From the earliest times the supply of corn at Rome was considered one of the duties of the
government. Not only was it expected that the government should take care that the corn-market
) was properly supplied, but likewise that in all seasons of
scarcity it should purchase corn in the surrounding countries and sell it to the people at a
moderate price (Livy, ii. 9, 34
; x. 11, etc.
; xxvi. 40
). This price, which is spoken of
as annona vetus
, could not rise much without exciting formidable
discontent; and the administration was in all such cases considered to have neglected one of its most important duties. The superintendence of the corn-market belonged
in ordinary times to the aediles; but when great scarcity prevailed, an extraordinary officer
was appointed for the purpose, under the title of Praefectus Annonae (Livy, ii. 27, 5
; iv. 12, 8
With the decay of agriculture in Italy, the government had to pay still further attention to
the supply of corn for the city. In addition to this, an indigent population gradually
increased in Rome, which could not purchase corn even at the moderate price at which it was
usually sold, and who demanded to be fed at the expense of the State. Even in early times it
had been usual for the State on certain occasions, and for wealthy individuals who wished to
obtain popularity and influence, to make occasional donations of corn to the people (Mommsen,
ii. 372). But such donations were only casual; and it was not till
the year B.C. 123 that the first legal provision was made for supplying the poor at Rome with
corn at a price much below its market value. In that year, C. Sempronius Gracchus brought
forward the first lex frumentaria
, by which each citizen was entitled to
receive every month a certain quantity of wheat (triticum
) at the price
of 6 1/3 asses (about $0.06) for the modius, which was equal to nearly 1 peck English (cf.
Mommsen, Die römischen Tribus
, p. 179, n. 4, and p. 182, n. 18; Livy,
60; Appian, B. C.
i. 21) — only a trifle more
than half the market price. It must not be supposed that each person was allowed to receive as
much as he pleased every month; the quantity must of course have been fixed, and was probably
five modii monthly, as in later times. This quantity was given only to fathers of families;
but it was not confined to the poor, for every citizen had a right to it, whether he were rich
or poor (viritim
, Tusc. Disp.
iii. 20, 48
); and even Piso, who had been consul, applied for his share at the
distribution (Cic. l.c.
). It appears, however, from the
anecdote which Cicero relates about Piso, that each citizen had to apply in person, a
regulation which would of itself deter most of the rich. The example that had been set by
Gracchus was too tempting not to be followed, although it emptied the treasury and at the same
time taught the poor to become State-paupers instead of depending upon their own exertions for
obtaining a living. It thus crowded the city with an idle population.
The demagogue Apuleius Saturninus went still further. In B.C. 100 he brought forward his Lex
Apuleia, by which the State was to sell corn at 5/6 of an as
modius. The city quaestor Q. Caepio pointed out that the treasury could not bear such an
expense (cf. Mommsen, Gesch. d. röm. Münzwesen
, p. 560), and
the most violent opposition was offered to the measure. It is doubtful whether it ever passed
into a law; and it is at all events certain that it was never carried into execution. The Lex
Livia, which was proposed by the tribune M. Livius Drusus in B.C. 91, was likewise never
carried into effect, as it was annulled by the Senate, together with all his other laws, as
passed in opposition to the auspices. Of the provisions of this Lex Frumentaria we have no
account (Livy , Epit.
lxxi.). About the same time, either shortly before or
shortly after the Lex Livia, the tribune M. Octavius, supported by the aristocracy, brought
forward the Lex Octavia, which modified the law of Gracchus to some extent, so that the
public treasury did not suffer so much. He probably either raised the price of the corn, or
diminished the number of modii which each citizen was entitled to receive (Cic. Brut. 62, 222
). Sulla went still further, and by
his Lex Cornelia, B.C. 82, did away altogether with these distributions of corn (Sall.
i. 45, 11, Kritz). But the Senate soon found it inexpedient to
deprive the people of their customary largesses, as the popular party began to increase in
power; and it was accordingly at the desire of the Senate that the consuls in B.C. 73 brought
forward the Lex Terentia Cassia, which was probably only a renewal of the Lex Sempronia, with
one or two additions respecting the manner in which the State was to obtain the corn. The law
enacted that each Roman citizen should receive 5 modii a month at the price of 6 1/3 asses for
each modius. Occasionally extraordinary distributions of corn were made in virtue of decrees
of the Senate.
All the leges frumentariae
that have been hitherto mentioned had sold
corn to the people, although at a price much below what the State had paid for it; but as the
great party-leaders towards the close of the Republic were ready to purchase the support of
the people at any sacrifice to the State, the distribution of corn became at length quite
gratuitous. Caesar, in his consulship, B.C. 59, had threatened to make it so (Ad
ii. 19); and this threat was carried into execution in the following year, B.C.
58, by the Lex Clodia of the tribune Clodius. The corn was thus in future distributed without
any payment; and the abolition of the payment cost the State a fifth part of its revenues
25, 55, with Schol. Bob. p. 301, ed. Orelli). In B.C. 57, Pompey
received by the Lex Cornelia Caecilia the superintendence of the corn-market (cura annonae
) for a period of five years; but no alteration was made in the
distribution of corn by virtue of this measure. At this time the distribution of corn must
have cost the State nearly $3,500,000 a year.
