Today food stamps, social security, the welfare state, and the debate around the costs for these institutions are a hot topic with lots of debates and opinions on it. Now one might think that these institutions and the surrounding debates are a modern topic. But that is actually not true.
So today I would like to shed some light on the topic of the ancient Roman food stamps.
Augustus introduced the „tesserae frumentariae“ (= grain stamps) in 2 BC. These food stamps were made out of bronze (since Nero they were made of lead) and entitled the holder to receive 5 modii (=9,9 gallons) of free grain each month. They had the portrait of the Emperor and the letters S.C. for senatus consulto (= by resolution of the senate) stamped onto them. 150.000 food stamps were given out, and every Roman citizen who lived in Rome could apply for one.
These food stamps were used during the time of the Roman Empire in the context of subsidizing citizens in Rome with grains. But Augustus, the first Roman emperor, did not invent the subsidization of the citizens in Rome with discounted or even free gain. You can find more information on the evolution of this subsidization, why it developed from a supply of discounted grain in times of need to free grain for the citizens of Rome, and if the free grain did really allow Romans to live off the state without working, in my article here.
But let`s return to the ancient Roman food stamps. To find out more about these food stamps we have to look at the rule of the first Roman emperor Augustus (who ruled from 27 BC to 14 AD).
What led to the introduction of food stamps?
During the late Roman Republic several politicians, the most notable being the tribunes of the people Caius Gracchus and Clodius, had shifted the distribution of discounted grain as subsidization for the citizens of Rome to distributing free grain to all Roman citizens who lived within Rome. More on that development here.
But subsidizing all Roman citizens who lived within the city of Rome with free grain did massively strain the finances of the state. In the year 46 BC, the same year Caius Julius Caesar was appointed dictator for 10 years, the number of citizens in Rome who received free grain had reached 320.000.
The costs for these subsidizations were enormous!
In 46 BC the state had to pay around 77 million sesterces to buy the grain that would then be given to these 320.000 citizens. Just for comparison, in the year 73 BC, only 10 million sesterces had to be used to buy grain that would be handed out to citizens at a reduced price!
Do you want to find out more about the financial system of ancient Rome and what kind of buying power the sesterce had? Here you can find my article with more information about the Roman monetary system and, for a better idea of the buying power, the pay of a Roman soldier (and how much money was deducted to pay for his food).
To reduce the financial burden on the state Caius Julius Caesar decided to take a radical step. In 46 BC Caesar reduced the number of citizens who were eligible for receiving free grain from 320.000 to 150.000.
But only two years later Caesar would be assassinated. What followed was another Roman civil war that would not only result in Augustus becoming Emperor but would also increase the number of recipients of free grain back to around 320.000.
So Augustus found himself in the same position as Caesar before him. The number of recipients of free grain was just too high, the costs were draining the public purse.
In the year 2 BC Augustus reduced the number of recipients of free grain from 320.000 back to 150.000. But that brought another problem with it: How could a recipient prove that he was indeed one of the 150.000 citizens who were eligible to receive free grain.
The solution was the introduction of food stamps!
The food stamps of Ancient Rome
After reducing the number of recipients from around 320.000 to the fixed number of 150.000 Augustus had to find a way with which these 150.000 recipients of free grain could prove that they were indeed eligible to receive the free monthly grain. More on how much grain each of these 150.000 citizens received and if it was really enough to live off it without additional income in my article here.
In 2 BC Augustus introduced the „tesserae frumentariae“ (= grain stamps). These food stamps were made out of bronze (after Nero they would then be made from lead) and entitled the holder to receive 5 modii (=9,9 gallons) of free grain each month. These food stamps had the portrait of the Emperor and the letters S.C. for senatus consulto (= by resolution of the senate) on them.
For more information on the Senate and the political offices of the Roman Republic, you might want to check out my article here. There you can also find out more about the responsibilities of the already mentioned tribunes of the people.
So there we have it. Augustus introduced food stamps to identify the lucky 150.000 recipients of monthly free gain.
But that leads to another question. How were these 150.000 lucky ones chosen and were there any requirements or reasons because of which one could be excluded?
Let`s find out more!
Requirements for receiving food stamps
Augustus basically adopted the idea of reducing the number of recipients of free grain to 150.000 from Caius Julius Caesar. You can find more information about how the tribune of the people Clodius changed the practice of supplementing citizens with discounted grain in times of need to handing out free grain each month in my article here.
Now one might think that both Caesar and Augustus would select the 150.000 recipients of free monthly grain by looking at the actual neediness. But that was actually not the case at all!
The actual neediness was never a factor when Caius Julius Caesar and later Augustus chose the 150.000 recipients of free monthly grain.
Roman citizens from all classes, more on the Roman social classes and the difference between Senators and Equites here, could demand to be registered in the bronze recipient lists. But the number of recipients was limited to 150.000!
The only requirements to apply for one of the 150.000 spots that granted the privilege of receiving 5 modii of free grain each month were full Roman civil rights (that excluded women, slaves, and foreigners) and a residence within the city of Rome! A criminal record or a bad reputation was no reason for exclusion.
Especially that last point, that even criminals and men with a bad reputation could apply for one of these 150.000 desirable spots might be surprising. Especially since a bad reputation could be a reason for getting denied from serving in the Roman military. More information on that and why adulterers were explicitly prohibited from serving in the Roman army during the rule of Augustus in my article here.
And Seneca explicitly states that not even adultery would be a reason for exclusion from applying for one of the tesserae frumentariae!
So now one might wonder, was the free grain that the 150.000 lucky ones received actually enough to live off it?
Was the free grain granted by the food stamps enough to live off?
There is the cliche that the Roman welfare state that made the introduction of the food stamps necessary led to a situation where a large part of the Roman citizens within the city of Rome did not have to work since the state provided them with enough food and Gladiator games for distraction.
But was that really the case?
Not only did only 150.000 Roman citizens receive the free gain. Additionally the monthly amount of free gain that was handed out to each of the 150.000 recipients only equated to a daily amount of 3.000 to 4.000 calories. Now that might sound sufficient but only if we assume that the recipient (remember, only men were eligible) did not have wives and children.
As soon as multiple people had to be fed with the free grain the monthly amount was not even close to enough!
Additionally, the Roman diet, even the diet of poor Romans, consisted of more than just grain. Here you can find out more about what poor Romans ate on a day-to-day basis but also on special occasions. There you can also find out more about Posca, the ancient Roman lemonade that was even given to the crucified Jesus!
Do you want to find out more about how the Roman welfare system developed from the first grain law in 123 BC to the revolution that was done by Clodius to Caesars and how the reforms that were made by Augustus would partially linger into the time of Constantine the Great? Then I would like to recommend you my article here!
I hope you enjoyed our trip to ancient Rome.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
C. W. Weber: Panem et Circenses. Massenunterhaltung als Politik im antiken Rom (1983).
P. Veyne: Brot und Spiele. Gesellschaftliche Macht und politische Herrschaft in der Antike (1976).
U. Fellmeth: Brot und Spiele. Ernährung, Tafelluxus und Hunger im antiken Rom (2001).