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.

Other comparisons drawn from scholarship about early-modern and modern European poverty, however, have their own dangers, since one feels that Brown has perhaps exaggerated the contrast between the passive nature of the ancient poor and the attitudes of the threatening poor of later ages, as when he contrasts the image of the waif-like, passive, and quiescent poor of Christian rhetoric with the “dangerous classes” of early-modern Europe.10 The contrast is too strongly drawn from both sides. The argument about “dangerous classes” presented by modern European historians emerged from a rather selective emphasis on the nineteenth-century “criminal classes” and an uncritical repetition of a one-sided view of the urban poor drawn from eighteenth- and nineteenth- century writers.11 After all, a writer such as Dickens could present both views of the urban poor of Victorian England, the waif-like and the criminal, often in the same novel.12 On the other hand, even by Brown’s own argument, the poor of Late Antiquity who drew the attention of their betters were largely urban, capable of being dangerous, and were perceived to be so.

Instead of economic downturns or population pressures, Brown chooses to find the cause for the change in both the new ideological and power relationships that emerged with the Christianization of the imperial state and in the attitudes and priorities of specific Christian authorities. “In a sense,” he says, “it was the Christian bishops who invented the poor.” Certainly one of the most striking cases that I know of fits this description. It is that of the Christian bishop named Leo, from late-fourth-century Rome, whose wife Laurentia affixed a long poem to his tomb that evoked Leo’s career as a Christian. In it, Leo confesses that he began life as a pagan (gentilis) and that, in his desire to live up to the demands of honor and status set by his betters, and by hard work, he had amassed great wealth. After his conversion to the “better ways” of Christ, however, Leo came to despise these worldly riches. His main concern now was to clothe the naked who were in need, and to support the poor of the city by “pouring out” on their behalf the wealth that he had acquired.

It was by this means that Leo acquired the right to rule over the “common citizens of God” (plebs Christi).13 The first step in the transition to this new type of power was the development of a different Christian sense of community and the concurrent responsibility for the poor people in it. As Brown demonstrates, this novel Christian concern with poverty came to encompass two divergent social groups. At the top end were the new leaders—often men from middling and less-well-off backgrounds who were not rich enough to sustain the full-time job of being a cleric without community support. At the bottom were those laypersons without means or who were under real threat of losing the little that they had. The two groups were linked by a need for charity. The idea neatly explains why both groups appear on formal lists found in Christian communities from Rome to Antioch of persons who were registered as deserving support from the resources of the local church.

But this new broader Christian conception of “the poor” still had embedded within it a distinction between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor, a stereotypical moral division also found in modern discourses on poverty. The apostle Paul constantly justified his receipt of Christian welfare by the fact that he was laboring hard and assiduously on behalf of the Church. The moral lesson logically followed: “If a man does not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). It was a Pauline mantra. Almost every human community, being quite unable to cope with the masses of poor people, has made some such distinction between the deserving poor and those who are considered to be morally responsible for their own impoverishment, and who therefore do not deserve assistance. This view seems present in earlier Jewish views, as when the Proverbs speak of those who are poor because of their own laziness and immoral behavior, the two never being very far apart (Proverbs 20:13).

The same imputations of laziness and shiftlessness were used by elite Romans, like Cicero, to suggest that the urban poor of their own day were undeserving. The problem then hinges on what Amartya Sen has rightly seen as a language and a practice of entitlements.14 According to their own sacred texts, Christians were a new people, a new community within which all larger former communal identifications of ethnicity and nationality were to be effaced (Galatians 3:27–28; Colossians 3:11). Everyone within their community, from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, was now everyone else’s “brother” and “sister.” Every Christian was a member of God’s family. And Christians were not the citizens of any particular state, but rather were citizens of their own state in heaven (Philippians 3:20).

Christians therefore necessarily developed a wider sense of entitlements, and the entitlements themselves were different from those of citizens in the old secular states of the ancient Mediterranean. A good example is the demanding presence of widows who, as such, had a clear sense of what they were entitled to simply because their husbands had been members of the local Christian community. Their claim of Christian kinship was strong enough to merit formal registration, and that, in turn, gave them power as a group. Theirs, as Brown remarks, was a “fierce sense of entitlement.”

But Brown sees the critical change in the understanding of entitlements in Christian poverty not in the gradual mutation of classical conceptions of membership in a political community, but rather with the grand intervention in social life of the newly Christian Roman state under Constantine. The sheer scale and size of the state’s benefactions reshaped the entire landscape of charity. Most importantly, Christian clergy were now regarded as persons deserving of support from the state, but in return for services performed for the Church and community. It is this critical linkage between the central state and local subjects, mediated by Christian bishops, that anchored the new sensibilities of poverty.

But there were real limits even to this more cosmic sense of Christian charity. Brown describes two of them. The first was not so much ideological as pragmatic. The poor who were recognized as such, who were constantly described and debated, and whose needs were met in part were those in the towns and cities of the empire. In the great expanses of the imperial countryside, the pragmatic effects of the new Christian attitudes were significantly diluted. And historians, we have been warned, must “remember that mass poverty in both ancient and modern preindustrial societies was (and still is) overwhelmingly a rural phenomenon,” and one which is therefore rarely documented.15

The other large group that significantly never made it inside the new circle of Christian charity was the slaves, who were still present in very large numbers in Late Antique Roman society. Brown describes with a chilling starkness and a power unparalleled in earlier scholarship the rigor of the barriers drawn between the Christian members of the public community of the Church, who were deserving of being seen as poor, and the slaves, who, as permanent outcasts, remained invisible to the eye seeking the poor. Like the mad and the deformed of other ages, slaves were to be dealt with within the structure of the family. Slaves were its inner hidden face, undeserving of public awareness or Christian charity.

While it is true that Christian boundaries and perspectives were wider than before, they were still subject to exclusionary principles. The categories of people, such as slaves, who did not qualify as poor were policed with such firmness precisely in order to define and delimit the field of aid. Christian poverty and its relief must have had other limitations. Brown emphasizes that the pre-Christian Roman state had limited its benefactions to the urban plebs, and that the numbers receiving relief from the state were carefully monitored. But he acknowledges that Christian poor relief was mostly urban and that here, too, lists of recipients were maintained. These lists surely indicate the principles of membership and hence of exclusion, and the numbers on the lists are significant. There were 1,500 widows and indigents on the rolls in mid-third-century Rome, 3,000 widows and orphans in fourth-century Antioch, and 7,500 on the poor rolls of the church in Alexandria in the seventh century.

These are indeed sizable numbers, but they pale in comparison with the actual numbers of the poor in these cities. At best, they must have been a small but representative sample of a vaster urban poverty. What were the exclusionary principles involved? One suspects that they reflected the kinds of restriction on entitlements that were ingrained in ancient societies, as when the Roman citizens of the late Republic bitterly opposed the extension of citizenship to their fellow Italians; or when Greek city-states of an earlier age were even more exclusive about admitting more members to their community. Citizenship in the city of God, it is true, effaced the secular state, but it often did so only to reinstate the family by making it the preferred unit of conversion; and it was through the family that people became members of Christian society. At this level, Christian charity encountered a natural internal frontier within the community; each family was to take care of its own.

The bigger game Brown is hunting is the relationship of poverty to power in its broadest senses. This quest leads to the longest, most difficult, and most provocative part of his book: an extended argument about the place the new images of the poor and poverty had in the mainstream ideologies of Late Antiquity.16 Brown’s claim is that the Mediterranean-wide discourse on the poor that emerged in this period was strongly related to the new needs of the new imperial state to assert its presence. A hugely powerful and distant emperor and imperial court were simultaneously more present and more invasive at a local level than was the Roman state of the Augustan Age. Its officials and administrators were everywhere, regulating and reporting down to minute levels. What was needed was a discourse in which these extremes of power could be linked. The pervasive tyranny of the new imperial court needed a human face; its subjects needed to believe in the efficacy of its local presence.

The new Christian language of poverty was the most widespread Mediterranean discourse of entitlement, affecting all persons down to the most indigent; and so it was the most suitable, the most powerful, and the most effective rhetoric in which the weak and the suppliant could converse with the more powerful. The presence of God in all human beings, but especially in the most humble of them, was the touchstone of the dialogue’s authenticity. The ideological consequence of all of this, Brown argues, is that the intense debates over the nature of the Christian God that raged among bishops and their councils between the fourth and sixth centuries—the murderous in-fighting that created mortal enemies in Arian and Monophysite heretics (and others)—were not just arid theological disputes over the essence of the supreme deity. They were part of a reformation of the language in which this new society could speak about itself. Brown thus presents a strikingly elegant solution to what has been one of the most convoluted and tortuous of historical problems: why apparently ethereal matters became so important to so many people. Economy of explanation recommends it.

Although there is no doubt that Christianity and its clerical leaders, especially the bishops, had a decisive point in making this new ideology, one wonders about how much they were, in various ways, part of larger movements toward unity in the ancient world that were connected to the emergence of a unified Mediterranean empire. With the granting of a universal Roman citizenship to all the free inhabitants of its empire in the early third century, the Roman government was already creating more general expectations of uniform membership and therefore claims to the privileges of members. And, before Christianity, Stoic ideology, with its transcendent view of nature, in which every man was a “citizen of the cosmos” rather than of any given political community, was contributing to a more inclusive sense of belonging. These Stoic ideals, with their wider aesthetic of cosmopolitanism, were shared not only by the “lovers” of classical cities, like the emperor Marcus Aurelius, but also by men drawn from the middling ranks of Roman society, like Paul of Tarsus, who were the bearers of the new Christian ideals. The recent concern about—one might say discovery of—the poor and the poorer parts of the world suggests that we are confronting a similarly changing sense of community and therefore of those who have entitlements. The global village, for better or worse, has become a reality for the rich and the poor in it, and we, too, seem increasingly condemned to speak to one another in the same powerful language of debts and obligations.

This Issue

November 21, 2002