Ancient History & Civilisation



IT IS QUITE REASONABLE TO SUPPOSE that the great mass of people in the Roman world were poor. The poor were free men and women who lived an essentially hand-to-mouth existence, i.e. those who were on the edge of having enough just to live on, who seldom had enough to save, invest, and use to change their situation. Their consuming economic and psychological orientation was just staying alive. Getting ahead remained a possibility, but not a probability and, as I will show, it was not an active concept in their mind world. From the Romano-Grecian world itself, the astrological work Carmen Astrologicum has much the same definition of poverty. There it is defined as not having ‘bread to fill his belly or clothes in which to clothe himself’ and ‘not finding his daily bread’ (1.22, 1.24). Artemidorus in his Interpretation of Dreams locates the poor at the very bottom of society: ‘The poor are like the paltry, obscure places into which shit and other refuse is thrown, or anything else of inconsequence’ (2.9).

A subsistence way of life is an easily understood measure that encompasses a wide range of situations, from the beggar on the street to the peasant, tenant farmer, and day-laborer. It stops short of what I call ordinary people, those who had some resource cushion, but were not wealthy enough to break into the sociopolitical-economic world of the elite. This upper level of ‘the poor’ is necessarily fuzzy, however. Although a slightly more successful artisan would be an ordinary person, the poor artisan, barely making a living, would qualify as ‘poor,’ much like cobbler Micyllus in Lucian’s tale of Hades:

Well, I’ll lament, then, since you wish it, Hermes – Alas, my scraps of leather! Alas, my old shoes! Alackaday, my rotten sandals! Unlucky man that never again will I go hungry from morning to night or wander about in winter barefooted and half-naked, with my teeth chattering for cold! (Downward Journey 20/Harmon)

To offer a rough quantification, it is likely that a cash income of around 300 denarii per year would keep a reasonably sized family above the subsistence level in all but the larger cities; this would be the equivalent of about a denarius a day throughout the year. Although this was probably about the best standard wage, the lower wage of half a denarius a day was common. In addition, the chronic underemployment and fluctuating demand for labor and products in both urban and rural worlds meant that most people were not regularly employed and not paid the best wages; they lived on the edge much if not all of the time. These are the poor.

It is reasonable to ask if it is justifiable to lump all those living a hand-to-mouth existence together when I examine a mind world. After all, it can well be argued that a poor family farming a meager plot, regularly on the edge of starvation but at least with some access to their own food supply, has a fundamentally different outlook from that of a beggar or day-laborer. However, what they share is the highly conditional state of their lives: they are the least able to control their lot and to deal with an always uncertain future. A similar state of powerlessness and always near, if not real, desperation unites them in their attitudes toward what is important, which strategies work best for survival, and how to view their place in the world. And so in this chapter I focus on all free folk in difficult if not desperate circumstances as a permanent condition.

It is not hard to imagine who these people might be. Peasants on the land are an obvious group. The standard definition of a peasant is someone who works his own land, and there were many such independent farmers during the empire. The Moretum, a literary composition in the style of Virgil, captures to a degree the reality of a farmer’s life lived in squalor, with very basic food to eat and an income supplemented by meager sales of garden vegetables in the town market. Likewise tenant farmers were common men who, if they ever had owned the land they worked, had lost it through debt to a landlord who now allowed them to stay in return for a fee or percentage of the land’s produce each year. The parable of the tenants illustrates not only their situation, but the possibility they might cause trouble for the landlord:

There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. Jesus asked: Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? ‘He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,’ they replied, ‘and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.’ (Matthew 21:33–41

The good tenant, therefore, works the landowner’s land and pays what is owed on time. But he does not own the land, and the parable illustrates the tension that existed between the renter and the owner, including the possibility of eviction.

In rural areas, nonslave agricultural laborers also abounded, men without land but with muscle and skill to rent out as needed during the year. The New Testament parable of the workers in the vineyard captures the lot of these men:

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ (Matthew 20:1–8)

And Timon in Lucian’s tale makes even less for his labors. Timon, a once-rich man, has lost everything and so his position in society. To avoid the loss of face this entails:

… therefore my wrongs have driven me to this outlying farm, where, dressed in skins, I till the soil as a hired laborer at four obols [that is, half a denarius] a day, philosophizing with the solitude and with my pick. (The Misanthrope 6/Harmon)

Such men waited all day for work, sometimes in vain; certainly, those seeking work almost always outnumbered those hired, so on any given day a man could easily go home with no income to show for it.

As for the poor in towns, the elite poet Martial points his epigrams at a number of examples. Beggars, of course, abounded; they begged in hoarse voices for the bread that would be thrown to dogs (Epigrams 10.5.5). He refers to ‘beggar’s bridge’, apparently a hangout, as were any covered spaces, such as beneath an aqueduct (Epigrams 12.32.25). He describes the life of a homeless person: shut out of the archway where he holed up, the winter makes him miserable; the dogs set upon him; birds try to take what he has – the image is of one the dead and unburied (Epigrams 12.32.25). The New Testament has a number of examples of beggars at town gates – apparently a favorite spot – and elsewhere. Others sought work as it might occasionally present itself – being a porter, messenger, day-laborer in construction, or whatever proved available. Lucian, for example, notes that typical jobs of the poor included selling salt fish, cobbling sandals, and begging at crossroads. Although in some larger towns a public dole might to some extent alleviate the situation of the poor, such a dole would have reached only a small fraction of the poor population of the empire as a whole and can be ignored as a factor in the elaboration of the poor’s mind world. In fact it is important to ignore much of what has been written about the poor based upon our sources for the city of Rome. Rome and its population was an aberration in the empire both for its size and for its political importance as the immediate milieu of the governing class. As tempting as it is to equate the Roman plebs with the urban poor when writing about the poor of the empire, the temptation must be resisted and material from Rome used very judiciously to be sure that only elements representative of the wider empire’s poor are used as evidence.

