previous next

Frumentariae Leges

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 (annona) 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; iv. 12, 52; 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, Rom. Hist. 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, Epit. 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 for the 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. Hist. Fragm. 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 Att. 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 (Pro Sest. 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. Caes. 55; 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 or frumentariae (Octav. 41).

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 (Octav. 40; Dio Cass. lv. 10). The chief regulations of Augustus seem to have been:


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 nummariae or frumentariae, which entitled them to the corn without payment (Octav. 41).

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. v. 1, 52; xxxix. 1, 49; xxxix. 1, 87). Every citizen living in Rome, even freedmen and criminals (De Benef. iv. 28, 2), was competent to hold a tessera, with the exception of senators.

Another change was also introduced at a later period, which rendered the bounty still more ac

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. 35; 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 gradilis; 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.

hide References (8 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (8):
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 10, 11
    • Suetonius, Divus Julius, 55
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 4, 12.52
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 2, 27
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 2, 9
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 4, 12
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 36, 40
    • Cicero, Tusculanae Disputationes, 3.20
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: