BMCR 2015.10.28

Poésie de la richesse et de la pauvreté

, Poésie de la richesse et de la pauvreté: Étude du vocabulaire de la richesse et de la pauvreté dans la poésie grecque antique, d'Homère à Aristophane: ἄφενος, ὄλβος, πλοῦτος, πενία, πτωχός. Mémoires du Centre Jean Palerne, 38. Saint-Etienne: Publications de l'Université de Saint-Etienne, 2014. Pp. 241. ISBN 9782862726632 €27.00 (pb).

Table of Contents

The study of wealth and poverty in the Greek and Roman worlds is a lively area of research at the intersection of economic, social, cultural, and religious history. Recent work covers a range of issues from literary and visual representations of poverty, to the development of classical, Jewish, and Christian forms of giving, to the politics of defining “rich” and “poor.”1 Sandrine Coin-Longeray’s Poésie de la richesse et de la pauvreté, based on the author’s doctoral thesis, contributes to the growing discussion with a lucid analysis of the vocabulary of wealth and poverty in Greek poetry of the archaic and classical periods. While much work has been done on themes of wealth and poverty, especially in prose, there is no systematic treatment of the terminology itself nor of the idiosyncrasies the author finds in archaic and classical poetry in particular. Thus Coin-Longeray attempts, in a commendably emic way, a semantic analysis of key words in a corpus that spans Homeric epic and the comedies of Aristophanes.

As a semantic study, the book is structured around lexemes for wealth (ἄφενος, ὄλβος, πλοῦτος) and poverty (πενία, πτωχός) as concepts, and chapters begin with an overview of a given term’s etymology, adjectives, derived verbs, and compounds. What follows in every instance are tables that quantify distribution and frequency of use according to genre of poetry (epic, lyric, tragedy and, with Aristophanes, comedy), author, as well as case, person, and gender. Taken together, these data suggest that references to, and the lexical variety of, wealth greatly outstrip poverty. One wonders, however, if this is skewed by the selection of terms: Coin-Longeray rightly acknowledges that she excludes items (e.g., ἀγαθός, κτῆμα) that are just as relevant to the semantic fields of wealth and poverty (10), a limitation that deserves more attention than it is given. In any case, Coin-Longeray attributes the disparity to both poetic decorum and the elite provenance of the literature, which rarely concerns itself with poverty (176, 206).

The greater part of each chapter then maps out an individual term’s significations and broader connotations, revealing subtle distinctions between words often considered synonymous. This is achieved through a synchronic method influenced by the work of Émile Benveniste on meaning as the “totality of…use” (10), an approach that befits the evidence, much of which is gnomic in nature. But there is an important diachronic element to the study as well. In particular, we learn of “evolutions” in vocabulary and meaning that reveal how wealth and, to a lesser extent, poverty gradually emerge as moral and ethical problems. Crucially for Coin-Longeray this was the result of pivotal changes to Greek society that, in turn, affected the “Greek mentality”: the invention of coinage, the growth of commerce, the emergence of the democratic polis, and the challenges these posed to aristocratic notions of birth and wealth.

These issues, mentioned several times in passing, suggest that the author’s project is as much a cultural history as it is a semantic study. However, the book is perhaps most successful and persuasive when engaged in tight semantic analysis, less so when it attempts to explain semantic change on the basis of historical development, since it subscribes to a narrative about pre-modern economies that historians and anthropologists have effectively dismantled2 and that does not adequately account for the coeval existence of competing ideologies in the sources.3 Nonetheless, the results of Coin-Longeray’s analysis, summarized below, can be brought into conversation with other approaches and bodies of evidence as a way to more fully contextualize wealth and poverty in this period.

The first chapter builds up the semantic field of ἄφενος (15-42), a term nearly exclusive to epic poetry and so representative of an archaic world “marked by the rarity of money” (20) and a stable social structure. As the uses of ἄφενος suggest, what prevails in this world is something like a theodicy of fortune, whereby heroes and nobles are deserving of social power and material prosperity apportioned by the gods. Indeed, ἄφενος, translated “opulence,” signifies wealth that is ancestral, aristocratic, agricultural, and divinely approved. In Homer, it also occurs within agonistic episodes that proclaim a heroic individual’s or household’s reputation before others and thus has the sense of “prestige.”

Ὄλβος, the subject of the next chapter (43-92), shares much with the semantic field of ἄφενος, but it survives outside of epic. Translated “fortune,” ὄλβος strongly implies the divine favour and prosperity bestowed on those who are just and moderate. As such, it is a “divine quality” that positions the ὄλβιοι – typically heroes and sovereigns but also initiates into the mysteries – in “direct proximity to the world of the gods” (84, 87). In other cases, ὄλβος, which often does not refer to material wealth at all, signifies such things as military and athletic renown or the immortal glory achieved through poetry, as in Pindar.4 While ὄλβος is part of a traditional, aristocratic vocabulary, Coin-Longeray detects an evolution in meaning within the more democratic genre of tragedy, which begins to question the permanence of ὄλβος and the very legitimacy of those who possess it.

