A Point of View: Why the rich look down on the poor

  • 9 November 2012
  • From the section Magazine
Woman begging in NY

In the ancient world, the rich held themselves to very different standards from the poor. Not much has changed, argues classical historian Mary Beard.

Low life in ancient Rome could be very low indeed.

There were gangs of ne'er-do-wells and down-and-outs who spent all night in cheap bars, drowning their sorrows. Apart from talk about the top chariot racers (the ancient equivalent of footballers), the only entertainment on offer was brawling and gambling.

They would sit hunched over their gaming tables, making horrible snorting sounds through their quivering nostrils.

(The Greeks and Romans seem to have been particularly sensitive to odd nasal noises. One pundit in the early 2nd Century - the aptly named Dio the Golden Mouth - gave a whole lecture to the people of the city of Tarsus, urging them to control their snorting. It must count as one of the most curious works of ancient literature to have come down to us.)

Needless to say, this picture of the life of the Roman poor as one of wall-to-wall boozing and gambling does not come from the poor themselves.

I've been quoting, more or less word for word, the description of social conditions in the capital city of the Roman Empire given by a decidedly upmarket historian of the 4th Century, Ammianus Marcellinus.

To be fair to Ammianus, he had some pretty sharp things to say about the elite, too. They're the sort of people who are all over you one day and don't even recognise you the next, the sort who spend far too much money on posh dining or - to introduce a characteristically Roman touch - the sort who surround themselves with battalions of eunuch servants.

But his view of the behaviour of the underclass is the kind of fantasy that the rich have had about the poor ever since.

My guess is that Ammianus had never actually set foot in an ordinary Roman bar and had never thought about the sheer illogicality of what he was claiming - if these guys really were desperately poor, how on earth could they afford to drink all night?

As for the gambling, it's a classic case of moral double standards. The Roman elite were keen gamblers.

Image caption Fighting, another popular entertainment

The emperor Claudius even wrote a book about how to win at dice, and one of the most famous phrases ever spoken by a Roman general comes straight from the gaming table: "Alea iacta est" (the die is cast), as Julius Caesar is supposed to have said as he crossed the river Rubicon in 49BC.

But as soon as the poor showed any similar fondness for games of chance, the elite got into a frightful sweat and started predicting imminent moral collapse.

It's not all that different from the double standards on view at the Lady Chatterley trial in 1960, when the prosecuting counsel famously suggested that it was the kind of book that people like himself could be trusted with, but asked if it was something one would wish one's wife or servants to read?

Ammianus, I am sure, would have said firmly no.  

By and large, posh Romans didn't have much time for poor Romans, free or slave - although they were no doubt a bit scared of them too. They regularly referred to them as a "turba" (rabble) or "multitudo" (the masses).

Interestingly, given the recent fuss, plebs wasn't usually their insult of choice. It's true that they did sometimes use the word in that way.

The historian Tacitus, for example, wrote of the plebs sordida (and you don't need me to translate that). But plebs was just as often used to refer, in neutral or even complimentary terms, to the noble stock of the worthy Roman yeomanry.

It was only in English, and in the late 18th Century that the word lost its final "s" and became solely derogatory, as in "you filthy little pleb".

In fact, if I'd been advising Andrew Mitchell after his spot of bother, my line would have been an unrepentant one: "If I did use the word pleb - or better plebs - it would have been intended to flatter the officer."

Image caption But would you want your servant reading it?

But whatever slurs and nicknames were used, the misdemeanours attributed to the ancient Roman poor by their rich critics are strikingly similar to those we still hear now.

For a start, the poor were often said to be guilty of abusing the services offered to them - not by the welfare state but by rich benefactors.

Ammianus, for example, pointed in disgust to the way that the poor spent their days lurking under the awnings in the theatre, which had actually been put up so that the ordinary Roman theatre-goers could be protected from the beating sun during performances in the open air.

Here, he huffed, were people practically living under them.

Presumably it hadn't occurred to him that these must have been people with nowhere else to go for shelter. I mean, why spend your life under an awning if you've got a home to go to?

Theatre awnings aren't of course a big issue for us. But, all the same, Ammianus' moans have got quite a lot in common with modern complaints about "benefit scroungers" (and about as little hard logic).

My mother, who had lived through the foundation of the NHS, always remembered how in the late 1940s and early 50s the press was full of stories about people who were bringing the nation to its financial knees by managing to acquire not just one, but two, pairs of NHS spectacles, as well as two pairs of NHS false teeth.

As she often pointed out, what could you possibly have needed two pairs of dentures for? To have a spare, in case you lost one?

More recent obsessions have focused on those immoral wastrels who supposedly choose to have another baby in order to increase their state benefits by a couple of thousand a year.

I guess that there may be a few people who do try this - if so, they probably need a few lessons in home economics and maths rather than in morals.

But what a preposterous view of the whole reproductive process you must have, with all its uncertainties, pain, disruption, responsibilities and expense, to imagine that people are going down this route in large numbers. It's not a line I hear coming from many women.

Image caption The Emperor Nero - mourned only by the "filthy poor" according to Tacitus

The other way in which the comfortably-off traditionally talk of those less fortunate than themselves is, of course, to divide them into the Good Poor and the Bad Poor.

In fact, when Tacitus wrote of the plebs sordida it was explicitly to contrast them with what he called "the respectable elements among the common people".

Talking about the death of the monstrous emperor Nero, he claimed the "filthy poor", the squanderers and the racing addicts, lamented the death (for Nero had been an easy touch for entertainments and hand-outs).

Predictably enough, the "respectable elements" were those who welcomed the new regime of austerity and cost-cutting under the in-coming emperor Galba.

That division is still with us. The 19th Century notoriously had its "deserving" and "undeserving poor". Our own equivalent of the "deserving poor" is "hard-working families".

Politicians of all parties are forever parroting this pious phrase on television or radio. It's almost as if they've been told to never say the simple word "families" without its knee-jerk accompanying adjective.

Maybe I'm peculiarly counter-suggestible. But whenever I hear them at it, I feel a great well of support coming over me for the feckless and lazy, or - for heaven's sake - for the singletons who don't have families. Are you any less worthy of our political time and care just because you haven't got kids?

But there are more serious points at issue here.

For a start, it doesn't take much political calculation to see that if you treat some people as undeserving, they will quickly become so. There's no surer way to turn a child into a problem then to relegate him or her to the "naughty step".

But - OK, at the risk of sounding a bit pious myself - there's also a niggling question of human progress. It would be nice to think that we had actually "come on a bit" since the time of Ammianus more than 1,500 years ago.

In some respects, of course, we have - let's count ourselves lucky that the rich today don't surround themselves with battalions of castrated servants.

But wouldn't it also be a sign of the advance of civilisation if we treated everyone as worth caring for, whether deserving or hard working or not.

It would be nice to think, in other words, that we could make it a priority to look after the anti-social, the overweight, the smokers, the plebs sordida and the snorter too.

I'm afraid we don't do that yet. "Honk honk!" as the snorter would say.