Today, just like in the past, the welfare system is the subject of heated debates. One point that is sometimes brought up in these debates is the idea of the Roman decadency that was supposedly enabled by providing the citizens of Rome with free grain and making any sort of work unnecessary for them.
But was that really the case? Did Rome really provide its citizens with free grain so that these citizens didn`t have to work anymore? And if so, was the amount of free grain really enough to live off?
In the following article, I would like to give some insight into the Roman welfare system as well as how it was radicalized and deradicalized over time.
Gaius Gracchus introduced a law in 123 BC that reduced usuary and obliged the state to sell a monthly amount of grain at a reasonable price to each citizen. Only between 58 and 46 BC did each Roman citizen receive free monthly grain. In 46 BC Caesar reduced the number of recipients of free grain down to 150.000 where it would remain during the time of the Roman Empire. The state would still sell grain at a discounted price to subsidize its citizens in times of need. But since not even the recipients of free monthly grain did get enough to feed an entire family without additional income the myth of the Roman citizen who can just live off the state is wrong.
Let`s find out more!
When we look at the question of if Rome had a welfare system then the answer is a clear „it depends“. And it mostly depends on the time that you look at.
In the following, I would like to present the Roman welfare system at different points in time and also show the development that led from supplying the citizens in Rome with discounted grain to providing all citizens in Rome with free grain to providing a limited number of citizens with free grain.
Additionally, we will also look at how much free grain a Roman citizen would receive and if that was really enough to live off without any additional income.
But before we can talk about the Roman welfare system we first have to take a brief look at the population of Rome, how it developed, and where the grain that fed the city of Rome came from.
The size of the Population of Rome & the import of grain?
The majority of the calories a Roman consumed, up to 80%, came from grain. You can check out my article here for more information on the diet of the average Roman. So Rome and the Roman citizens were heavily dependent on the secure supply of grain. But that dependency on grain had a downside that was connected with the size of the Population.
We can assume that Rome already had one million inhabitants during the 1 century BC. And over time that number would drastically climb up to its peak at around 1.5 million inhabitants during the late 3rd century AD.
Supplying the 1 million inhabitants of Rome during the 1st century BC with grain was an enormous challenge, especially since several different developments during the second century BC had resulted in a shift in Italian agriculture. The small family-owned farms that produced grain had mostly disappeared and were replaced by large estates that produced other goods like wine or olive oil.
You can find out more about these developments and the economical reasons behind why the production of grain was only done by small Italian farmers in my article here.
So after the second century BC, the majority of the grain that was consumed in Rome was not produced in Italy but in provinces from where it had to be imported by ship. More on the provinces in which grain was produced and how the import by ship worked in my article here.
But let`s now look at how the welfare state developed. For that we will have to start in the time of the Roman Republic, more precisely the year 123 BC.
The welfare system during the time of the Roman Republic
During the time of the Roman Republic, the practice of donating grain to the citizens in Rome was a tool that was used by politicians during preelection to gain more voters.
Now that kind of behavior might sound pretty corrupt to us but it was not illegal in ancient Rome. It was actually kind of expected from a candidate to not only donate free grain but also organize Gladiator fights. More on how preelections and Gladiator fights were connected in my article here.
But there was one problem with that:
Grain donations by politicians who wanted to get voted into office did not solve the problems that especially (but not exclusively) the lower classes had during years of high grain prices.
Remember that Rome was dependent on imported grain from the provinces since the second century BC, more on that here. Because of that, the price of grain could fluctuate drastically, especially when cargo ships were destroyed in bad weather or harvests weren`t as plentiful as expected.
So something had to be done to stabilize the prices for grain so that everybody could buy at least enough to survive.
123 BC: Every citizen gets the right to buy grain at an affordable price
In an attempt to solve the hunger problems that the lower class endured during years of high grain prices the tribune of the people, more on that office here, Gaius Gracchus introduced the first grain law in 123 BC. That law had the goal of helping the lower class be able to afford grain without ruining the treasury.
The law that the tribune of the people Gaius Gracchus introduced in 123 BC had the goal of reducing usury and obliged the state to permanently offer grain at a reasonable (maybe even slightly discounted) price to its citizens. So after 123 BC every Roman citizen, rich or poor, had a right to buy a certain amount of grain per month at a reasonable price. It is unclear how much each citizen could buy at that price per month.
By the way, in that context, the word normal has to be understood as the regular market price at which grain was sold in average years.
It is important to state that the law that Gaius Gracchus introduced did not reward idleness since the grain was not handed out for free. The only goal was to reduce usury in times of need so that every Roman could at least buy some grain at a reasonable price.
Where did the grain come from? Bought in or tribute?
