Grain supply to the city of Rome

Grain supply to the city of Rome

The megalopolis of ancient Rome could never be fed entirely from its own surrounding countryside, especially as this region was increasingly used to produce fruit, vegetables and other perishable goods, and also taken up with the villas and parks of the aristocracy. The city therefore became increasingly reliant on grain supplies from other parts of Italy (notably Campania) and from elsewhere in the empire (particularly the provinces of Sicily, North Africa and Egypt). These regions were capable of shipping adequate amounts of grain for the population of the capital (according to some sources, 60 million modii). They - and the shipping lanes that connected them with Ostia and other important ports - gained great strategic and thus military importance.

Whoever controlled the grain supply had a stranglehold on the city of Rome - Gaius Marius and Augustus realized this early when Rome was still a Republic. Vespasian, for example, realised this in the year of the four emperors (69), held Egypt and so became emperor.

Grain supply made an official responsibility

The political importance of keeping the urban population quiet meant that Roman magistrates, and later the emperors, devoted resources and attention to the food supply. Almost down to the times of the empire, the care of the grain supply formed part of the aedile's duties. In 440 BC (if the statement in Livy iv. 12, 13 is correct, which is doubtful) the Roman Senate appointed a special officer, called "praefectus annonae", with greatly extended powers. Under the Principate, the position of "praefectus annonae" became permanent, while a range of privileges, including grants of citizenship and exemption from certain duties, were extended to ship-owners who signed contracts to transport grain to the city.

A large part of the city's supply was obtained through the free market; prices in the city were invariably high, and merchants could count on making a profit. However, there was also the grain collected as tax in kind from certain provinces; some of this was distributed to officials and soldiers and some was sold at market rates, but under the grain law of Gracchus (123 BC) a portion was sold at a subsidised rate to citizens. In 58 BC, Clodius made the distributions free of charge; the emperor Augustus claims to have considered abolishing this 'corn dole' altogether, but contented himself with reducing the number of the recipients to 200,000, and perhaps later 150,000.

Grain supply and Roman politics

Grain supply (or the lack thereof) was used by one or two ambitious knights and junior senators to rise to power, although until the Late Republic, such attempts were quickly squashed. Grain supply was an important issue for the Brothers Gracchi, with the elder brother Tiberius Gracchus pointing out that consolidation of Roman agricultural lands in a few hands had pushed most landless Romans into the city. As noted above, the younger brother Gaius Gracchus implemented a grain law in 123 BC to sell grain at a subsidized rate to Roman citizens.

The price of grain became a major issue when the Roman province of Sicily revolted repeatedly, thus pushing the price to levels unaffordable in spite of the dole. As a result, the demagogue Lucius Appuleius Saturninus came to power for nearly three years, until overthrown by an alliance of the conservative Senate and the populist consul Gaius Marius. Saturninus's initial successes convinced even arch-conservatives that the grain supply must be kept undisturbed. Later, in 87 BC, Marius used Rome's dependence on imported food to win his last (and most brutal) term as consul. His actions (and those of his former second-in-command Sulla) effectively destroyed what remained of Republican institutions, paving the way for the rise of Pompey and Caesar.

Later, Gaius Julius Caesar used Clodius (a former patrician turned plebeian), as tribune of the plebs, to make the grain distributions free of charge, thus winning himself support from the Roman populace. His popularity with the proletariat and his own armies (combined with his brilliant military reputation) made him a credible alternative to what was seen as a moribund Senate. Without his popular policies, it is doubtful that Caesar's political impact would have been as great.

His successor Augustus made some reforms in the distribution, by limiting the numbers of those eligible for free grain. Later emperors all used free (or greatly subsidized) supply of grain to bolster their own regimes, along with lavish public entertainments in the form initially of gladiatorial games, theatrical spectacles and the like and later in the form of more massive entertainments, thus giving rise to the saying "Bread and circuses". As the empire continued, the annona became more complex. During the reign of Septimius Severus, olive oil was added to the distribution, and during that of Aurelian, pork and wine.


*P. Garnsey, "Famine and Food-Supply in the Greco-Roman World" (Cambridge, 1988)

ee also

*Bread and circuses, the policy of keeping the proletarii happy with grain and circus shows.
*Statio annonae
*Corn dole

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Rome — /rohm/, n. 1. Harold (Jacob), born 1908, U.S. lyricist and composer. 2. Italian, Roma. a city in and the capital of Italy, in the central part, on the Tiber: ancient capital of the Roman Empire; site of Vatican City, seat of authority of the… …   Universalium

  • The Irish (in Countries Other Than Ireland) —     The Irish (in countries other than Ireland)     † Catholic Encyclopedia ► The Irish (in countries other than Ireland)     I. IN THE UNITED STATES     Who were the first Irish to land on the American continent and the time of their arrival are …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • The Hunger Games universe — is a dystopic society in which the The Hunger Games trilogy is set. It consists of the nation of Panem which is located in North America at least 100 years in the future and 75 years after a major war has taken place in that future. Contents 1… …   Wikipedia

  • THE EVENTS — introduction European Jewry in the Early 1930s Germany in the Early 1930s the expansion of the reich …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • The Forum of Corporations — this open air market was essential for Rome as a place of varying and exotic goods from foreign lands. Merchants gathered here to sell anything from grain and shipping services to elephants and giraffes. Rebuilt in the 2nd century AD, The Forum… …   Wikipedia

  • Faustina the Elder — Antonine dynasty caption=Vaticanian bust of Faustina Major.Annia Galeria Faustina, more familiarly referred to as Faustina the Elder (Latin: Faustina Major; born September 21 about 100, died 141), was a Roman Empress and wife of Roman Emperor… …   Wikipedia

  • Sack of Rome (410) — The Sack of Rome occurred on August 24, 410. The city was attacked by the Visigoths, led by Alaric I. The Roman capital had been moved to the Italian city of Ravenna by the young emperor Honorius, after the Visigoths entered Italy.This was the… …   Wikipedia

  • History of the Roman Empire — The broader history of the Roman Empire extends through 15 centuries and includes several stages in the evolution of the Roman state. It encompasses the period of the ancient Roman Empire, the period in which it was divided into western and… …   Wikipedia

  • Deforestation during the Roman period — The rise and fall of the Roman Empire encompasses the time when Rome was the leading contributor to deforestation in the Mediterranean. Whereas the Mediterranean was largely prehistoric in 1000 BC, it was definitely historic by 500 AD.[1] Roman… …   Wikipedia

  • Crisis of the Roman Republic — The Crisis of the Roman Republic refers to an extended period of political instability and social unrest that culminated in the demise of the Roman Republic and the advent of the Roman Empire, from about 134 BC to 44 BC. The exact dates of the… …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.