This study of ‘poor’ and ‘poverty’ brings to the discussion a cultural and social element. Stated most baldly, ‘poor’ implies not simply scant economic resources, that is, little land or money, but has a decidedly cultural component as well. Most people in antiquity would qualify as ‘poor’ according to economic standards. But the ancients did not automatically classify the economically deprived as ‘poor’. If peasants had what sufficed, Plutarch did not call them ‘poor’: ‘In what suffices, no one is poor’ (On Love of Wealth 523F). Seneca echoed this:
Let us return to the law of nature; for then riches are laid up for us. The things which we actually need are free for all, or else cheap; nature craves only bread and water. No one is poor according to this standard; when a man has limited his desires within these bounds, he can challenge the happiness of Jove himself.
(Ep. Mor. 25.4)
Peasants or artisans with little of this world’s goods have what is deemed ‘sufficient’, and so are not called ‘poor’. 1
Let us distinguish two Greek terms, penes and ptochos. Dictionaries translate penes as ‘the poor man’ (e.g. BAGD 642), which misses the root meaning penomai, ‘to work hard’. Penes refers to a person who does manual labour, and so is contrasted with plousios, a member of the landed class who does not work (Hauck 1968b: 887). At stake is the social status or honour rating of a ‘worker’; Gildas Hamel writes of the penes:
He [the worker] was forced to work to live and had to receive some form of wage and to sell; the craftsman was dependent on others’ goodwill. In this respect, he was similar to servants and slaves, free but fettered by various customs… This lack of time and self-sufficiency, some philosophers argued, made the craftsman unfit to be a citizen, at least an honourable one. One had to be rich to avoid the ties of dependence