The consequences of such a system did not escape the penetration of Caesar; and accordingly,
when master of the Roman world, he resolved to remedy the evils attending it, as far as he was
able. He did not venture to abolish altogether these distributions of corn, but he did the
next best thing in his power, which was the reduction of the number of recipients. During the
Civil Wars numbers of persons who had no claim to the Roman franchise had settled at Rome, in
order to obtain a share in the distributions of corn. The first thing, therefore, that Caesar
did was to have an accurate list made out of all the corn-receivers, and to exclude from this
privilege every person who could not prove that he was a Roman citizen. By this measure the
320,000 persons who had previously received the corn were at once reduced to 150,000. Having
thus lessened the number of corn-receivers, he enacted that this number should not be exceeded
for the future, and that vacancies which occurred by death should be filled up every year by
lot by the praetor urbanus (Suet.
; Dio Cass. xliii. 21). It is further exceedingly probable
that, as a general rule, the corn was not given
even to these 150,000,
but sold at a low price, as had been the case at an earlier period; and that it was only to
the utterly destitute that the corn was supplied gratuitously; the latter
class of persons were furnished with tickets, called tesserae nummariae
The useful regulations of Caesar fell into neglect after his death, and the number of
corn-receivers was soon increased beyond the limits of 150,000, which had been fixed by the
dictator. This we learn from the Monumentum Ancyranum, in which Augustus ( 15) enumerates the
number of persons to whom he had given congiaria at different times; and there can be no doubt
that the receivers of the congiaria and of the public corn were the same. Thus, in B.C. 44,
and on the three following occasions, he distributed the congiaria to 250,000 persons; and in
B.C. 5 the number of recipients had amounted to 320,000. At length, in B.C. 2, Augustus
reduced the number of recipients to 200,000, and renewed many of Caesar's regulations
40; Dio Cass. lv. 10). The chief regulations of Augustus seem to have
That every citizen should receive monthly a certain quantity of corn (probably 5 modii) on
the payment of a certain small sum. As the number of recipients was fixed by Augustus at
200,000, there were consequently 12,000,000 modii distributed every year. Occasionally, in
seasons of scarcity, or in order to confer a particular favour, Augustus made these
distributions wholly gratuitous; they then became congiaria.
That those who were completely indigent should receive the corn gratuitously, as Iulius
Caesar had determined, and should be furnished for the purpose with tesserae
, which entitled them to the corn
without payment (Octav.
The system which had been established by Augustus was followed by his successors; but as it
was always one of the first maxims of the State policy of the Roman emperors to prevent any
disturbance in the capital, they frequently lowered the price of the public corn, and
frequently distributed it gratuitously as a congiarium. Hence the cry of the populace, panem et circenses.
No emperor ventured to abolish the public distributions
of corn; the most that he dared do was to raise the price at which it was sold. When,
therefore, we find it stated in Dio Cassius (lxii. 18) that Nero did away with the
distributions of corn after the burning of Rome, we cannot understand this literally, but
must suppose that he either raised the price of the commodity, or, what is more probable,
obliged those poor to pay for it who had previously rereceived it gratuitously. The care
which the emperors took to keep Rome well supplied with corn is frequently referred to in
their coins by the legends, Annona, Ubertas, Abundantia, Liberalitas
, etc. We
find in a coin of Nerva the legend plebei urbanae frumento constituto
(Eckhel, vol. vi. p. 406).
In course of time, the sale of the corn by the State seems to have ceased altogether, and
the distribution became altogether gratuitous. Every corn-receiver was therefore now provided
with a tessera
, or ticket, and this tessera, when once granted to him,
became his property. Hence it came to pass that he was not only allowed to keep the tessera
for life, but even to dispose of it by sale, and bequeath it by will (Dig.
1, 52; xxxix. 1, 49; xxxix. 1, 87). Every citizen living in Rome, even freedmen and criminals
iv. 28, 2), was competent to hold a tessera, with the exception of
Another change was also introduced at a later period, which rendered the bounty still more
Tesserae Frumentariae. (Rich.)
ceptable to the people. Instead of distributing the corn every month, wheaten
bread, called annona civica
, was given to the people. It is uncertain at
what time this change was introduced, but it seems to have been the custom before the reign
of Aurelian (A.D. 270-275), as it is related of this emperor that on his return from his
eastern expedition he distributed among the people a larger quantity of bread, and of a
different form from that which had been usually given (Vopisc. Aurel.
Zosim. i. 61). The bread was baked by the pistores
, who delivered it to
the various depots in the city, from which it was carried away on certain days by the holders
of the tesserae (Orelli, Inscript.
no. 3358). These depots had steps (gradus
) leading to them, whence the bread was called panis
and there were the strictest regulations that the bread should only be
distributed from these steps, and should never be obtained at the baker's (Cod. Theod. xiv.
17, 3, 4). When Constantine transferred the seat of government to Constantinople, the system
of gratuitous distribution of bread was also transferred to that city; and in order to
encourage the building of houses, all householders were entitled to a share of the imperial
bounty (Zosim. iii. 32). The distribution of bread at Rome was, however, still continued.