While the general outline is clear enough, the state of the sources means that it is impossible to write a detailed account of how the poor lived and how they viewed their world in Roman times. Their treatment in death embodies their perceived worth in life: their remains were cremated and placed in unmarked urns, or their carcasses were thrown into mass graves; in Italy, on the Isola Sacra between Ostia and Rome, and in North Africa such interments have been discovered, while Horace speaks of an area of the Esquiline Hill as the place where ‘a fellow slave would arrange to have his companions’ dead bodies, heaved out of their miserable cells, carried to burial in cheap caskets’ (Satires 1.8.8–13). In life as in death the poor are silent, or virtually so – as they mostly are even in modern times.

A scholar’s list of the few sources found to provide material on the poor’s own outlooks illustrates the difficulty: proverbs, fables, folksongs, oral history, legends, jokes, language, ritual, and religion. But of these, Roman social historians have only proverbs and fables, and bits and snippets of jokes and religion. Proverbs exist in many forms and contexts. Fables, an elaborated form of proverbs, exist in the collection of Aesop’s tales and others. Of course there were folksongs, as there are many passing references such as this one by the elite Dio Chrysostom:

My case is like that of men who in moving or shifting a heavy load beguile their labor by softly chanting or singing a tune – mere toilers that they are and not bards or poets of song.’ (Discourses 1.9/Cohoon)


8. The dead poor. Paupers would be unceremoniously buried in potters’ fields on the outskirts of towns, but the poor might still be able to afford humble burials such as those found at Isola Sacra, near Ostia.

But none survives. Legends, language, and ritual exist only in minuscule snatches or in very elite-distorted contexts.

Scholarly work on proverbs and fables is extensive, but only very recently has there been an attempt to relate their content to the actual life of the poor. Ancients were clear that these genres were expressions of what is now called ‘popular morality.’ Comparative studies also emphasize the validity of using them to see into the mind world of nonelites and, especially, for the most subjected members of society, the poor and slaves. Of course individual examples can be contingent on the context of their application, and ordinary folk and elites, too, valued and used fables in their own lives. In addition, some proverbs and fables are quite opaque. But judiciousness can produce useful results. Grouped patterns of narrative illustrate core values. Teresa Morgan in her Popular Morality in the Early Roman Empire shows the way; her careful and comprehensive work reaches similar conclusions to those I have drawn in my own research. I use selected proverbs and fables here as an essential window onto a real mind world of the poor.

There is one joke book from the ancient world, although we know that many others existed; however, even more so than with proverbs and fables, it is hard to pin down referential material specifically applicable to the outlook of the poor. Notices involving religion and philosophical thinking are sprinkled throughout classical literature; these notices have first to be recognized as relating to the perspective of the poor and then applied appropriately in the course of formulating an overall picture. Finally New Testament material, especially the illustrative situations and parables of the Gospels, provides insight into the outlook of the poor. When the evidence from all these sources comes together, a perhaps surprisingly coherent picture of the mind world of the poor emerges which is valid through time and space across the empire.


There is no quantifiable data from the Romano-Grecian world – or the ancient world in general – that helps much in determining the relative size of the demographic groups in the empire; even the total population is something of a guess, perhaps 50–60 million. Besides, the relative numbers would vary somewhat from place to place and from time to time. Nevertheless, I suppose a certain similarity of basic pattern among preindustrial societies in Europe and the Mediterranean area, and from this I offer a very broad idea of how many poor there were. Based upon studies of early modern Europe, where documentation exists to allow intelligent estimates of the size of various economic groups in society, I propose that about 65 percent of the population, slave and free combined, lived ‘on the edge’ – i.e. was at risk of death from any disruption of their subsistence existence by natural catastrophe, plague, famine, or other disaster.

To return to the poor themselves: They lived in a socioeconomically disadvantaged and contingent condition, and this determined their mind world. This sweeping statement hides an important everyday reality of the Romano-Grecian world. The condition of the poor differed in detail from place to place. Careful analysis would involve looking at the poor in Britain to study their local traditions and ecology; or examining poor inhabitants of Egypt in the light of their very different cultural background and economic possibilities. The poor who lived in a world of climate extremes that erratically produced floods or sandstorms or drought might have a different attitude toward fate than those living in a more predictable environment. I do not mean to minimize this variety of human experience. I do want to emphasize, however, the commonality of their life-on-the-edge experience and how that led to sharing outlooks in important ways. For the world of dearth was the only world they knew firsthand. The natural world was an ever-present, if at times only a potential, threat; the social world was organized to oppress them. The poor’s outlook saw the world of the empire as one of turbulence and inequality. Uncertainty in the instant was the constant in their lives. Their sociopolitical situation was one of subjection, whether it be to tax collector, state official, landlord, moneylender, or simple want; they were not free agents in any sense. On the other hand, the inevitability of the status quo also provided a constant for their thinking. The fable of ‘The Snake’s Tail’ shows the wisdom of bowing to the natural essence of elite leadership:

One day a snake’s tail decided that the head shouldn’t go first and was no longer willing to follow its lead creeping along. ‘I ought to run things in my turn,’ the tail said. [It tries to lead, but the snake falls into a pit and is very bruised.] … A victim of its presumption, the tail humbly implored the head, saying, ‘Save us, please, mistress head. I confess that evil strife has ended badly for us all. I’ll obey you, if you’ll just put me back as I was before. You will not have to think about those things that happened before – they will never happen again.’ (Babrius, Fables, 134)

Proverbs seem to view the world as stable, rather than (as often in elite literature) as in decline. The implication is that the order of the universe is static, that social perspectives do not change; they must be the way they are. The ‘is’ and ‘ought to be’ of the world are the same. This creates a very constraining, conservative mind world. People have and can make choices, but the range is very limited – they often lack options. A corollary is that there is no indication of social progress over generations in popular thought. Every life is the same life, only with different players. This very stability shows a sense of how much was impossible for most people; proverbs express popular wisdom’s attitude that life is very difficult, and that much is done in vain. ‘The frailty and destruction of all human life is a pervasive theme,’ as Teresa Morgan puts it. The poor must deal with both environmental uncertainty and social certainty. Neither allows much chance of navigating away from the current situation, and both encourage attitudes that will enable survival within it.


