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Bishops were fundraisers. Serving the poor was a sine qua non for Christian leaders, and, to fulfill this responsibility, bishops relied on their rhetorical skills to persuade people to give. The importance of oratory in the promotion of almsgiving is a leitmotif in Finn's book. A bishop's reputation, established in part through public speaking, might attract extraordinary gifts from the wealthy and, in a feedback cycle, the receipt of such gifts further burnished the bishop's reputation.

More modest offerings were collected on a regular basis, often weekly.

Tithing and the provision of first-fruits were neither mandatory nor widespread. In agreement with most scholars, Finn claims that, in the period, tithes and first-fruits were not separate species of gifts to be differentiated from those generically described as offerings in the sources; rather, writers employed the language of tithes and first-fruits in order to couch contemporary practice in a biblical vocabulary. Other sources of episcopal wealth are adduced: imperial subsidies, revenues from leased property, the diversion of funds from the episcopal household, the alienation of goods a potentially controversial prospect , and the outlay of the bishop's personal wealth.

In the discussion of these streams of revenue, a drawback of Finn's study is manifest: the analysis is occasionally too brief. The complex subject of imperial subsidies, 2 for example, merits less than two full pages of text. As to the recipients of episcopal alms, Finn suggests a hierarchy in which widows, orphans, and poor consecrated virgins who were "matriculated"--many churches maintained lists or matriculae of persons who received regular support--represented the highest priority; then, aged and sick beggars who could not work; finally, a variety of persons who had "competing claims" The bishop distributed alms in the form of cash, clothes, or goods in kind, directly or with the assistance of intermediaries, often his deacons and his business manager oikonomos.

From the middle of the fourth century in the East and slightly later in the West, charitable institutions such as poorhouses and hospitals sprang up. Some were founded by bishops; others by private individuals. The management of the latter institutions was sometimes disputed, as bishops and founders jockeyed for control and the honor that attended it. The bishop's prominence as almsgiver has been much emphasized in recent scholarship.

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Chapter three, on almsgiving as practiced by monks and laypeople, offers a useful reminder that all Christians were called to charity, a mandate that distinguished Christian almsgiving from traditional euergetism. Monks acted as middlemen for the allocation of alms. Those monks who had jettisoned their own wealth attracted alms from others, who saw in the ascetics reliable agents for redistribution.

This proved problematic, in that the handling of this wealth threatened monks' isolation from worldly affairs. More theologically acceptable was the distribution by monks of goods that they themselves had produced. Monastic almsgiving both complemented and, because of the honor accorded to the donor, competed with episcopal almsgiving, and lay almsgiving could be similarly double-edged. Clerics urged laypeople to donate to the beggars whom they encountered at the church doors or elsewhere, but some were reluctant to give.

In addition to their participation in the regular collections, wealthier Christians tended to offer alms on particular occasions: upon arriving at pilgrimage shrines, when hosting agapai or meals for the poor, and on their deathbeds. As noted already, they also founded charitable institutions. The emperors and their families gave, too, especially in "associat[ion] with special events in the Church's life" A more detailed exploration of the patterns of imperial almsgiving, particularly by women, would here be welcome.

Finn closes this chapter by considering how pagan and Christian almsgiving differed.

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Individual pagans did give to the poor, many out of pity, and some philosophers practiced self-dispossession. Doles and other alimentary schemes compensated, to some extent, for the vagaries of the food supply, but they were neither universal nor directed at the poor per se. What distinguishes Christian almsgiving, for Finn, is the establishment of specialized institutions dedicated to the aid of the needy and "[e]piscopal institutional almsgiving as an expression of religious authority and of the unity of the Christian community, together with the almsgiving of the radical ascetics" Were the poor, as a result, better off in late antiquity than in earlier periods?

This is a thorny question that Finn is not ready to answer, at least in this study How was almsgiving promoted? This is the central question of chapter four. In a broad survey of patristic literature, Finn catalogues examples of promotion both direct and indirect the latter referring to "unintended or incidental valorization of charitable practices" [] across a variety of genres: poetry; letters; scriptural commentaries; and books and treatises, including church orders. More important than such works for promotion were saints' lives and apocryphal acta.

Finn keenly observes that, in the acta , almsgiving is an outward sign of a character's orthodoxy and, conversely, parsimony toward the poor denotes heterodoxy. This offers a literary pedigree for the accusations of mismanaging funds destined for poor relief that were flung at bishops by their theological rivals in the partisan mudslinging of late antiquity The most important promotional medium was the homily, which reached a wide swath of the Christian community, including women and the poor themselves.

To measure the frequency of calls to almsgiving in sermons, Finn meticulously combs selected homiletic corpora. In Augustine's homilies, for example, congregations were exhorted throughout the year to give, though the pitch grew more fervent in the winter and during Lent, when food might be scarce and expensive, and on other penitential days in the church year. Twenty percent of Augustine's circa sermons include some call to give alms Finn's analysis suggests another line of inquiry that is not pursued. Most sermons were delivered in a liturgical context: to what extent did the structure of the liturgy itself promote almsgiving?

In Rome, for example, donors' names were recited during the mass. Although Finn demonstrates that almsgiving was widely promoted in sermons, he rejects the claim that its promotion, in comparison with that of earlier centuries, became more intense in late antiquity.

Poverty in the Roman World

Chapter five discusses the meanings attributed to the practice of almsgiving. The motives of donors, a subject explored thoroughly in earlier scholarship, are dispensed with briefly.


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Finn touches on the theology of redemptive almsgiving, by which post-baptismal sins could be expunged. Almsgiving was a form of gift-exchange: donors traded material goods for the spiritual goods offered by the poor, who interceded with God on their benefactors' behalf. Contemporary sources variously recast or, to use Finn's verb, redescribe the participants in this exchange.

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Passive recipients are transmuted into "agents of redemption" They are metonyms for Christ. Finn mentions, but does not discuss at length, the redescription of the poor as athletes, actors, and gladiators. Almsgiving reified the Christian virtues of philoptocheia and misericordia and even classical virtues such as philanthropia and euergesia --at least, as those classical virtues were redefined by theologians in the period. Funerary inscriptions styled the deceased as "lovers of the poor" amatores pauperum , indicating that the laity accepted the honorific meanings attributed to almsgiving by clerical promoters.

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Enlarge cover. Error rating book. Refresh and try again. Open Preview See a Problem? Details if other :. Thanks for telling us about the problem. Return to Book Page. Robin Osborne Editor. If poor individuals have always been with us, societies have not always seen the poor as a distinct social group. But within the Roman world, from at least the Late Republic onwards, the poor were an important force in social and political life and how to treat the poor was a topic of philosophical as well as political discussion.

This book explains what poverty meant in a If poor individuals have always been with us, societies have not always seen the poor as a distinct social group. This book explains what poverty meant in antiquity, and why the poor came to be an important group in the Roman world, and it explores the issues which poverty and the poor raised for Roman society and for Roman writers.

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In essays which range widely in space and time across the whole Roman Empire, the contributors address both the reality and the representation of poverty, and examine the impact which Christianity had upon attitudes towards and treatment of the poor. Get A Copy. Hardcover , pages. More Details Original Title. Other Editions 5.

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