It is not entirely clear where the Roman state got the grain from that it would then sell at an affordable price to its citizens. It could have either been bought by the state or came to Rome as a tribute that was collected by the grain-producing provinces. More on where the centers of the grain production were in my article here.
And there was another problem: When there was a shortage of grain then the price obviously went up which resulted in a higher market price than the average price for grain that was set in the law of 123 BC. In that case, the loss that was made by selling grain at a price below the market price was taken by the treasury.
And since the citizens in Rome did not pay taxes the treasury was filled by the tributes from the provinces and parts of the war bounties. That meant that the law that Gaius Gracchus introduced in 123 BC subsidized the citizens of Rome by putting the financial burden on the inhabitants of the provinces (who paid taxes)!
By the way, the first real taxes for Roman citizens were introduced by Augustus when he reorganized the Roman army into a standing army and needed money to pay these professional soldiers. More on that and how the pay of Roman soldiers developed in my article here.
So to sum it up.
The law of Gaius Gracchus did not provide Roman citizens with free grain. It only guaranteed that every Roman citizen could buy a certain monthly amount of grain at a reasonable price and it reduced the widespread usury after bad harvests.
But that law, even though I would say that it sounds pretty reasonable, didn`t last long.
The end of the grain law from 123 BC
As soon as the law was introduced in 123BC it met the resistance of the conservative hardliners within the Roman senate.
And when Gaius Gracchus was murdered in 121 BC large parts of his law were abandoned and the law was defused to a level with which the conservatives in the Senate could live.
But that started a mechanism that led to more and more radical proposals regarding the supply of Roman citizens with grain. That mechanism would peak in 58 BC when another tribune of the people, a man named Clodius, introduced another law…
58 BC: Free grain for every citizen in Rome
As stated: Gaius Gracchus introduced a law that gave every Roman citizen the right to buy a certain monthly amount of grain at a set, affordable, price. But the citizens still had to buy the grain.
That principle would change in the year 58 BC.
In 58 BC the tribune of the people Clodius, not only a politician but also a gang leader and supporter of Caius Julius Caesar, introduced a law that provided every Roman citizen who lived in Rome with a monthly amount of free grain. So from 58 to 46 BC the cliche that every Roman citizen got free grain from the state was accurate!
Now I think it is unnecessary to emphasize how popular that law made Clodius. Well, at least until he got killed on 18 January 52 BC in a fight between his gang and the gang of Titus Annius Milo, another politician, gang leader, and supporter of Marcus Tullius Cicero. By the way, have you ever wondered why Roman names had three or even four parts? Here you can find the answer!
But there were also several downsides to handing out free grain to each Roman citizen who lived in Rome.
Not only did that measure put a massive burden on the treasury, more on that in the next paragraph, but it also motivated countless impoverished countrymen to move to Rome. And that did not only increase the financial burden even further but also caused other problems like overcrowding.
That was even stated by the Roman writer Gaius Sallustius Crispus who described how even more members of the impoverished middle class came to Rome to live off the free grain that was handed out by the state. You can find more information on the development that turned the Roman middle class from a class of land-owning farmers into an impoverished and uprooted class in my article here.
The financial burden of Clodius`s law would eventually become too much burden so Caius Julius Caesar had to drastically reduce the number of recipients in 46 BC. Let`s take a look.
46 BC: Caius Julius Caesar limits the number of recipients of free grain
As mentioned. The law that Clodius introduced in 58 BC allowed every Roman citizen who lived in Rome to receive a monthly amount of free grain. That resulted in a massive growth of the population of Rome since many of the impoverished inhabitants of the countryside, more on the development that led to their impoverishment here, would come to Rome and collect the free grain.
In 46 BC the number of recipients of free grain had risen to 320.000, a number that put a massive burden on the treasury.
Here are some numbers to give you an idea about the costs. In 73 BC the treasury used around 10 million sesterces to sell grain at a reasonable price to the citizens. In 56 BC, two years after the law of Clodius had obliged the state to provide each citizen within Rome with free grain, the treasury was burdened with 40 million sesterces. And 10 years later, in 46 BC, the costs for providing the citizens of Rome with free grain mounted to 77 million sesterces!
You can find out more about the Roman monetary system and the buying power of the sesterce at the example of the pay that a Roman soldier received in my article here.
So a solution had to be found that would not make Caius Julius Caesar too unpopular but would reduce the financial burden on the treasury.
In 46 BC Caius Julius Caesar reduced the number of citizens who were eligible for receiving free grain from around 320.000 to only 150.000.
By setting the number of recipients of free grain at 150.000 Caesar did not only drastically reduce the expenses, but his action also reduced the stream of people who would come to Rome to live off the free grain.
