More often than not, we tend to turn our eyes away from poverty and the poor, the blemish on the conscience of our society in which everything exists in abundance and in which no one would have to suffer from absolute poverty if there were any actual will to address the issue that lies in the deeply unjust spread of wealth.
More often than not, we tend to reach for the insulting, yet convenient, assumption that the poor and destitute themselves are somehow to blame for their situation, and that therefore, if only they tried harder, they could end it without any fundamental changes.
Unfortunately, there is no simple cure for coldheartedness.
Unfortunately, there is no political will to effectively end poverty – not even for those who least deserve its effects and who are least likely to be able to fight it: children, the sick, and the old.
Unfortunately, some people will simply not get the (not at all subtle) distinction between poverty chosen for oneself (e. g. for religious reasons) and poverty of the masses, across the globe, that no one chose – and that no one deserves.
Unfortunately, it makes people look the other way – most of them, anyway:
- CIL VIII 7858 = VIII 19480 = ILAlg II 1.837 = CLE 114 (Constantine/Cirta, Numidia)
PERFRIX[- – -]IEC
puel(l)em (?) [- – -]OIV
POSAM TIMVI[- – -]
nec dispexsi pau-
[peres – – -]SY h(ic) s(itus) e(st).
o(ssa) t(ibi) b(ene) q(uiescant).
[The beginning is damaged beyond comprehension.]
I curried favour with the powerful, yet I did not despise the poor … [damaged passage follows]
… is buried here. May your bones rest well.
Chosen ‘poverty’ – that of Pope Hilarius, who was sanctified subsequently – in extreme cases may sound a little like this:
- CIL XII 949 cf. p. 819 = ILCV 1062 add. = CLE 688 (Arles/Arelate, Gallia Narbonensis)
gis antestis (!)
hic quiescit. ||
Antistes domini qui, p[aupertatis] amorem
praeponens auro, rapuit c[aelesti]a regna
Hilarius cui palma o[b]itus e[t viv]ere Chr(istu)s,
contemnens fragilem ter[ren]i corporis usum
hic carnis spolium liquit a[d] astra volans.
sprevit opes dum quaerit opes mortalia mu[t]ans
perpetuis, caelum donis terrestribus emit.
gemma sacerdotum plebisque orbisque magister
rustica quin etiam pro Chr(ist)o [mu]nia sumens
servile obsequium [non] dedignatus adire
officio vixit minimus et culmine summus.
nec mirum si post haec meruit tua limina, Chr(ist)e,
angelicasque domos intravit et aurea regna,
divitias, paradise, tuas, flagrantia semper
gramina et halantes divinis floribus hortos
subiectasque videt nubes et sidera caeli.
Hilarius, priest of the most holy law, rests here.
Hilarius, the Lord’s priest, who, preferring the love of poverty over gold, took possession of the heavenly realm, who regarded death and Christ being alive as victory prizes, contemptuous of the frail use of the earthly body, he left behind the spoil of the flesh, flying to the stars. He despised possessions, while he sought the means to change things mortal continuously, and he bought heaven with earthly gifts. A gem of priests and a teacher of the people and the world, taking on even rural duties for Christ, not dishonoured to approach slave-like compliance, he lived most humbly in gesture, yet he was the highest in rank. No wonder if, subsequently, he deserved access to your doorstep, Christ, and entered the dwellings of the angels and their golden realms, he sees, Paradise, your riches, eternally gleaming pastures and gardens breathing the scent of divine flowers, the clouds below as well as the stars of heaven.
Enviable, to be able to afford such poverty.
But what does involuntary, destitute poverty in ancient Rome sound like?
Do we know?
Occasionally, one encounters the view that the poor simply do not have a voice, to state their case, to fight their cause.
Maybe this is true. Maybe it is not.
Maybe we are just too busy listening to the wealthy and affluent, who try to protect their wealth, that we refuse to hear the voices of the poor – voices that are mentioned not only in the writings of Rome’s literati, but also recorded, on occasion, in the corpus of Latin inscriptions.