At the heart of the poor’s response to their precarious lives lies a system of beliefs and values that, growing out of life’s realities, organizes it, drives it, sustains it, and keeps it from changing. This mind world is dominated by responses to their fundamental condition: dealing with the ever-present reality of possibly failing to have enough to survive. It focuses on dealing with the inevitable crises of life and tries to encourage social and moral action that will most aid survival in the immediate situation and social continuity in the long run. There is not a lot of time for thought and contemplation; the focus is on action, not beliefs. The wisdom of the poor is full of what to do and what not to do; abstractions of specific interactional behavior are rare. This does not mean that the poor person is uncreative; it just means that his creative thinking is limited because he has to focus on the first order of business, overcoming challenges of his fellow men and the physical world around him. The poor are very practical as they strive to survive.

A corollary to this perspective is that there is in their thinking little ‘interiority’ – the attempt to examine oneself and arrive at behavior-dictating conclusions from it. To the mind of the poor, ‘know thyself’ is not a contemplative admonition, but rather an admonition to active thinking about how to balance competing imperatives (e.g. friendship vs. gain). Philosophy tended to be idealistically oriented; the mind of the poor was fixed in practicality. Thus the outlook of popular morality as evidenced in fables and proverbs is markedly different from that of ‘high’ philosophical systems of the day. The mind of the poor views wisdom as a way for an individual to survive in a hostile world, not as a source of ‘knowledge’ or social problem-solving on a supra-individual scale, or any other abstraction. It is difficult if not impossible to find any of the main philosophical concepts of the elite’s philosophical schools reflected with much importance in the mind world of the poor. Popular morality cares not a fig for the search foreudaimonia(happiness); contemplating the good as the main aim of human life, i.e. virtue for its own sake (Plato), is foreign; the Stoic ideals of apatheia and ataraxia (detachment) would only mystify; the Cynic obsession with the value of poverty would be completely lost on the irrevocably poor; any conflict between fate and free will is unknown, for they coexist without tension; the whole idea of rejecting norms of social life per Epicureans or Cynics is a luxury outside the experience of the poor. However, high philosophy and the outlook of the poor do share many points of view and many ‘heroes’; in popular thinking the most-quoted authorities are (in order) the Seven Sages, Aesop, and Socrates, who account for over half of all cited famous men. Just how and to what extent they came to interact with one another and influence one another is another matter, and hard to determine. On the whole, it is much more likely that high philosophy drew on the well of popular thinking than that ideas of any significance or number percolated down from that philosophy to the poor man on the street. We lack evidence for such ‘percolation’ and, indeed, it is very hard to think how this could have happened, while the integration of ‘folk wisdom’ into more elaborated philosophical discourse seems easier to imagine.

Within their practical world the basic values of the poor are complex. Driven by the fundamental, ever-present imperative of the struggle to survive, these values emphasize two opposite ‘pulls.’ The first is the need to maintain a general environment in which, should everything fall apart, the cooperation of one’s fellows can be relied upon to provide emergency aid. In tension with this is the imperative to push the needs of the basic social unit – usually the family – as the most important activity, even if it means acting to the detriment of one’s fellows. The first ‘pull’ is worked out in the universe of positive reciprocity. Obligations of reciprocity, whether they be vertical (most typically, of the patron-client variety), or horizontal, are the key to ‘social insurance’ for times of trouble. At this macro-level, families develop relationships with other families in order to have their aid in difficult times. In this context, positive behavioral traits include friendship, bravery, harming enemies, hospitality, justice, honesty (including speaking the truth), helpfulness, and generosity to those in need; fables deal with these extensively, often dwelling on ambiguities.

At the micro-level, the members of a family use kinship as the basis for a complicated network of mutual expectations that are met in a social environment where everyone is simply and unexpressedly expected to help in certain ways, without getting any specific reward in return. Interestingly, the poor’s mind world does not dwell on these crucial intra-family relationships. To judge by the fables and proverbs, relationships such as husband and wife, the economy of the household, and parent-child issues are not problematized in their thinking, for these things are seldom if ever the topic of popular thinking as it is recorded. These aspects of their existence seem to be so clearly regulated in their minds that conflicts of the sort resolved in fables and proverbs do not occur. Unfortunately, therefore, wisdom literature does not help us to understand the poor in these aspects of their lives.

The second ‘pull’ is expressed in habits of strife. For the poor, human life is full of failure and negation. In this environment, strife is endemic. The world of fables is one of constant danger and conflict. This, interestingly, has not received nearly the attention in the secondary literature that one would expect, given that all primary research on the poor – in fact, mostly on peasants – stresses the competitive nature of daily life. As social units struggle to maximize their potential for survival, antisocial habits are rampant. Popular literature focuses constantly on how to deal with the negative qualities of arrogance, flattery, untrustworthiness, stubbornness, ill-temper, cowardice (the subject of many proverbs), deceit, slander, greed, boasting, and inappropriate social behavior in general.

