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Roman support system for poorest

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Fresco from Pompeii showing a bread seller
Fresco from Pompeii showing a bread seller

Ancient Romans knew that if a society was to be economically viable, it had to be well fed. Therefore, there was a social welfare system that guaranteed the distribution or sale of grain at reduced prices (the so-called frumentationes).

As mentioned previously, the original food aid for commoners was due to the desire to maintain a strong society and army. With time, however, politicians saw another advantage in frumentationes – the possibility of gaining popularity. This was the case when there was widespread poverty or a food crisis.

In the 2nd century BCE Roman large farms began to gradually abandon the cultivation of grain in favour of more financially profitable grapes, olives and cattle. The growing demand of the ever-growing population of Rome and other cities in the sphere of influence made it extremely important to ensure a steady supply of grain. Subsequent conquests of the Romans resulted in such deliveries coming from Sicily, Sardinia and Africa.

Still, importing the grain was very risky as the ships were threatened by storms and pirates and the yield depended on weather conditions and harvest. Oftentimes, grain stocks and prices fluctuated from year to year. To counteract this problem, Gaius Gracchus in 123 BCE passed a law that allowed all Roman citizens who lived in the capital to buy a certain amount of grain every month at a fixed and reduced price (6.33 asses for modius – that is, about 6.5 kg). So the grain was available to all citizens, but to a large extent, the poor were the main beneficiaries.

The official responsible for the grain supply of the town (called cura annonae) was aedile. Annona was the personification of the grain deliveries to Rome (often associated with Ceres), and all grain deposits were distributed from the Temple of Ceres. In 440 BCE the senate established a new office praefectus annonae to be responsible for the delivery of grain to the city. Thus, the town’s nutrition issues were dealt with interchangeably between aedile and praefectus annonae. With the end of the republic, only praefectus annonae took over.

The availability of grain and low prices over time became a path to popularity among Roman politicians. As previously mentioned in 123 BCE Gaius Gracchus proposed to deliver grain at a reduced price to the poorest. The radical representative of the popular – Lucius Apuleius Saturninus (late 2nd century BCE) – thanks his new lex frumentaria, lowered the price of grain from 1 modius to 5/6 asses. Among other things, this movement later secured him the office of plebeian tribune three times.

In 59 BCE another radical representative of the popular, Clodius Pulcher, offered to supply free grain to the poorest. However, as it turned out, the burden on the state was too great and later Julius Caesar and Augustus reduced the number of people who were entitled to the “allowance” – first 200, then 150,000.

During the reign of the emperors, the custom of distributing food or lowering the price of grain was also practised. A kind of custom appeared with the organization of the games, which were organized for the people and then the Romans were given food – hence the saying “bread and games”.

During the reign of Septimius Severus (turn of the 2nd-3rd century CE), apart from bread/grain, the commoners were given free olive oil. Under Aureliano, there was another reorganization of alimenta, where instead of free grain, bread with a grain of salt, pork and wine was provided, often for a song or at a reduced rate.

  • Garnsey Peter, Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World: Responses to Risk and Crisis, 1989
  • Stambaugh John E., The Ancient Roman City
  • Wołosowski Jakub, Ile Judasz zarobił na Jezusie?, WP

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