Cum quidam pauper…
When some pauper…
(cf. CIL IV 3320 = 5017. 4114. 4515. 4952. 8835d. 8849. 10038b. 10196c. 10569 = CLE 1864, a recurring phrase in the Pompeian wall inscriptions, said to resemble the opening of fables of the type that Phaedrus wrote)
Strangely, a recent edited volume on Poverty in the Roman World, edited by Margaret Atkins and Robin Osborne, does not appear to contain any contribution that explores the voices of those who purported to be poor in the inscriptions.
But that does not mean they do not exist.
Francisca Feraudi-Gruénais has produced an excellent study on them, for example, focusing on the city of Rome herself.
Alexandrian statuette commonly explained as that of a physically impaired beggar (3rd century B.C.?). – (c) Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg. – Image source here.
Yet, overall, the poor, marginalised politically and / or socially, remain remarkably silent.
Did they have a voice? Were they able to speak, to write poetry, to sing? Or was there nothing but utter silence in Rome’s peanut gallery?
Let us give at least some of Rome’s poor their voice and their dignity back – listening to the words of the (self-professed) poor of ancient Rome in poems engraved on stone.
A representative selection, incomplete.
Let us listen and yet be fully aware of the fact that there were countless people who were significantly worse off still, people whose voices we cannot ever reclaim, no matter how hard we try.
- CIL XII 1036 cf. p. 821 = CLE 203 (Les Angles, Gallia Narbonensis)
coniugi piae et castae
maritus qualem pauper-
tas potuit memoriam dedi.
To the Spirits of the Departed.
For Cupitia Florentina, his devoted and chaste wife, I, Ianuarius Primitivus, her husband, gave a memorial as grand as poverty would allow.
- ILAlg II–III 8467 = CLE Afr 2.95 = AE 1966.539 = AE 1992.1880 (Val d’Or, Numidia)
filios monuit bene.
T(itus) Flavius Faedrus
Iunia Baccula remained faithful to the Eucrati sodality, displayed decency, took care of her husband, tolerated poverty, and instructed the children well. Titus Flavius Faedrus for his deserving wife.
- CIL V 4593 = Inscr. It. X 5.391 = CLE 1042 (Brescia/Brixia)
Q(uinti) l(ibertus) Blandus
Pro paupertate haec summo tibi
tempore coniunx ut potui
meritis parvola dona dedi.
innocens vixit ann(os) XXIIX.
While still alive, Quintus Egnatius Blandus, freedman of Quintus, had this made for himself and Minucia Urbana, his wife.
As much as poverty allowed me to do, I gave you, my wife, when the time had come, this rather too little gift [i. e. the monument] for your merits.
She lived without a blame for 28 years.
- CIL III 2835 cf. p. 1036 = CLE 992 = ILS 2257 (Ivoseci/Burnum, Dalmatia)
C(ai) f(ilius) Romilia
leg(ionis) XI anno-
rum XL stip(endiorum) XVI
h(ic) s(itus) e(st). frater
vixsi quad potui sem-
per bene pauper honeste,
[fr]audavi nullum. nunc iuvat
Titus Cominius, son of Gaius, of the Romilian voting tribe, from Ateste, soldier of the eleventh legion, aged 40, having served the army for 16 years, is buried here. A brother erected this for a brother.
I always lived well, as much as I could, poor, honest, I cheated no one. Now this pays off, meaning pleasure for my bones.
- CIL VI 2489 cf. p. 3369. 3835 = VI 32649 = CLE 991 = ILS 2028 (Rome)
Q(uinti) f(ilius) Pub(lilia)
mil(es) coh(ortis) III pr(aetoriae) annis XVIII
missus duobus Geminis
Masuriae M(arci) f(iliae) Marcellae.
vixi quod volui semper bene
pauper honeste, fraudavi
nullum, quod iuvat ossa mea.
in f(ronte) p(edes) XI s(emis), in agr(o) p(edes) XIII s(emis).
To the Spirits of the Departed.
Quintus Caetronius Passer, son of Quintus, of the Publilian voting tribe, soldier of the third praetorian cohort, retired after 18 years under the consulship of the two Gemini [= A. D. 29], for himself and Masuria Marcella, daughter of Marcus.
I always lived well, as much as I desired, poor, honest, I cheated no one. Now this means pleasure for my bones.
11.5 ft wide, 13.5 ft deep.
