The Poor in the City of Rome Neville Morley The politics of Roman poverty



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The Poor in the City of Rome
Neville Morley
1. The politics of Roman poverty
Almsgiving, though it cannot be stopped at present, as without it we should have hunger riots, and possibly revolution, is an evil. At present we give the unemployed a dole to support them, not for love of them, but because if we left them to starve they would begin by breaking our windows and end by looting our shops and burning our houses . . . In ancient Rome the unemployed demanded not only bread to feed them but gladiatorial shows to keep them amused; and the result was that Rome became crowded with playboys who would not work at all, and were fed and amused with money taken from the provinces. That was the beginning of the end for ancient Rome. We may come to bread and football (or prizefights) yet.

George Bernard Shaw, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism (1928)


In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, writers on political economy frequently turned to examples from classical history, and above all from the history of Rome, to illustrate and support their arguments.1 Rome was better documented than any other past society, and the broad outlines of its history were familiar to educated people; more importantly, it was felt to be sufficiently similar to the present — a complex, ‘civilised’ society, and the ancestor of European civilisation — to make comparisons meaningful and productive. David Hume, for example, put forward Roman evidence to support his views on the inherent idleness of the poor and the pernicious effects of any attempt at poor relief:
The sportulae, so much talked of by Martial and Juvenal, being presents regularly made by the great lords to their smaller clients, must have had a like tendency to produce idleness, debauchery, and a continual decay among the people. The parish-rates have at present the same bad consequences in England.2
Adam Smith offered a rather different analysis of Roman society, with rather different implications, when discussing the tendency of states to respond to financial problems — which they had for the most part created themselves through unwise expenditure or poor government — by devaluing their coinage:
In Rome, as in all the other ancient republics, the poor people were constantly in debt to the rich and the great, who in order to secure their votes at the annual elections, used to lend them money at exorbitant interest, which, being never paid, soon accumulated into a sum too great either for the debtor to pay, or for anybody else to pay for him. The debtor, for fear of a very severe execution, was obliged, without any further gratuity, to vote for the candidate whom the creditor recommended. In spite of all the laws against bribery and corruption, the bounty of the candidates, together with the occasional distributions of corn which were ordered by the senate, were the principal funds from which, during the latter times of the Roman republic, the poorer citizens derived their subsistence. To deliver themselves from this subjection to their creditors, the poorer citizens were continually calling out either for an entire abolition of debts, or for what they called New Tables; that is, for a law which should entitle them to a complete acquittance upon paying only a certain proportion of what their accumulated debts . . . In order to satisfy the people, the rich and the great were, upon several different occasions, obliged to consent to laws both for abolishing debts, and for introducing New Tables.3
There is an implicit contrast here with Smith’s discussion of modern poverty. He presented poverty as something that might be alleviated or even abolished through economic growth and limited political action, rather than as a natural, inescapable fact of life.4 Where Hume had advocated restricting wages to compel the poor to industry, Smith emphasised the role of higher wages as an incentive. For Smith, provided that the state is concerned with the well-being of all and not simply that of the wealthy, and thus that there will be ‘peace, easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice’, the natural inclination of the poor labourer to improve his situation will result in the enrichment of both the individual and society as a whole.5 Rome, in contrast, exemplified a state that was managed for the benefit of the rich; the result was that the poor were maintained in idleness and thus remained poor, the political process was corrupted, and yet the wealthy remained susceptible to popular pressure and always fearful of demands for the complete redistribution of property.6

This new perspective was soon overtaken by events, as the French Revolution put the question of how societies should respond to the grievances of the poor at the centre of political debate.7 Radicals like Thomas Paine urged the introduction of social measures like subsidised education and grants for those in temporary need, in order that ‘the poor, as well as the rich, will then be interested in the support of government, and the cause and apprehension of riots and tumults will cease’.8 For conservatives like Edmund Burke, on the other hand, such proposals — which threatened the institutions of monarchy, religion and above all private property — were precisely the danger. Burke constantly evoked the fall of the Roman Republic and the decadence of the Roman Empire in his account of the French Revolution, quoting liberally from Sallust, Cicero, Virgil, Horace and Juvenal. Among the French revolutionaries ‘are found persons, in comparison of whom Catiline would be thought scrupulous’; the army was to be seduced from its discipline and fidelity through ‘donatives’, Burke suggested, while the citizens of the capital were to be fed at the expense of their fellow-subjects.9 In particular, he reiterated the dangers of giving in to calls for a redistribution of property, noting that the Romans had in the end confined themselves to confiscating the property of ‘enemies of the state’, rather than attacking all property rights in the name of the ‘rights of Man’.10 The comparison with Rome both emphasised the inevitable consequences of the French experiment, and highlighted the novelty of the radicals in developing an intellectual justification — the rights of Man — for acceding to the demands of the mob and taking advantage of their grievances to overthrow the established order.



Burke followed the conservative tradition of previous centuries in taking the existence of the poor entirely for granted and assuming that any attempt at providing relief, even in times of famine, would simply encourage their inherent laziness.11 Thomas Malthus provided a more elaboration justification of this view, arguing that population growth would always outstrip any increase in agricultural productivity and so there could be no hope in the long term that the majority could be anything other than poor.12 Whereas for Smith the past might be used as a contrast, an example of what the modern world might now hope to escape, for Malthus it revealed the inescapable workings of nature, the ahistorical forces that would inevitably frustrate human endeavour; in later editions of his work he greatly expanded the historical sections to reinforce his point. The principle of population was revealed even in the case of the Roman republic, cited against him by opponents who pointed to the concern of contemporaries about a lack of manpower:
When the equality of property, which had formerly prevailed in the Roman territory, had been destroyed by degrees, and the land had fallen into the hands of a few great proprietors, the citizens, who were by this change successively deprived of the means of supporting themselves, would naturally have no recourse to prevent them from starving, but that of selling their labour to the rich, as in modern states; but from this resource they were completely cut off by the prodigious number of slaves, which, increasing by constant influx with the increasing luxury of Rome, filled up every employment both in agriculture and manufactures. Under such circumstances, so far from being astonished that the number of free citizens should decrease, the wonder seems to be that any should exist besides the proprietors. And in fact many could not have existed but for a strange and preposterous custom, which, however, the strange and unnatural state of the city might perhaps require, that of distributing vast quantities of corn to the poorer citizens gratuitously.13
If half the slaves had been sent out of the country, the effect would have been ‘to increase the number of Roman citizens with more certainty and rapidity than ten thousand laws for the encouragement of children’. Poverty for Malthus is thus unavoidable except in the short term, whether it results from slavery, from economic stagnation or from overpopulation.14 There is then always a danger that the poor might be persuaded by ‘any dissatisfied man of talents’ that their distress is actually the fault of the established order, and so induced to revolt against it — another analysis of the French Revolution that owed a great deal to Cicero and Sallust.15 Malthus’ solution was to urge moral restraint and the deferment of marriage, and to accept that the monarchy might sometimes be justified in restricting liberty and employing force.

The question of whether the grievances of the poor could be addressed without resort to now-discredited revolutionary measures, or whether those grievances would inevitably lead to the destruction of society, was equally an issue for more liberal thinkers in the tradition of Smith, such as Jean-Baptiste Say in France. Say offered a similar analysis of the indebtedness of the Roman poor, seen in part as a result of their unwillingness to take on ‘slavish’ employment; ‘hence the unrest and turbulence of the non-proprietors’, constantly demanding an equal distribution of property, which impelled the leaders of Rome to embark on military action abroad in order to distract the masses from their grievances and bribe them with booty:


What a poor figure these masters of the world cut, when they were not in the army or in revolt. They fell into poverty the moment they had no one more to pillage. It was from such people that the clientelage of a Marius, a Sulla, a Pompey, a Caesar, an Anthony or an Augustus were formed.16
More explicitly than in Smith’s account, this description of Rome was offered as a contrast to the contemporary situation. Say’s optimistic view was that modern economic and social development had made war uneconomical and clientelage obsolete; poverty should be a thing of the past, and the poverty that brought about the fall of governments and the establishment of tyranny should now be confined to the Roman past.

Writers in this period drew very different conclusions from historical material, both regarding whether (and, if so, how) poverty could be relieved or abolished, and more generally about the way that society should be organised and managed, but they shared a common idea of Rome. Roman history provided the archetypal image of the mob, the group of poor whose grievances left them alienated from the rest of society and who were thus susceptible to rabble-rousing and manipulation; it presented the poor as a potential threat to social stability, whose acquiescence had to be bought by indulging their idleness at the expense of the empire’s subjects. This account echoes faithfully a number of familiar Roman sources, from Sallust and Cicero on the followers of Catiline to Juvenal’s much-quoted dismissal of the Roman plebs as concerned only with bread and circuses. However, the material is reinterpreted in the light of a new understanding of economic and social structures; whereas for Cicero (and indeed for Burke) poverty was accepted as part of the order of things and, in individual cases, seen as a moral defect, Smith and Malthus developed explanations of why some people happen to be poor. They sought to understand Roman society in these terms, considering the interrelations between poverty, slavery, political structures and imperialism, and as a result attributed a greater share of the blame for social disorder to Rome’s leaders, for the way that they had responded to the problem.

Their accounts suggest different ways of thinking about the place of the poor in the city of Rome, but there are two obvious problems. The first is that of the evidence: Burke, Malthus and the like deploy historical material to support their political arguments about poverty, but their sources for this are already politicised, presented in the context of a set of ideological assumptions. When Cicero describes Roman society in terms of a distinction between assidui and proletarii (Rep. II.40) or between the populus and the plebs (Mur. 1), or identifies those who work in shops and taverns as likely adherents of Catiline, as opposed to the respectable plebs (Cat. IV.17), these are not neutral accounts of social reality. In part, they reflect an elite world-view that sometimes uses the vocabulary of poverty indiscriminately of the entire non-elite population — a poor man, from this perspective, is anyone who lacks the leisure, and hence the virtue, of the rich — and sometimes seeks to distinguish, as Tacitus puts it, between those sections of the population who were ‘virtuous and associated with the great houses’ and the ‘dirty plebs, accustomed to the circus and theatres’ (Hist. 1.4).17 In part, they are deliberate attempts at constructing and promoting such an image of society for particular purposes.
Long ago, the people cast off its worries, when we stopped selling our votes. A body that used to confer commands, legions, rods and everything else, has now narrowed its scope, and is eager and anxious for two things only: bread and circuses. (Juvenal 10: 77-80)
The tradition of taking Juvenal’s account at face value, either quoting it as a simple description of Roman life (as nineteenth-century commentators tended to do) or explaining how the plebs could not in fact have survived on the corn dole alone, neglects his ironic intent.18 He does not pretend to present a description of urban reality, but rather deploys this picture of the idle mob as a symbol of the political failure of the Republic — the good old days when we used to sell our votes — and the decadence of the Principate. Likewise, Satire 3 uses the topos of the poor man’s life in Rome to construct an image of the city as a place of extreme contrasts between luxury and poverty, opulence and destitution, pleasure and death. There are echoes here of the dramatic qualities of nineteenth-century depictions of London: ‘the most miserable is the most memorable’.19

More sinisterly, it can be argued that the stereotypes of the poor as idle and worthless legitimised the wealthy in the enjoyment of their wealth, and reinforced the social structure that kept the masses in their place.20 Certainly those who attended contiones were encouraged to identify themselves with the loyal, respectable populus which upheld the authority of the magistrates and supported the maintenance of the social hierarchy, and to oppose the sordida plebs.21 Within political discourse, poverty was pathologised, presented as inextricably entwined with envy and sedition:


In general the whole plebs approved of Catiline’s undertaking, from an inclination for new things. In this it seemed to act according to its custom. For always in a state those who have no resources envy the propertied, admire evil men, hate established things and long for new ones, and from discontent with their own position they desire everything to be changed. (Sall. Cat. 37)22
Catiline, Clodius and the like are to be discredited by the base motives of their followers, as they can win over only those people too poor to uphold their own principles (compare Cicero, Dom. 89), while any legitimate grievances of the poor are tainted through their association with Catiline and other revolutionaries. Reference to the Roman poor was intended to arouse fear of violent upheaval and attacks on private property, in order to justify a course of action, sway a jury or win support for one side in a debate. It is easy to see how such texts would serve the purposes of conservatives like Burke; it is not clear that they can tell us much about the actual Roman poor.

Indeed, there is a second and more basic problem in this study, that of identifying its subject. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century political economists unselfconsciously treated ‘the poor’ of Rome as identical with the plebs or the populus, and vice versa, despite the fact that within their own societies the poor were clearly only a subset of the population at large. They were happy to accept, following Juvenal, that the mass of the Roman population was effectively destitute and dependent on the corn dole, and to consider a group defined in political terms as coterminous with one defined by economic or social criteria. Neither of these assumptions now seems tenable; to consider how far ‘the poor’ were in fact a significant social group within Roman society, it is necessary to try to develop a more precise definition of their identity, based on economic or social criteria.




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