Thursday, 11 October 2012

Give us this day our daily grain

The people who once gave out military commands, made magistrates, and summoned legions - the people who did everything - now content themselves and wait anxiously for two things - bread and circuses.
Juvenal, Satire, 10.77-81

The Roman satirist Juvenal observed that the people, who once held some serious political clout, gave up whatever influence they had in return for 'bread and circuses', or more generally 'food and entertainment'.  Essentially, as long as they had food in their mouths and a gladiatorial game or two to keep them amused, the Roman people didn't care about who ruled them or how.  Whilst this is perhaps a bit of an oversimplification,  it highlights just how important 'bread' was to the Romans, something which I think warrants further investigation.

When Juvenal writes about bread he is essentially writing about 'grain'.  Grain was the mainstay of the ancient Mediterranean; potatoes and maize were still entertaining the Incas in South America, and rice, whilst not unknown, was limited in its usage.  It was grain which was the staple of the Roman diet, and it was from this grain that you get the breads and porridges with which most people would start and finish their days. With so many depending on it, millions of acres stretching from Italy to Egypt were devoted to the cultivation of wheat.  This was not wheat as we know it, but rather hardier varieties known as spelt and emmer.  As hardy as it might be, however, the Romans still left nothing to chance.

Grain and the Gods

Ceres, Goddess of Agriculture
Given their dependency on grain, it is not surprising that the Romans looked to the gods for support.  They had seemingly limitless agricultural deities, with the goddess Ceres (from where we get our word cereal) leading a team including, but not limited to Convector (the grain carrier), Conditor (the one who stores the grain), Promitor (the grain distributor), Hostilina (the goddess of even grain growth), Patelana (goddess of opening up the grain), and Tutelina (the goddess who watches over stored grain).  The very concept of the Roman grain supply was itself personified as the goddess Annona.  Lots of gods and goddesses meant lots of festivals, with the grain related festivals alone including the Cerealia (a festival for the growth of cereals), Opiconsiva (for the organising of cereal reserves), and the Consualia (for the opening of the grain chambers).  Rome needed its grain, and there was no way that any part of the process was going to be left to chance.  It is particularly telling than Ceres was predominantly worshipped in the Aventine, the part of Rome most often associated with the poor.  If it was the gods who oversaw the production of the grain, it was the politicians who did all the dirty work.


In the modern western world we are detached from the production and supply of food - it's taken for granted that you can go to a supermarket and get the ingredients you need.  In fact, we are now so detached that we don't even have to buy the ingredients to make the dinner, you can buy an entire meal just in need of a few minutes in the microwave.  In ancient Rome, however, the production and supply of food was of great concern.

Roman society was an agricultural society, with cities supplied by food from the neighbouring fields.  As the cities grew, these fields struggled to provide enough for everybody to eat.  The city of Rome, which grew from 250,000 to 1,000,000 inhabitants in the space of just over a century, felt these pressures more than most, and the people quickly turned to the politicians to provide a solution.

A baker selling his wares, or a politician currying favour?

People needed grain, and politicians needed votes, so throughout Roman history many aspiring consuls took to distributing free food to garner support.  In the 120s BCE however, one politician named Gaius Gracchus proposed a controversial law, the lex frumentaria, which meant that the state started providing a subsidised grain ration to the poor.  P. Clodius Pulcher took things a step further in 58 BCE and made this ration free.  This was controversial because it undermined the ability of the elite to increase their popularity through displays of charity.  By the time of the Empire (Rome was first a Kingdom, then a Republic, then an Empire), the number receiving this corn dole was set at around 200,000.

Grain, then, was not just on the minds of the poor, but also on the minds of the very people running the city of Rome.  As long as the people were fed, there would be order.


'Food Supply', in Hornblower, S., and Spawforth, A., (eds.), Oxford Classical Dictionary 3rd Edition, (Oxford, 2003)

Grainger, S., Cooking Apicius, (Totnes, 2006)

Scheid, J., An Introduction to Roman Religion, (Paris, 1998)

Ungern-Sternberg, J.V., 'The Crisis of the Republic', in Flower, H.I. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic, (Cambridge, 2004), pp.89-112

Ancient Sources

Cato, On Agriculture

Pliny, Natural History


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