Cura Annonae

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Neronian coin with the reverse depicting Annona, the personification of the grain supply, and Ceres, whose temple was the site of the dole

Cura Annonae ("care of Annona") was the term used in ancient Rome, in honour of their goddess Annona, to describe the import and distribution of grain to the residents of the cities of Rome and, after its foundation, Constantinople. The city of Rome imported all the grain consumed by its population, estimated to number 1,000,000 by the 2nd century AD. An important part of this was the grain dole or corn dole,[a] a government program which gave out free or subsidized grain, and later bread, to about 200,000 of Rome's adult male citizens. The corn-dole was originally an emergency measure to help feed a growing number of indebted and dispossessed citizen-farmers. By the end of the Republic, it had become a permanent institution.

A regular and predictable supply of grain and the grain dole were part of the Roman leadership's strategy of maintaining civil obedience among a potentially restive urban population by providing them with what the poet Juvenal sarcastically called "bread and circuses". In 22 AD, the emperor Tiberius said that the Cura Annonae if neglected would be "the utter ruin of the state".[1]

The most important sources of bread grain, mostly durum wheat, were Roman Egypt, North Africa (21st century Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco), and Sicily. The logistics of moving the grain by sea to Rome required many hundreds of ships, some very large, and an extensive system for collecting the grain and distributing it inside Rome itself.

Some form of Cura Annonae may have persisted as late as the 6th century for Rome, but far less grain was shipped compared to earlier periods; in Constantinople, a reduced form of it lasted as late as the 7th century. The population of the city of Rome declined precipitously during the last years of the Western Roman Empire. Thereafter, no city in Europe would assemble the transportation network required to feed 1,000,000 inhabitants until the 19th century.

History of the grain dole[edit]

A bread stall, from a Pompeiian wall painting

The city of Rome grew rapidly in the centuries of the Roman Republic and Empire, reaching a population approaching 1,000,000 in the 2nd century AD.[2] In the early centuries of the Republic (509–287 BC), the Roman government intervened sporadically to distribute free or subsidized grain to Rome's more impoverished male citizens.

Landholding was the material basis of male Roman citizenship, and land distribution remained a major issue throughout Rome's history. In wartime, low-ranking citizens were conscripted to serve in the military. In peacetime, the same commoner-soldiers relied on what they could raise on small farms, weather permitting, with very little capacity to produce a surplus for trading. Farms within Rome and its vicinity were used to raise equally essential but more perishable crops; although farmland taken from conquered enemies was legally ager publicus (publicly owned), most was swallowed up by the wealthy and powerful, who found that grapes and wine were more profitable commodities than grain.[3] Subsistence farmers were forced to borrow from their patrons or landlords in lean years. Some of them accumulated levels of debt that proved impossible to pay off and were forced to sell their farms or surrender their tenancies and either work for the new owner or move to a city with their families and seek patronage there.[4][5]

Regular subsidized grain distribution began in 123 BC with a grain law proposed by Gaius Gracchus and approved by the Roman popular assembly. Adult male Roman citizens (over approximately 14 years of age) with an income or disposable property under a certain value were entitled to buy 33 kilograms (73 lb) grain per month at a below-market price of five modii. The qualifying income threshold is not known, but according to Caesar's municipal legislation of 44 BC, landlords of tenement blocks helped compile lists of persons who might qualify to receive grain; two aediles Cereales, civic-religious officials who served the grain goddess Ceres, were made responsible for its supply.[6] Initially, about 40,000 adult males were eligible. In 62 and 58 BC that number was temporarily increased to an estimated 320,000, but reduced to 150,000 by Julius Caesar and then set at 200,000 by Augustus Caesar. The number remained more or less stable until near the end of the Western Roman Empire.[7][8] In the early Roman Empire, the requirements of the grain dole are thought to account for 15–33% of Rome's imported grain.[9]

