A Poor Roman: Definition and Implications

From the lecture series: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Some scholars have argued that ‘mass structural poverty’ has been the condition of most human beings throughout most of history. Read on to understand what is meant by poverty—both in definition and context.

Picture of the ruins in Rome.
The poor constituted a sizeable percentage of Rome’s population from the 1st century B.C. to the end of the 2nd century A.D. (Image: Krivinis/Shutterstock)

Mass Structural Poverty

Throughout most of history, mass structural poverty has been the condition of most human beings. Rome’s population at its height—that is to say from the 1st century B.C. to the end of the 2nd century A.D., is generally put at around 1 million. The poor constituted a sizeable percentage of that total, although there are no means of estimating how sizeable it was. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, would have not only been poor but also destitute and homeless.

Moreover, in most societies, including the Roman society, women were more likely to be impoverished than men, the elderly more than the young, and the disabled and the infirm more than the fit and the unimpaired.

Learn more about being a Roman slave.

Definition of Poverty

However, before we begin looking at the state of poverty in ancient Rome, we need to establish what we mean by poverty. We need to give it both definition and context.

We tend to think of poverty as an objective condition, which it isn’t. According to the current way of thinking, its chief attributes would probably include a barely subsistence level diet, a high level of infant mortality, and a low level of literacy.

Poverty Varies in Different Societies

However, it is important to understand poverty within the standards and expectations of a particular society.

For instance, for wealthy Greeks, the present-day people would probably be judged poor by their standards. That’s because they would regard the long hours that people work as a clear indicator of poverty.

They were quite happy to live in what would be called modest circumstances in today’s times because they took much more pride in their public buildings than today’s generation. In other words, they were much more civic-oriented.

The Romans didn’t quite hold the same view as the Greeks—they were not the ones to settle for modest circumstances if they could possibly avoid it—but they still took considerable pride in their public buildings.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Poor in Ancient Rome

So what did it mean to be poor in Rome? An old man living alone in the city of Rome, with no relatives, wife, and children to care for him, and so being forced to work, would have been considered poor.

A poor man had very few possessions to call his own and had no savings. The satirical poet Juvenal, who lived around A.D. 100, listed the worldly possessions of an impoverished Roman as follows: one undersized bed, a cupboard, a chest, six cups, a pitcher, and a small statue. The statue, probably made of baked clay, was no doubt of some God.

How Did the Poor Live in Ancient Rome?

A poor man usually lived in a one-room apartment, in what was called an insula or apartment block. Insula literally means ‘island’. These apartments were called so because they were surrounded by streets on all four sides.

Traces of insulae have been found all over Rome and in the neighboring port town called Ostia, about 15 miles from Rome. The insulae that have been excavated in Ostia were built sturdily. However, that might simply be a function of the fact that the ones that weren’t sturdy have left no trace in the archaeological record.

Photo of the ruins of an insula in Rome.
The poor Romans occupied the top floors of the insulae. (Image: Tatsuo Nakamura/Shutterstock)

Some of these insulae were seven or more storeys in height. Their ground-floor apartments were large and spacious, and leased out to the wealthiest tenants. However, as one ascended floor by floor, they became progressively more cramped and uncomfortable, as the tenants became progressively poor.

The poorest one would occupy some poky, rat-infested, leaky room directly under the eaves in which one could barely stand up and which had only a small opening for light.

The Living Conditions in Ancient Rome

A poor man’s only source of heating was an open brazier, which meant that in the wintertime, his room was filled with smoke.

Plus, as there were no facilities for cooking, he ate in the local popina or taverna, which gave rise to the modern word ‘tavern’. The popina was rowdy and there were frequent scuffles, but it was the center of his social life.

If one didn’t have even enough money to go to the popina, then he would have to live on scraps of food that he would fiund in the marketplace.

Learn more about the Roman society.

Health of the Poor in Ancient Rome

Being poor also meant being vulnerable to diseases. As one of the urban poor, a Roman man was at greater risk than the rural poor, in part because of his greater exposure to infectious diseases due to overcrowding and inadequate sanitation, and in part because of the ever-present danger from fire and floods.

Because of malnutrition, he was highly susceptible to beriberi, rickets, and scurvy. Gastroenteritis was a regular health hazard, and it was a dead certainty that he would have an assortment of parasitic worms in his intestines.

A poor Roman man probably did not have any money saved to pay for his own burial. So, when he died, no rituals were performed on his behalf. His corpse was either tossed unceremoniously into the Tiber River to be borne out to sea or dumped in a communal pit outside the city. One estimate puts the number of corpses that met this fate annually in Rome at 1,500.

Social Status of the Poor in Ancient Rome

Coloured sketch of an ancient Roman man and woman.
The Romans were divided into plebeians and patricians. (Image: Hein Nouwens/Shutterstock)

Being poor also meant being excluded. Rome, from the earliest times, divided its citizenry into plebeians and patricians. The patricians, whose name comes from pater, meaning ‘father’, were the privileged class. Their origins are hotly disputed, but they were almost certainly aristocrats. The plebeians were everyone else.

In early times, as a member of the plebeian order, a poor man was debarred from belonging to a religious college, holding magistracy, and being elected to the senate. He was also prohibited from intermarriage with a member of the patrician class.

Though most of these restrictions were removed over time, there remained a category of citizens who were identified as belonging to the lower social orders—the category known as the humiliores, from which modern words ‘humble’ and ‘humility’ derive.

Common Questions about Poor Romans

Q: What was an insula?

An insula was an apartment block in ancient Rome.

Q: What happened when a poor Roman died?

A poor Roman man probably did not have any money saved to pay for his own burial. So when he died, no ritual were performed on his behalf. His corpse was either tossed unceremoniously into the Tiber River or dumped in a communal pit outside the city.

Q: Who were the plebeians and patricians?

In ancient Rome, the citizenry was divided into patricians—the privileged class—and plebeians, everyone else after the patricians.

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