But while it definitely seems like that measure was necessary one question remains. How were the 150.000 lucky recipients of free grain chosen?
Let`s find out!
46 BC: How were the 150.000 recipients of free grain chosen
Now one might think that those citizens who had the most need for free grain would be preferred when distributing the 150.000 spots that would entitle them to monthly free grain.
But that wasn`t the case!
After Caesar had reduced the number of recipients for free grain to 150.000 in 46 BC these spots were raffled in a lottery (= subsortitio) in which all citizens were involved.
But that reduction to 150.000 was only short-lived. After Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC a Civil war followed that would not only put Augustus into power but would also increase the number of recipients of free grain back to around 320.000.
And that now brings us to the welfare state during the time of the Roman Empire.
The welfare system during the time of the Roman Empire
As mentioned, the practice of handing out free grain to every citizen in Rome had already been (temporarily) ended by Caius Julius Caesar. And while the number of 150.000 recipients of free grain that Caesar had set had climbed back up to 320.000 after his death the new strong man in Rome Augustus reduced the number back to 150.000.
During the time of the Roman Empire, it was normal that wide parts of the population would buy their grain at the normal price at the markets. Only 150.000 lucky ones continued to receive free monthly grain.
By the way, these 150.000 lucky ones had gotten early versions of food stamps with which they could prove that they were indeed eligible to get free grain. Here you can find out more about these food stamps, what they were made off, and which requirements one had to fulfill to get one.
Apart from these 150.000 recipients of free grain, the majority of the citizens would buy grain on the market.
Even ancient writers explicitly wrote about the population of Rome that it was a population that bought its food and was not interested in politics as long as the food supply was secured. That is definitely a drastic difference from the writers of the late Roman Republic who stated that streams of impoverished countrymen moved to Rome to live off the free grain!
But providing a secure supply of grain was still one of the most important duties of the Roman Emperor. In an attempt to professionalize the supply of Rome with enough grain the Annona was established and tasked with setting up giant warehouses in which grain that was imported from the provinces, more on that here, could be stored.
In the case of famines, yes, famines would also occur during the time of the Roman Empire, these warehouses would be opened and the grain would be sold at an acceptable price. So in a way, the Roman Empire did reuse the idea that was first introduced by Gaius Gracchus in 123 BC!
Because just like in the time of Gaius Gracchus the price of grain would also fluctuate during the time of the Roman Empire. But these fluctuations could now be toned down by opening the state-owned warehouses and selling discounted grain to the citizens.
A good example of the subsidization of Roman citizens can be found during the rule of emperor Tiberius (who ruled from 14-37 AD). When complaints about high grain prices were made, Tiberius set a maximum price for grain that was lower than the current market price. And he also decided that merchants would get a compensation of 2 sesterces per modius (= 1,9 gallons).
So the citizens of Rome, even those who were not among the 150.000 recipients of free grain, were subsidized by the state in times of need!
But contrary to the time of Gaius Gracchus there were 150.000 recipients of free grain in imperial Rome. But what did receiving free grain mean? Could a family really live off these free monthly grains?
How much free grain did each of the 150.000 beneficiaries get?
So we have now found out that only a small, privileged, part of the inhabitants of Rome received free grain. But how much did they receive per month and could they live off it.
Each of the 150.000 beneficiaries would receive around 5 modii (around 9,9 gallons) of grain. That equates to 3.000-4.000 calories per day. Now one might think that that would be more than enough to feed the beneficiary. But there was a problem.
Since only male Roman citizens could apply, more on the other requirements for getting free grain here, the free gain had to feed the entire family and not just the beneficiary. And in that case, the daily 3.000 to 4.000 calories were not even close to enough!
For more information on the diet of the average Roman and the foods, he would eat apart from grain you might want to check out my article here.
So to sum it up:
150.000 citizens of Rome received free monthly grain that would provide them with 3.000-4.000 daily calories. Since that was enough to feed one person but not enough for a family even the recipients of free grain had to buy additional grain at the regular price at the market. In times of need, the emperor would still subsidize the inhabitants of Rome by selling grain from the state-owned warehouses at a discounted price.
Once again, it is important to state that the cliche of the lazy Roman citizen who was financed by the state and didn`t do anything apart from visiting Gladiator fights is not true!
The welfare system during the time of the Late Roman Empire
But the practice of handing out free grain to some lucky ones remained until the late Roman Empire.
During the time of the late Roman Empire, potentially under the influence of Christianity, the poor of the new capital Constantinople, but also civil servants and members of the Emperor’s bodyguard were given free grain!
But the rise of Christianity within the Roman Empire is a story for another time.
I hope you enjoyed our trip to ancient Rome and its welfare state. