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In ancient Rome, the Roman government used the term Cura Annonae ("care for the grain supply"), in honour of their goddess Annona, to describe the import and distribution of grain to the residents of the city of Rome. Rome imported most of the grain consumed by its population, estimated to number one million people by the second century AD. Most of the grain was distributed through commercial or non-subsidized channels, but a dole of subsidized or free grain, and later bread, was provided by the government to about 200,000 of the poorer residents of the city of Rome.
A regular and predictable supply of grain and the grain dole were part of the Roman leadership's strategy of maintaining tranquility among a 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."
The most important sources of the grain, mostly durum wheat, were Egypt, North Africa (21st century Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco), and Sicily. The logistics of moving the grain by sea from those places to Rome required many hundreds of ships, some very large, and an extensive system for collecting the grain and distributing it inside Rome itself. The archaeological records of the grain trade are sparse, due to the perishability of grain which has made its detection difficult for archaeologists.
The population of the city of Rome declined precipitously during the 5th, the last century of the Western Roman Empire, and 6th centuries AD. It is unknown when the Cura Annonae ended. It may have persisted into the 6th century.
History of the grain dole
The city of Rome grew rapidly in the centuries of the Roman Republic and Empire, reaching a population approaching one million in the second century AD. The population of the city grew beyond the capacity of the nearby rural areas to meet the food needs of the city. In addition to the need for commercial imports of grain to Rome, free or subsidized grain was distributed to a large percentage of the Roman population.
In the early centuries of the Republic, the Roman government intervened sporadically to distribute free or subsidized grain to its population. Regular distribution began in 123 BC with a grain law proposed by Gaius Gracchus and approved by the Roman popular assembly. Adult male citizens (over 14 years of age) of Rome were entitled to buy at a below-market price five "modii", about 33 kilograms (73 lb), of grain monthly. Approximately 40,000 adult males were eligible for the grain. In 62 and 58 BC the number of Romans eligible for grain was expanded and grain became free to its recipients. The numbers of those receiving free or subsidized grain expanded to an estimated 320,000 before being reduced to 150,000 by Julius Caesar and then set at 200,000 by Augustus Caesar, a number that remained more or less stable until near the end of the Western Roman Empire.
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. 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.
The dole in the early Roman Empire is estimated to account for 15 to 33 percent of the total grain imported and consumed in Rome.
By the late 200s BCE, grain was being shipped to the city of Rome from Sicily and Sardinia. In the first century BCE, the three major sources of wheat were Sardinia, Sicily, and North Africa, i.e. the region centered on the ancient city of Carthage, present day Tunisia. With the incorporation of Egypt into the Roman empire and the rule of the emperor Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE), Egypt became the main source of supply of grain for Rome. By the 70s CE, 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. To help assure that the grain supply would be adequate for Rome, in the first century BCE, Graccus settled 6,000 colonists near Carthage, giving them about 25 hectares (62 acres) each to grow grain.
Grain made into bread was, by far, the most important element in the Roman diet. Several scholars have attempted to compute the total amount of grain need to supply the city of Rome. Rickman estimated that Rome needed 40 million modii (200,000 metric tons) of grain per year to feed its population. Erdkamp estimated that the amount needed would be at least 150,000 metric tons, calculating that each resident of the city consumed 200 kilograms (440 lb) of grain per year. The total population of Rome assumed in calculating these estimates was between 750,000 and one million people. David Mattingly and Gregory Aldrete  estimated the amount of imported grain at 237,000 metric tons for 1 million inhabitants; 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 shipping lanes that connected Rome with its centers of grain supply (Egypt, North Africa, Sicily and perhaps other places.) had strategic importance. Whoever controlled the grain supply had an important measure of control over the city of Rome. Rome was dependent upon the prompt arrival of imported grain.
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" by sea than "to cart it by land some 75 miles [120 kilometers]." Thus, a large fleet of sea-worthy grain ships was required to bring grain from relatively nearby Sicily and Sardinia, more distant North Africa, and much more distant Egypt. In straight line distances (and sailing ships did not normally travel in straight lines), distances from Sicily to Rome were more than 500 kilometres (310 mi), from Carthage in North Africa more than 600 kilometres (370 mi), and from Egypt more than 2,000 kilometres (1,200 mi). Sailing times from the ports of Ostia (near Rome) and Puteoli (near Naples) to Alexandria in Egypt might be as brief as 14 days. Returning to Rome would take much longer as the winds were adverse and ships had to hug coastlines and travel in a round-about manner. "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. Grain was packed into sacks, rather than carried loose in the holds of ships. Casson estimates the outward freighters "raced down from Ostia or Pozzuoli 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." Given also the time needed for loading and unloading the grain ships by hand, the 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. Spain was also an important source of olive oil, and possibly grain.
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 on ships for Rome.
