        Important discussion of the evidence for the diet of the masses and the possibility of malnutrition. Reprint of a 1991 paper.

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                        • Garnsey, Peter. 1999. Food and society in classical Antiquity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

                          DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511612534Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                          Further develops Garnsey’s interpretation of skeletal and other evidence as indicating the prevalence of deficiency diseases among ancient populations.

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                          • Graham, Emma-Jayne. 2006. The burial of the urban poor in Italy in the late Roman Republic and early empire. British Archaeological Reports International Series 1565. Oxford: Archaeopress.

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                            Seeks to recover the “lost voices of the urban poor” in death, focusing on documentary and material evidence rather than epigraphy, which favors the better off.

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                            • Jongman, Wim. 2007. The Roman Empire: Consumption. In Cambridge economic history of the Greco-Roman world. Edited by Walter Scheidel, Ian Morris, and Richard Saller, 592–618. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

                              DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521780537Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                              Offers an overview of levels of consumption, including diet, which generally emphasizes the possibility of improved living conditions.

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                              • Kron, Jeffrey G. 2005. Anthropometry, physical anthropology, and the reconstruction of ancient health, nutrition, and living standards. Historia 54:68–83.

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                                A highly positive view of the Italian skeletal evidence as indicating a substantial improvement in health and well-being of the mass of the population in the Roman Empire.

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                                • Morley, Neville. 2005. The salubriousness of the Roman city. In Health in Antiquity. Edited by Helen King, 192–204. London and New York: Routledge.

                                  DOI: 10.4324/9780203323847Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                  General overview of the evidence for slum-like conditions in Roman cities.

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                                  • Scheidel, Walter. 2006. Stratification, deprivation and quality of life. In Poverty in the Roman world. Edited by Margaret Atkins and Robin Osborne, 40–59. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

                                    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511482700.004Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                    Detailed discussion of the likelihood of the existence of a Roman underclass, substantially less well off than the average in diet and living conditions.

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                                    • Scobie, Alex. 1986. Slums, sanitation and mortality in the Roman world. Klio 68:399–433.

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                                      Classic discussion of the less than sanitary conditions of most housing and of the inadequacies of the sewage systems in the city of Rome.

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                                      • Storey, Glenn R. 2013. Housing and domestic architecture. In The Cambridge companion to the city of Rome. Edited by Paul Erdkamp, 151–168. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                        Summarizes the latest research on different types of housing in Rome.

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                                        The Poor in Roman Italy

                                        Until recently, the dominant interpretation of the development of Italy in the last two centuries of the Roman republic has emphasized the impoverishment of the free peasants and their demographic decline as a direct consequence of the growing wealth of the upper classes; this is conveniently summarized in Hopkins 1978. More recently, Scheidel 2001 and Hin 2013 have disputed the reconstruction of population figures on which this interpretation is based, while Morley 2001, Rosenstein 2004, de Ligt and Northwood 2008, and Launaro 2011 have questioned the account of other aspects of the supposed agrarian crisis from different perspectives. However, this remains a key focus for debate about the impact of Roman imperialism on ordinary Italians, and the idea that the free rural population was impoverished and hence driven to migrate to the cities.

                                        • de Ligt, Luuk, and Simon Northwood, eds. 2008. People, land, and politics: Demographic developments and the transformation of Roman Italy. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

                                          DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004171183.i-656Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                          Wide range of papers on different aspects of the supposed “crisis” of the Italian peasantry.

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                                          • Hin, Saskia. 2013. The demography of Roman Italy: Population dynamics in an ancient conquest society. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                            Detailed account of recent research into the population and well-being of Italians.

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                                            • Hopkins, Keith. 1978. Sociological studies in Roman history. Vol. 1, Conquerors and slaves. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                              Classic account of the transformation of the Italian countryside, including the displacement of the free peasantry by slaves.

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                                              • Launaro, Alessandro. 2011. Peasants and slaves: The rural population of Roman Italy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                                Uses evidence from archaeological survey to argue for a more prosperous and populous countryside.

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                                                • Morley, Neville. 2001. The transformation of Italy, 225–28 BC. Journal of Roman Studies 91:50–62.

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                                                  Counterfactual approach to the topic, exploring the consequences—including the possibility of poverty as a result of overpopulation—if higher estimates for Italian population are accepted.

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                                                  • Rosenstein, Nathan. 2004. Rome at war: Farms, families and death in the middle Republic. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

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                                                    An important account of the life cycle of the peasant household and its capacity to meet the demands of military service, as a potential source both of prosperity and of risk.

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                                                    • Scheidel, Walter, ed. 2001. Debating Roman demography. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

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                                                      Includes a useful introduction to demographic studies and their problems by Scheidel, and one of the key iterations of Elio lo Cascio’s arguments in favor of a much higher estimate of Italian population.

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                                                      Social Relations

                                                      Again, discussions focus on the social relations of the population as a whole rather than the poor in particular; it is generally assumed, as Liu 2013 discusses, that the latter would be largely, if not entirely, excluded from participation in organizations like the collegia in Rome, while Garnsey and Woolf 1990 and Verboven 2002 argue that they may not have had any involvement in patronage relations in either the countryside or the city. Older accounts such as MacMullen 1974 and de Ste Croix 1981 emphasized not just the exclusion of the poor, but also the possibility of outright social conflict.

                                                      • de Ste Croix, Geoffrey E. M. 1981. The class struggle in the ancient Greek world. London: Duckworth.

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                                                        Despite the title, this massive study of social relations from an explicitly Marxist perspective encompasses the Roman Empire as well, emphasizing the level of antagonism between rich and poor.

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                                                        • Garnsey, Peter, and Greg Woolf. 1990. Patronage of the rural poor in the Roman world. In Patronage in ancient society. Edited by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, 153–170. London: Routledge.

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                                                          Discusses the importance of patron-client relations in the Roman (especially Italian) countryside, and the possibility that the poorest might be excluded.

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                                                          • Liu, Jinyu. 2013. Professional associations. In The Cambridge companion to the city of Rome. Edited by Paul Erdkamp, 352–368. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                                            Summarizes recent work on the collegia and their place in the economy of Rome; notes that all such organizations had some sort of membership fee, thus excluding the poorest.

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                                                            • MacMullen, Ramsey. 1974. Roman social relations, 50 BC to AD 284. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

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                                                              Classic work on different aspects of Roman society, focusing on the relations and conflicts between different groups.

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                                                              • Verboven, Koen. 2002. The economy of friends: Economic aspects of amicitia and patronage in the late Republic. Brussels: Latomus.

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                                                                Focuses on relations between the relatively prosperous members of society, noting that the poorest might well be excluded because they had nothing to offer any patron.

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                                                                The Poor and Politics

                                                                Roman elite sources tend to refer to the whole population as “poor,” or at best to distinguish between the respectable plebs (those who support the senatorial conservatives) and the mob. Scholarly discussions of the role of popular politics and the “democratic” elements of the Roman system, such as Millar 1998, do not and cannot draw any easy distinction between “the poor” and the rest. Mouritsen 2001, Morstein-Marx 2004, and Yakobson 2006 focus on the relationship between the elite and the plebs in general, while Yavetz 1969 considers the relationship between the emperor and the people. Corbo 2006 explores late Antique legislation on poverty, showing that concern for the poor becomes a key theme in the political discourse of the Christian empire.

                                                                • Corbo, Chiara. 2006. Paupertas: La legislazione tardoantica (IV–V sec. d.C.). Naples: Satura Editrice.

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                                                                  A detailed study of imperial legislation dealing with the duty of the church to support the poor and disadvantaged, focusing not on actual practices but on what this reveals about relations between church and state in Late Antiquity.

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                                                                  • Millar, Fergus. 1998. The crowd in Rome in the late Republic. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

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                                                                    Focuses on the role of the masses in Rome, and the question of how far the system could be considered democratic.

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                                                                    • Morstein-Marx, Robert. 2004. Mass oratory and political power in the late Roman Republic. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

                                                                      DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511482878Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                      Focuses on the role of rhetoric, and speeches in public fora, in managing relations between mass and elite.

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                                                                      • Mouritsen, Henrik. 2001. Plebs and politics in the late Roman Republic. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

                                                                        DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511482885Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                        Focuses on the political institutions of Rome and the scope for meaningful mass participation.

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                                                                        • Yakobson, Alexander. 2006. Popular power in the Roman Republic. In A companion to the Roman Republic. Edited by Nathan Rosenstein and Robert Morstein-Marx, 383–400. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell.

                                                                          DOI: 10.1002/9780470996980Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                          Useful overview of the scholarly debates.

