There are few absolute necessities for life. One of these is water, and the Roman aqueduct system has already been described. Another of these fundamental necessities is food, and ensuring that the inhabitants of the city of Rome had enough to eat was one of the major achievements of the Romans and demanded extensive infrastructure.
The diet of the vast majority of people in the ancient Roman world would have consisted of a simple routine of grain, olive oil, and wine. The grain was usually consumed either as bread or as a kind of porridge or gruel. This diet would sometimes have been supplemented by fruits or vegetables, but meat, especially red meat, would have been a rarity. Fish and poultry were eaten when available.
When the city's population began to increase rapidly in the middle republic, local resources began to prove inadequate to provide the huge quantities of food necessary to sustain the populace. To avoid riots and chaos in the capital, the Roman state was compelled to start taking an active role in the food supply. Within a few hundred years, this role would evolve from simple price fixing to a state-run system that distributed free portions of food to the citizens of the city. The earliest known instance of state intervention occurred in 299 bc, when high grain prices caused the aediles to get involved in setting maximum prices and making sure that enough food was reaching Rome. In 123 bc, a law called the Lex Sempro-nia established the precedent that grain would be sold to the inhabitants of the city at a fixed and subsidized price. The Romans measured grain in a unit called a modius, which was equivalent to roughly 6.5 kilograms of grain. This law set a price of slightly more than 1.5 HS per modius.
A truly radical development took place in 58 bc, when a rabble-rousing politician named Clodius passed a new grain law that established the precedent of free monthly distributions of grain in the city. Clodius's law also redefined those eligible in ways that increased the number who could draw this ration—for example, by lowering the minimum qualifying age to 10. Under this law, all citizens over the age of 10, even if they were of freedman status, could collect 5 rnodii (32.5 kilograms) of free grain per month.
The amount chosen is interesting because this is really more grain than would be necessary to feed one person for a month; in fact, it was probably almost enough to feed two. The grain dole was not a completely free ride for the recipients, however, since they would still have had to come up with enough money on their own to pay for the grain to be milled and then baked into bread. Various statistics survive indicating the number of grain dole recipients at different points in time, and there seem to have been repeated efforts by the state to pare down the number of recipients in response to the swelling numbers of those on the list.
By 46 bc, 320,000 people were receiving the grain dole. This number was reduced to 150,000 the next year by Julius Caesar but almost immediately seems to have ballooned back to 250,000 in 44 bc. It remained at 250,000 in 29, 24, 23, and 12 bc. By 5 bc, the number of names on the list had crept back up to 320,000, provoking another revision of the rolls by Augustus, so that by 2 bc, the number of recipients was back down to 200,000. In ad 14 and 37,150,000 dole recipients were recorded, and the system probably continued on at least this scale for the next couple of centuries.
Various emperors had granted occasional largesse of additional foodstuffs to the city's inhabitants, and the emperor Septimius Severus in the early third century ad augmented the grain dole with a regular distribution of olive oil. Later that century, the emperor Aurelian apparently included monthly servings of pork and wine as well.
Keeping Rome's gigantic population fed created a substantial industry dedicated to the collection and shipping of food to the city. Based on comparative data from sources such as studies of Greek peasants, it is estimated that each person in ancient Rome probably consumed 237 kilograms of wheat, 20 liters of olive oil, and 100 liters of wine per year. Multiplied by a million inhabitants, this results in 237,000 tons of wheat and 120,000 tons of oil and wine. Since liquids were transported in large, clay pots, this requires adding another 70,000 tons for the weight of the containers. The result is that over 400,000 tons of food had to be imported each year to feed the city of Rome. Where did all this food come from and how was it transported?
One important characteristic of grain, olive oil, and wine is that these forms of food can be preserved for a considerable length of time. Olive oil and wine, when stored in clay jars and properly sealed, have very long shelf lives, and as long as grain is kept dry, it too can be stored for months or even years. It was not only their suitability to be grown in the Mediterranean climate that made these crops dominant, but the fact that they could be stored for substantial periods of time and therefore moved long distances.