Grain from North Africa. Twenty-nine Mediterranean ports (not including Egypt) possibly exporting grain to Rome have been found by archaeologists in northern Africa, ranging in location from 21st century Libya to Morocco. The largest was probably Carthage. Given the lack of navigable rivers in the region grain had to be transported to these ports by land, suggesting that, because of the cost of land transport, the grain was grown in close proximity to the ports. The grain was probably transported to the ports in four-wheeled carts drawn by four oxen, each cart carrying 350 kilograms (770 lb) to 500 kilograms (1,100 lb). Grain from ancient Cyraenica (Libya) may have been important because an early harvest there could supply Rome before other grain-growing regions had been harvested. The arrival each year of the first fleets of grain ships was an eagerly awaited event in Rome.
The last leg. On arrival in the post of Ostia, at the mouth of the Tiber River, 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. On arrival in Rome, the grain was stored in large warehouses, called horrea, until needed. Most of the horrea from the 1st century CE onwards were state-owned.
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 tons) or even more. Ships of much larger capacity are suggested in Lucian and the Acts of the Apostles. Grain transport 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.
Lucian, c. 150 CE, described a very large grain ship taking shelter in the port of Piraeus, Greece. The Isis was 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 calculated that the cargo capacity was 1200 to 1300 metric tons of grain.an estimate that has not been verified by archaeological findings. The grain ships were propelled entirely by sails, and not by banks of oarsmen as were Roman warships.
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 enroute. 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 CE, 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.
The voyage of Paul. The experience of Paul the Apostle in 62 CE 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.
Ship owners. The ships involved in the grain trade were privately owned. The Roman government provided subsidies and tax exclusions to encourage ship-building and the grain trade and took the risk of shipping on itself by providing a form of insurance to ship owners.
Milling and baking
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. A dole of grain was given monthly to the poorer people of Rome. 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."
In the early centuries of the Roman republic and 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 BCE in Greece, and presumably spread to Rome shortly. Hand-driven mills had only small capactity 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 BCE, 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 BCE, 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 CE.
A steady supply of water was needed for watermills and this came from the Aqua Traiana, an aqueduct bringing water some 40 kilometres (25 mi) from springs near Lake Bracciano to Janiculum hill just outside the walls of the city of Rome. The aqueduct was inaugurated in 109 CE and the water it carried was used initially as drinking and bathing water. A famine (and resultant riots) in 190 CE caused by corruption in the grain distribution system influenced the Roman government under Emperor Septimus Severus to intervene and convert the distribution of grain to the populace into the distribution of flour. The watermills constructed at Janiculum "were intended to centralize, regularize, and perhaps even deprivatize the city's milling operations." Estimates of the date when the watermills came into operation vary, but it was probably in the early 3rd century.
The conversion of a grain supply for the citizens of the city of Rome to a flour supply carried with it a host of problems. Flour is much more perishable than grain, and its distribution would have to carried out more often. Little is known about the initial distribution system for the flour produced by the watermills. The Emperor Aurelian (270-275 CE) is usually credited with changing or completing the change of the food distribution system from grain or flour to bread, and adding olive oil, salt, and pork to the products distributed to the populace. These products had been distributed sporadically before Aurelian. Aurelian is also credited with increasing the size of the loaves of bread without increasing the price of a loaf, a measure that was undoubtedly popular with the Romans who were not receiving free bread and other products through the dole. In the 4th century CE, Rome had 290 granaries and warehouses and 254 bakeries which were regulated and monitored by the state and given privileges to ensure their cooperation.
End of the Cura Annonae
The population of the city of Rome was at its peaked at possibly more than one million people from the late 1st century to the 3rd century CE and thereafter declined by 400 CE to 700,000-800,000, between 400,000 to 500,000 in 452, and thereafter to a population estimated at only 100,000 in 500 CE, declining still further thereafter in the Middle Ages. Due to its "decreasing population, smaller army, and more land to feed its population," 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 existence of watermills. "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."
The date when the Cura Annoae ended is unknown, but it may have lasted into the 6th century CE. In 500 CE, the Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great visited Rome and promised food to its inhabitants, possibly restoring the Cura Annonae or continuing it. In 537 CE, 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.
Politics and the grain supply
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, the Roman Senate may have appointed a special officer called the praefectus annonae with greatly extended powers. 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.
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. But the unpopularity of these laws led to more conservative laws attempting to rein in the Gracchi reforms such as the lex Octavia and the lex Terentia Cassia.
The price of grain became a major issue when the Roman province of Sicily 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.
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 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.
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 A.D) as if the population of the city did nothing but live off free grain and go to entertainments (circus races were actually held on average only 17 days a year and gladiatorial shows 5-7 days in a year). The machinery of the Annona civilis became more complex over time.
With the devaluation of currency in the course of the third century, the army was paid in rationed supplies (annonae) as well as in specie 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"
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