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Loving the Poor

In one of his most quoted sayings, Jesus is reported to have warned: “You have the poor with you always” (Mark 14:7). It was not original. He was reiterating an ages-old prophetic utterance from the Hebrew scriptures: “The poor will always be with you” (Deuteronomy 15:11). Certainly today the claim seems never to have been truer, and precisely in connection with political power. Since 1995, the United Nations alone has staged no fewer than three global conferences on the problem of world poverty. The divide between the rich and the poor throughout the world is one of the most pressing items of international concern in the rhetoric of contemporary politics. Although definitions of who is poor have always posed as many problems as the poor themselves, there seems little doubt that, according to almost any measurement, the gap between the rich and the poor has been widening at a dizzying pace. The confrontation between wealth and poverty has become a central problem for the world community in a way that was simply untrue only a century ago. The key term in this transformation of our concerns and attitudes, however, is not so much poverty as it is community.

Few historians have literally created their own periods of inquiry and their own subjects. Peter Brown is one of these exceedingly rare spirits. To him we owe the creation of the age of Late Antiquity as a standard field of historical inquiry. He has transformed the three or four centuries of Mediterranean history that marked the transition from the world of the Greek and Roman city-states to the post-Roman kingdoms of Europe and the Near East into something other than a doomed afterthought to the classical ages of ancient history. No longer an epoch of decadence, despair, and decline, the centuries in which the Roman Empire was transformed into a feudal order in the West and into a Byzantine one in the East have become, in his hands, a vital age teeming with people who demand and deserve our attention. No historian achieves this sort of daring revision permanently without taking risks and confronting daunting problems that more pedestrian researchers prefer to avoid.

Understanding the poor and the problem of poverty is one of these great challenges—and not just for the social orders of the later Roman Empire. For any period, even the very best historical minds have found this particular problem almost as intractable and resistant to understanding as the solving of the real dangers of poverty in our own age. The poor are a troubling challenge to moral sensibilities, an embarrassment reflected in the odd and skewed euphemisms with which each society has represented the quintessentially powerless—humans once described in terms of dirt and disgust, but now in the patronizing language applied to victims. Entering into this frightening world, the historian descends into a quagmire of slipping and eliding sentiments and meanings that resist rational analysis.1 He risks continuing the immense condescension of both posterity and the past.2 For the historian to have to ask who is poor and what is poverty in the clinical and cold terms demanded by historical analysis seems itself to be a species of cruelty. The cruelty is compounded when the ancient Christian texts describing the poor speak to us with such a disturbing moral pathos. To say that “the historian cannot claim to be untouched by such pain” is just the beginning of the problem. For all that their presence seems frighteningly obvious to everyone, the inquiry must begin with the question: Who were the poor?

The three essays that make up Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, originally delivered as the Menahem Stern Lectures at Jerusalem in May of 2000, are the most concerted analytic attack yet offered by any ancient historian on the problem of poverty.3 For the world of Late Antiquity, as Brown makes clear, the subject is so particularly intractable precisely because of its importance—for it was in this age, following the ascent to power early in the fourth century of Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, that a special Christian discourse on the poor came to assume an unusual prominence in thinking and writing about social relations. As for the poor, “suddenly, they are everywhere,” crowding the sermons, tracts, and treatises of the time: skeletal ghosts, half-frozen in the early morning on the church porch of an Egyptian village, blind beggars pathetically making their way through the streets of Tyre, wraith-like figures begging for alms in Augustine’s Hippo Regius. Given the special power and insistence of this novel Christian rhetoric about poverty, one might have expected its fresh awareness to revolutionize attitudes toward the care of the poor and to have brought about a real amelioration of the conditions in which the severely impoverished were forced to survive.

No such profound change happened, and the hard question that emerges is: Why not? If the heightened pathos of the emotional and evocative language in which the poor came to be described was not fundamentally changing the living conditions of most of the poor, then what was it doing? It is this last question that has most intrigued Brown, provoking a series of exploratory studies that have foreshadowed the present book.4 As Brown says, the task before him is nothing less than to trace “the social and religious implications of a revolution in the social imagination.”

In April of 342, in the city of Rome, a Christian named Julian and his wife, Victoria, recorded on the marble plaque that served as their burial marker the one thing that singled them out for posterity as morally good persons. The man boasted that he was an amator pauperorum and his wife advertised herself as an amatrix pauperorum.5 Having passed on to a better eternal life, in their last testament to this world Julian and Victoria highlighted their virtues as “lovers of the poor.” This new moral claim, publicized across the Mediterranean world beginning in the fourth century, serves as an emblem of what Brown rightly calls a revolution in thinking and self-representation in the late Roman world. It was nothing less than the creation of a new public virtue in which the poor, as such, had become touchstones of virtuous behavior on the part of their betters.

Parts of this moral revolution, it is true, had been identified by earlier scholars. Perhaps most influential was the insight of the Dutch historian Hendrik Bolkestein, who in the 1930s—in the midst of the Great Depression—saw that a blanket category of persons labeled “the poor” simply did not exist in the moral code of the city-states that made up the earlier pre-Christian Greco-Roman world.6 Rather, it was the all-important sense of community, to be precise the political community, that defined who “the poor” were. They were the indigent and less well-off citizens who had a manifest claim on the whole body of citizens. Whether in the classical polis of Athens or at the height of Rome of the Republic, it was one’s fellow citizens who counted. Others did not. When those in power who had the ability to redirect resources, whether public or private, to alleviate poverty saw “the poor,” they saw only those who were like themselves: citizens who were in danger of impoverishment or worse. Such persons deserved support. They were “the poor” because they were visible to those who saw them through the political lens of their age.

Another piece in this vexatious puzzle was provided by research published through the 1970s and 1980s on the nature of patron–client relationships in Roman society, principally the work done by the Parisian maverick historian Paul Veyne. It was through his analysis of “bread and circuses” that historians have better understood ethical values and forces that motivated the wealthy men and women who contributed money, sometimes on an astonishing scale, to their fellow citizens, and who acted as civic do-gooders (euergetai) for their communities.

But there matters remained, and historians have had little or no sense about how a fundamental transition in values was made from this specialized classical form of civic patronage to the much more inclusive charitable activities of the later Christians. In the pre-Christian world of the city-states, individual actions and movements to alleviate poverty and the threat of impoverishment, whether small or large in scale, were intended to stabilize the body of citizens and to defend its integrity. When a Roman emperor like the reclusive Tiberius dispensed large sums of money to sustain senators who were in danger of losing their status because of their “impoverishment,” he was acting according to the dictates of this same moral code. Or when, at the beginning of the second century, the emperor Trajan set up large-scale schemes for food distribution to support the “poor” citizen children of Italy, he was behaving in the same way.

These schemes were not intended to uplift the poor as such, but rather to sustain the members of the community of citizens. Even so, one can spot fissures in the supposed uniformity of this earlier classical ideology of the poor. If citizenship was the required entry ticket to civic assistance, its entitlements were often exploited as leverage by the poor to get what they needed. The strident insistence by some modern scholars that government schemes in the Roman Republic and Empire to feed the urban plebs of Rome were in fact implemented for all citizens, rich and poor alike, is open to doubt. As one eminent economic historian has put it: “There can be no doubt that free [grain] was always conceived primarily as a welfare measure for the poor.”7 Stronger senses of the entitlements of the poor as such were therefore already implicit in such measures, and they were ones that were not easily contained as Rome expanded citizenship to cover its Mediterranean-wide empire.

The real problem is less to understand the Roman propensity to support some poor (on whatever grounds) than to explain how, following the establishment of Christian authority, a great and decisive shift in publicly professed values about the poor occurred. Brown rightly rejects any unusual material causes characterizing the world of poverty in Late Antiquity that might have exacerbated the condition of the indigent and the needy during the last centuries of the empire. He dismisses as irrelevant any situations of urgent economic distress or population pressures that would have created many more impoverished persons whose greater numbers would have demanded special notice.8 He is almost certainly right. Indeed, I believe that an even stronger argument against such economic claims is implicit in the very nature of the surviving evidence. The places that were most directly affected by specific regional impoverishment actually produced rather little of the Christian discourse of poverty.

Brown’s most important sources for the new rhetoric on the poor, including Saint Augustine and Saint John Chrysostom, came from places like North Africa and Syria, regions that were, if anything, experiencing economic booms through the fifth and sixth centuries. Therefore, as Gertrude Himmelfarb argued (persuasively) in the case of the newly emerging European discourses on the poor in nineteenth-century England and France, some type of “relative deprivation” theory is required.9 That is, people consider themselves to be poor not by some absolute measurement of poverty, but rather when their condition is set against the standards of their peers and against the higher hopes of what they think that they ought to have. Debates over poverty therefore tend to flourish in the context of rising expectations.

  1. 1

    Some of the problems are noted by Robert Jütte, Poverty and Deviance in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 4ff.

  2. 2

    One is reminded of the deep, sometimes acerbic difference of opinions between E.P. Thompson and Gertrude Himmelfarb, and of the passionate responses that their counterclaims evoked at the time.

  3. 3

    Brown bestows special praise on Evelyne Patlagean, Pauvreté économique et pauvreté sociale à Byzance 4e–7e siècles (Paris–La Haye: Mouton, 1977), but his own study undercuts her principal hypotheses. More recently, Susan R. Holman, in The Hungry Are Dying: Beggars and Bishops in Roman Cappadocia (Oxford University Press, 2001), has offered a specific case study of a region in eastern Turkey in the later Roman Empire that substantially supports Brown’s main conclusions.

  4. 4

    In particular, his “Poverty and Power,” Chapter 3 in Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire (University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), pp. 71–117; and his “Response” to Henry Chadwick, “The Role of the Christian Bishop in Ancient Society” (Center for Hermeneutical Studies in Hellenistic and Modern Culture, 1979), pp. 15–22, which also adumbrated some of the main themes found here.

  5. 5

    Inscriptiones Christianae Urbis Romae, Vol. 2 (Vatican City, 1922), No. 1420 (henceforth ICUR); Victoria adds a reference to her operaria, her “good deeds,” in all likelihood charitable ones for the poor, or as a “worker” to the same end.

  6. 6

    H. Bolkestein, Wohltätigkeit und Armenpflege in vorchristlichen Altertum: ein Beitrag zum Problem “Moral und Gesellschaft” (Utrecht: A. Oosthoek, 1939; reprint: Groningen: Bouma’s Boekhuis, 1967); a guide to Bolkestein’s ideas can be found in A.R. Hands, Charities and Social Aid in Greece and Rome (London: Thames and Hudson, 1968).

  7. 7

    M.I. Finley, The Ancient Economy (University of California Press, second edition, 1985), pp. 170–171.

  8. 8

    It is a special thesis of Patlagean’s, but the quality of her demographic analysis, primitive by today’s standards, will not withstand close scrutiny.

  9. 9

    Gertrude Himmelfarb, “Rising Expectations and Relative Deprivations,” Chapter 2 in Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians (Knopf, 1991), pp. 31–39. It is perhaps interesting that this same age also witnessed one of the first systematic modern attempts to deal with the “poor classes” of antiquity; see Cyrenus Osborne Ward’s The Ancient Lowly, a history of the ancient working people from the earliest known period to the adoption of Christianity by Constantine (Washington, D.C.: Press of the Craftsman, 1889, 2 volumes).

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