- CIL VIII 23264 = CLE 2087 = ILTun 455 (Haidra/Ammaedara, Africa Proconsularis)
- – – – – –
[S]er(vi) Corneli Cethe[gi]
proco(n)s(ulis) ser(vus) hic sit[us].
vixit ann(os) X[- – -].
Habrus (?) quas potuit carissime d[ulcis amice]
pauper et exiguus reddidit infer[ias].
[The beginning is damaged beyond comprehension.]
… slave of Servius Cornelius Cethegus, the proconsul, is buried here. He lived [at least 10] years.
Habrus (or Fabrus?), poor and indigent, bestowed this funeral on you, dearest, sweet friend, as best he could.
Inscriptions containing only very short poems, from a wide variety of geographical contexts, all united by their desire to assert dignity, decency, education, and the virtuous life – in the face of poverty. In the face of the contempt that the poor experience across time and space (note, for example, this excellent piece by Helen Lovatt on Martial’s poem 12.32, on the eviction of a poor family).
There are slightly longer examples, too, of course – a small selection of remarkable items may suffice:
Hospes resiste et hoc ad grumum ad laevam aspice ubei
continentur ossa hominis boni misericordis amantis
pauperis rogo te viator monumento hic ni(hi)l male feceris
C(aius) Ateilius Serrani l(ibertus) Euhodus margaritarius de sacra
via in hoc monumento conditus est viator vale.
ex testamento in hoc monumento neminem inferri neque
condi licet nisei eos lib(ertos) quibus hoc testamento dedi tribuique.
Stranger, stop and turn your gaze towards this hillock on your left, which holds the bones of a poor man of righteousness and mercy and love. Wayfarer, I ask you to do no harm to this memorial.
Gaius Attilius Euhodus, freedman of Serranus, a pearl-merchant of Holy Way, is buried in this memorial. Wayfarer, good bye.
By last will and testament: it is not permitted to convey into or bury in this memorial any one other than those freedmen to whom I have given and bestowed this right by last will and testament.
- CIL VI 8012 cf. p. 3853 = CLE 134 = ILS 8436 (Rome)
C(aius) Gargilius Haemon Proculi
Philagri divi Aug(usti) l(iberti) Agrippiani f(ilius)
v(ivus?) paedagogus idem l(ibertus).
pius et sanctus
vixi quam diu potui sine lite
sine rixa sine controversia
sine aere alieno, amicis fidem
bonam praestiti, peculio
pauper animo divitissimus.
bene valeat is qui hoc (!) titulum
Gaius Gargilius Haemon, son of Philagrus Agrippianus, freedman of the deified Augustus, while still alive; paedagogus as well as freedman.
Dutiful and august I lived for as long as I could, without lawsuit, without a row, without controversy, without debt, I lived up to my duty to my friends as best I could, poor in terms of personal property, rich in spirit. May he be well, who reads this inscription of mine.
- CIL VI 14404 cf. p. 3515 = CLE 1038 cf. p. 3515 (Rome; translation by Edward Courtney, Musa Lapidaria p. 171 no. 181)
L(ucius) Carisius L(uci) l(ibertus) Gemellus
Iuniae Q(uinti) l(ibertae) Mela[niae(?)].
terra levi tumulo levior ne degravet ossa,
pau(pe)ris inpositum sustinet arte super.
Iunia formosas inter memoranda puellas,
Iunia castarum hoc es in orbe decus,
in cineres verssa (!) ess (!) tumuloque inclusa cicadae:
diceris coniunxs una fuisse viri.
Carisius Gemellus, freedman of Lucius, for Julia Melania (?), freedwoman of Quintus.
The earth, lighter than the mound which itself is light so that it may not weigh down on the bones, holds above itself that mound laid on it by such skill as a poor man can afford. Junia, memorable among beautiful women, Junia, glory of chaste women while you sojourned (?) on earth, you have been turned into ashes and shut into a cicada’s tomb. You will be remembered as the only wife of your husband.
Poverty is said to be a curse.
In some cases, this applies quite literally:
- CIL VI 24800 cf. p. 3531. 3917 = CLE 1299 = ILS 8183 (Rome)
Popilia Alexandria rarissima
femina a(nnorum) XXXV hic sita est.