In the 3rd century AD, the dole of grain was replaced by bread, probably during the reign of Septimius Severus (193–211 AD). Severus also began providing olive oil to residents of Rome, and later the emperor Aurelian (270–275) ordered the distribution of wine and pork.[10] The doles of bread, olive oil, wine, and pork apparently continued until near the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, although the decline in the population of the city of Rome reduced the quantities of food required.[11]


Roman trade routes, 180

By the late 200s BC, grain was being shipped to the city of Rome from Sicily and Sardinia. In the first century BC, the three major sources of wheat were Sardinia, Sicily, and the north African region, centered on the ancient city of Carthage, in present day Tunisia. Sailing time one-way from Sicily to Rome's port of Ostia Antica was about four days. From Carthage sailing time was about nine days. With the incorporation of Egypt into the Roman Empire and the rule of the emperor Augustus (27 BC – AD 14), Egypt became Rome's main source of grain.[12][13] By the 70s, the historian Josephus was claiming that Africa fed Rome for eight months of the year and Egypt only four. Although that statement may ignore grain from Sicily, and overestimate the importance of Africa, there is little doubt among historians that Africa and Egypt were the most important sources of grain for Rome.[14] To help ensure provincial Africa's grain production, in the second century BC, Gracchus settled 6,000 colonists near Carthage, giving each about 25 hectares (62 acres) to grow grain.[15]

Grain made into bread was, by far, the most important element in the Roman diet. Rickman estimates that Rome needed 40 million modii (272,000 tonnes) of grain per year to feed its population.[16] Erdkamp estimates that the amount needed would be at least 150,000 tonnes, calculating that each resident of the city consumed 200 kilograms (440 lb) of grain per year.[17] The total population of Rome assumed in calculating these estimates was between 750,000 and 1,000,000 people. David Mattingly and Gregory Aldrete[18] estimated the amount of imported grain at 237,000 tonnes for 1,000,000 inhabitants;[19] This amount of grain would provide 2,326 calories daily per person not including other foods such as meats, seafood, fruit, legumes, vegetable and dairy. The Historia Augusta, states that Severus left 27 million modii in storage. This would have been enough for 800,000 inhabitants at 225 kilograms (496 lb) of bread per person per annum.[20]


A model of a small Roman grain ship. Large ones had three masts.
Alexandria, Egypt and its port, 30 BC

The shipping lanes that connected Rome with its centers of grain supply had strategic importance. Whoever controlled the grain supply had an important measure of control over the city of Rome, which was dependent upon timely arrivals of imported grain.[21]

The provision of grain to Rome was a major shipping and administrative task for the Romans. It was not feasible to supply Rome's needs by land transport. It was "cheaper to ship grain from one end of the Mediterranean to the other" than "to cart it by land some 75 miles [120 kilometers]."[22] Thus, a large fleet of seaworthy grain ships was required to transport grain from its places of origin.

To ensure an uninterrupted supply of grain, the Mediterranean sea lanes needed to be kept free of piracy, an ongoing military objective tasked to the Roman navy. Rome's navy was not an autonomous military branch in a similar sense to that of a modern navy, especially after Rome had annexed the entire Mediterranean coast. In addition to performing routine anti-piracy duties, the ships that were part of what the Romans thought of as their navy actually carried a considerable portion of Roman grain imports.[citation needed]

Sailing times from the ports of Ostia (near Rome) and Puteoli (near Naples) to Alexandria in Egypt might be as brief as 14 days, with the wind behind. Like almost all non-military ships, large grain transports were propelled by sail, not oars. Returning to Rome would take much longer as the winds were adverse and ships had to tack a course, hugging coastlines when possible.[23] "The voyage...from Alexandria to Rome was a continuous fight against foul winds." Lionel Casson estimated that average time for the voyage was nearly 70 days.[24] Grain was transported in sacks, from start to finish, not carried loose in the holds of ships.[25][26] Casson estimates the outward freighters "raced down from Ostia or Puteoli to Alexandria with the wind on their heels in ten days to two weeks" and the voyage back laden with grain "...took at least a month and on occasion two or more."[27] Given the time needed for loading and unloading, the larger grain ships traversing the Egypt to Rome route likely only completed one round trip per year. Several round trips per year could be accomplished from North Africa or Sicily.[28]

