‘Poor Choices’: Cicero, Tony Abbott and the Agency of Poverty

Eras Journal – Ayer, K.:”Poor Choices”: Cicero , Tony Abbott and the Agency of Poverty

“Poor Choices”:
Cicero, Tony Abbott and the Agency of Poverty*
Kavita Ayer
(Macquarie University)

An Odd Couple

Cicero and Tony Abbott may initially seem like strange bedfellows. What do two politicians from vastly different societies have in common that could be of interest to contemporary historians? I first contemplated this odd coupling in the first year of my PhD in Ancient History, which focuses on representations of poverty in the literature of the late Roman Republic. My interest in contemporary debates on poverty was roused when the ABC’s Four Corners program broadcast an episode on levels of poverty in Australian society. The episode, called ‘Going Backwards’,[1] included these now-infamous remarks from the then Federal Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Tony Abbott:

But we can’t abolish poverty because poverty in part is a function of individual behaviour. We can’t stop people drinking. We can’t stop people gambling. We can’t stop people having substance problems. We can’t stop people from making mistakes that cause them to be less well-off than they might otherwise be.[2]

Abbott here partially attributes the responsibility of poverty to the ‘poor’. This attitude is particularly striking to a contemporary historian of the ancient world as it evokes a discursive strategy that also proved to be useful in an earlier period. Cicero, an important public figure in the Roman Republican Era and a key ancient source for my thesis, also represents poverty within a moral framework.[3] In ancient texts, poverty is often constructed as both a result and a reflection of its performer’s actions and personal characteristics.[4] Poverty most often tarnished individuals branded with this attribute, even if these individuals were members of the elite.[5] In dealing with the poor of Roman society on a wider scale, most extant literary texts, when they actually refer to the poorer members of society, contain virulent attacks on the ‘masses’ of Rome. The overwhelming majority of Romans were almost always treated corporately – and without sympathy – as ‘the mass’, ‘the mob’, ‘the multitude’, ‘the many’.[6] Such collective designations served to dehumanise these people and their plight for the contemporary elite Roman audience and for posterity.

When Abbott made his remarks about poverty on Four Corners, he was met with criticism from certain quarters.[7]But historians do not have access to opposing viewpoints on Roman ideas of poverty. The literary remains of this era are almost entirely written from the perspective of the Roman elite,[8] who constituted a miniscule percentage of the total population. Historians of Roman literary texts most often have to use the testimonies of the elite – particularly the most conservative elements – to reimagine entire social worlds, including ones in which the upper classes showed little interest.

In the modern context, furthermore, historians are also faced with what Simon Schama calls an “insoluble quandary”: “how to live in two worlds at once; how to take the broken, mutilated remains of something or someone from the ‘enemy lines’ of the documented past and restore it to life or give it a decent interment in our own time and place”.[9]We need the present to scrutinise the past; after all “to analyse another without analysing oneself would be an act of cultural imperialism”.[10] My research seeks to tackle this quandary by using the concept of poverty to investigate Roman society, and the history of Rome to investigate the concept of poverty.[11]

This paper examines how particular notions of ‘poverty’ are created discursively in the literary texts of the Late Roman Republic. These ancient images will be juxtaposed with the more recent comments made about poverty by Tony Abbott. I approach this subject matter as a student of ancient history who is interested in observing ideological links between my own work on classical discourses and modern political rhetoric. First, I will briefly discuss the concepts of ‘poverty’ and ‘the poor’ in Roman society and present-day Australia; next, the attribution of responsibility for poverty is pursued; and finally, the discursive power of poverty to marginalise is examined. In adopting this comparative approach, I am not suggesting that poverty is an essential or stable given, or that there is an historical line of continuity linking ancient Rome to the present. Rather, it is interesting to address the more distant past in relation to contemporary social issues,[12] and in particular to scrutinise the currency of similar discourses in different societies. In both cases, negative connotations associated with discourses of poverty imbue the concept with a sense of agency that compels further immoral behaviour.

‘Poverty’ and ‘the Poor

It is easier for us to characterise poverty in a broadly understandable manner in our own society than to understand how to (re)construct poverty in Roman history. In contemporary society, there is a great emphasis on attempting to define and measure poverty. For example, research on the ‘poverty line’ is carried out by organisations such as the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM) and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Even so, controversy over ‘accurate’ calculations makes poverty a much-contested concept:

How many mouths must one income feed? Should you consider the cost of rent in different parts of the country? As well as food, clothing, shelter and health, should all Australians be entitled to transport, some recreation, a holiday, to be able to invite friends over for a meal once in a while? [13]

In Australia, poverty is calculated by relative, rather than absolute, criteria. People are categorised as ‘poor’ if their standard of living is lower than the societal norm. NATSEM, for example, sets the poverty-line at half the average Australian income, and thus calculates that thirteen percent of Australians (one in eight) were living in poverty in 2000.[14] However the findings of NATSEM are questioned by Tony Abbott, who claims that, on the whole, “people are not being left behind on a statistical basis”.[15] Saunders and Tsumori are also critical of NATSEM’s calculations, claiming that measuring the poverty line by the average income, rather than the median income, leads to an overestimation of the percentage of those living in poverty.[16] If half of the median income is used to calculate the poverty line, then eight percent of the population is classified as ‘poor’, rendering little change in the last ten years. Furthermore, Hughes claims that a ‘politics of envy’, fuelled by a welfare sector with a vested interest in exaggerating the extent of poverty and income inequality, has distorted the ‘facts’ about poverty and income distribution.[17]

