The Role of the State


It would be a simple matter if we could see the state as the organizing authority behind all the great, long-distance trading in daily consumer goods. Monte Testaccio in Rome and the amphorae for wine, oil, olives, salted fish, and fish sauces present at the military sites could all be explained by the functioning of the different branches of the food-supply system (annona). However these goods had been come by (tithes, requisitioning, or by contract), and even if in some cases they were sold and not just distributed, their transport costs would not necessarily be reflected in the sale price. The extent of the distribution would be limited only by the state of the imperial coffers and the possibilities of exploiting the provinces. And it would be possible to speak plainly about redistribution and a state-run economy.

All the evidence, however, points to a much more restricted level of state participation. The emperors were responsible for the monthly delivery to Rome of 750,000 modii of grain to be doled out to the 150,000 people who qualified for free hand-outs (63,000 tons per annum); they felt in general responsible for supplying grain to the capital, in the hope of obviating, as much as possible, the risks of food shortages. In the second century they extended this responsibility to oil and much later to wine and pork.[1] Any other sporadic actions were responses to particular crises. Pliny the Elder says that, during the reign of Tiberius, there was a very lean year for papyrus. In Rome ‘a shortage of paper led to the appointment from the senate of umpires to supervise its distribution, as otherwise life was completely upset’ (trans. H. Rackham).[2] This was one of the rare instances of government action in an area of distribution unrelated to food shortages and a few fixed prices, such as that of minium from Sisapo. It came in response to a crisis that threatened to lead to chaos, though in this case it was probably also influenced by the fact that the primary users of papyrus were the bureaucrats in the imperial administration.

Apart from Rome itself, the army’s service corps was the second area in which the state played a role. To discover what was issued to soldiers by the authorities, and more generally to understand the ways in which the armies stationed along the limes were kept supplied with essentials, has been a longstanding focus of research and source of hypotheses. None of this scholarly activity, however, has produced simple answers; and the discovery of the Vindolanda tablets has complicated rather than clarified the matter.[3] Here I deal with only one aspect of the question.

  • [1] See Vera (2005a: 247-8) for a review of current thinking on the question and a newchronology for distributions of low-priced wine.
  • [2] Pliny, XIII. 89.
  • [3] Recent surveys of the situation are to be found in three collections: Alfdldy, Dobson, andEck (2000); Erdkamp (2002); De Blois and Lo Cascio (2007). For a synthesis, see Rathbone(2007).
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