The Life of a Poor Man in Ancient Rome

From the lecture series: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Poverty has affected human beings throughout most of history. In ancient Rome, the poor constituted a sizeable percentage of the population, especially during the 1st century B.C. to the end of the 2nd century A.D. They lived in squalid conditions and had no rights. Read to know more about how their life was.

Photo of ruins in Rome.
In ancient Rome, the agricultural poor were viewed rather differently from the urban poor. (Image: S.Borisov/Shutterstock)

Agricultural Poor in Ancient Rome

The Romans took considerable pride in tracing their descent from hardy Italian peasants, and told uplifting stories of their past that celebrated the virtues of the simple life lived on the land.

A famous example is Cincinnatus, a farmer—admittedly not destitute but a simple, hard-working farmer—who was summoned from his farm to be the dictator for six months, and who, having saved Rome, quit his office and returned to his farm just 10 days later.

It is believed that the agricultural poor were viewed rather differently from the urban poor. The agricultural poor, so the conventional argument ran, supported themselves by the dint of hard work, whereas the urban poor leeched off the state by accepting free hand-outs of corn.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Poor Romans in the Army

Black and white sketch of Roman General Gaius Marius.
Roman general Gaius Marius allowed poor Romans to join the army. (Image: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

Very rarely, the Roman authorities do seem to have acknowledged the plight of the poor and sought to do something about it.

In 107 B.C., Roman General Gaius Marius permitted citizens who did not own any land and were excluded from service in the army to join as volunteers for his campaign against Jugurtha in North Africa. And the poor population volunteered in large numbers in order to escape destitution.

However, it must be mentioned here that Marius was not a social reformer, he didn’t really care about the poor. He merely wanted to solve a manpower crisis in the Roman Army.

Learn more about being a Roman soldier.

Occupation of the Poor in Ancient Rome

The poor people generally had to work as unskilled workers, getting themselves hired on a daily basis to perform a variety of menial jobs.

They were known as a mercenarius—the modern equivalent word being ‘mercenary’—meaning a person who works for money. The decent folk despised them because, like the Greeks, they thought that working for someone else was equivalent to being a slave.

Beggars in Ancient Rome

When a poor Roman man could not work any longer, he had to live on charity. Beggars were a feature of both the urban and rural landscape in the ancient Roman world. There were tens of thousands of them and they accosted people in the street all the time.

The lucky ones managed to attach themselves to a wealthy house. Household slaves dished out scraps to them, either on their own initiative or sometimes at the bidding of their masters.

Professional Beggars in Ancient Rome

There were also professional beggars. These included priests devoted to the eastern goddess Cybele, who depended in part for their livelihood on alms from the general public.

Another kind of professional beggars were the so-called Cynic philosophers. The Cynics had rejected all worldly goods. Their name, kunikos in the Greek, meant ‘little dog’. It gave way to the modern word ‘cynic’. These beggars aggressively accosted passersby to spread their philosophy of poverty and to make them give alms.

Learn more about being a Roman slave.

Philanthropy in Rome

The Roman world did witness the beginnings of what might be called philanthropy.

The Roman author Seneca the Elder actually argued that it was wrong not to give to a beggar because ‘everyone has a right to charity’. Seneca belonged to the school of philosophy known as Stoic, which promoted the virtue of humanitas.

He told of a particularly horrifying practice that still happens in certain parts of the world today, namely that of deliberately maiming children, so as to make them appear more pathetic, and then sending them out to beg. His description provided not only a haunting image of those poor children condemned to a life of beggary, but also of the vulnerability of children to extortion and exploitation.

Learn more about being a Roman celebrity.

Handouts at Elections

Emperor Augustus had divided Rome into 14 regions comprising 265 wards for administrative purposes. And no Roman election took place without a healthy dose of bribery and corruption, and even the abject poor stood to benefit as a result.

Also, there were the periodic handouts of the corn dole, especially at election time, although these were intended for the entire populace and not exclusively for the poor.

How Did the Poor Enjoy in Ancient Rome?

Not everything was bleak for the poor population in Ancient Rome. There were things that gave the lives of poor Romans something of quality and enabled them to flourish, albeit within modest limits.

Enjoyment of the amenities of life in the city was by no means limited to the wealthy. For instance, a visit to the baths cost only a nominal sum. One could find shelter from the heat or the cold in the baths any day he wished. He could also stay there as long as he liked, idling away his time gossiping with his friends or indulging in a variety of pastimes.

Photo of the Colosseum in Rome.
The poor Romans could go to the amphitheaters for free, but they had to climb high to sit in the tiers above the senators and the knights. (Image: Noppasin Wongchum/Shutterstock)

If someone wanted something a bit more stimulating, then, on public holidays, he could watch exotic animals tearing Rome’s enemies to pieces or see gladiators fighting to death in the arena.

Admission to the Colosseum, like other amphitheaters, was free. As an ordinary citizen, a man would have to sit in the tiers above the senators and the knights. A woman would have to climb even higher and sit beside slaves and foreigners. But it was probably worth the climb. The spectacle would have distracted the poor people temporarily from the challenges and misery of the daily grind.

If one could not get a seat in the Colosseum, he could go to Circus Maximus to watch a chariot race. The Circus Maximus could accommodate about 250,000 spectators, so virtually the whole of Rome could attend.

Common Questions about the Life of a Poor Man in Ancient Rome

Q: What kind of work did the poor Romans do?

The poor Romans would work as unskilled workers, doing a variety of menial jobs on a daily wage basis.

Q: Who were the professional beggars in Ancient Rome?

The professional beggars in ancient Rome included priests devoted to the eastern goddess Cybele, who depended in part for their livelihood on alms from the general public. Another kind of professional beggars were the Cynic philosophers. These beggars aggressively accosted passersby to spread their philosophy of poverty and make them give alms.

Q: How did poor Romans entertain themselves?

The poor Romans could visit the baths for a nominal sum and find shelter from the heat or the cold. They could visit arenas and amphitheaters for free and watch gladiators fight. Else, they could go to Circus Maximus to watch a chariot race.

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