Grain from Egypt. The harvest season for grain in ancient Egypt was from April to early June. The annual Nile flood began in June and thus harvest had to be finished before the river's waters covered the land. The grain in Egypt was apparently acquired by Rome as a tax on farmers. The grain was moved mostly by barge on the various distributaries of the Nile River to Lake Mareotis bordering the southern part of the city of Alexandria. There it was inspected for quality and, when accepted, transported by canal to the port of Alexandria, the Great Harbor, where it was loaded onto ships for Rome.[29]

Grain from North Africa. Twenty-nine Mediterranean ports, excluding those in Egypt, have been identified as possible grain exporters from North Africa to Rome. The largest was probably Carthage. Given the lack of navigable rivers in the region, grain had to be transported to these ports by road, suggesting that because of the cost of land transport, the grain was grown in close proximity to the ports. The means of road transport were slow and costly, involving four-wheeled carts drawn by four oxen, each cart carrying 350 kilograms (770 lb) to 500 kilograms (1,100 lb).[30] Grain from ancient Cyraenica (Libya) may have been important because an early harvest there could supply Rome before other grain-producing regions had been harvested.[31] In Rome, the arrival of the first fleets of grain ships was an eagerly awaited annual event.[12]

From Ostia to Rome. On arrival in the port of Ostia, Rome's port at the mouth of the Tiber, the grain was off-loaded from its transport ship and loaded onto barges which were hauled up the river by animal or man power to the city of Rome, approximately 30 kilometres (19 mi) upriver.[32] On arrival in Rome, the grain was stored in large warehouses, called horrea until needed. Most horrea from the 1st century AD onwards were state-owned.[33]


Hundreds or even thousands of ships were required to transport grain to Rome. The government of Rome encouraged building large ships for grain transport. Some had a capacity of carrying 50,000 modii (350 tonnes) or even more. Ships of much larger capacity, are suggested in Lucian and the Acts of the Apostles. Grain transport at sea presented special problems. Grain must be kept cool and dry to prevent sprouting and infestations of pests and mold and prevented from shifting from side to side in the hold of the ship which could impact the seaworthiness of the transport ship. Grain that was wet could sink the ship by expanding and splitting the sideboards of the hull.[34]

An idealized plan of Portus, constructed about 113 AD to serve the city of Rome.

Lucian, c. 150 AD, apparently described a very large grain ship taking shelter in the port of Piraeus, Greece. The Isis was supposedly 55 metres (180 ft) in length and had a beam of more than a quarter of that. From the deck to the bottom of the cargo hold was 13 metres (43 ft). Casson took all this literally, and calculated the ship's cargo capacity at 1200 to 1300 tonnes of grain.[35] Rickman describes Lucian's figures as extreme literary exaggeration, a warning that what follows is fantasy. The reported dimensions are not verified by archaeological findings.[36]

Casson reconstructed a voyage from Alexandria, Egypt to Rome. A grain ship leaving Alexandria, would first steer north east to Cyprus, then follow the south coast of Asia Minor (21st century Turkey) westwards, and proceed along the south shore of Crete, stopping as needed at one of several ports en route. From Crete the grain ship would strike out across the Mediterranean Sea westwards toward the island of Malta, the objective being Syracuse, Sicily and the Straits of Messina. After passing through the Straits, large grain ships would dock at the port of Puteoli, near Naples, or after port improvements about 113 AD, at Ostia near Rome. From Puteoli the cargo of the large ships would be off-loaded onto smaller ships and taken to Ostia. Smaller ships coming from North Africa or Egypt could proceed directly to Ostia for unloading.[37]

