According to Manuel Santana, the issue of poverty had penetrated historical research due to the influence of May 1968 (Santana 1999: 35). However, the flourishing of the historiography of poverty cannot be separated from the introduction of postulates and approaches inherited from the social sciences, in which poverty emerges as ... (Show more)
According to Manuel Santana, the issue of poverty had penetrated historical research due to the influence of May 1968 (Santana 1999: 35). However, the flourishing of the historiography of poverty cannot be separated from the introduction of postulates and approaches inherited from the social sciences, in which poverty emerges as one of the main subjects of study (Fernández Prieto 2020: 33ff.).
Research on poverty in the Greek world has been, however, comparatively scarce until recent decades, partly, but not only, because of the difficulties posed by the very Greek conception of poverty as it emerges from ancient sources, especially, from Aristophanes' Plutus (552-54). Scholars' over-reliance on Aristophanes' definition of poverty, which focuses on the need to work for a living, as well as the vagueness of this and other testimonies, have led to a reductionist and, at the same time, broad view of the Greek notion of poverty. “For the Greeks, one was […] poor if he was obliged to work because he did not have enough to live on. From this view, most of the population was considered needy […]” (Nieto 2010: 9.) Statements such as the latter, in addition to presenting poverty as a "massive" phenomenon in Antiquity, tend to depict the poor as an undifferentiated group, an image often nurtured by the ancient authors themselves, which in turn obscures the multiple realities and situations behind the phenomenon (Morley 2006: 28; Roubineau 2010: 212-13).
With the above in mind, the aim of this paper is to examine how postulates, methods and approaches derived from the social sciences, especially sociology and socio-cultural anthropology, can help to overcome the aforementioned (and other) difficulties and, thus, to better understand the phenomenon of poverty and its conception in ancient Greece. This is a rather novel topic which to date has only been addressed by a few studies (Cecchet 2015; Taylor 2017; Fernández Prieto 2020). Among the several contributions that the social sciences can offer to the study of Greek poverty is, e.g., the notion of multidimensionality (Townsend 1962: 218-25; Sen 1993: 31-32), which draws attention to the different faces of poverty: economic, but also social and moral. The last one is particularly relevant for understanding the distinction between two categories of poverty: penia (“poverty”) and ptocheia (“destitution”, “beggary”). For their part, approaches such as the “relative” or “capabilities” approach, developed by P. Townsend and A. Sen, respectively, can help us to address the Greek notion of penia, which is often described in rather vague terms from an economic point of view. Other approaches, such as that of “social exclusion” and “marginalisation” (Ruggeri Laderchi et al., 2003: 257-60), and concepts such as O. Lewis' (1954) "culture of poverty" can be particularly interesting in to analyse, for example, the image that literary sources offer of the Greek beggar or the relationship that some Greek authors establish between poverty and crime. In turn the “participatory” (Chambers 1994; Ruggeri Laderchi et al. 2003: 260-62) and the “capabilities” approaches, can offer a completely different perspective, emphasising the agency of the poor themselves.
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