Poverty and Homelessness

Samantha Fisher

1 in 7 or 4.9 million people in Canada currently live in poverty and according to Statistics Canada more than 235,000 people can experience homeless in any given year, but what do these statistics mean for the ancient Greek world? While poverty and homelessness undoubtedly existed in ancient communities, how do we go about finding these people in the literary and archaeological records when sources are written by the educated male elite and the temporary housing solutions used leave few material traces?

Poverty is not just an economic state. As a socially constructed category, it can include an individual’s capabilities, social position, gender, and health. While such personal circumstances can contribute to one’s own poverty, there are also a multitude of social factors that result in poverty, such as access to resources, access to credit, cost of living, and access to education. There are a few different Greek terms that show up in literary sources when elite authors refer to members of the lower class. Two general terms are aporoi and poneroi. The latter refers to someone who is at a loss and appears to be neutral in tone as opposed to the meaning of poneroi as the wretched. Another term was ptochoi, which broadly meant destitution and referred to beggars and the needy. This was clearly a derogatory term since it could also refer to cowering animals. The last term, and the most widely used, was penetes. This generally referred to the poor, but it specifically meant those who worked for a living. It did, however, cover a broad range of people from the moderately well-off to those living on the borders of subsistence. For example, a man might have owned a factory and used an enslaved workforce but if he had to work alongside them, he was still a part of the penetes.

Black-figured amphora with three men weighing merchandise.
Terracotta black-figured amphora from Attica, 540-530 BCE. Attributed to the Taleides Painter. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York. 47.11.5. Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1947.

In the vase painting to the right, you can see three men working and weighing merchandise. All three of these men would be termed penetes simply because they were working for a living. While these terms cover a wide range of attitudes and people, the use of the word penetes, ‘poor’, specifies those who did not have the free time to participate in politics because they had to work for a living (Arist. Pol. 1292b32-1293a10).  The emphasis on workers and working in a definition of poverty is surprising to modern sensibilities. Although many of the biases and stereotypes against people experiencing poverty or homelessness in North America today are also present in the ancient Greek terminology, it is clear that the ancient Greeks thought of poverty differently.

When studying ancient poverty it is important to consider where these people would have lived. The Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE) caused significant strife to the Attic population and Athens became packed with people fleeing from the countryside. While Athens did accept its people from the country, there was not much room for them to live, since Athens was already a large city with a large population prior to the war. Thucydides and Plutarch tell of the living conditions of these people and the lack of jobs to occupy them. They both describe the housing arrangements as akin to shanty towns with suffocating shacks (Thuc. 2.52) and “small dwellings and stifling barracks” (Life of Pericles 34.3-4). The overcrowding and temporary housing arrangements eventually led to the plague in 430 BCE. While the use of ‘temporary housing’ may seem to indicate a limited timeframe, it is likely that some people never recovered and remained in this liminal state.

People also occupied and set up tents on the grounds of the temples in Athens. While popular sanctuaries and temples, like Delphi, are known for having housing arrangements for those visiting, we can question whether smaller temples had these too. Along with this, it is likely that people who could not afford to stay in permanent structures, created temporary solutions while visiting a temple. Thucydides says that this empty space around the temples in Athens was used up by those made homeless from the war, but what if they could not return home afterwards? Would they stay on the temple grounds in their tents? Unfortunately, that is not a question we can answer due to the nature of perishable materials.

While there was temporary housing during times of war, less well-off households in the city could rent accommodations in a synoikia, a type of building that housed multiple people or family units. In modern terms, they can range from apartments to shops with living quarters within. Take a look at this house plan from Olynthus. There are two main entrances from the bottom alleyway and there is a main courtyard. Much of this house is segregated into smaller units. For example, rooms E and I can only be accessed through room H. Rooms K and L can only be accessed through the alleyway to the bottom right. There is no specific reason as to why this house only had to house a single family when there are clear divisions in the plan. Many wealthy Athenians, like Euctemon in Isaeus 6.19-20, commonly owned buildings to rent out and so it is quite possible that this plan shows three different housing units sharing one courtyard. In these passages from Isaeus, a woman named Alce worked in a brothel for the woman who took care of Euctemon’s rentals. When she gave up that life she still continued to live in this rental unit. Alce eventually received a position from Euctemon looking after a different set of tenement housing. While in the bigger picture this is a case of inheritance, this section specifically outlines how buildings or houses were often multi-functional. A more specific example of this comes from Aeschines Against Timarchus 1.124. The speaker explains how a building was defined by its tenants and not necessarily its original purpose when it was built. He explains that a building can become an apartment if more than one person occupies it and divides it among themselves. It can become a surgery if a doctor occupies it or a woodshop if it is a carpenter. The Greeks did not divide their buildings as explicitly as we do. If they had enough room in the place they occupied, it made the most sense financially to use it for their work as well.

Did the Ancients Greeks have Social Welfare or Support?

Athens is the only known place in ancient Greece to have provided for the poor and disabled. This support, however, should not be thought of in a modern sense of a government providing for all of those who need support. It was not the same as modern welfare or employment insurance. The Athenian Council conducted inspections of those claiming aid annually and those who were successful were given grants for food (Aristot. Const. Ath. 49.4). The inspection process and criteria are unknown, but it is unlikely that doctors attended this to give their professional opinions and it is likely that this security was aimed at injured veterans in general.[1] It must also be remembered that individuals were free to challenge anyone who claimed public support by prosecuting them in a court of law as is seen in Lysias 24.4-9. What is interesting here is that the speaker in this trial describes how parents were often provided for by their children when they reached old age. While this may be the case for those families who could afford it, we are left wondering what happened to those who could not or did not have any other family.