But when one searches for notions of ‘poverty’ and ‘the poor’ in ancient Rome, it is difficult to find definitions that take the composition of all of Roman society into account.[18] The closest we come to a definition of what constituted poverty is through the census requirements. Those citizen males without property – who made up a majority of the population – were classed as capite censi, the lowest class or those ‘counted by head’. [19] Scorn was thus directed to social inferiors by the privileged, as is shown by Cicero’s scathing remarks discrediting the character of an opponent, whom he calls a homo egens (“a poverty-stricken individual”), sordido, sine honore, sine existmatione, sine censu (“of low class, without distinction, without reputation, without property”).[20] There was also some idea of deprivation in terms of the minimal requirements necessary to sustain life. For example, the Digestalists food, clothing and straw to sleep in as the requirements for subsistence.[21] Elite writers also realised that wealth – or lack of wealth – was relative. Cicero acknowledged that richness depended on one’s perspective:

But as my money meets with your scorn, and rightly (for to the ideas of the common public it is moderate, to yours, non-existent, to mine a modest sum), I will be silent about myself and speak about the subject of property.

Meam autem quoniam pecuniam contemnis (et recte, est enim ad vulgi opinionem mediocris, ad tuam nulla, ad meam modica), de me silebo, de re loquar.[22]

However, all-encompassing, programmatic definitions are, on the whole, absent from Roman thought. For the Roman elite, the most important ambition was to participate in political life, which was restricted to those with money and status; anyone who was not involved in public life was automatically ‘poor’ in comparison. In particular, those whose deprivation made it difficult for them to survive are not often mentioned.[23]Yet the Roman upper classes, who had to maintain certain property qualifications to retain their senatorial or equestrian status, had no qualms about referring to themselves as impoverished. For example, Cicero felt entitled to complain that his large number of villas was forcing him into debt.[24] Cicero ‘s annual income, not including his ownership of property, is estimated to have been at least 750 000 sesterces, some 750 times that of the annual income of a labourer.[25] Such expressions of relative ‘deprivation’ from those already in privileged positions were the means by which the elite Romans often conceptualised poverty.[26]

Current debates on definitions of poverty have, however, influenced the way that poverty in the Roman world is understood. The poor’, while of limited concern to the elite ancient texts, are something of a contested site amongst modern historians of Roman society. Hamel, for example, adopts a methodology that divides types of poverty into the absolute and the relative,[27] while Patlagean insists that subjects must exhibit several criteria to qualify as ‘poor’.[28] Prell, in contrast, attempts to establish a biological definition of poverty and then compares the cost of living for the poor at different stages in Roman history.[29]Most recently, Parkin has taken a comparative sociological approach to poverty that utilises the categories of structural/endemic and conjunctural/epidemic poor in a bid to overcome the elite focus of ancient texts.[30] Clearly, ‘poverty’ is more of a central concern of academic discussion in our society than for the extant ancient texts of the Roman world.

When we examine notions of poverty in the Roman world in comparison to contemporary Australia , it is clear that the two societies operate on different planes. Using comparative methods, Parkin estimates that around 70 percent of the Roman population would have faced poverty at some stage of their lives.[31] The Roman poor had few options for assistance. There is no doubt that the Australian government and charitable organisations do much more for the less well-off than Roman society ever did. The Roman world and present-day Australia are, therefore, very different, and it is not historical similarities that make the poverty-discourses of Cicero and Abbott similar.

Responsibility for Poverty

The conceptualisation of poverty in the literary remains of the classical world appears contradictory to us. On the one hand, poverty was considered an essentialised structural feature of the natural social order, but at the same time the poor were also held responsible for their own poverty.[32] Structural explanations certainly did not excuse poverty. There is no discussion of eradicating poverty, nor did unemployment, low wages or lack of social welfare register as reasons for poverty.[33] Most often, poverty is depicted as a personal responsibility rather than a concern of the state, and it is constructed within a moral framework. Cicero felt that aid should only go to the ‘suitable poor’,[34] and that some of those in need only had themselves to blame:

The case of the man who is overwhelmed by misfortune is different from that of the one who is seeking to better his own condition, though he suffers from no actual distress. (62) It will be the duty of charity to incline more to the unfortunate, unless, perchance, they deserve their misfortune.

Alia causa est eius, qui calamitate premitur, et eius, qui res meliores quaerit nullis suis rebus adversis. (62) Propensior benignitas esse debebit in calamitosos, nisi forte erunt digni calamitate.[35]

By stating that some people deserve calamitas , Cicero suggests that these people brought about their own misfortune, and that this was a consequence of their own actions. Some who were “overwhelmed by misfortune” and found themselves in poverty, for example, were lead to such a position by poor choices, which were the result of personal incompetence.[36]

Such moral judgements were at the heart of Roman opinions on poverty.[37] In Roman texts, poverty is often represented as a negative reflection of its performer’s personal traits, as well as a consequence of their actions. Some of the most striking examples of references to poverty come from the characterisation of Catiline, who was accused of conspiring to overthrow the Roman Republic. The unnatural abilities of Catiline’s body to endure poverty seem to have been celebrated.[38] Cicero, Catiline’s arch-enemy and prosecutor, claims that Catiline’s vices actually hardened his body to endure physical impoverishment:

Catiline, moreover, trained by his life of debauchery and crime to endure cold, hunger, thirst and lack of sleep, won in the eyes of these men a reputation for endurance…

Atque idem tamen stuprorum et scelerum exercitatione adsuefactus frigore et fame et siti et vigiliis perferendis fortis ab istis praedicabatur.[39]

While Catiline’s followers may have admired his ability to endure impoverishment, these supporters are also criticised by Cicero for their self-induced poverty, having “squandered their inheritances”, and the disreputability that accompanies such poverty:

The depravity of these men is no longer any ordinary depravity, their violence is no longer the violence of men and we cannot endure it.

