Chapter 11 - Poverty and Roman law  pp. 183-203

Poverty and Roman law

By Caroline Humfress

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In 454 ad a perplexed praetorian prefect wrote to the emperor Marcian, requesting imperial clarification of a legal ambiguity which was causing great confusion in the law-courts. The prefect sought a definitive imperial ruling which would remove the difficulties that judges and litigants were experiencing in interpreting a law of Constantine excluding ‘low and degraded’ women from being partners in marriage with men of high status. The particular issue was whether ‘the poor’ belonged to this group. Behind this issue, however, lay the deeper problem: how to identify and classify ‘the poor’ as a subset within Roman civil society. Marcian's Novel 4, issued in response to the praetorian prefect's enquiry, purports to provide an answer to the first problem, but circumvents the second, which is the more fundamental. Peter Garnsey has alerted modern historians to the difficulties and complexities surrounding any attempts to formulate an exact taxonomy of the Roman poor or indeed of poverty itself. The emperor Marcian's legislative response to his praetorian prefect offers us some comfort in our modern interpretative difficulties: late Roman legislators, judges and litigants experienced definitional problems at least equal to our own in attempting to classify and categorise their poor.

In fact classical Roman lawyers had been notoriously uninterested in defining a class or category of ‘the poor’, whether according to either juridical or economic criteria. In David Daube's memorable phrase: ‘The have-nots, the vast majority of citizens, were right out of it.’

Chapter 11

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