Most particularly, among the poor there is competition – for honor and status as well as for material advantages – and its fellow travelers, pride, envy, and revenge. The fable world is full of antisocial behavior. For example, in ‘The Roosters and the Partridge,’ ‘like’ (the roosters) are in conflict with each other as well as with ‘different’ (the partridge):

A certain man who kept roosters came upon a tame partridge for sale, bought it, and took it home to rear along with the roosters. Since, however, the other birds beat and pursued the partridge, it was heavy at heart, concluding that it was looked down upon as being a different kind of bird. But when it shortly observed that the roosters also fought one another, not parting till they had drawn blood, it said to itself: ‘Well, I’m no longer going to be upset when I’m beaten by them, for I see that they don’t even spare one another.’ (Collectio Augustana/Hansen)

The destructive nature of greed is told in ‘The Dog and His Shadow’:

A dog stole a piece of meat from a kitchen. He trotted along the bank of a river. Seeing the shadow of his meat much magnified in the stream, he let go of the piece he had and lunged for the shadow. But he ended up with neither the shadow-meat, nor the real meat he had let go. So he returned, very hungry, back again across the ford by which he had come. (Babrius, Fables 79)

As it is in the proverb ‘Never thrust your sickle into another’s wheat’ (Publilius Syrus, Maxim 593). Equally destructive habits such as boasting and envy are also taken to task in the fables. As a final example, a person will directly harm others to protect his own survival, as the fable of ‘The Fisherman Striking the Water’ illustrates:

A fisherman was fishing in a certain river. He stretched his net tight so as to span the stream from one side to the other, then tied a cord onto a stone and started striking the water with it so that the fish in their reckless flight might happen into his net. One of the persons, who lived in the area, seeing him doing this, upbraided him for muddying the water and so not allowing them to drink clear water. But he replied: ‘But if I don’t stir up the river like this, I’ll have to die of starvation.’ (Collectio Augustana/Hansen)

These potentially (and, often enough, actually) disruptive modes of behavior are, however, by tacit agreement not allowed to overwhelm the fundamentally cooperative nature of the enterprise. The fables are full of lessons on cooperation. Here are some examples. ‘The Horse and the Ass’ teaches the value of sharing burdens:

A man had a horse he was in the habit of leading around without any burden, since he laid the entire load onto an aged ass. The ass, being at the end of his rope, went up to the horse and said, ‘If you would be so kind as to take a portion of my burden, I’d be able to manage; if not, I’ll surely die.’ ‘Go away,’ replied the horse, ‘I don’t give a damn.’ The ass plodded along in silence. Finally, exhausted by toil he fell down dead, just as he had predicted. The master brought the horse over and removing all the load from the dead ass, he put it on the horse’s back along with the pack saddle, adding for good measure the hide of the ass that he first flayed. ‘What an idiot I was!’ said the horse to himself. ‘I didn’t want to carry a little of the load and necessity has now laid everything on my back.’ (Babrius, Fables 7)

‘The Fire-Bearing Fox’ teaches the importance of keeping one’s temper:

A man wanted to take a novel type of revenge on a fox who was ravaging his vineyard and garden. He tied a bundle of tow to the animal’s tail and setting it aflame, he turned the fox loose. But a god looking down guided the fox to the very field of the man who had harmed the animal. There the fox set fire to all around him. It was harvest season; the fat heads of grain held high hopes. The man ran after the fox, anguishing over the loss of his considerable labor. None of his grain ever saw the threshing floor. (Babrius, Fables 11)

‘Divide and Conquer’ also teaches that the poor must stick together:

Three bulls grazed along always together. A lion lying in wait for an opportunity to seize them realized that he wouldn’t be able to take them all at once. Sowing contention among them by sly suggestions and outright lies, he caused them to become enemies of one another. Having divided them against each other, the lion easily took each as prey, one at a time. (Babrius, Fables 44)

‘No Use Praying for a Robber’ shows that unfair actions mean you will not get help when you need it:

A sick raven said to his weeping mother, ‘Don’t cry, mother. Rather, ask the gods to deliver me from my deadly disease and from my sufferings.’ ‘My child,’ his mother replied, ‘which god will want to save you? For which is the god whose altar you have not robbed?’ (Babrius, Fables 78)

The enforcing mechanisms – most saliently and effectively gossip, ridicule, reproach, oral censure, and, ultimately, ostracism – are social, lacking anything like a police presence, which seldom if ever is visible as a part of the mind world of the poor. These are, of course, imperfect weapons, often directed unfairly (to our way of thinking) and often without appeal – the opinio communis of the group being imposed without a formal venue for reply. The roiling effects of this situation are seen in family feuds, in a generalized conviction that self-aggrandizement (within certain limits, of course) is acceptable, and similar selfish acts. As a result, the poor are loath to be too trusting, even of friends, as the proverb attests: ‘Treat your friend as if he might become an enemy’ (Publilius Syrus, Maxim 401).

An aspect of the mind world of the poor that has always attracted the attention of the not-poor has been the poor’s attitude toward work. Throughout ancient literature there runs the accusation that the poor are lazy. However, looking beyond the negative stereotype of the elite, the fact is that the poor value working hard. Fables along these lines are numerous: ‘The Ant and the Fly,’ ‘The Old Bull and the Young Steer,’ ‘How the Lark Knew When to Leave,’ and ‘When the Sluggard Went to the Ant’ are a few examples. Nevertheless, although the poor work hard, they are not interested in working themselves to death. In fact, their outlook makes it senseless to do that. The basic existential fact for the poor is that they are poor, and that there is very little possibility to become un-poor. Their goal is to survive, not to thrive, for their precarious existence has taught that the risks needed to ‘move on up’ – to thrive instead of merely survive – are not worth the very real chance that striving for more through changed technologies or social arrangements will, in fact, boomerang and destroy them. Hence they are very cautious and wary of venturing beyond the conservative. This risk aversion is well expressed in the fable of ‘The Fisherman and the Sprat’:

A fisherman who fished all over the sea and lived by the produce of his pole once caught on his horsehair line a little fish of the kind suitable to be fried up. The struggling fishlet begged the fisherman to listen to his plea: ‘What profit will I gain you? How much will I sell for? I still could grow a lot bigger. It’s only a few days ago that mother brought me forth among the seaweed near this rocky shore. Let me go today; don’t kill me to no purpose. Later, after I have grown fat on feeding in the sea, I’ll become a grand fish, suitable for the table of the rich, and you will come back here and catch me again.’ So the little fish spoke, lamenting as he gasped for life. But he could not persuade the old man, who, while sticking him on his sharp cane stringer, replied, ‘It is crazy to let go of the little you have for certain in the hope of gaining what is uncertain in the future.’ (Babrius, Fables 6)

