What Ancient Rome and Mosaic Law Teach Us about Work and Welfare

Generosity was commanded by God, but those who received aid needed to willingly respond.

These biblical provisions are clear signs of concern and care for the poor and the needy, but modern solutions diverge sharply in how they address the same problems. First, Mosaic Law did provide a “safety net” to catch any of the poor and needy facing hard times, but government was very limited in this role. The emphasis was more on the local level and on the need for individuals to respond.


As I discussed in my previous post, the Old Testament perspective on the poor is made clear throughout the Torah and the wisdom literature. Now, we want to see how we can apply this scripture to our society by taking a look at examples from ancient Rome and from the ancient Israelites.

The New Deal in Ancient Rome

H.J. Haskell describes Rome’s welfare system in his book, The New Deal in Old Rome. He says that the system did not begin with an income test. Only those willing to stand in line for bread could take advantage of subsidized prices. At first, this system was based on effort and incentives rather than circumstances.

When Clodius Publius ran for the office of tribune, he offered free wheat to all, which was enough to get him elected. There were about 320,000 persons on the government dole when Julius Caesar came to power ten years later. This dole had already become a hereditary right to receive government help by the time of Emperor Aurelian.

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