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17 III: Carlos Machado (St Andrews), Looking for the poor in late antique Rome: identity, knowledge, and power

Abstract

Poverty played a crucial role in the social life of Late Antiquity. As Peter Brown, one of its most distinguished historians, put it, this was a period marked by a profound revolution in the social imagination. Late antique elites put the poor and their suffering centre stage, making them the focus of gifts, alms, and specific institutions and public policies that aimed at reducing their suffering – or at least securing a place in Heaven for the donors. This involved defining, identifying, and classifying the poor, making this social group the subject of a complex discourse. This lecture will explore the mechanisms and intellectual technologies developed in the late antique period to perform this task, focusing on the case of Rome. It will argue that much more than a new social imagination, this period was marked by new forms of knowledge and control, that had a great impact in the lives and conditions of the poor and their place in society, as well as in the redefinition of public – ecclesiastical and imperial – institutions.