How did ancient Rome deal with the unemployed? (I mean not the idle by supposed laziness, or vagabonds).

Did they at some point have free citizens who were unemployed, in the sense that they wanted to work, but couldn't find anything?

I am aware there were a class who worked as farmers, clerks, trade men, teachers and the like. Early Rome had a "yeoman" peasantry and laboring class that was uprooted after a large number of successful wars flooded the empire with cheap slave labor that could do the above-mentioned jobs by the middle of the second century B.C.

What happened when there were not enough jobs for Roman citizens? Was Rome, in fact, an early "welfare" state?

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    Don't listen to Tyler Durden. This question is special, it is a unique and beautiful snowflake. Maybe it just need some editing, though. May 8, 2014 at 14:22
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    I'd say limit it to Rome or Greece, and to within a set time period. If you choose ancient Greece - be as specific as you can with exactly where your interest lies; I have a feel the different city states would treat such people differently. Also, try boil it down to one central question rather than list several at the end. :-)
    – Kobunite
    May 8, 2014 at 15:17
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    OK, OK, I see that you too are idle and spend too much time on the internet closing questions. May 8, 2014 at 15:51
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    It's a good question, but it was too broad - we get better results when the question is more targeted than yours was. Now, I think we're all good.
    – Kobunite
    May 8, 2014 at 16:04
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    Later in the evening, I consulted my girlfriend, who is a trained historian. She insisted that I modify my answer to state "My half naked girlfriend says that the answer is found in this source" I'm not allowed to go to bed until I add this comment.
    – MCW
    May 10, 2014 at 1:13

3 Answers 3


Well, Roman citizens were given a grain ration, which certainly would have helpful to those who were unemployed. It wasn't means-tested, though, so it wasn't limited to the poor and unemployed.

"In the 120s BCE however, one politician named Gaius Gracchus proposed a controversial law, the lex frumentaria, which meant that the state started providing a subsidised grain ration to the poor. P. Clodius Pulcher took things a step further in 58 BCE and made this ration free. This was controversial because it undermined the ability of the elite to increase their popularity through displays of charity. By the time of the Empire (Rome was first a Kingdom, then a Republic, then an Empire), the number receiving this corn dole was set at around 200,000."

So if you were a citizen who was unemployed, you could at least be fed.

Later the grain ration did become a dole for the poor. There were also, basically, welfare payments for children at some times.

Cities and Economic Development: From the Dawn of History to the Present says,

"This kind of free distribution of food entailed in economic terms the breakdown of the trade balance between town and country... Rome received much and furnished little. This is the first example of mass unemployment and underemployment. Taken together, they must certainly have exceeded 30 percent, if not 40 percent, of the population of working age."

  • Was not the ration in bread rather than grain?
    – Anixx
    May 13, 2014 at 15:32
  • It was slightly means-tested in the early days, insofar as the lines were long and generally the non-poor were unwilling to spend the time.
    – Charles
    May 13, 2014 at 20:43
  • Anixx, the sources I was looking at called it a grain ration, but Roman history isn't my area so I don't know if grain meant bread. Charles, good point.
    – litlnemo
    May 13, 2014 at 21:22

Let me start with some coarse (over)generalizations, and then mention a few bits of trivia, then close with a disclaimer.

The modern definition of unemployed is "having looked for work recently". I'm not entirely sure that definition is appropriate for Rome. Modern Western Liberal Democracy is organized around the notion that "companies" provide employment, and that people seek employment. Unemployment results in a dramatic decline in economic and social status.

Although there were workshops in Rome, and there were teams that organized to perform tasks that no individual could, I'm not aware of anything that resembles the modern limited liability corporation. Roman politics and economics were based more on relationships than on companies. Romans belonged to a family, and to a tribe, and usually to some kind of patron/client relationship. Depending on their social class, they may have also belonged to one or more social organizations (e.g. burial society). If someone wanted to work, they would rely on these connections to find them employment. "Unemployment" didn't really result in the kind of economic and social decline we find today because these social bonds provided a safety net. If for some reason you were isolated from your social network, that might be a definition similar to "unemployed", but there were mechanisms (adoption, social organizations, etc.) that made the social networks fairly resilient.

  • As @edn13 points out, the proletariat lived off the dole. There was no real reason for them to look for work.

  • I believe, although I can't check right now that the Aristocracy never worked; I believe the notion that work was unbecoming to the Aristocrat reaches back as far as Ancient Rome. Although they were never employed, they couldn't be unemployed because they would never seek work. (Obligatory exception: The Aristocracy was obliged to engage in public service, including a number of civic offices).

  • Tradesmen looked for work, but they weren't unemployed, they were just tradesmen looking for work. Technically, the self-employed can never be unemployed, it is just that their business is going through a slow spell.

  • Slaves never looked for work. Many were employed to perform tasks that were mere displays of wealth - for example some were chained to the doors of houses to act as gatekeepers.

  • Slavery also prevented unemployment in a different way; if for any reason your economic status declined precipitously, you could sell a relative, or ultimately yourself into slavery. You probably only wanted to do this if you had a marketable skill.

  • The ultimate bottom rung of the ladder was to be sold to a latifundum - a farm. I haven't researched these very much, but my impression is that a slave on a latifundum may be the only historical example that is more horrifying than American chattel slavery.

Disclaimer - I'm well aware that these are coarse, unsourced generalizations, and I'll be dissapointed if certain people don't vote this answer down for my hypocrisy; they are correct to do so. I think the other answers are good, but I thought the question would benefit from a brief analysis of the underlying assumptions.

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    In particulate the point about the tradesmen. It is my understanding that a significant number of laborers never had or sought full time employment. But instead operated somewhat analogous to the illegal immigrant in America, hang out in front of of a hardware store and wait for someone with work to come by. I believe I even read somewhere that being permanently employed to one man was sometimes looked down-upon, as it was considered to be like unto slavery.
    – Jonathon
    Aug 17, 2015 at 1:40
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    the mines were the absolute worst case for slaves. highly literate educated greeks sold themselves into slavery, as career move well paid jobs in rome as tutors and secretaries were only available as slaves, though paid would earn enough to retire well off in Greece. slavery was a very wide class conditions varied widely. most people were agrarian and were on filmy.village farms concept of unemployed didnt really apply. most town folk would have agrarian connections.
    – pugsville
    Apr 17, 2016 at 10:03

While I agree that Mark C. Wallace's source is the best ever in all questions historical or not, Rome did have a huge unemployed population: the proletariat.

In ancient Rome the proletariat consisted of the poor landless freemen. It included artisans and small tradesmen who had been gradually impoverished by the extension of slavery. The proletariat (literally meaning “producers of offspring”) was the lowest rank among Roman citizens; the first recognition of its status was traditionally ascribed to the Roman king Servius Tullius (fl. 6th century bc). In some periods of Roman history it played an important role, not as as an independent force but as a mass following, in the political struggles between the Roman patricians and the wealthy plebeians. Because it had little opportunity for productive work, which was performed in the main by slaves, its existence was largely parasitic on the Roman economy. On occasions it was quieted by doles of bread from the state and diverted by spectacles—“bread and circuses."

proletariat (social class) -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia.


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