M(arcus) Ulpius Ingenuus b(ene) m(erenti) et sibi.
quid lacrimas? factum est,
vir bone, vive vale.
sed tibi, invide, opto qui
ossucula mea hic sita esse
gemis morte tardata vivas
[- – -] aeger inops.
Greetings, sweetness. Popilia Alexandria, a most remarkable lady, lies here, aged 35. Marcus Ulpius Ingenuus had this made for her, well-deserving, and himself. Farewell, sweetness. Why do you cry? It is done, good man, live, farewell. But you, spiteful man, who bemoans that my little bones lie here, may you live, with your death deferred, … sick and poor.
Is it possible to escape the curse?
One certainly may pray for it:
- BCTH 1915.ccxxxviii = AE 1916.7 = AE 1916.8 (Setif/Sitifis, Mauretania Caesariensis)
D(is) M(anibus) s(acrum).
hic ego infelix receptus Tartara `Ditis´
horrea dira mihi viae vitamque remisi,
[nec] licuit fatoque meo filiosque vidir[e]:
cernerem infernas sedes superosq(ue) remisi,
Parcarum arbitrio genesis vel lege tributa.
infestis querellis Superis ac tristibus aris,
tura dedi Manibus supplex crepitantia flammis;
quod non exauditas pre<c>es debusque supernis,
te precor his precibus Bato, carissime frater:
si qua mea commendata tibi filiosque repertos
tradas, vefes (!) dea Pauperies obnoxia non sit.
memoriam facitote mihi, ne derisus in imo
infernas <i>nt<r>a sedes de crimine passus
nomine Dalmatio semper <a>matus ad omnes.
Val(erio) Dalmatio exarco equitum
stablesianorum Bato suo parenti.
Sacred to the Spirits of the Departed.
Unhappily welcomed here in Dis’ Tartarus, I left the awful granaries and the path of my life behind, and my fate was not entitled to see my children: I left the world above to see the hellish realm, by decree of the Fates or by the law that was assigned upon my birth. As the gods above and those sad altars were hostile to my requests, I offered frankincense, crackling in the flames, to the Spirits of the Departed, a suppliant myself. As my prayers to the gods above remained unheard, I beg you with these prayers, Bato, dearest brother: if you pass to my children, when found, the things with which I have entrusted you, may Poverty, the goddess, mean no harm to you.
You will ensure memory of me, lest I be mocked, deep down in the realm of hell, subject to allegations, I, Dalmatius by name, always beloved by everyone.
To Valerius Dalmatius, exarch of the horsemen from the stables. Bato, for his father.
Is it possible to escape poverty, if left to one’s own devices, as many a populist politician seems to suggest?
‘By Well-Doing Poverty Becomes Rich‘ – Plaque at the Scottish Fisheries Museum, Anstruther. – Photo (c) PK, 2015.
Certainly not for everyone.
Whenever someone achieves it, however, it makes for an excellent story to be told. The most famous example, perhaps, is that of the so-called Mactar Harvester, Ancient Rome’s most famous rags-to-riches story (CIL VIII 11824 cf. p. 2372 = CLE 1238 = ILS 07457 = ILTun 528; translation by T. Parkin and A. Pomeroy, Roman Social History. A Sourcebook, London 2007):
Caeselia Namina [- – -]
[- – -]lianus pius [vix]it
pia vixit annis [- – -]
[- – -] annis
[- – – – – -]
VC[- – -]AIIIS[- – -]MA[- – -]TVE[- – -]
paupere progenitus lare sum parvoq(ue) parente
cuius nec census neque domus fuerat
ex quo sum genitus ruri mea vixi colendo
nec ruri pausa nec mihi semper erat
et cum maturas segetes produxerat annus
demessor calami tunc ego primus eram
falcifera cum turma virum processerat arvis
seu Cirtae Nomados seu Iovis arva petens
demessor conctos anteibam primus in arvis
pos tergus linguens densa meum gremia
bis senas messes rabido sub sole totondi
ductoret ex opere postea factus eram
undecim et turmas messorum duximus annis
et Numidiae campos nostra manus secuit
hic labor et vita parvo con(ten)ta valere
et dominum fecere domus et villa paratast
et nullis opibus indiget ipsa domus
et nostra vita fructus percepit honorum
inter conscriptos scribtus et ipse fui
ordinis in templo delectus ab ordine sedi
et de rusticulo censor et ipse fui
et genui et vidi iuvenes carosq(ue) nepotes
vitae pro meritis claros transegimus annos
quos nullo lingua crimine laedit atrox
discite mortales sine crimine degere vitam
sic meruit vixit qui sine fraude mori ||
D(is) M(anibus) s(acrum).
