Food Supplies for Rome. Coping with Geographical Constraints

During the period of the Empire, Rome had become so gigantic that the logistics of keeping it supplied point up the constraints of the city’s geographical situation. It is often said that no European city equalled the population of ancient Rome until London in the very last years of the eighteenth century and Paris just before the middle of the nineteenth. But what is less often remarked upon is the fact that both these cities lie in the centre of river basins with soil that is among the most fertile in Europe and that they stand on great rivers, neither of which is the case with Rome.


In the eighteenth century, Paris was supplied with grain almost exclusively from farms less than 50 kilometres away. G. W. Grantham has attempted to draw up a theoretical model of an ‘area of intensive exchange between country and town’.1 This is the area of peasant transport, requiring no intermediaries or offloading and reloading, within a radius of 45 kilometres. In southern parts of France, this radius enables a town of 50,000 people, if it actually has such an extensive hinterland, to be properly supplied. The fact is, however, that, in the vicinity of Rome, such an extent of land is hard to come by, except northwards along the Tiber valley or some distance away to the south-east in the upper valley of the Garigliano. To the west and the south, there is nothing but sea; to

First published in B. Marin and C. Virlouvet (eds), Nourrir les cites de Mediterranee. AntiquiteTemps modernes (Paris: MMSH, Maisonneuve & Larose, 2003), 45-60. Passages on papal Rome have been deleted.

1 Grantham (1997: 706-10).

the north-west, there is the infertile Maremma region; and to the north-east and east, there are the Sabine, Tiburtine, Prenestine, and Alban hills. From the start of the Republican period, at least according to the tradition handed down by the annalists, the Roman authorities, at times of shortage, were bringing in grain from farther afield in Italy, and even then from Sicily. The really important change came about in 241 bc, when Sicily became a Roman province. Grain tithes, plus the buying of grain at fixed prices, were then able to provide much of what Rome needed. Bids were called for the garnering of this grain. The aediles with the state’s contribution, and the tax-gatherers with the surplus that gave them their profit, were able to bring large amounts of grain to market in Rome. This geopolitical phenomenon was to intensify until Augustus with the creation of the other grain-producing provinces. By the time of the Empire, buying from foreign parts had stopped, because there were no more foreign parts. What there was, was an experienced organization for bringing in grain by sea. Because of the growth of the Empire, the food- supply system (annona) of ancient Rome functioned very differently from that of Rome under the popes. Within the agrarian economy of central Italy, it brought about profound change in distribution. And it abolished the limits put upon the city’s development by its need for grain.

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