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                                                                          • Yavetz, Zvi. 1969. Plebs and princeps. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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                                                                            Classic account of the dynamics of the relationship between the Julio-Claudian emperors and the Roman plebs.

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                                                                            Poor Relief

                                                                            Garnsey 1988 and Veyne 1990 explore the system of euergetism, in Rome and in other cities of the empire, whereby the wealthy distributed food and other benefactions in return for the acclamation and votes of the populace; as Rowland 1976 showed, this was directed toward fellow citizens in general rather than being any kind of poor relief. Woolf 1990 discusses the main ancient example of a scheme to alleviate poverty; this was limited to Italy, and its aims and significance remain a matter of debate. In general, as Hands 1968 argues, philanthropy in Antiquity was small-scale and limited, and directed toward fellow humans rather than specifically toward the poor and needy.

                                                                            • Garnsey, Peter. 1988. Famine and food supply in the Graeco-Roman world. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

                                                                              DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511583827Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                              Wide-ranging study of ancient food supply, including a clear account of the food distributions in Rome and other cities.

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                                                                              • Hands, A. R. 1968. Charities and social aid in ancient Greece and Rome. London: Thames & Hudson.

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                                                                                Broad survey of the evidence for ancient philanthropy.

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                                                                                • Rowland, Robert J., Jr. 1976. The “very poor” and the grain dole at Rome and Oxyrhynchus. Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 21:69–72.

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                                                                                  Dismisses the idea that distributions of grain served any sort of charitable or poor relief function.

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                                                                                  • Veyne, Paul. 1990. Bread and circuses: Historical sociology and political pluralism. Translated by Oswyn Murray and Brian Pearce. London: Allan Lane.

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                                                                                    Classic account of the workings of euergetism.

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                                                                                    • Woolf, Greg. 1990. Food, poverty and patronage: The significance of the epigraphy of the Roman alimentary schemes in early imperial Italy. Papers of the British School at Rome 58:197–228.

                                                                                      DOI: 10.1017/S006824620001165XSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                      Detailed study of the evidence for “poor relief” in Italy under Trajan, with discussion of the broader issues of interpretation.

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                                                                                      Christianity and the Poor

                                                                                      Christianity preached that charity was one of the duties of a good Christian, and identified “the poor” as deserving assistance because of their poverty. Garnsey and Humfress 2001 and Brown 2002 explore how one of the main consequences of the increasing importance of Christianity in the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity was the development of a far more developed social support, while Finn 2006 offers a detailed study of the ideal and practice of almsgiving. Holman 2008 and Allen, et al. 2009 discuss the ways that poverty was praised by preachers; Finn 2009 offers a summary of the role of “voluntary” poverty in Christian asceticism.

                                                                                      • Allen, Pauline, Bronwen Neil, and Wendy Mayer. 2009. Preaching poverty in Late Antiquity: Perceptions and realities. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsansalt.

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                                                                                        Useful discussion of the problems in reading Christian sources that apparently promote poverty as an ideal, with detailed analyses of the views of John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Leo I.

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                                                                                        • Brown, Peter. 2002. Poverty and leadership in the later Roman Empire. Hanover, NH, and London: Brandeis Univ. Press.

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                                                                                          Brown discusses the increasing activity of the Church in poor relief from the 4th century, arguing that it took on the empire’s problems in return for increased social influence—and that it was only in this period that “the poor” were identified as a separate social class.

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                                                                                          • Finn, Richard. 2006. Almsgiving in the later Roman Empire: Christian promotion and practice (313–450). Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

                                                                                            DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199283606.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                            A detailed study of Christian attitudes to charity, emphasizing its role in the social identity of bishops and other givers of alms.

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                                                                                            • Finn, Richard. 2009. Asceticism in the Graeco-Roman world. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

                                                                                              DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511609879Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                              Good introduction to the ascetic tradition in Antiquity, putting the Christian approach in a broader context.

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                                                                                              • Garnsey, Peter, and Caroline Humfress. 2001. The evolution of the Late Antique world. Cambridge, UK: Orchard.

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                                                                                                Short but very clear account of the development of charity in late Antiquity, pp. 123–129.

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                                                                                                • Holman, Susan R., ed. 2008. Wealth and poverty in early church and society. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

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                                                                                                  A wide-ranging collection on the discussions of poverty and wealth to be found in early Christian writings, with a particular focus on the dynamic relationship between theological ideas and practical actions.

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