Modern studies have indicated that as the poor work harder and squeeze more out of whatever resources they have, their family size grows and a new equilibrium between product and needs is established at approximately the same level of living as before – only now for more people. In addition, the poor sense that producing more will just mean that more is taken from them, not that they will have more in the long run. The zero-sum nature of the economy (or, at least, its perceived ‘zero-sum-ness’) also reinforces this tendency to stop working at a certain point, for the group as a whole will put pressure on the subunits not to work too hard, not to garner more than an appropriate share of available resources, because for one unit to gain, another must lose. These factors channel clearly into Alexander Chanyanov’s ‘theory of drudgery,’ originally developed through the study of Russian peasants in the early twentieth century, but subsequently found to be generally applicable. According to this theory, a poor person will stop working once the judgment is made that more work will not yield sufficient gain to outweigh the irksomeness of the extra work. Seen from without, a poor person may seem to be irrationally lazy when in fact the calculation has been made, in all likelihood subconsciously based on past experience and/or tradition, that more work is not remunerative, so why do it? Thus, the outlook of the poor makes it perfectly acceptable to work until the basic needs are met, and then to knock off. Just the same sort of calculation, over the long haul, leads to the poor not striving mightily to escape their poverty, whether or not this represents an acceptance of the dominant ideology locating them in a subordinate position in society. The ‘laziness’ of the poor is embedded in their practical view of life’s possibilities.


Human societies have difficulty policing themselves by themselves. There is often recourse to the supernatural as the ultimate enforcer; the rules of the community, supra-communal, emanate from and are enforced by a higher power or powers, which thus in theory at least puts all the players on the same level playing field and at the same time provides a ready reason why some things/persons succeed and others fail. Not surprisingly, the mind world of the poor embraces this human constant. But it does it in a particularly pragmatic, down-to-earth way, because of the proximity of the poor to the contingencies of life.

A basic element in the poor’s religious outlook is the ‘will of the gods.’ This ‘will’ aspect supports the traditional values and situation of the social group by emphasizing that, in theory at least, the gods set down rules of action and reward behavior such as piety and justice, while punishing their opposites. But observable reality is that the gods do not consistently enforce this ‘will’ by punishing those who err and rewarding those who comply. Faced with this clash of expectation and reality, the power of Fate/Fortune steps in to fill the need for an explanation. This power exists not only outside human control, but even that of the gods; both are powerless against Fate. In a way, Fate stands outside of the entire natural order of things, the great explainer of why things often do not seem to happen as the rules of the game indicate they should. Fate comes into play both through a resignation to the hand the future might deal and through a conviction that life’s good and bad experiences somehow ultimately balance out. The former is illustrated in ‘The Force of Destiny’ (Babrius, Fables 136), in which a father tries to avoid the fated death of his son by locking him away, only to lose him through an accident in his prison. The moral is ‘Bear bravely what is given you by Fate and do not try to avoid it by clever devices; you cannot not escape what is bound to be.’ The latter is exemplified in a fable from the Collectio Augustana:

Some fishermen were drawing a dragnet. Since it was heavy they danced for joy, thinking that they had a great catch. But after they had drawn it to shore and found that the net was full of stones and wood but few fish, they became very heavy-hearted, not so much angry at what had happened as at their having expected the contrary. But one of them, an old fellow, said: ‘Friends, let’s stop this. Grief, it seems, is the sister of joy, and since we had so much pleasure beforehand, we had to have some grief as well.’ (Collectio Augustana/Hansen)

A fatalistic vision also permeates much of the proverb literature: ‘It is easier to get a favor from Fortune than to keep it’ (Publilius Syrus, Maxim 198); ‘When Fortune flatters, she does it to betray’ (Maxim 197); ‘Fortune is not satisfied with inflicting one calamity’ (Maxim 213).

A perhaps unexpected result of Fate’s role in the world of the poor is its encouragement of self-reliance. Since the gods cannot be counted upon, and Fate is whimsical, the safest bet is on one’s own hard work and resourcefulness. The fable of ‘Heracles and the Ox-Driver’ illustrates this:

An ox-driver was driving his cart home from a village, when the cart pitched down into a deep ditch. The drover, rather than try to pull it out, just sat there, not doing anything except calling on Hercules, the only god he honored and sincerely worshiped. The god appeared to him and spoke: ‘Put your hands to the wheels and whip the oxen. Call on the gods only when you are doing something to help yourself, or you will call on them in vain.’ (Babrius, Fables 20)

Such an outlook feeds into the generally positive attitude toward work (but not too much of it) I have discussed as another aspect of the mind world of the poor.

As I have mentioned, an intrinsic aspect of being poor is being in a subordinate relationship to others, who, among other things, redirect some of the poor’s produce toward their own ends. Thus the poor find themselves in a subjected position; the origins of that subjection are often mythologized, sometimes historicized, but the ultimate reality is that it is the way life is, and the poor act within this reality. One would suppose that there was a dark humor about this condition, and perhaps a joke from the Philogelos, a Greek book of humor, fits that mold:

Wanting to train his donkey not to eat, a numbskull stopped giving him any food. When the donkey died of starvation, the man said: ‘What a loss! Just when he had learned not to eat, he died.’ (Philogelas/Hansen)

The fundamental fact of subjection means that the poor’s production is always to some extent at the mercy of those in power. The fable ‘More Fearsome than Ever’ catches this reality:

A lion went crazy with anger. A fawn who saw him from the forest cried out, ‘Woe is us! What will he not do in a rage – he is already unbearable for us when he is sane!’ (Babrius, Fables 90)

Lucian captures some of the frustration of the poor in the face of the rich when he has a character in his Saturnalia address the titan Cronos and ask him to reinstate the Golden Age, when:

