Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.12.09 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.12.09

Claire Taylor, Poverty, Wealth, and Well-Being: Experiencing 'Penia' in Democratic Athens.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. viii, 309.  ISBN 9780198786931.  $105.00.  

Reviewed by Gabriella Vanotti, Università del Piemonte Orientale​ (


This book by Claire Taylor, which follows on a large series of articles the author has written in recent years on similar subjects,1 focuses on the study of poverty and wealth in Athens in the 5th and 6th centuries BCE, in particular in the years between 420 and 320.

The work, opening with Preface, Contents, List of Figures, List of Tables, List of Abbreviations, consists of seven chapters, divided in turn into various sections and sub-sections, followed by two short appendices, dealing with Testing the Models of Ober and Kron and Measuring Poverty. It is also rounded off with a comprehensive Bibliography, an Index Locorum and the general Index.

The first chapter, "Poverty and Penia: Approaching the Lives of the Poor in the Ancient World", which constitutes the introduction to the volume, opens with the examination of the stelae by the cobbler Dionysius, dedicated to the hero Kallistephanos. This document provides an accurate idea of the relativity of the concept of poverty, since the artisan, who had to work for living, might be considered poor according to the parameters of classical Athens; however, the elegance of the stele and the content of the text inscribed might cause one to consider withdrawing him from that category and instead classifying him as well-off. The case of Dionysius the cobbler allows Taylor to lay the basis of the themes that underlie the whole volume: poverty is a broader concept; poverty must therefore not be examined solely as an economic condition in terms of wealth possessed or of lack of material resources by an individual, but should rather be considered a dynamic, multi-dimensional phenomenon that is destined to change over time, and which is defined by a series of factors and social inter-relations, interlinked with the idea of well-being. The author, relying on the theories of Amartya Sen, examines poverty in relationship to well-being and underlines the abilities that a person displays in exploiting the resources at his disposal to improve his welfare; therefore his capacity of social inclusion or exclusion becomes fundamental.

In the second chapter, "Poverty and Poverty Discourses", the literary sources of a historical, philosophical, theatrical and legal nature are discussed, which address what the Athenians wrote and thought about poverty, usually presented as a dichotomous condition with wealth. In the section Poverty, Leisure and Work, the author points out the difference between the condition of the poor person and the ptochos, who is delineated as an outsider or social outcast, as opposed to the poor person who can implement strategies to foster their social integration. Ptocheia, therefore, should be intended not so much as a form of serious poverty, but rather in terms of social exclusion. In the subsequent paragraphs, Taylor comes to the conclusion that examination of literary tradition, though fundamental to an understanding of how poverty was perceived within certain circles, offers little help in defining what poverty was for anyone who lived it: the sources are often influenced by elitist perspective and construct a view of poverty at odds with lived experience. Poverty was repeatedly morally charged: to be poor was to be bad.

Chapter 3, "Poverty and the Distribution of Income and Wealth", attempts to measure how widespread poverty was in Athens; the sources from ancient literature tend to reflect the image of a poor city, but more recent research2 appear to disprove this reading: wealth between the 8th and 4th centuries was growing and the Athenians, as a whole, lived above subsistence level. To focus better on this question, the writer devotes a section to The Rich, that is those who performed the liturgies and the eisphorai, and who were to be considered an élite, comprising 4-5% of male citizens and corresponding to 1% of the whole population. This group of rich citizens was not fixed, but destined to change over time: few trierarchs managed to bear the burden of the liturgies within the family group for more than two or three generations. As the writer comments, it proves even more complex to establish the number of poor Athenians, especially considering the fact that the standard of living of the population must have been quite high. It is also rather complicated to measure the poverty of women, children, metics and slaves, who constituted about 80% of the population, for whom the information we have is decidedly scarce. Nevertheless, the writer does not neglect taking into consideration or reflecting on data deriving from the models formulated by Ober and Kron, respectively focusing on the examination of amounts of income (meaning revenue used for daily needs) and wealth (meaning assets accrued through financial investments or also from inheritance), which reveal relative equality in the distribution of income and wealth for a large part of the population, who enjoyed a standard of living above subsistence level. In order to provide a better context to the phenomenon of poverty, Taylor makes use of the Gini index (which provides a simple measure of inequality within a given population), even though the application of the Gini coefficient runs the risk of oversimplifying a multidimensional and complex reality. In conclusion, the use of models such as those of Ober and of Kron, or of coefficients such as that of Gini, provides simple measurements of the distribution of wealth, but does not give information regarding changes in income and wealth taking place over time, and even less on how poverty was experienced. To clarify her thought, Taylor introduces a case study on the situation that arose during the years of the Peloponnesian War and its immediate aftermath, when deep economic transformations occurred: sudden increases in wealth as a result of the high rates of mortality in battle or because of the plague, with the concentration of inheritances. But there were also cases of impoverishment due to the costs of the war, to the depreciation of property, and to a fall in commercial activities, especially maritime affairs. In Taylor’s opinion, the demographic decline that occurred during the Peloponnesian War also led to a qualitative change in society, for example, in the ratios of men/women, citizens/non-citizens, young/old, rich/poor. These changes, although they initially led to a reduction in the economic inequalities between rich and poor during the years of the war and post-war, later gave rise, during the second half of the 4th century, to new, more pronounced forms of inequality between rich and poor. The above leads the writer once again to stress the importance of considering poverty and inequality as subject to changes over time. This subject is dealt with in the following Chapters 4 and 5.

