Life and Death at the Margins of Society – Investigating Manifestations of Poverty within Roman Urban Spaces
While the vocal minority of the Roman Empire's elites have dictated much of the tone and scope of scholarship to this day, we remain near-oblivious to the realities of the much more silent majority of Rome's middle and lower social strata, which vanish in most traditionally used source material – it has seemed that the poorer the individual, the more invisible they became. Some 2000 years later, poverty and social inequality continue to be pressing issues, with little sign of improvement on a global scale. In no small part due to an increasing number and variety of stress events – such as pandemics, armed conflicts and climate catastrophes –, the predicament of disadvantaged sections of urban societies is gradually gaining attention, enhancing their voices and bringing these issues to the forefront of policy. This development is reflected in the topic of this interdisciplinary dissertation project dedicated to the pioneer study of severe forms of poverty in Roman antiquity, and in particular to its public and imaginary perception and visibility in urban space.
Through the conjoint analysis of textual and archaeological remains (1st c. BCE to 6th c. CE) this research for the first time aims to find and extract references to forms of urban poverty in ancient Roman cities and spans an arc from the Western to the Eastern Roman Empire. A special emphasis is hereby placed on analysing aspects of extreme poverty. Within the framework of my research investigating the lives of individuals living itinerant lifestyles or experiencing homelessness, a large corpus of existing and so far neglected textual and visual sources was assembled. I determined these sources regularly refer to the same specific public places within different cities, enabling us to locate members of the marginalised poor within public urban spaces and investigate their movements within the cityscape. This project sets out to investigate these identified locations in detail, as well as the broader urban structures of four well-preserved cities in the Roman Empire that offer a quantifiable amount of material for spatial analysis and geopolitical comparison between East and West (Rome, Pompeii, Ostia, Ephesos) in order to gain a deeper understanding of the dimensions of urban poverty, and to sketch – for the first time – a more nuanced image of the lowest strata of Roman social stratigraphy, making an invaluable contribution to understanding the social implications of urban landscapes, which continue to affect both the present and the past.