The voyage of Paul. The experience of Paul the Apostle in 62 AD illustrates the dangers of the voyage from Egypt to Rome. Paul boarded a Rome-bound grain ship in Asia Minor. The ship was large, with 276 people aboard, counting both crew and passengers. The voyage was late in the sailing season, after the Day of Atonement (which is usually in early October) and the winds were adverse. Following the usual route along the south shore of Crete, Paul's ship was blown off course and wrecked on the island of Malta. He spent the winter on Malta, then proceeded onward to Puteoli and Rome.[38]

Ship owners. The ships involved in the grain trade were privately owned. The Roman government provided subsidies and tax exclusions to encourage shipbuilding and the grain trade and took the risk of shipping on itself by providing a form of insurance to ship owners.[39]

Milling and baking[edit]

Bread was the most important item in the Roman diet. A shortage of grain to make bread, or a large increase in the price of grain, could—and often did—have serious political consequences, including riots of the populace which impacted the stability of the Roman government. Grain was sold to those not qualifying for the dole, or to those who needed grain in addition to what they received in the dole. The precise details of how grain was marketed in Rome, however, are a "major puzzle".[40]

The sixteen overshot wheels at Barbegal are considered the biggest ancient mill complex. Their capacity was sufficient to feed the whole nearby city of Arles

In the early centuries of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire, the individuals receiving the grain took it to one of many small flour mills in the city to have it ground into flour and then either baked the flour into bread at a home oven, a communal oven, or one of the numerous bakeries in every district of the city. Hand-driven mills for grain were known in the 5th century BC in Greece, and presumably spread to Rome shortly. Hand-driven mills had only a small capacity of grinding grain into flour, serving an individual household or a few households. Animal-driven mills (usually using donkeys) with a much larger capacity appeared in Rome by the 3rd century BC, and the establishment of bakeries probably accompanied the adoption of animal-driven mills. Water-driven mills with still greater capacity were first utilized in the 1st century BC, but their development required a large investment in infrastructure, especially of aqueducts, and their use to grind nearly all of the grain for the city of Rome did not come until the late 2nd or 3rd centuries AD.[41][42]

A steady supply of water was needed to operate watermills. An aqueduct, The Aqua Traiana brought water some 40 kilometres (25 mi) to the Janiculum Hill, from springs near Lake Bracciano. The aqueduct was inaugurated in 109 AD. Its water not only turned the mills but was clean enough for drinking.[43] A famine and resultant riots in 190 AD, caused by the corruption of grain distributors, persuaded the government under Emperor Septimus Severus to intervene and convert the distribution of grain to the populace into the distribution of flour. The Janiculum's watermills "were intended to centralize, regularize, and perhaps even deprivatize the city's milling operations."[44] Estimates of the date when the watermills came into operation vary, but it was probably in the early 3rd century.[45]

The conversion of the grain supply to a flour supply would have carried with it a host of problems, some of which can only be guessed at. Flour is much more perishable than grain, and it would therefore have required more frequent distribution. The Emperor Aurelian (270–275 AD) is usually credited with changing or completing the change from grain or flour to bread, and for adding olive oil, salt, and pork to the products regularly distributed; these products had been distributed sporadically before that. Aurelian is also credited with increasing the weight of loaves but not their price, a measure that was undoubtedly popular with the Romans who were not receiving free bread and other products through the dole.[46] In the 4th century AD, Rome had 290 granaries and warehouses and 254 bakeries, regulated and monitored by the state and given privileges to ensure their cooperation.[47][48]

End of the Cura Annonae[edit]

The population of the city of Rome peaked at possibly more than 1,000,000 people from the late 1st century to the 3rd century AD, declined by 400 to 700,000–800,000, to between 400,000 and 500,000 in 452, and to a population estimated at only 100,000 in 500, declining still further thereafter in the Middle Ages.[49] Due to its "decreasing population, smaller army, and more land to feed its population",[50][51] Rome did not need many of its watermills, storehouses, bakeries, and port and transportation facilities. Writing in the early 6th century, Cassiodorus noted the large decrease in the population and the number of watermills. He wrote, "The vast numbers of the Roman people in old time are evidenced by the extensive Provinces from which their food supply was drawn...and the enormous multitude of mills, which could only have been made for use, not for ornament."[52]

