Imperial Rome was by far the largest city of its time, and feeding its populace—about one million according to most estimates—required an ever-watchful eye on the part of the authorities. ...
Imperial Rome was by far the largest city of its time, and feeding its populace—about one million according to most estimates—required an ever-watchful eye on the part of the authorities. The system supplying Rome, the armies, and some other cities with grain and other foodstuffs came to be known as the annona. The Roman authorities began to intervene directly in the food supply of the city of Rome in the mid-Republican period. A momentous step in this development was the introduction of the grain distribution (frumentatio) by C. Sempronius Gracchus in 123 bce. In the Principate, the annona became a central feature of the relationship between the emperor and the capital’s inhabitants. At the end of Augustus’s reign the office of the annona came to be headed by a praefectus annonae, who had recourse to a staff of subordinates in Rome, Ostia, and Puteoli. Apart from the produce of the imperial estates, Rome collected tax grain primarily in Sicily, Sardinia, and Africa, and from Augustus onwards in Egypt; Rome was then largely sustained by this flow of public grain. The main responsibility of the praefectus annonae was to administer the transportation by means of shipping contracts from the grain provinces to Rome and to curb fraud and speculation on the grain market. The prefect also offered legal support for private businessmen involved in the annona. Part of the public stock was distributed at the frumentationes, which fed a significant part, but not all, of the populace. When Constantinople was founded as a new capital by Constantine, Rome lost access to the Egyptian tax-grain and relied heavily on Africa for grain and olive oil. The system of the annona was enforced more strictly, and shippers involved in the food supply of Rome found themselves bound to their obligations to the annona. In the West, the system ended when Africa was conquered by the Vandals in 429 ce. In the East, Constantinople continued to rely on Egypt until it was conquered by the Persians in 617 ce.