By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University
The poor constituted a sizeable percentage of the Roman population from the 1st century B.C. to the end of the 2nd century A.D. Learn more about the people who were known as the plebeians. Why were they called so?
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. And, it is estimated that the poor constituted a sizeable percentage of that total. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, would have not only been poor but also destitute and homeless.
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.
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Homes of the Poor in Ancient Rome
A poor Roman man lived in a one-room apartment, in what was called an insula or apartment block. Some of these insulae were seven or more storeys in height. They catered to persons of a wide variety of socio-economic status. 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 occupied 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. And, as there was no glass to cover it, when it rained, one had to cover it with an old rag. It must have been stifling and fetid in the summer, and dank and dark in the winter.
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The Poor in Insula
To reach one’s apartment, a poor man had to climb as many as 200 stairs. He had to carry his shopping and his water up those 200 stairs, with probably half of the contents ending up on the stairs.
Moreover, the higher up one lived, the more at risk he was. If, for instance, the roof leaked, the poor man would be the one to feel the effect first, with a good chance of contracting pneumonia.
Worst of all was the threat of fire because that would turn the building into a death trap, particularly if the fire started on the ground floor.
Insulae were also vulnerable to flooding whenever the Tiber River burst its banks. This seems to have happened, on average, once every 20 years, particularly during winter and spring.
So if one’s insula stood in the flood plain, he stood a good chance of it collapsing, and his possessions becoming waterlogged, if not washed away.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Fires in Ancient Rome
Fires in Rome were extremely common, particularly in the insulae, which were largely built of wood. That’s mainly because the only forms of heating above the ground floor were the open braziers. This also meant that in the wintertime, the rooms were filled with smoke.
Oil lamps, which were the only source of artificial lighting, added to the vulnerability, supposing one could afford at bit of oil, as these could very easily be knocked over.
The First Fire Brigade of Rome
Emperor Augustus was the first to establish a fire brigade in Rome, consisting of 7,000 vigiles, or watchmen, armed with buckets of water.
However, they were completely overpowered by the worst recorded fire in Rome’s history—the magnum incendium Romae or ‘Great fire of Rome’—which occurred in A.D. 64 in the reign of Emperor Nero. The fire is said to have raged for a week and to have destroyed 10 of the 14 regions of the city.
The historian Tacitus says that after it had been put out, Nero allowed the homeless to occupy the grounds of his palaces and he arranged for food supplies to be brought in to the city to prevent them from starving. After the fire, Nero rebuilt the city with wider streets to limit the spread of any future fire. He also required that houses—but not insulae—be made of brick.
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Exclusion of the Poor
Being poor also meant being excluded. The Roman citizenry was divided into plebeians and patricians. The patricians 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, people were debarred from belonging to a religious college, holding magistracy, and being elected to the senate. They were 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.
The Poor and the Elections
Being poor also meant not counting, literally. Of the several assemblies of Roman citizens that were periodically summoned for voting purposes, the most important was the comitia centuriata or centuriate assembly, so named because the citizen body was divided into 193 so-called centuries. Each century had one vote, so there were 193 votes in total.
The wealthiest citizens, however, who of course were far fewer in number, were divided into 97 centuries, and these centuries voted first. Once a majority was achieved, the election was over and the results announced.
So if a poor Roman turned up to vote, there was a good chance that the election would be declared over before he could even cast his ballot.
Learn more about being a rich Roman.
Prejudice against the Poor in Ancient Rome
Lastly, being poor in ancient Rome also meant being despised. Juvenal wrote, “There is nothing in the calamity of poverty that is harder to bear than the fact that it makes people look ridiculous.”
Roman literature contains many cruel jokes about the poor. Looking ridiculous, however, was only half the story. Much worse than that was being an object of contempt.
This prejudice was reinforced by the value-laden terminology that both the Greeks and the Romans used to describe the wealthy and the poor. The Greeks called the wealthy aristoi, chrêstoi, and beltistoi, adjectives which literally mean ‘the best’, whereas they called the poor ponêroi and cheirous, which mean ‘the bad’ and ‘the worse’.
The Romans called the lower classes the humiliores, modern words being ‘humility’ and ‘humble’, and the upper classes the honestiores, modern word being ‘honest’.
The Latin word plebs, which gives ‘plebeian’, was often combined with the adjective sordida. To this day, the word plebeian is pejorative, which shows the extent to which the Romans have succeeded in passing along their prejudices.
Common Questions about the Challenges of Being a Poor Roman in Ancient Rome
The satirical poet Juvenal 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.
In ancient Rome, as one of the very poorest in an insula, one occupied 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, with no glass covering.
The Emperor Augustus was the first to establish a fire brigade in Rome, consisting of 7,000 vigiles, or watchmen, armed with buckets of water.