The date when the Cura Annonae ended is unknown, but it may have lasted into the 6th century. In 500, the Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great visited Rome and promised food to its inhabitants, possibly restoring the Cura Annonae or continuing it.[53] In 537, the Byzantine General Belisarius and his army were besieged inside Rome by the Ostrogoths. The Goths blocked the aqueduct providing water for the watermills, thus limiting the capacity of Rome to make flour. Belisarius set up a ship mill on the Tiber River to grind grain and continue to provide the occupants of the city with bread.[54]

In Constantinople, the grain supply was ended by the loss of Egypt, first temporarily to the Sasanian Empire during the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628, and then permanently to the Rashidun Caliphate in the Muslim conquest of Egypt and much of the Levant. The emperor Heraclius (r. 610–641) was forced to end the grain supply after the shahanshah's Khosrow II's (r. 590–628) capture of Alexandria in 621.[55]

Politics and the grain supply[edit]

The columns of the statio annonae are now part of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. Another statio was found near the Crypta Balbi.

Grain supply was an important issue for the Gracchi, with the elder brother Tiberius Gracchus arguing that consolidation of Roman agricultural lands in the hands of a few had pushed landless Romans into the city, where they found poverty rather than employment. The grain supply was a consistent plank in the popularist platform for political leaders who appealed to the plebs.[56] But the unpopularity of these laws among the better-off led to more conservative laws, based on compromise and attempting to rein in the Gracchi reforms such as the lex Octavia and the lex Terentia Cassia.[57]

The price of grain became a major issue when the Roman province of Sicily, one of Rome's major grain sources, revolted repeatedly, thus pushing the price to unaffordable levels. Lowering grain prices became an important part of the political platform of the radical popularist Saturninus, who acquired the office of plebeian tribune an unusual three times.[57]

Throughout most of the Republican era, the care of the grain supply (cura annonae) was part of the aedile's duties. The annona was personified as a goddess, and the grain dole was distributed from the Temple of Ceres. As early as 440 BC, however,[58] the Roman Senate may have appointed a special officer called the praefectus annonae with greatly extended powers.[59] An emergency Cura Annonae was an important source of influence and power for Pompey in his later career. 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. Grain was also collected as tax in kind from certain provinces; some of this was distributed to officials and soldiers and some was sold at market rates. Emperors took the credit for ensuring the grain supply, and its distribution, not strictly according to need, but to citizens whose declared income qualified them to receive it.[60][61] Most of Imperial Rome's grain supply was grown abroad, imported, stored and sold on by private organisations, using loans and not state subsidies.[62]

The official responsible for the provision of the alimenta was the curator alimentorum. During the Empire this post became an important bureaucratic position to be filled by members of the senatorial elite prior to achieving a consulship. The last known official to hold this post was Titus Flavius Postumius Quietus, probably during the early 270s.[citation needed]

Later emperors all used free or greatly subsidized grain to keep the populace fed. The political use of the grain supply along with gladiatorial games and other entertainments gave rise to the saying "Bread and circuses" from one of the bitter satires of Juvenal (60–140 AD) as if the population of the city did nothing but live off free grain and go to subsidized entertainments. The machinery of the Annona civilis became more complex over time.[63]

With the devaluation of currency in the course of the third century, the army was paid in rationed supplies (annonae) as well as in coin from the later third century, through a cumbrous administration of collection and redistribution. The role of the state in distributing the annona remained a central feature of its unity and power: "the cessation of this state function in the fifth century was a major factor leading to economic fragmentation, as was the end of the grain requisition for the city of Rome".[64]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The term "corn" is used in its non-U.S. sense, referring to any cereal grain in general. Maize (sweetcorn) was not known in Europe at the time; the grain dole chiefly consisted of durum wheat.[65][66][67]


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