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.

References

*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


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