Transportation of bulk goods by land was prohibitively expensive and slow. It simply was not practical to haul a wagonload of wheat, for example, very far, since the animals that were necessary to pull the wagon would quickly eat an amount of food equal to that which could be carried in the wagon itself. The solution to this problem was to move goods by sea. Scholars have estimated that the cost of shipping grain from one end of the Mediterranean to the other was cheaper than hauling the same amount of grain 75 miles overland. It was perhaps 40 times more expensive to transport goods by land rather than by sea, and while it was somewhat more costly to move goods along a river than over the open ocean, riverine transport was still many times more efficient than land transport.
Since Italian resources were not sufficient to feed Rome, they naturally looked to Roman-controlled areas that were closest and that had access to the sea. The first provinces that had surplus grain collected from them and transported to the city in large quantities were, logically enough, the nearby islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Once Rome had conquered the coast of North Africa, the surplus from this region was rounded up and routed toward the city of Rome as well. By the first century ad, Egypt and the coastal areas of Spain and Gaul had been added to this list. Despite its distance from Rome, Egypt in particular was an important source of grain, and the safe arrival of the Egyptian grain fleet off the coast of Italy was a major cause for celebration.
While necessary as the only practical way to transport enough food to Rome, this maritime traffic could also be problematic. Particularly during the winter, the Mediterranean Sea can produce violent storms that would have sunk their ships; thus, the prime sailing season was restricted to only three to four months during the summer. Most of the supplies for the city, then, had to reach Rome's ports during this narrow window of opportunity or else face greatly multiplied chances of being caught in a storm and sinking. Natural dangers were not the only threat to shipping, however. Piracy in the ancient Mediterranean was rampant, and despite sporadic attempts at suppression, pirates had nearly free rein to prey upon merchant ships. The Romans were aware of the precarious nature of the lifelines that kept the city fed. The Roman historian Tacitus commented, "Italy relies upon external supplies, and the life of the Roman people is daily at the uncertain mercies of sea and storm" (Tacitus, Annals 3.54). The scale of the food and the other supplies pouring into Rome demanded an appropriate infrastructure, both administrative and physical.
Rome is not located directly on the Mediterranean Sea but rather is about 22 kilometers inland on the Tiber River. The mouth of the Tiber lacked a natural harbor where ships could be safely unloaded. The smallest ships could have traveled upriver directly to Rome, but medium or large freighters had to be off-loaded somewhere else. During the republic, many ships (including the huge Egyptian grain freighters) docked at the good harbor at Puteoli on the Bay of Naples. From here, their cargoes had to be either shifted to smaller watercraft for their trip to Rome or else hauled overland. At the mouth of the Tiber was located the port city of Ostia. The harbor facilities at Ostia remained rudimentary through the republic, and larger ships that docked there simply had to ride offshore and have their cargoes transferred onto barges or small craft for the trip upriver. As Rome continued to grow and traffic increased, these harbor arrangements were clearly unacceptable, and in AD 42, the emperor Claudius tackled this problem and began to construct substantial harbor works at Ostia. Just north of the city, he excavated out of the coastline an artificial harbor known as Portus, although it was not a wholly successful project. Rome at last got a first-rate harbor when the emperor Trajan rebuilt Portus and added an inner harbor where ships could be completely safe.
At Rome, dock facilities seem to have been concentrated in the southern section of the city, particularly below the Aventine hill, in a region known as the Emporium district. Although much of these dock works was obliterated by the construction of the modern Tiber embankments, excavations have revealed evidence of long stretches of concrete quays and unloading platforms with ramps heading down into the water.
Ships tied up using large, stone mooring rings. Most ships seem to have been unloaded at Ostia or Portus and their cargoes either stored in warehouses there or else transferred to river barges that were hauled upstream to Rome. Such a barge was called a codicarius and was a specialized craft of about 70 tons made to be towed by gangs of either men or animals
Figure 12.4 Mosaic of a dockworker at Ostia loading amphorae (clay pots) onto a eoeik'arius (river barge). The barges were pulled upriver to Rome by gangs of men marching along the riverbank.
