“The people who once gave out military commands, made magistrates, and summoned legions – the people who did everything – now content themselves and wait anxiously for two things – bread and circuses.” – Juvenal, Satire
The Roman satirist Juvenal observed that the people, who once held some serious political clout, gave up whatever influence they had in return for ‘bread and circuses’, the opium of the masses. Essentially, as long as they had food in their mouths and a gladiatorial game or two to keep them amused, the Roman people didn’t care about who ruled them or how.
Juvenal, writing about bread, is essentially talking about ‘grain’. Grain was the mainstay of the ancient Mediterranean, potatoes and maize were blossoming in South America, and rice, whilst not unknown, was limited in its usage. IT was grain which was the staple of the Roman diet, and it was from this grain that we get the bread and porridge with which most people would start and finish their days. With so many depending on it, millions of acres stretching from Italy to Egypt were dedicated to the cultivation of wheat. This was not wheat as we know and digest today, but rather heartier varieties known as spelt and emmer. As hardy as it might be, however, the Romans still felt nothing to chance.
Grain and the Gods
Given their dependence on grain, it is not surprising that the Romans looked to the Gods for support, just like every other sphere in their lives. They had seemingly limitless agricultural deities with the goddess Ceres (from where we get the base for cereal) leading a team including, but not limited to Convector (grain carrier), Conditor (in charge of storing the grain), Promitor (grain distributor), Hostlina (the goddess of grain growth), Patella (goddess of opening up the grain), and Tutelina (guardian goddess of stored grain). The very concept of the Roman grain supply was itself personified as the goddess Annona. Lots of gods and goddesses meant lots of festivals, with the grain-related festivals alone including the Cerealia (a festival for the growth of cereals), Opiconsiva (for the organizing of cereal reserves), and the Consualia (for the opening of the grain chambers). Rome needed its grain, and there was no way that any part of the process was going to be left to chance. It is particularly telling that Ceres was predominantly worshiped in the Aventine Hill, the part of Rome most often associated with the poor. If it was the gods who oversaw the production of the grain, it was the politicians who did all the dirty work.
In ancient Rome, the production and supply of food were of great concern. Like most societies at the time, Rome was an agricultural society with cities supplied by food from the neighboring fields. As the cities grew, these fields struggled to provide enough for everybody to eat. The city of Rome, which grew from 250,000 to 1,000,000 inhabitants in the space of just over a century, felt these pressures more than most, and the people quickly turned to the politicians to provide a solution.
Politics of Grain
People needed grain and politicians needed votes, so throughout Roman history, many aspiring consuls took to distributing free food to garner support. In the 120s BCE however, one politician names Gaius Gracchus proposed a controversial law, the Lex Frumentaria, which meant that the state started providing subsidized grain ration to the poor. Another step was taken in 58 BCE and this law was transformed to make the ration free. This was controversial as it undermined the ability of the elite to increase their popularity through displays of charity. By the time of the Empire (Rome was first a Kingdom, then a Republic, then an Empire), a dole of subsidized or free grain, and later bread, was provided by the government to about 200,000 of the poorest residents of the city, an early and long-lasting example of a social safety net. A regular and predictable supply of grain and the grain dole were part of the Roman leadership’s energy maintaining peace and order among a restive urban population who needed to kept satisfied by “bread and circus.” SO much so that in 22 AD, the emperor Tiberius said that if grain rituals and festivals were neglected, it would be the “utter ruin of the state.”
Grain was not just on the minds of the poor, but also on the minds of the very people running the city of Rome. As long as bread and circus were provided, Pax Romana would endure.
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