Non enim iam sunt mediocres hominum libidines, non humanae et tolerandae audaciae.[40]

Catiline and his supporters are blamed for their own poverty, and their lack of personal responsibility is shown to have serious social consequences: they are a threat to the welfare of the res publica. Poverty was frequently associated with other vices such as debauchery, criminality, treachery and wickedness.[41] Furthermore, Sallust comments that Catiline’s “haughty spirit was goaded more and more every day by poverty”.[42] Poverty was thus seen to possess the agency to encourage further disreputability.

Abbott’s remarks on Four Corners also link poverty with vice. He argues that some people are responsible for their own poverty by drinking, gambling and substance problems: “we can’t abolish poverty because poverty in part is a function of individual behaviour”.[43] Situating poverty as a result of behaviour positions poverty within a moral framework; the implication is that poverty is a ‘choice’. Poverty becomes a reflection of individual morality. In some ways this echoes the sentiments of Cicero, as poverty is determined by the poor choices made by individuals. Like Cicero, Abbott’s individualistic explanation of poverty assumes that people are poor due to incompetence and immorality.[44] These individuals are characterised as irresponsible, as they decide to engage in behaviour that results in more financial hardship than they would have had to face if more ‘sound’ and more socially responsible choices were made.

In ‘Going Backwards’, Abbott did not include any discussion of the structural inequalities in society, inequalities which might lead people to make “mistakes that cause them to be less well-off than they might otherwise be”.[45] In fact, no causal link is made by Abbott between social issues and “individual behaviour”. Abbott’s commitment to an individualistic rather than a structural explanation of poverty is influenced by US neo-liberal philosophers such as Lawrence Mead. Such a view argues that welfare encourages dependency, and that ‘welfare dependency’ is responsible for unemployment and impoverishment;[46] welfare is seen to produce rather than alleviate poverty. Abbott quotes Mead’s claim that “whether (social security) recipients go to work is determined mainly by what goes on inside the welfare system and not by economic or social conditions”.[47] Dependence on welfare is seen as a kind of addiction, and instead of bestowing a sense of entitlement to recipients, paternalist welfare programs emphasise a shift towards a social contract that includes certain duties and obligations.[48]

Abbott’s paternalistic approach critiques “permissive welfare”[49] and those who “seem to think that government programs can substitute for personal responsibilities in a kind of ‘outsourcing’ of moral action from the individual to the prodigal state”.[50] From this perspective there are consequences for the poor, namely that the poor are required to be involved in a reciprocal relationship with the society that supports them. The ideology of mutual obligation replaces the “welfare culture” with a more “self-reliant culture”,[51] whilst also ensuring that “people on benefits are prepared to pull their weight”.[52] By emphasising individual responsibility and solutions to poverty, Abbott shifts the focus away from social policy and structural explanations to the idea that “welfare mentality kills job aspirations”.[53]Shaver sees this shift away from welfare as a social right towards conditional support as having “the scope to transform the relation between citizen and state fundamentally”.[54]

Therefore both Cicero and Abbott centre the responsibility for poverty on individuals, rather than exploring structural factors. However, there is still an awareness of – and various support mechanisms for – the economically poor in Australia. On the other hand, individuals in Roman society had little choice but to be responsible for their own poverty.[55] There was no Roman ‘government’ in the sense that we understand it, no welfare system like ours, There was no Roman ‘government’ in the sense that we understand it, no welfare system like ours,[56] and no systematic charitable organisations that aimed to serve the needs of the poorest members of society.[57] It is interesting to note that, despite these differences, a similar discourse holding individuals responsible for their poverty finds currency in two very different historical contexts. These discourses of personal responsibility contribute to an elite, othering metanarrative about poverty within which particular types of poverty are fashioned as immoral.

Poverty , Invective and Marginality

In both Rome and contemporary Australia, discourses about poverty have the power to marginalise.[58] The poverty-related identities that are created are not assumed to be stable or natural givens, but discursive objects that are sedimented through processes of citation and recitation. Particular representations are seen as the productive effect of power; the subjects generated by these representations become naturalised. Viewed through this lens of power, poverty acquires a discursive power due to its strategic ability to name.[59] For example, labels are applied to the poor from those in a position of power; the resulting generalisations produce the discursive objects ‘poverty’ and ‘the poor’. In speaking of poverty as ‘discourse’, I am not denying the material experiences of living in poverty and being marginalised by dominant social voices. Rather, I aim to investigate how the poor are used rhetorically by the elite in ancient Rome and contemporary Australia. The resulting moral statements are productive as they often reiterate that ‘the poor’ are not part of the normative ‘us’; the accusation of poverty thereby functions as a mechanism of exclusion.