Chapter 4, called "Experiencing Penia: The Dynamics of Poverty," therefore studies the changes over time of the experiences of poverty and their differences in terms of duration, depth and of differential experiences with special reference to gender-related aspects. The two sections, Poverty Experiences: Gendered Poverty and Experiencing Poverty in Gendered Terms, are especially interesting and allow the writer to study how women lived and responded to their economic needs and their social exclusion, dwelling in particular on the role played by wet-nursing and midwifery, to which two extensive sub-sections are devoted. Finally, in the section The Dynamics of Poverty: Discourses of Social Worth and Lived Experience, Taylor comes to the conclusion that the categories of rich and poor were anything but unchangeable, rather dynamic and multidimensional.

Chapter 5, called "Experiencing Penia: The Reproduction of Poverty and the Consolidation of Wealth" examines the factors that enabled the reproduction of poverty and the consolidation of wealth in democratic Athens. In particular, the writer highlights that Athenian institutions sought to encourage political equality between citizens and provided for a redistribution of wealth through taxation, the system of the liturgies, and political pay. She observes, however, that these forms of distribution were not so much aimed at the solution of the problems of poverty as at the fostering of civic union and identity. So, the function of political pay and other forms of civic distributions was compensatory rather than redistributive. The material and economic benefit produced by these payments was enjoyed only by male citizens. The “other” social categories, such as women, children or slaves, benefited indirectly within the household, but they were left to the care of the male component, who worked officially for the city. The writer examines also the role of the local structures, primarily the demes, in responding to the needs of their members, through activities such as sacrifices and care of the sanctuaries or activities of renting property. Taylor assumes that local institutions and social networks (like voluntary association, structures of credit, provision of sacrifices, and provision of food) help to improve the conditions or the economic opportunities of some, while they worsen those of others, without having any real impact on poverty. The provision of political pay, resources, or assistance provided with voluntary associations and social networks allowed a broad range of citizens to live above subsistence but reproduced the poverty of those outside those groups.

In Chapter 6, "Appearing without Shame Well Being, Capabilities, and Standards of Living," Taylor’s attention turns to the level of well-being achieved by the poor in the Athenian society and their standard of living. On the basis of epigraphic documentation, strategies are examined which were employed by the poor to claim a place in Athenian society. The author points out the fundamental difference between the concepts of subsistence and respectability and indicates possible areas for analysis that may help define the level of well-being and of quality of life of the poor: for example, apart from the standard of nutrition and the quality of the housing, funerary practices and dedicatory practices. Lastly, examining the roles of affiliation, social connectivity and relationship, the writer concludes with good reason that these non-material aspects of living standards help to highlight the strategies and the resources used by the poor to obtain a place in society.

The last chapter, called Poverty, Inequality, and Well Being in Fourth-Century Athens sums up the main issues of the book, emphasising the complexity of discussing penia in Athens.

To conclude, this is a complex book, which needs to be read carefully. It has the merit of taking a broader, multidimensional approach to the concept of poverty and wealth, providing a critical opinion on being poor in Athens in the 5th and 6th centuries BCE. Furthermore, it suggests an approach to the documentation that makes it possible to rethink the literary sources from a different point of view (the non-elite), and so acquire new ideas for reflection. The bibliography is far reaching and up to date; the publication is accurate and tidy. ​


1.   C. Taylor, "Social Dynamics in Fourth Century Athens: Poverty and Standards of Living", in C. Tiersch (ed.), Athenische Demokratie im 4 Jh.: zwischen Modernisierung und Tradition, (Stuttgart) 237-253. C. Taylor, K. Vlassopoulos (eds.), Communities and Networks in the Ancient Greek World, (Oxford 2015).
2.   J. Ober, "Wealthy Hellas", TAPhA 140, 241-286; G. Kron, "The Distribution of Wealth in Athens in Comparative Perspective", ZPE 179, 2011, 129-138; Id., "Comparative Evidence and the Reconstruction of the Ancient Economy: Greco-Roman Housing and the Level and Distribution of Wealth and Income", in F. De Callatay (ed.), Quantifying the Greco-Roman Economy and Beyond, (Bari 2014), 123-146; E. Galbois S. Rougier-Blanc (eds.), La pauvreté en Grèce ancienne: Formes, représentations, enjeux, (Bordeaux 2014). A. Bresson, The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy: Institutions, Markets, and Growth in the City-States, (Oxford; Princeton 2016). ​

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