… men themselves were gold and poverty was nowhere near. As for us [poor folk], we could not even be thought of as lead, but something meaner, if such there be; and for most of us food is won with toil; and poverty, want, and helplessness, and ‘alas!’, and ‘how can I get it?’, and ‘oh, what bad luck!’ and such exclamations are plentiful, at least among us poor. We should be less distressed about it, you may be sure, if we did not see the rich living in such bliss, who, though they have such gold, such silver in their safes, though they have all that clothing and own slaves and carriage-horses and tenements and farms, each and all in large numbers, not only have never shared them with us, but never deign even to notice ordinary people. This is what sticks in our throats most of all, Cronos, and we think it an intolerable thing for such a man to lie in his purple clothes and gorge himself on all those good things, belching, receiving his guest’s congratulations, and feasting without a break, while I and my sort dream where we can get four obols to be able to sleep after a fill of bread or barley, with cress or thyme or onion as a relish. (Lucian, Saturnalia 20–21/Kilburn)

In their subordinate position, the poor still felt self-worth and desired to be treated decently. An episode in the Satyricon captures this. Corax has been hired as a porter, a typical day-laborer’s job, and roughly asserted his value as a person:

Come on now! Do you think that I am a beast of burden or some ship to carry stone? I hired out to do a man’s work, not a horse’s. I am no less free than you, even if my father left me a pauper. (Satyricon 117)

Yet within the potential of absolute power over the poor, a modus vivendi is established that sees the demands of the powerful take as much as possible, while leaving the poor with just enough to survive on. I am, of course, speaking of a relationship in equilibrium: if the powerful demand too much, they can destroy themselves as the poor rise up (a rare occurrence, admittedly), or they can destroy the poor – driving them off, or killing them through starvation. In the latter case the powerful are working against their own self-interest; hence, the equilibrium, even given the very asymmetrical power relationship.

Reciprocity, as in horizontal relationships, is the key leverage that the poor have to deal with this vertical asymmetry. Usually expressed in patron-client structures, the basic ideal is that each side has something the other needs, and so they symbiotically support each other. The poor have respect and income for the powerful; the powerful have resources that can help the poor in times of distress, and are obligated to use them. There is an interesting fable that speaks to this from the perspective of the poor, ‘The Lion and the Mouse.’ In it, the ability of the powerless to help the powerful is affirmed:

A lion having caught a mouse was going to eat it. But that little domestic thief, seeing his end near, babbled out a plea: ‘If you want to fill your stomach with meat, you really should hunt animals with large horns – deer and bulls. But to eat a mouse! This really isn’t enough to even taste as it touches the edges of your lips. Spare me, I beg you. Just possibly, as small as I am, I shall some day be able to show you my gratitude.’ The lion laughed and let the suppliant live. Later, pursued by youthful hunters, he fell into their nets and found himself tied very tightly so he could be killed. The mouse then stealthily emerged from his hole, cut the strands of rope with his tiny teeth, and set the lion free. By saving the lion in his turn, he repaid him who had let him live. (Babrius, Fables 107)

The reality was that the powerful held all the cards, as usual. Clients may have cast their case in moral terms – they didn’t have much real bargaining power – but the patronage that came in return was hardly reliable. One good strategy often seemed to be to just escape notice and stay out of trouble, as in the fable of ‘The Fisherman and the Fish’:

A fisherman cast out his net and after a short time drew it back in. His luck was good: It was full of all sorts of delectable fish. But the smaller ones swam to the bottom of the net and escaped through the meshes, while the larger ones were pulled up and lay flopping in the boat. (Babrius, Fables 4)

Of course, there was always the possibility of violent conflict between the poor and those with power over them. Aelian gives an example from Hellenistic times of the poor reaching the end of their rope, and rising up:

Theokles and Thrasonides in Korinth and Praxis in Mytilene placed little value in property and instead displayed magnanimity seeing their co-citizens in a state of poverty while they themselves were rich. They also advised others to lighten the burden of poverty for those in need. And, after they did not succeed in convincing others, they themselves remitted the debts owed to them, and thus gained not money but life itself. For those whose debts were not remitted attacked their creditors, and wielding the arms of rage, and proffering the most reasonable claim, that of utter destitution, slew their creditors. (Aelian, Historical Miscellany 14.24/Gallant)

The possibility of less radical, but still bothersome resistance is illustrated in the fable ‘The Battle of the Bull and the Mouse’:

A mouse bit a bull. The bull rushed on the mouse to avenge himself. The mouse forestalled the bull by taking refuge at the back of his hole. The bull found himself reduced to striking the wall with his horns until, worn out, he sank down and went to sleep before the opening. Then the mouse peeped out, emerged, slipped over to him, bit him again, and quickly fled back. The bull jumped up, not knowing what to do. The mouse said to him in his tiny voice, ‘The biggest are not always the most powerful. Sometimes the small and humble prevail.’ (Babrius, Fable 112)

A revolt that could turn the tables on the rich had a certain appeal, as this oracle prophecy from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt testifies:

… upheaval and war … and the rich will suffer sorely. Their arrogance will be defeated, and their possessions seized and given to others … (P. Oxy. 31.2554)

Revolts of the poor have caught the attention of both the powerful and those sympathetic to the poor. But the usually overwhelming ability of the powerful to direct effective force against the recalcitrant poor explains in large measure why such revolts are few and far between, and why they are never successful in replacing the powerful with a hegemony of the poor. The norm is that a revolt is suppressed with as much blood as necessary, and probably more; or the leadership of the revolt becomes distant from the poor themselves. In either case, things return to the status quo of subjection; this is as true of the Romano-Grecian world as of any other. The memory of failed revolts probably lingered in the culture of the poor, and served as an effective deterrent to further revolt, at least until conditions became again totally intolerable in terms of subsistence and survival.

But there is another possibility: That the poor believed in the status quo – the ‘great chain of being’ – internalized their position in society as just and right, and played their subjected role willingly. In another time, Charles Dickens captured this underling mentality in his novelette The Chimes:

Oh let us love our occupations,

Bless the squire and his relations,

Live upon our daily rations,

And always know our proper stations.

I would call this a consciousness of acceptance – of the alignment of the poor’s values with those of the elite. ‘How the Kite Lost His Voice’ teaches that if you try to become something better than you are, you risk losing everything:

A kite of old had a different cry than now, a sharper one. Having heard a horse let out a sonorous neigh, he determined to copy it. But in imitating the horse he ended up with neither the powerful voice he wanted, nor the cry he had had before. (Babrius, Fables 73)

Every ancient social uprising that I know of had as its aim the twin goals of cancellation of debt and redistribution of land. These are, at heart, conservative goals – an attempt to reestablish the just world of before in which everyone had land and was free from debt-dependence on others. Presumably, the same hierarchical and hegemonic power distribution would continue to exist in this reformed world – the only change would be that everyone would have a fair share of resources. In other words, the complaint is not against the power structure per se, but against its unjust incarnations. Such an attitude implies that the poor accepted an exploitative system.

But the poor could also conceive of a world when the worm had turned. While there is no evidence that there was anything like the ideologies of human worth available from the eighteenth century and seen most explosively in Marxist reconfiguration and aggressive presentation of the rightful expectations and potentialities of the working poor, a world turned upside down could be imagined. Lucian in one of his satires has Micyllus, a poor tanner who has been called to Hades by the Fates, remark:

But as for me, having nothing at stake in life, neither farm nor tenement nor gold nor gear nor reputation nor statues, of course I was in marching order, and when Atropos did but sign to me I gladly flung away my knife and my leather (I was working on a sandal) and sprang up at once and followed her, barefooted as I was and without even washing off the blacking. In fact, I led the way, with my eyes to the fore, since there was nothing in the rear to turn me about and call me back. And by Heaven I see already that everything is splendid here with you, for that all should have equal rank and nobody be any better than his neighbor is more than pleasant, to me at least. And I infer that there is no dunning of debtors here and no paying of taxes, and above all no freezing in winter or falling ill or being thrashed by men of greater consequence. All are at peace, and the tables are turned, for we paupers laugh while the rich are distressed and lament. (Downward Journey 15/Harmon)

More than revenge, though, the poor sought justice. The poor were convinced that were everyone, most especially the rich, to live within the rules, there would be a stable environment for staying alive, performing their ceremonies, and paying their dues. The fable ‘Once in Utopia’ captures the normal height of aspiration for the poor – a happy world in which the powerful were somehow compelled to properly exercise their power appropriately:

A lion became the ruler, but he did not have the usual cruel, mean temper. He did not always resort to violence to settle affairs; rather he was just and gentle, rather like a man. As he ruled, so they say, the wild animals gathered in assembly in order there to have their cases heard, and to give and receive legal decisions. Each animal called another to account, the lamb the wolf, the wild goat the leopard, the deer the tiger; each was satisfied. Everyone was at peace. Then the rabbit spoke up: ‘This is the day I have long prayed for, the day when even the weak are feared by the strong.’ (Babrius, Fables 102)

And there are a number of fables that urge the rich to shear, not flay, the poor, such as the tale concerning the widow and her sheep quoted below, and the following:

A groom sold the barley meant for his horse to an innkeeper. After drinking late into the evening, he spent the next day currying the horse. The horse said to him, ‘If you really want me to look great, don’t sell my food.’ (Babrius, Fables 83)

But as there was a lack of practical alternatives to the status quo, this must have had the effect of making acceptance of the dominant worldview as the right and just one much easier than we can imagine it today. So there were few local and no empire-wide disturbances by the poor because the poor demanded not the overthrow of the existing order, but rather, if anything, its reform. And that reform never came, just as the poor strongly suspected it would not.

If we think of the definition of justice as giving each person his due, we are on the track of the view of the poor. Thus the powerful can remain powerful, but must allow the poor their ‘due’ as well – the basic opportunity to live out their lives without the sort of exploitation that endangers their social and alimentary subsistence. Apollonius of Tyana is made by Philostratus to give just such advice to the emperor Vespasian; he tells him that ‘[you] make better use of your wealth than any ruler before you, if you employ it in offering aid to the poor, while at the same time that you render the possessions of the rich secure’ (Life of Apollonius 5.36).

The fables are full of lectures on justice. For example, ‘Fleece Me, But Don’t Flay Me’:

Once a widow kept a sheep in her home. Wishing to clip its wool in as long strands as possible, she sheared it clumsily and trimmed the fleece so close to the skin that she cut into its flesh here and there. The suffering sheep bleated to her, ‘Don’t abuse me. My blood won’t increase the weight of my fleece. Mistress, if you need my flesh, there is a butcher who can kill me efficiently. If you need fleece and not flesh, there is a professional shearer who can shear and yet spare me.’ (Babrius, Fables 51)

Other fables deal with similar issues: ‘Close to the Law but Far from Justice’ (human justice often does not touch the poor); ‘The Knight and His Horse’ (an appeal against arbitrary exploitation); ‘A Double Standard of Justice’ and ‘The Mills of the Gods Grind Slow’ (be fair to your fellows as you wish the gods to be fair to you). Proverbs are quite skeptical of judicial systems, although they emphasize justice. The poor are like the swallow, near to the courts, but far from their protection:

A trilling swallow, a bird that shares the dwelling of men, built in the springtime her nest under the roofline of a law-court building where old men in charge of the laws held forth. There she became a mother to seven small ones whose wings were not yet covered with purple feathers. A snake gliding from a hole ate them up one and all. The poor mother lamented their untimely deaths. ‘Alas,’ she said, ‘how unfortunate I am! Right here where the laws and judgments of men abide, from that place I must flee – a swallow who has been wronged.’ (Babrius, Fables 118)

Justice is therefore independent of any human way to achieve it – the enforcement is left to the gods, as in sayings such as ‘the divine brings the bad to justice.’ Humans have in reality little access to it – certainly no sure access to it. The law is mostly mentioned to emphasize the disparity between it and justice. Popular morality believes in justice, but not in the law as able to achieve it. And with some reason. There is practically nothing in the law texts relating to the poor. The rights of fisherfolk might be noted in a decision, and generalities about the powerful not getting special treatment occur, but it is clear that the poor are involved in cases very rarely – there are no treatments of hired labor, for example. The law simply did not care very much about the very poor. And when they did get involved in a legal matter, they could count on coming out badly, as Jesus’ advice indicates clearly:

For while you are going with your opponent to appear before the magistrate, on your way there make an effort to settle with him, so that he may not drag you before the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. I say to you, you will not get out of there until you have paid the very last cent. (Luke 12:58–9)

Knowing the inefficacy of the legal system and of the justice of the powerful to protect them, the poor must resort to informal means of dispute resolution, or simply knuckle under.

On a daily basis, however, proverbs and fables advise strategies for dealing with the more powerful. They emphasize the futility of trying to get the better of the rich. No matter what you do, you will be eaten anyway, as ‘The Wolf and the Lamb’ teaches:

A wolf seeing one day a lamb that had wandered away from its flock did not attack him to carry him off by force, but rather sought a specious pretext to justify his hostility. ‘Did you not slander me last year, small as you were?’ he asked. ‘I didn’t slander you at all last year; I was only born this year,’ was the reply. ‘Aren’t you grazing on grass that is mine?’ continued the wolf. ‘I have never touched any greenery.’ ‘Have you not taken up water which is mine?’ persisted the wolf. ‘Up to this very moment, it is only my mother’s teat that nourishes me,’ came the riposte. Then the wolf seized the lamb and said to it as it downed the meal, ‘You can’t keep a wolf from his dinner, even though you answer easily all my complaints.’ (Babrius, Fables 89)

A good defense against the powerful was to avoid confrontation as much as possible, as in ‘The Oak and the Reeds’:

The wind having uprooted an oak tree made it fall from the mountainside into a river. The churning torrent carried along this giant ancient tree, planted by men of old. At the same time many rushes rose firm on both sides of the river, drinking water on the banks. The oak was astonished that plants so frail and weak were not torn away, since his own strong trunk had been uprooted. A rush spoke wisely to him, ‘Don’t be surprised. You fought against the wind and so you were vanquished. We, on the other hand, bend, disposed to adjust to our situation, whenever a light breeze moves our tops.’ (Babrius, Fables 36)

But it is also helpful to be smart. Many fables emphasize how an intelligent analysis and appropriate response to a situation pays off handsomely. For example, ‘The Lion and the Fox’:

A lion got too old to go on the hunt. He lay stretched out toward the back of his cave as if he were kept there by illness. He pretended to have weak breathing and smoothed his harsh voice. This news spread through the haunts of the wild beasts. All were concerned about the weakness of the lion, and each entered the cave in order to see for himself. The lion had no trouble devouring them one after the other. So he had found a way to live plentifully in spite of his old age. A clever fox suspected the situation and said, keeping his distance, ‘O King, how are you doing?’ The lion replied, ‘Greetings, you who are most dear to me of all the animals. Why don’t you come closer instead of looking at me from a distance? Come here, my friend, and by your various, colorful stories lighten my final days.’ ‘Watch after yourself!’ replied the fox. ‘But please excuse me if I must go. I am put off by the tracks of so many animals that go into your cave, but you don’t show me any coming out.’ (Babrius, Fables 103)

As hostile as the poor were to the wealthy and their power, wealth in and of itself, beyond its role in hierarchical strife, was important to the poor. They knew that wealth was power, but they also knew the risks. Poverty was not good. But the reality of riches and its appeal was somewhat fraught. Greed could lead to disaster, as in the fable of the mouse in the soup:

A mouse fell into a cooking pot full of soup that did not have a lid. Choked by the grease and on the point of death, he said, ‘I have eaten, I have drunk, I have enjoyed all the pleasures of life; it is time for me to die.’ (Babrius, Fables 60)

Proverbs are also ambivalent about wealth. On the one hand, it provides opportunities and so is welcome. But on the other, there is some suspicion of it, for example for the borrower. There is also the common implication that wealth is gained by treachery, theft, and other antisocial means. So the basic aim is to keep what one has, rather than to increase it greatly – the strategy is decidedly defensive, conservative, and aimed at self-preservation above all. The proverb ‘better to be poor on land than rich at sea’ (Diogenianus 2.62) catches the tone of caution. If you are poor, you make the best of it.

This view of wealth and poverty does not lead to questioning of the existing order of things; proverbs convey a very strong sense of hierarchy, as does, for example, the fable ‘The Jackdaw and the Eagle’:

An eagle snatched a sleek lamb in his talons to give to his offspring to eat. A jackdaw was spurred on to do the same thing. So he swooped down on a ram. But he entangled his claws in his fleece, and beat his wings in vain trying to carry off his theft. A shepherd came running up, seized him, and cut his wings. The bird then confessed, ‘I am rightly punished. Why did I, being only a jackdaw, try to act like an eagle?’ (Babrius, Fables 137)

But at the same time I note that the most frequent expression of the poor’s attitude toward those more fortunate than themselves is illustrated by what Tyndaris says of them in Plautus’ The Prisoners (583), ‘… est miserorum, ut malevolentes sint atque invideant bonis’ (‘it is the nature of the downtrodden to be discontented and to envy the wealthy’). If the poor had the time and inclination to dream, that dream and desire was not the overthrow of the rich, but to have what they have.


The tenuous economic condition of the poor guided their lives. Their position in the social hierarchy was bad and not likely to get better. But their strategies for survival served them well. A combination of cooperation and competition assured as much success as possible within their constrained circumstances. Fate provided a framework for understanding their universe. They dealt with subjection to the more powerful by accommodation and resistance. They could hope for a just world in which they would be in a better situation, but its unlikelihood did not keep them from working hard and, quite naturally, from envying those who had more than they.

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