It is not surprising to find such sentiments about the poor of Roman society expressed by earlier modern historians. In Roman history, secondary accounts written before the 1950s are littered with moral criticisms of the poor, and those radical politicians such as Clodius who attempted to assist the poor. Scullard, for example, the author of one of the most widely used textbooks at tertiary level on Republican Rome, comments that the measure of the tribune Clodius to distribute grain free of charge turned “earlier schemes for cheap corn…into an unashamed dole and hastened the demoralisation of the people”.[60] Hazlitt goes as far as saying that:

the dole became an integral part of the whole complex of economic causes that brought about the eventual collapse of Roman civilisation. It undermined the old Roman virtue of self-reliance. It schooled people to expect something for nothing.[61]

Yet surprisingly, patrician attitudes towards the issues of poverty and status in Rome persist even in more recent times. Veyne’s guilty confession about labour makes it clear that he is not one of ‘them’, whilst also revealing a fear of poverty’s discursive potential to enact social contempt:

True, we believe that work is respectable and would not dare to admit to idleness. Nevertheless, we are sensitive to class distinctions and, admit it or not, regard workers and shopkeepers as people of relatively little importance. We would not want ourselves or our children to sink to their station, even if we are a little ashamed of harbouring such sentiments.[62]

Such unsympathetic views about the station of the poor incorporate the negative stereotypes that are perpetuated in Latin terminology.[63] The language used to construct the poor is instructive in regards to the discursive power of ‘poverty’ in Roman society. The term iners , for example, is suggestive of a lack of will to work,[64] and the egentes(‘the needy’) were virtually criminals in Cicero ‘s mind.[65] Cicero also discredits some of his opponents by associating their poverty with disease and contamination. He accuses Catiline of bringing together “the refuse of society”,[66] and exclaiming, when Catiline had left Rome: O fortunatam rem publicam, si quidem hanc sentinam uris eiecerit! (“What a relief for the Republic to have baled out this bilge-water!”).[67] Poverty is also often coupled with other immoral attributes: egentes et perditi (‘the destitute and scoundrels’),[68] or egentes atque improbi (‘destitute and wicked’).[69] These poor people are clearly the ‘undeserving’ poor, and the Roman elite felt no obligation to assist them. The discursive force of terms for or associated with poverty is that they possess the potency to stain the bearer with a disreputable marginality.

Abbott does not use such explicitly negative terms to characterise the poor; he couches moral judgements in verbal references to actions which the audience knows are the ‘wrong’ actions for those without financial means. Thus he refers to drinking, gambling and substance problems, assuming always that the normative ‘we’ knows that these are poor choices for those who cannot afford to indulge in them.

Abbott is able to make such insinuations because poverty also possesses considerable rhetorical potency in contemporary Australian society. Those facing material poverty may be subject to a variety of scornful, pithy epithets: ‘povos’, ‘deros’, ‘housos’, to name but a few. But these derogatory economic labels also translate into more general terms of insult for those who are not necessarily categorised as ‘poor’; it is thus derisive even to be discursively associated with poverty. Assumptions about unemployment, crime and lack of privilege can separate those socially branded with degrees of poverty from the normative voice of the ‘moral majority’, who apparently possess greater social status or financial power.[70] Those who receive welfare are routinely taunted in public discourse because of their perceived dependency on ‘hand-outs’.’Dole-bludgers’, for example, are figures of contempt in much of the Australian popular media. The term ‘dole-bludger’ describes “one who is unemployed and lives on social security payments without making proper attempts to find employment”;[71] in popular media discourse, they are lazy people who wish to avoid contributing to society and are thus undeserving recipients of government support.[72] Dole-bludgers are targets of public humiliation meted out by current affairs programs that often specialise in exposing ‘welfare cheats’.[73]

There is also a suspicion that the unemployed are too choosy about accepting work. These concerns underlie Abbott’s comments that the unemployed are ‘job snobs’ by being “too fussy for too long about the sorts of jobs they’ll do”.[74] He has emphasised a moral need to reinforce a work ethic and, like Hazlitt, the sense of self-respect and self-reliance that follows working,[75] while claiming that welfare demoralises people.[76] Abbott suggests that unemployment is a “lifestyle choice”[77] and that the government aims to “make it impossible to be idle for long at taxpayer expense”.[78] It has been suggested that the ‘idle’ poor are actually viewed as the ‘undeserving’ poor or underclass.[79] The focus here is again on individuals and their behaviour as the problem, rather than unemployment or lack of job opportunities. Unlike Rome, the unemployed in contemporary Australian society are obliged to change their behaviour, with didactic ‘behavioural engineering’[80] being meted out by the “directive and supervisory means”[81] of the government. Such a discourse that focuses on disciplining the behaviour of the poor, rather than wider social structures, leads to a demonising of welfare recipients, who are blamed for their own predicament.[82]

By marginalising ‘them’, Abbott is operating within an ‘us and them’ framework, similar to Cicero’s discursive use of poverty, which places the ‘haves’ in opposition to the ‘have-nots’. Cicero bluntly depicts the conflict of the Catilinarian conspiracy as a battle between copia and egestas (‘plenty’ and ‘poverty’):

On our side fights decency, on theirs viciousness; on our side morality, on theirs debauchery… plenty fights against poverty, incorrupt principles against corrupt, sanity against insanity, well-founded hope against general desperation.

Ex hac enim parte pudor pugnat, illinc petulantia; hinc pudicitia, illinc stuprum… copia cum egestate, bona ratio cum perdita, mens sana cum amentia, bona denique spes cum omnium rerum desperatione confligit.[83]

A comparable ‘us and them’ structure is also evident in Abbott’s comments on Four Corners. His repetition of ‘we’ and ‘can’t’ – ” we can’t abolish poverty…We can’t stop people drinking. We can’t stop people gambling. We can’t stop people having substance problems. We can’t stop people from making mistakes…”[84] - makes a powerful statement about self-discipline and individual responsibility. The ‘we’ in Abbott’s statement is normative as well as judgemental, referring intentionally to his government and, by inference, to the moral majority who can control these behaviours or self-fund these choices.[85] Cicero creates a similar normativity by casting his opponents as enemies of the republic and the boni - the good people.[86] Poverty’s discursive power to denigrate is thus harnessed by these two politicians to perpetuate social exclusion.


To return to Schama’s ‘quandary’: utilising the concept of poverty reveals that the Romans were less concerned about quantifying poverty than we are, and the history of Rome reveals that ‘poverty’ is not a stable or universal given. A comparison of the views of Cicero and Tony Abbott sheds light on their respective discourses of poverty. The specificities of what constitutes ‘poverty’ in each society are radically different, as are the avenues of assistance for those in impoverished circumstances. However, the attribution of individual responsibility for poverty is a strategy which the two men share. Rather than focusing on systemic inequalities at a structural level, Cicero and Abbott both, in their own way, depict poverty as a personal choice and thus also as a moral reflection of character. As an accusation, poverty holds great discursive force in both ancient Rome and contemporary Australia. People who are branded ‘poor’ are marginalised and held responsible for their own poverty. Poverty thereby becomes a mechanism of marginalisation in two vastly different societies.

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*This paper was originally written for the refereed postgraduate conference Creating Spaces: Interdisciplinary Writings in the Social Sciences held at the Australian National University, Canberra on 17-18 July, 2003. I would like to thank the anonymous referee from ANU as well as Konny Kwiet, Phil Byrne and Brad Windon for their thoughtful comments on sections of this paper. Eras ‘ anonymous referees also provided me with some helpful suggestions. I take responsibility for any remaining mistakes. All ancient texts and translations cited in this article refer to Loeb Classical Library editions.

[1] ‘Going Backwards’, Four Corners, ABC TV, Australia, broadcast 9/7/01. Reporter: Stephen McDonell. Producer: Morag Ramsay. A transcript of the program is available on the ABC website at: http://abc.net.au/4corners/stories/s326017.htm, pp. 1-27. Back

[2] ‘Going Backwards’, p. 13. Back

[3] Cicero lived from 106-43 BCE, and was especially politically active and influential from the sixties BCE onwards.Back

[4] Poverty was particularly visible in the Roman world as clothing was an important signifier of status; outward appearance was also regarded as a reflection of moral worth. On the Romans”characterological’ conception of appearance, see A. R. Dyck, ‘Dressing To Kill: Attire as a Proof and Means of Characterization in Cicero ‘s Speeches’,Arethusa, Vol. 34, No. 1, 2001, pp. 119-130. Back

[5] There was also an idealised Roman conception of austerity, which I would describe as wealthy ‘faux-poverty’; important figures from the past, such as Cato the Elder, were admired for their shunning of luxury and their chosen lifestyle of paupertas (a more respectable type of poverty). On discourses of austerity in Roman literature, see E. Dench, ‘Images of Italian Austerity from Cato to Tacitus’, in Les elites municipales de l‘Italie péninsulaire des Gracques à Néron. Actes de la table ronde internationale de Clermont-Ferrand, 28-30 novembre, 1991, Centre Jean Bérard-Ecole française de Rome, Naples-Rome, 1996, pp. 247-254.Back

[6] Latin mob terminology and the derisiveness of elite attitudes is discussed by Z. Yavetz, Plebs and Princeps,Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1969. See also the remarks of N. Purcell, ‘The City of Rome and the plebs urbana in the Late Republic’, in J.A. Crook, A. Lintott, the late E. Rawson (ed.) The Cambridge Ancient History Vol 9, 2 nd ed., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994, pp. 644-688 and P. A. Brunt, ‘The Roman Mob’, in M. I. Finley (ed.)Studies in Ancient Society, Routledge and Keegan, London, 1974, pp. 74-102. Back

[7] ‘Going Backwards’ questioned Abbott’s remarks. Other examples of criticism include: Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja claimed the government should accept that poverty is also, in part, “a function of the Government’s failing to give people enough money to live on”, in a speech to the National Press Club – http://www.democrats.org.au/campaigns/natpressclub; Michael Raper, the president of the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), called Abbott’s comments “a cop-out” – www.abc.net.au/public/news/2001/07/item200107101015081.htm. See also P. Mendes,’Bullying the Poor: Tony Abbott on the Welfare State’, Australian Quarterly, July-August 2002, pp.33-35, and ‘Welfare Groups Lash out at Abbott’s comments’, broadcast on ABC local radio on July 10th, 2001 – transcript available at www.abc.net.au/pm/s326684.htm, pp.1-3. The Prime Minister John Howard defended Abbott and denied that Abbott was becoming a ‘liability’ on television, for example on Channel Nine’s Today program on the 11 July, 2001 – transcript available at www.pm.gov. au/interviews/2001/interview1120.htm. Back

[8] For the non-literary evidence of Roman society see: S. R. Joshel, Work, Identity, and Legal Status at Rome, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1992 on inscriptions; R. A. Lanciani, The Ruins and Excavations of Ancient Rome, Bell, New York, 1979 on archaeology; M. H. Crawford, Roman Republican Coinage, Cambridge University Press, London, 1974 on coins. Back

[9] S. Schama, Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations), Granta, London, 1991, p. 319. Back

[10] J. P. Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1995, p. 6. Back

[11] This idea is adapted from J. P. Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, p. 1. Like many tensions that exist when examining historical issues, this ‘quandary’ can be addressed without ever being fully overcome. Back

[12] See the illuminating comments of A. J. Cruz, Discourses of Poverty: Social Reform and the Picaresque Novel in Early Modern Spain, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1999, p. ix.Back