The economic factors behind poverty in ancient Greece are quite similar to North American poverty today. They played a significant role in a family becoming impoverished. What is different, however, is that in most of the ancient sources, these economic factors usually related to war. In a dialogue between Socrates and Aristarchus in Xenophon’s Memorabilia 2.7.2-12, the reader learns that Aristarchus took in his sisters, nieces, and cousins when they had nowhere else to turn in the last years of the Peloponnesian War. He explains how there were about fourteen people in his house and that since his lands in the countryside had been taken by the enemy, they were having a hard time affording food and that some family members were even on the verge of starving. Socrates informs Aristarchus of a way out of his misfortunes, and it includes putting his family to work. The women in his household were all taught wool-working, as all young girls were, and Socrates advised Aristarchus to put them to work producing and selling cloth. When Aristarchus agreed, he was able to lift his family out of poverty and even acquire a loan. Moving out of poverty was not something that everyone was able to do, and this episode tells the reader that Aristarchus was not so destitute that he could not afford a loan. Poverty was a sliding scale affected by social conditions and what a typical rich Athenian thought of as poor, like having to take in his destitute female relatives, was not always what an average Athenian would term as poor, which would be actual destitution and subsistence living. While this example shows the honourable female pursuit of wool-working, other jobs like nursing or selling goods in a market were less desirable pursuits for women coming upon hard times.

In addition to the instability caused by war, the loss or absence of a male guardian might push Athenian women into poverty. In Demosthenes 57.30-45, Eubulides describes how his mother was forced to work as a wetnurse and sell ribbons in the marketplace when her husband was off on a military campaign for an extended period of time. The defendant, Eubulides, is accused of not being a true citizen and to prove this the prosecutor attacks his mother for the reasons listed above. While this is a legal speech, a lot can be gained by looking at the son’s response. He acknowledges that his mother was a nurse and sold ribbons in the market, but he also explains that his mother did this while his father was absent on a military campaign. As opposed to what Xenophon described above, it seems like this woman did not have any male relatives to help her and she did what she had to do to keep her children and herself alive. Although being a nurse or market seller was used as proof that Eubulides was not a citizen, Eubulides explains how many women who were citizens did this type of work when their households and the city suffered hardships.

A yellowed terracotta figure of an old nurse holding a baby.
Terracotta figure of an old nurse holding a baby from Boeotia. 300 BCE. The British Museum. London. 1911,0416.1. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Another example of the bias against nurses comes from Demosthenes 47.55-6. In these passages, we see that this woman was originally enslaved as a nurse when the speaker was a boy. She was set free and married a man but when he died it seems that she had nowhere else to go. It is also apparent that she did not have any male relatives to take her in and so the speaker took her back into his family. While there is a good ending for this old nurse we can see that nursing, as a servile occupation, was often given to enslaved women. This is also true in the art that depicts nurses with children. They are not portrayed as young, Athenian citizens with their own children but instead show the old and heavy faces often associated with theatrical masks of the enslaved nurse character.[2]

While it is hard to tell exactly how the impoverished and homeless lived thousands of years ago, it is important to recognize that they did live and were a common sight in the landscape of the city, much like today. They are often ignored, even in scholarship, but they should be recognized even though the main literary sources are inherently biased against them. It takes time and effort to find them, but they are there, just as they are today.


Bibliography and Further Reading

  • Ault, B. 2005. “Housing the Poor and Homeless in Ancient Greece” in Ancient Greek Houses and Households, edited by L. C. Nevett and B. A. Ault, 140 -59. Philadelphia: Penn Press.
  • Canada Without Poverty. 2020, July 29 “Just the Facts.” https://cwp-csp.ca/poverty/just-the-facts/.
  • Cecchet, L. 2015. Poverty in Athenian Public Discourse: From the Eve of the Peloponnesian War to the Rise of Macedonia. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.
  • Rosivach, V. J. 1991. “Some Athenian Presuppositions about ‘The Poor.’” Greece and Rome 38.2: 189–98.
  • Garland, R. 2010. The Eye of the Beholder: Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World, 28-44. London: Bristol Classic Press.
  • Taylor, C. 2015. “Social Dynamics in Fourth Century Athens: Poverty and Standards of Living” in Athenische Demokratie im 4 Jh: zwischen Modernisierung und Tradition. 237-53. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.
  • Strobel, Stephenson, Ivana Barcul, Jia Hong Dai, Zechen Ma, Shaila Jamani, and Rahat Hossain. 2021, January 20. “Characterizing people experiencing homelessness and trends in homelessness using population-level emergency department visit data in Ontario, Canada.” Government of Canada, Statistics Canada. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-003-x/2021001/article/00002-eng.htm.
  • Wrenhaven. K. L. 2012. Reconstructing the Slave: The Image of the Slave in Ancient Greece, 90-127. London: Bristol Classical Press.



  1. Garland 2010, 35-6
  2. Wrenhaven 2012, 123-4.


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