Walking along the bank. The actual course of the Tiber from Ostia to Rome is 32 kilometers, and it is thought that this trip took perhaps three days. One Roman poet makes reference to the rhythmic chants of these men as they hauled their barges upriver (Martial, Epigrams 4.64). Once the codi-carii reached Rome, they would have been unloaded and the cargo stored in warehouses until it was needed. Particularly during the short sailing season, when several dozen ships might be arriving each day, Rome's harbor areas must have been the scene of truly frenzied activity. Simply loading and unloading the ships at the various points along this route would have required tens of thousands of laborers toiling long hours, hauling heavy sacks of grain or amphorae of liquids. A minimum estimate of the number of ships required to carry a year's worth of grain, wine, and olive oil for Rome suggests that a fleet of nearly 1,700 ships would have been necessary.
In addition to ships and docks, this system required storage space, and w'arehouses of truly gigantic proportions sprang up at Ostia, Portus, and Rome. Such a warehouse, known as a horrea, in its most typical form consisted of an open courtyard surrounded on all four sides by small storage rooms. These structures were often of massive construction, with thick walls, few external openings, elaborate lock systems on the doorways, and sometimes even multiple stories. Some horrea were specially designed to store grain, with raised internal floors to help increase ventilation, decrease vermin, and keep the grain cool and free of moisture. One warehouse at Rome, known as the Horrea Galbana, contained three internal courtyards surrounded by over 140 individual storage rooms covering an area of around 20,000 square meters. This monstrous structure may have had multiple stories as well.
An interesting feature of these horrea is that the doorways were quite narrow, and this, together with the use of stairways rather than ramps to get to the upper floors, indicates that the goods were transported by individual men carrying sacks or containers rather than by wagons or animals. This labor-intensive arrangement suggests that many of the inhabitants of Rome who were supported by the food supply system may actually have also found employment within it. The fourth-century Regionary Catalog lists over 300 horrea in the city of Rome.
The degree of direct involvement of the state in shipping supplies to Rome is a matter of scholarly debate. Most of the actual merchants and shipowners doing the transporting seem to have been private businessmen. At the very least, the Roman state offered incentives to make sure that enough supplies were being transported to the city. An example of this is a law passed by the emperor Claudius that stated that anyone owning a ship that could carry at least 10,000 modii of grain who used that ship for at least six years to bring grain to the city would be granted certain privileges, including Roman citizenship if the owner was a noncitizen.
Augustus created the administrative post of praefectus annonae, an official charged wifh general oversight of the grain supply. Over the next century, assorted subsidiary administrative posts were added to oversee very specific aspects of the supply system at Rome, at its ports, and even in key provinces such as Spain, Africa, and Egypf. The praefectus annonae was a high-ranking post, as suggested by the fact that the salary for his assistant was 100,000 sesterces per year. The prefect and his staff had their headquarters at the Porticus Minucius, which may have been one of the central distribution points of the grain dole. Keeping track of the rolls of eligible recipients would have been a major bureaucratic challenge. Those who were eligible seem to have been given tickets called tesserae, which they had to show to collect their ration.
When one factors in all the other items brought to Rome in large quantities, such as timber; stone; wild animals; luxury goods; oil for use in heating, cooking, and in the baths; and all the other things consumed by the city, it becomes apparent that there was a huge shipping and transportation industry serving Rome's needs. At Rome and Ostia, numerous guilds of merchants and workers developed.
Perhaps the most impressive expression of the scale of Rome's supply system is one of the hills of modern Rome, Monte Testaccio. Thirty-five
Figure 12.5 Monte Testaccio. This artificial hill is composed entirely of the remnants of millions of broken Spanish olive-oil containers.
Meters high and several hundred meters long, it is not a natural feature at all but is in fact an artificial mountain composed entirely of the shattered remains of 50 million North African and Spanish olive-oil containers broken or discarded in the course of transporting olive oil around the dockyards of Rome.