[13] Reporter Stephen McDonell’s comments, ‘Going Backwards’, p. 8. Back

[14] This figure had increased from 11.3 percent of people living in poverty in 1990. On NATSEM’s calculation of the poverty line for the report commissioned by the Smith Family, see A. Harding, R. Lloyd & H. Greenwell, Financial Disadvantage inAustralia 1990 to 2000. The Persistence of Poverty in a Decade of Growth, National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, Canberra, 2001.Back

[15] ‘Going Backwards’, p. 13.Back

[16] P. Saunders & K. Tsumori,’For Richer or Poorer, We’re Still a Lucky Country’, Executive Highlight s, No. 69, 2002 – www.cis.org.au/exechigh/eh2002/EH6901.html; P. Saunders & K. Tsumori, ‘Poverty Lines Tangled’, Executive Highlights, No. 70, 2002 – www.cis.org.au/exechigh/eh2002/EH7001.html, p.1; K. Tsumori, P. Saunders & H. Hughes, ‘Poor Arguments. A Response to the Smith Family Report on Poverty in Australia’, Issue Analysis No.21, 2002 – www.cis.org.au/IssueAnalysis/ia21/IA21.htm, p. 1. However, A. Saunders, one of the co-authors of the Smith Family’s Report Financial Disadvantage in Australia 1990 to 2000, explained on the ABC’s 7.30 Report, aired on January 16 th 2002, that the reason why this report set the poverty at half the average income was to ensure a full representation of all income earners in the calculations – a transcript is available at www.abc.net.au/7.30/3460045.htm, p. 3. Back

[17] H. Hughes, ‘The Politics of Envy’, Policy 17.2, 2001, p.13. A critique of some aspects of Hughes’ arguments is provided in a response by Bruce Bradbury and Markus Jäntti, www.cis.org.au/Policy/winter01/Bradbury-letter-2.pdf. For a general overview of poverty research in Australia , see B. Howe and R. Pidwell, ‘Poverty research and Social Policy’, Australian of Social Issues 37.2, 2002, pp. 113-116. Back

[18] For an excellent discussion about the difficulties of ‘finding’ the Roman poor in the early Empire, see A. R. Parkin, ‘ Poverty in the Early Roman Empire’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Cambridge, 2001, pp. 1-34. Back

[19] Those in this lowest class were not eligible for military service; during the Late Republic, when numerous wars were taking their toll on the Roman army, the qualifications for being placed into this lowest class were frequently lowered, so that a greater number of people were available for military service. Note that military service was crucial for elite notions of nobility, so our ancient texts do not have much interest or sympathy for the capite censi . See C. Nicolet, The World of the Citizen in Republican Rome. P. S. Falla (trans), Batsford, London, 1976. Back

[20] Cicero, ProFlacco, 22.52, C. Macdonald (trans.), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1976. The trope of poverty was often used as a rhetorical device to discredit opponents. Back

[21] Digesta, The Digesta was part of a restatement of the whole of Roman law, which was completed in 538 CE during the reign of the emperor Justinian. Straw is not even included in Sallust, Bellum Catilinae, 48. Back

[22] Cicero, Paradoxa Stoicorum, 46-48 A. G. Lee (trans.), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1953. Back

[23] Most references to the destitute are found after the ‘republican’ era of Cicero, in the imperial period from the first century CE onwards. Some examples are of loitering in various places in the city, such as in the street: Juvenal,Satires, 5.8; Dio Chrysostom, Orationes, 32.9; crossroads: Horace, Epistulae, 1.17.58; Catullus, 47.6-7; temples: Dio Chrysostom, Orationes, 32.9; Martial, Epigrammata , 4.53; bridges: Juvenal, Satires, 5.9, 14.134. Back

[24] Cicero, Epistulae adAtticum, 2.1.11. Back

[25] S. J. Bastomsky, ‘Rich and Poor: The Great Divide in Ancient Rome and Victorian England’, Greece & Rome, Vol. 37, No. 1, 1990, pp. 38-40; these figures are calculated on the assumption that a labourer was able find steady work.Back

[26] This makes the rather notorious claims of poverty regularly voiced by Latin poets more understandable, as their ‘poverty’ made them dependent on the whims of patrons. A framework for relative deprivation amongst the Roman elite is provided by R. H. Storch, ‘Relative Deprivation and the Ides of March: Motive for Murder’, The Ancient History Bulletin, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1995, pp. 45-52. Back

[27] G. Hamel, Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1990, pp. 2-3. Back

[28] E. Patlagean, Pauvretééconomique et pauvreté sociale à Byzance, 4 e – 7 e siecles, Mouton, Paris, 1977. Back

[29] M. Prell, Sozialökonomische Untersuchungen zur Armut im antiken Rom, Steiner, Stuttgart, 1997, p.15.Back

[30] A. R. Parkin, ‘ Poverty in the Early Roman Empire’, pp. 26-34. Back

[31] A. R. Parkin, ‘ Poverty in the Early Roman Empire’, pp. 26-27. It is clear that Roman conditions were more unsanitary for a larger percentage of the population than those found in Australia. On living conditions for the poor and low life expectancy in Rome, see Z. Yavetz, ‘The Living Conditions of the Urban Plebs in Republican Rome’,Latomus, Vol. 17, 1958, pp. 500-517 and A. Scobie, ‘Slums, Sanitation and Mortality in the Roman World’, Klio,Vol. 68, No .2, 1986, pp. 399-433. Back

[32] C. R. Whittaker, ‘The Poor’, in A. Giardina (ed.) The Romans. L. G. Cochrane (trans.), University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993, p. 273; see also J. P. Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, pp. 69-71. The standard formula for describing Roman society reveals the normative social hierarchy: Senatus populusque Romanus(the Senate and the People of Rome). Senators had landed wealth and the people were left, on the whole, to provide for themselves. Some individuals without noble lineage achieved senatorial status, but they were from wealthy families. While there was some social mobility, the most poor were not able to rise to the top of the social scale. Back

[33] Prell Sozialökonomische Untersuchungen zur Armut im antiken Rom, p. 65; R. Saller, ‘Poverty, Honor and Obligation in Imperial Rome’, Criterion, Vol. 37, No. 2, 1998, p.14. Back

[34] Cicero, De officiis, 2.54. Back

[35] Cicero, De officiis, 2.61-62, W. Miller (trans.) Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1968. Back

[36] C. R. Whittaker, ‘The Poor’, p.273, 294. Cicero could also use calamitas in the context of fate and Stoic philosophy; see Saller, ‘Poverty, Honor and Obligation in Imperial Rome’, p.15. Back

[37] The ancient writers generally seemed to have believed that there were external signs pointing to inner virtues and vices, as is discussed by A. R. Dyck, ‘Dressing To Kill: Attire as a Proof and Means of Characterization in Cicero ‘s Speeches’, p.121. Back

[38] See Livy’s depiction of Hannibal for another example of admirable impoverishment. Back

[39] Cicero, In Catilinam, 2.9, C. Macdonald (trans.), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1976.Back

[40] Cicero, In Catilinam, 2.9. Back

[41] Sallust, Bellum Catilinae, 5.3, J. C. Rolfe (trans.), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1965. Back

[42] Sallust, Bellum Catilinae, 5.7. Back

[43] ‘Going Backwards’, p. 13.Back

[44] Mendes, ‘Bullying the Poor’, p. 33. Back

[45] ‘Going Backwards’, p. 13.Back

[46] B. O’Connor, ‘The Intellectual Origins of Welfare Dependency’, Australian Journal of Social Issues, 36.3, 2001, p. 230. O’Connor undertakes an analysis of the term ‘welfare dependency’ and the implications for welfare reform, concluding in part that US models are not wholly applicable to the Australian context. The welfare ‘culture of dependency’ is also explored in P. Saunders (ed.) Reforming the Welfare State, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne, 2000.Back

[47] T. Abbott, ‘Renewing the Social Fabric: Mutual Obligation and Work for the Dole’, Policy 16.3, 2000, p.39. See also L. Mead, ‘The Rise of Paternalism’, in L. Mead (ed.) The New Paternalism. Supervisory Approaches to Poverty , Brookings Institution Press, Washington D.C., 1997. Back

[48] Mead, ‘The Rise of Paternalism’, p. 3. Back

[49] T. Abbott, ‘Making Work Pay – The Trouble with the Welfare State’, C. D. Kemp Memorial Lecture, June 12 th 2001 – www.ipa.org.au/speechesandsubmissions/AbbottCDK2001.html. Back

[50] T. Abbott, ‘Against the Prodigal State’, Policy, Vol . 17, No. 3, 2001, p. 37. Abbott’s Biblical reference here is a reminder of a possible tension in his world-view between his public commitment to the Catholic faith and his strong political commitment to social conservatism. However Abbott uses the declaration of the Second Vatican Council that “care must be taken to prevent the citizenry falling into a kind of passivity vis a vis society or of irresponsibility in their duty or of a refusal to do their fair share” to justify his government’s stance in ‘Renewing the Social Fabric: Mutual Obligation and Work for the Dole’, p. 40. Back

[51] Mendes, ‘Bullying the Poor’, p. 34; T. Abbott, ‘Renewing the Social Fabric: Mutual Obligation and Work for the Dole’, pp. 38-42. Back

[52] Abbott, ‘Against the Prodigal State’, p. 39. In ‘Going Backwards’, p. 18, Abbott reiterates the government’s official line that it is unemployment – and not low wages – that causes poverty. Back

[53] T. Abbott, ‘The Dole is a State of Mind’, The Australian, 8th August, 2000. Back

[54] S. Shaver, ‘Australian Welfare Reform: From Citizenship to Social Engineering’, Australian Journal of Social Issues, 36.4, 2001, p. 278. Back

[55] The elite also used associations with poverty as a method of discrediting opponents. Back

[56] Apart from, in particular, Gaius Gracchus’ laws in 121 BCE that sold grain at a reduced price and the later measure of the tribune Clodius to provide a free corn dole in 58 BCE. Cicero,Pro Flacco, 18 calls the poor “the bloodsuckers of the treasury”. See G. Rickman, The Corn Supply of Ancient Rome, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1980, and A. R. Hands, Charities and Social Aid in Greece and Rome, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1968. Back

[57] The patron-client relationship offered some support those who had access to this reciprocal arrangement. The most impoverished in Roman society did not have this mechanism of support to rely upon, as is shown by Tacitus’ distinction between the pars populi integra et magnis domibus adnexa and the direputable plebs sordida in theHistories, 1.4.14. For an extended discussion of the Roman patron-client relationship, see A. Wallace-Hadrill (ed.)Patronage in Ancient Society , Routledge, London and New York, 1989.Back

[58] Of course, poverty-related discourse can be more complex; there are certain notions of poverty that can be viewed with admiration. For example, the ‘Aussie battler’ nobly fights for survival or, in Roman society and the eccentric Aelii Tuberones were a noble family who were honoured for their extreme simplicity of lifestyle (see Plutarch, Aemilius Paulus, 5.5 ; Pliny, Naturalis Historia, 33.142; Valerius Maximus, 4.4.8). Back

