Part I of III: Poverty & Welfare in Ancient Rome

Herein, the Ancient Roman topic that will be analyzed with regard to the sustainability-related issues it likely gave rise will be the topic of welfare. In Ancient Rome, of course, the focus will be on the implementation of grain supply practices that offered Roman citizens grain at subsidized rates, or, under certain leadership, completely free of charge. Naturally, many aspects of the practice of welfare were contentious at the time and remain contentious to this day with our own modern forms of public assistance. Given the inherent biases that can pervade a topic of this nature, it is worth emphasizing that it will be the facts of Ancient Rome and the facts of modern society that will serve as a guide to whatever conclusions will eventually be drawn at the end of this project.

So it is Gaius Gracchus in the year 123 B.C. that established a policy by which, “all citizens of Rome were entitled to buy a monthly ration of corn at a fixed price” (Bartlett 289). Bartlett argues that the policy was merely established so as to, “smooth out seasonal fluctuations in the price of corn,” although such an interpretation does beg the question why the Roman government would highly subsidize a commodity that generates income for the government if an alternative politically viable solution existed (Bartlett 289). In other words, flattening a commodity’s price hardly necessarily entails a high degree of subsidization. Thusly, unless Gaius Gracchus preferred to generate less public income than the average leader, Bartlett might be assuaging the notion that there were other motives behind the establishment of a grain distribution policy. Rather, in conjunction with a desire to limit price fluctuation, a grain distribution policy suggests that there was a demand for affordable food that was not being met by employment prospects in urban Ancient Rome.

Rome was a city “whose population was generally poor and in a state of continual flux due to massive urban mortality,” and its population was malnourished (Harrison 117). According to studies conducted by Bas van Leeuwen at Utrecht University and Reinhard Pirngruber at the University of Vienna, 65% of laborers, encompassing the vast majority of Rome’s citizenry, lived below the World Bank Poverty Line in optimistic scenarios and 82% of laborers lived below the World Bank Poverty Line in pessimistic scenarios. For the sake of using a round number, they safely estimate that 7 in 10 Roman laborers were living below the food security levels as laid out by the World Bank and the USDA (van Leeuwen & Pirngruber 16). In comparison, the United States today has a food-insecure household level of 14%—1/5th the Ancient Roman rate. These numbers clearly suggest that securing enough food to sustain oneself in Ancient Rome was both a difficult and unlikely feat to accomplish without the assistance of some kind of food distribution initiative.

This is likely why grain distribution remained a pillar of the popularis platform, and explains Clodius’ popularity with the Roman plebs after his decision to offer free grain to the poor in 58 B.C. along with some other popularis initiatives (Harrison 97). Well, did Clodius adopt these initiatives out of a moral desire to aid the poor or did he see championing the plebs as his means to political ascendancy? A complete answer to these questions may be outside of the scope of the first part of this project, but nevertheless they will be addressed as these are frankly questions that have always loomed over populist policies of the political left throughout history.

What is indisputable is that Clodius’ tactics received widespread scorn from much of the Roman elite. The Roman historian and politician Sallust referred to Clodius’ plebeian supporters as “fickle actors” who, as being the poor persons they are, “always envy the rich and long for general social upheaval” (Harrison 101). As recounted by Harrison, Cicero too is an unreliable source as he refers to Clodius’ supporters as, “‘gangs’, ‘banditry’, ‘mob’ and ‘army’… employs derogatory terms such as perditii, facinerosi or egentes to suggest that Clodius’ followers were poor, corrupt and criminal elements” (Harrison 101-2). Is there merit to Cicero’s assertions or is he merely giving the aristocratic account that has been married to skepticism of populist revolution for as long as time? This shall all be investigated further.

So then, the question that remains is how ought all of these happenings under the welfare umbrella of Ancient Rome be tied to contemporary sustainability issues? Surely, much of the debate surrounds whether publicly subsidized food programs are affordable. Perhaps feeding a constituency’s poor can put a burden on its tax payers, its job creators, or, most importantly, its working class that can ill afford to pay more in taxes. This will be given attention, but it should be readily ceded that much has already been written to argue for the necessity of welfare programs and how to budget them efficiently.

Instead, the narrative presented by the likes of Gaius Gracchus, Clodius, Sallust, Cicero, and others may be the most fascinating case study to take aim at and analyze further. How did the narrative surrounding the poor in Rome impact public policy and how does it impact it to this day? Max Rose and Frank Baumgartner at the University of North Carolina diagnose a clear trend between the media portrayal of the poor and its social programs and public support for policy proposals that followed (Rose & Baumgartner 23-44). The implication may simply be that perception is reality, and it is entirely plausible that both sides of any debate prey on this logic. When perception entirely consumes reality, is this not a sustainability issue in itself? In sum, the task at hand will be to analyze the Roman case of welfare via grain distribution, dive into the political motives and oratory tactics behind arguments for and against grain distribution and populist proposals of a similar nature, and finally determine the impact of human nature on public policy debates.

Works Cited

Bartlett, Bruce. “How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome (Fall 1994).” Cato Journal

14.2 (1994): 287-303. Web.

Harrison, Ian. “Catiline, Clodius, and Popular Politics at Rome during the 60s and 50s Bce*.” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 51.1 (2008): 95-118. Print.

Rose, Max, and Frank R. Baumgartner. “Framing the Poor: Media Coverage and U.S. Poverty Policy, 1960-2008.” Policy Studies Journal 41.1 (2013): 22-53. Print.

van Leeuwen, Bas, Jieli Li, and Reinhard Pirngruber. “The standard of living in ancient societies:

a comparison between the Han Empire, the Roman Empire, and Babylonia.” Ideas 45.1 (2013): 1-24. Print.

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