Feeding Ancient Rome

Chaired by Guy Whitmarsh

Dr Neville Morley

University of Bristol

24 January 2005

Ancient Rome was the greatest city of the classical world, and one of the greatest cities in human history. At the time of the emperor Augustus, it is estimated that the city and its suburbs were home to about a million people. Rome’s closest rivals in the ancient Mediterranean world, Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Syria, each had a population of barely half that size; other great cities like Carthage and Ephesus contained perhaps 100-200,000 people. Athens, at the height of its power in the 5th century BC, had an urban population of maybe 100,000; Pompeii had only 10-15,000.

If we compare Rome with cities from other periods of history, the contrast is still striking. No other city in Europe had a population of one million before London reached that size at the beginning of the 19th century. In the preceding centuries, only two European cities had passed even the half million mark. Further to the East, Istanbul may have contained 700,000 people in the late 16th century, when the Turkish Empire was at its height. Cities with populations of a million or more were to be found only in China between the 11th and 13th centuries.

Pre-industrial society

Today, of course, a city of this size is nothing remarkable. There are more than eighty cities in the world with populations of over a million; London is seven times larger than ancient Rome ever was, and Mexico City is over fifteen times larger. However, the world in which such vast cities can exist is clearly very different from the world of ancient Rome. We live in an industrial society, in which we enjoy the benefits (and suffer the consequences) of dramatic advances in science and technology over the two hundred years since the Industrial Revolution. The modern megalopolis is the product of these changes, and is wholly dependent on modern technology for its survival. Modern farming techniques produce enough food to feed millions of city-dwellers; trains, cars and lorries transport goods and people quickly around the city; almost every activity in the city, whether work or leisure, depends on electrical power.

The Roman Empire was a pre-industrial society; its economy worked on a much more basic level, and was far less efficient. Farmers produced only a small surplus above what was needed to feed themselves and their families, and so the vast majority of the population (90% or more) had to work on the land to support a tiny number of non-producers. The main forms of transport were carts drawn by horses or oxen, ships propelled by sail or oars, and walking: all slow, most of them expensive. The main source of energy for any kind of work was human or animal muscle. In these circumstances, the fact that the Romans succeeded in keeping a million people supplied with food and the other necessities of life, without the aid of railways, lorries or (perhaps most seriously of all) refrigerators, was a remarkable achievement. It becomes clear why cities the size of Rome were so rare in pre-industrial societies, and that raises two questions: how Rome grew so large, and how the Romans managed to run such a vast city.

The growth of the city

Nobody actually intended Rome to grow so large. Indeed, some of Rome’s leaders, like Julius Caesar, became afraid that the city was growing too large, and tried to reduce its population by sending people off to found new cities elsewhere. Still the city kept growing because every year thousands of people moved there from other parts of the Roman empire. Some came unwillingly, having been captured in war and sold into slavery: others chose to migrate to the city, in the hope of making their fortunes or of enjoying a different lifestyle. Rome was the capital city of the empire, and so became extremely wealthy through the taxes and booty collected from conquered provinces. Under the Republic, its rulers competed with one another in building temples and monuments to celebrate Roman power, and tried to win popular support by providing gladiatorial games and chariot-racing. Augustus and later emperors continued this tradition of spending the wealth of the empire in the city of Rome. Throughout its history, the city was also the place where the upper classes spent most of their time, using their wealth to maintain a luxurious lifestyle. Because so much money was being spent in the city, there were many opportunities for employment, in building work and in providing services for the upper classes - not to mention many opportunities for enjoyment. Little wonder that people kept on coming to Rome, whether its rulers liked it or not.

Food for Rome

A million people eat and drink vast quantities of food, water and wine. Precisely what kinds of food is a matter of dispute, since the sources' tales of honeyed dormice and larks’ tongues in aspic can scarcely be representative of the diet of the mass of the Population: it seems likely that the bulk of calories were obtained from grain, in the form of either bread or porridge, made palatable with a few vegetables, spices and herbs. It has been estimated that the inhabitants of Rome would have needed a total of at least 150,000 tonnes of grain every year just to stay alive, and they must have got through millions of litres of wine and olive oil. The countryside around Rome could never produce nearly enough food for this population (and anyway was increasingly devoted to producing luxury goods like flowers, fruit and dormice), so supplies had to be found elsewhere. Merchants collected the produce of other parts of Italy and other provinces of the empire and brought it to the mouth of the Tiber, whence it was carried up the river to Rome. The city was so large and wealthy, and its demands for goods were so insatiable, that traders could make enormous profits from helping to supply its needs.

However, all too often the supply system broke down and there was insufficient food in the city markets, leading to popular protests. Sometimes this was because of a poor harvest in the regions that produced food for Rome, and sometimes the merchant ships were hindered by bad weather, pirates or warfare; in either case the rulers of the city were faced with a crisis. If they took no action, there was a risk that some unscrupulous politician would take advantage of popular anger to seize power: the magistrates therefore used state funds to bring in new supplies. Some of the countries which the Romans conquered paid their taxes in kind, sending grain to Rome instead of money, and eventually the Senate voted to distribute part of this grain to the people. A privileged group of Roman citizens, normally about 200,000, received this corn dole, at first for a price below market rates and later free.

The emperors, following the lead of Augustus, felt obliged to pay particular attention to the needs of the people of their capital city; they could therefore hardly avoid getting involved in Rome's food supply. Augustus created the post of praefectus annonae, Prefect of the Corn Supply, and from then on the city always had an official with special responsibility for its food supply. Claudius started work on constructing a harbour at Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber, after being pelted with bread crusts by an angry crowd in the Forum, and his work was continued by Trajan.

The city of Rome could grow so large because it was supported by the labours of the rest of the empire. Its inhabitants earned their living not through trade or manufacture for export but by providing services for the state and for the upper classes, whose income came from rents and taxes. Rome has therefore been described as a ‘consumer’ city, a drain on the wealth of the society that supported it. However, this label does not do full justice to the impact of the city on its empire. Rome was a vast and wealthy market, and in addition many landowners were encouraged to change the ways in which they managed their farms, to concentrate on producing goods which were in demand in Rome. The flow of goods, migrants and money between city and empire helped to bring different parts of the empire closer together, and encouraged the spread of Roman law, coinage and customs through the provinces. Finally, we should not forget the way in which the city became a symbol, if not the symbol, of Roman power and majesty for the inhabitants of the empire – as it still is for us today.

1. ‘First among cities, home of the gods, golden Rome.’ (Ausonius, C4 AD)

Neville Morley