[59] J. Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’, Routledge, New York, 1993, p. 2 calls this force the ‘performative’. See also J. Butler, ‘Performativity’s Social Magic’ in R. Shusterman (ed.) Bourdieu: A Critical Reader, Blackwell, Oxford, 1999, pp.113-127. Back

[60] H. H. Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome From 133 B.C. to A.D. 68. 2nd Ed., Methuen, London, 1959, p. 120. Back

[61] H. Hazlitt, “Poor Relief in Ancient Rome”, in The Conquest of Poverty, Arlington House, New Rochelle, 1973, available online: www.hazlitt.org/e-texts/poverty/ch6.html, p.3. Back

[62] P . Veyne, ‘The Roman Empire’, in P. Veyne (ed.) A History of Private Life. Vol 1. A. Goldhammer (trans.), Belknap, Cambridge, Mass, 1987, pp. 118-119, who is rightly criticised by J. P. Toner, Leisure and Ancient Rome, p. 22. To my surprise, I recently gave a seminar paper to an academic audience who largely agreed with Veyne. Back

[63] In my forthcoming PhD thesis, I undertake a long overdue reassessment of the largely elitist assumptions that underpin much scholarship on Roman poverty. Back

[64] A. R. Hands, Charities and Social Aid in Greece and Rome , p. 65. Back

[65] P. A. Brunt, Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic, Chatto and Windus, London, 1971, p. 128.Back

[66] Cicero, InCatilinam, 1.25-26. Back

[67] Cicero, InCatilinam, 2.7. See also Cicero , De Lege Agraria, 2.70; In Catilinam , 1.12. Back

[68] Cicero, De domo sua, 45. Back

[69] Cicero, De Lege Agraria, 1.22. For further discussion of terminology, see M. Prell,Sozialökonomische Untersuchungen zur Armut im antiken Rom, pp. 44-49.Back

[70]There are many parallels with the negative attributes such as criminality and immorality assigned to the ‘poor’ in ancient Rome; see C. R. Whittaker, ‘The Poor’, pp. 272-275. There also more widespread socio-political dimensions to poverty-terminology in Australia. ‘Westie’, for example, has long been used as a derogatory term to describe people living in western Sydney; these were the people and areas “constructed as problems”, according to D. Powell,Out West: Perceptions of Sydney’s Western Suburbs, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1993, p. xviii; Powell’s excellent book discusses some of the negative stereotypes of western Sydney. In the Australian mass media’s ‘demonisation’ of the western suburbs, widespread poverty is assumed as the norm, as D. Powell explains in Out West, p. xiv.: Ghettos do not exist in discourse about Australian cities…Ghetto is not an appropriate word for low density suburban, rather than high density inner-urban, areas. However, in Australian culture, to live in some suburbs is to suffer an equivalent stigma to that borne by people living in the ghettoes of Europe and America. The stereotypes associated with ‘westies’ continue to linger – despite immense demographic changes to the area. In treating an entire region corporately – as with representing the Roman poor this way (see n.6 above) – individual experiences are marginalised, and the discursive ‘general’ is seen to be representative of the ‘actual’. See also M. Peel, Good Times, Hard Times,Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1995.Back

[71] The Macquarie Online Dictionary gives this definition of ‘dole-bludger’ – www.macquariedictionary.com.au.Back

[72] See K. Windschuttle,Unemployment. A Social and Political Analysis of the Economic Crisis in Australia , Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1980 on this issue. Back

[73] A Current Affair ‘s treatment of the unemployed Paxton siblings in 1996 is a case in point. The Paxton’s refused the jobs that were found for them and then they were labelled ‘dole-bludgers’ all over Australia. A media hoax was created by the ‘Dole Army’, in retaliation for the commercial networks’ portrayal of the disadvantaged; see “Groups Owns up to Media Hoax”, Lateline, ABC TV , 5 February, 2002: www.abc.net.au/lateline/s474408.htm for a transcript of the Dole Army’s interview on Lateline in 2002. Back

[74] T. Abbott, quoted in ‘Abbott attacked after job snobs outburst’, The Australian, 20 May, 1999.Back

[75] T. Abbott, ‘Renewing the Social Fabric: Mutual Obligation and Work for the Dole’, pp. 38-42. Back

[76] L. Sullivan, Behavioural Poverty, Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney, 2000, p. 8. Back

[77] T. Abbott, quoted in D. Shanahan, ‘Jobless Face Harsher Work-for-Dole Rules’, The Australian, 14 July, 2000.Back

[78] T. Abbott, ‘A Market to Force the Jobless into Work’, The Australian, 2 July, 1999. Back

[79] S. Martin, ‘Reconceptualising Social Exclusion: A Critical Response to the Neoliberal Welfare Agenda and the Underclass Thesis’, Australian Journal of Social Issues, 39.1, 2004, p. 81. Back

[80] Shaver, ‘Australian Welfare Reform: From Citizenship to Social Engineering’, p. 287. Back

[81] Mead, ‘The New Paternalism’, p. 2. Back

[82] P. Henman, ‘Myths of Welfare Reform’, Australian Journal of Social Issues, 37.1, 2002, p. 82.Back

[83] Cicero, In Catilinam, 2.25. R. Saller, ‘Poverty, Honor and Obligation in Imperial Rome’, p. 17, suggest that the conflicts between the rich and poor could be used to interpret the ‘fall’ of the republic. Back

[84] ‘Going Backwards’, p. 13.Back

[85] By placing the focus firmly on the individual, Abbott also diverts attention away from the government’s employment policies; see Mendes, ‘Bullying the Poor’, p. 35. Back

[86] See the comments of R. Saller,’Poverty, Honor and Obligation in Imperial Rome’, p. 17. Back