Although not a strictly poetic term, πλοῦτος, explored in chapter three (93-143), has perhaps the most drastic trajectory of all the terms studied, owing, it is argued, to a growing class of “nouveaux riches,” who acquire wealth through commerce in the classical period. Whereas πλοῦτος refers to “legitimate” wealth in epic (in Homer, it complements ὄλβος in the formula ὄλβῳ τε πλούτῳ τε and, in Hesiod, it is the result of agricultural work), in tragic and comic poetry it is wealth that is new, purely material, non-Greek, and deadly (here, Coin-Longeray makes much of the etymological link between πλοῦτος and the god of the underworld, 108-113). Moreover, the genres of tragedy and comedy are shown to be largely responsible for the social stereotype of the hubristic πλούσιος and for associating πλοῦτος itself, the term best translated “richesse,” with numerous moral and social ills, such as duplicity, greed, servility, and foreign luxury.

In contrast to the vocabulary of wealth, the vocabulary of poverty, explored in the final two chapters, appears less varied and affected by external factors, although Coin-Longeray notes a slight increase in references to poverty among certain authors of the classical period in response to the “pauperization” of Athens from the Peloponnesian War (151, 209). For the most part, however, poverty remains a marginal theme among the poets surveyed and, if mentioned at all, is spoken of distantly with little interest in its origins or alleviation. As the chapter on πενία (145-176) suggests, there is no hope of escaping the state of need and lack of leisure that defines this type of poverty, nor is it considered a good teacher of moderation, as some philosophical discourses would have it. It is thus a shameful state, and while πενία is frequently associated with labour (e.g., in Aristophanes, Ploutos 553-4), the author, challenging the term’s traditional etymology (151-55), argues that the shame of πενία is not always linked to work. More commonly elite writers point to πενία’s adverse moral and social effects (it makes one κακός, servile, and asocial, for instance), such that πένης in some contexts functions as a term of abuse. At the same time Euripides and Aristophanes are singled out for giving some visibility to the πένητες (often opposed to the πλούσιοι) as a social group and for treating them with a level of realism and pathos.

Even more peripheral to the poetic lexicon is πτωχός, translated “mendicant,” the subject of the final chapter (177- 201). The exceptions, of course, are Odysseus (when in disguise) and the Ithacan beggar, Iros, in the Odyssey, rare depictions of poverty in “literature made for aristocrats” (179). In the poem, both Odysseus and Iros are socially abject figures defined by wandering, constant hunger, and ragged clothing. Both, moreover, are shown begging, a key activity that distinguishes the πτωχός from the πένης and that locates the πτωχός outside established systems of exchange and reciprocity (189-90). But, as with πενία, this type of poverty is not portrayed realistically or sympathetically, even if the πτωχός is euphemized as a ξεῖνος (stranger) or ἀλήτης (wanderer) at times (183-87). For Coin-Longeray, Odysseus and Iros are rather burlesque figures, and Odysseus’s disguise as a πτωχός is but an early example of a literary topos in which wealthy aristocrats experience dramatic reversals of status.

This summary does not exhaust the many suggestive insights contained in Poésie de la richesse et de la pauvreté. Overall, with its attention to language and meaning, Coin-Longeray’s study provides the reader interested in discourses of wealth and poverty with an excellent overview of how both categories are variously defined in early Greek poetry.


1. Margaret Atkins and Robin Osborne ed., Poverty in the Roman World (Cambridge, 2006); Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton, 2013); Ilana Silber, “Neither Mauss nor Veyne? Peter Brown’s Interpretive Path to the Gift,” in The Gift in Antiquity, ed. Michael L. Satlow (Hoboken, 2013), 202-220; Lucia Cecchet, “Giving to the Poor in Ancient Greece: A Form of Social Aid?,” in Gift-Giving and the ‘Embedded’ Economy in the Ancient World, ed. Filippo Carlà and Maja Gori (Heidelberg, 2014), 157-179; Estelle Galbois and Sylvie Rougier-Blanc ed., La pauvreté en Grèce ancienne: Formes, représentations, enjeux (Bordeaux, 2014). The latter volume includes a contribution by Coin-Longeray.

2. Carlà and Gori review the debate in Gift-Giving and the ‘Embedded’ Economy, 9-31.

3. Ian Morris, “The Strong Principle of Equality and the Archaic Origins of Greek Democracy,” in Dēmokratia: A Conversation on Democracies, Ancient and Modern, ed. Josiah Ober and Charles Hedrick (Princeton, 1996), 19-48.

4. Here the discussion could have benefitted from thinking in terms of different categories of capital, such as Bourdieu’s symbolic capital put to productive use by Leslie Kurke in The Traffic in Praise: Pindar and the Poetics of Social Economy (Ithaca, 1991).