vixi(t) an(nos) XXX ||
[D(is) M(anibus) s(acrum)]
us F[- – -]-
I was born into a poor dwelling and of a poor father, who had no property or household. From the time of my birth, I lived in the country looking after my business; there was no time off in the countryside and none for me at any time. And when the time of year had brought forth the grain ready for harvest, then I was the first reaper of the stalks. When the sickle-bearing gangs of men had made their way to the fields, whether heading for The Nomads of Cirta or The Fields of Jupiter, as harvester I preceded all, first into the fields, leaving the packed bands behind my back. I reaped twelve harvests under the raging sun, and afterwards became a work gang leader instead of a labourer. We led the gangs of harvesters for eleven years and our band cut down the Numidian fields. This effort and my frugal lifestyle brought success and made me master of a household and gained me a house, and my home itself lacks nothing. And my life gained the rewards of office: I was myself enrolled among the conscript councillors. Elected by the order [of the decurions], I had a seat in the order’s temple and, starting out as a humble country boy, I too became censor. I produced children and saw them grow into young men and saw their children too. In accord with our services in life, we have enjoyed years of fame, which no bitter tongue has hurt with any reproach. People, learn to pass your lives without giving reason for reproach. The man who has lived deceitfully has earned meeting his death in such a manner.
On a somewhat less epic level –
- CIL V 938 = CLE 372 = ILS 2905 (Aquileia)
L(ucius) Trebius T(iti) f(ilius)
L(ucius) Trebius L(uci) f(ilius) Ruso. ||
natus summa in pauperie merui post classicus miles
ad latus Augusti annos septem decemque,
nullo odio sine offensa, missus quoq(ue) honeste.
l(ocus) p(edum) q(uadratorum) XVI.
Lucius Trebius, son of Titus, father.
Lucius Trebius Ruso, son of Lucius.
Born in deepest poverty, I subsequently served as as soldier of the fleet, side by side with the Emperor, for seventeen years, without incurring any hate, without a fail, honourably discharged, too.
This plot comprises 16 sq. ft.
Success stories like this, however, presumably were the exception in the ancient world– and we don’t know just how much of a persuasive traction such ‘from dishwasher to millionaire’ stories could gain back then.
Ideological charged narratives now, they remain the narrative of exceptions to the rule.
In that regard, support for the poor, as fully valued, equal members of our society, cannot just be a thing of the past:
- ICERV 278 = PELCatalans T 17 (Tarragona/Tarraco, Hispania citerior)
Sollers magnanimus pius ingenio cato
hic quiescit in tumulo Sergius pontifex s(an)c(tu)s
qui sacri labentis restaura(n)s culmina templi
haud procul ab urbe construxit cenobium s(an)c(t)is.
pauperes patrem hu(n)c tutorem hab(u)ere pupilli,
viduas (!) solamen captibis pretium
esurien(tibu)s repperit alimentum.
profluus in lacrimis depulit contagia carnis
cunctis carissimus exuberanti gratia polle(n)s
parcus in abundantia locuplex egentib(us) vixit
septies denos pr(a)esentis (a)evi p(er)agens annos
tria sacer pontifex pariterq(ue) septena
religiosae vit(a)e explevit tempora (!) lustra.
Skillful, generous, dutiful, of sharp wit: here in this tumulus rests Sergius, the saint bishop, who, after restoring the ceilings of the sacred temple (which had begun to fall into disrepair), built a monastery for monks not far from the city. He was regarded as parent by the poor, as guardian by the pupils, he meant consolation for the widows, he was valued by prisoners, and he found food for the famished. Easily given to tears, he avoided the contact of meat, beloved by everyone, strong in grace, frugal when it came to abundance, generous to the needy, he lived seventy years of his age and, consecrated as bishop, he completed three decades of his life-time alongside seven decades of a religious life.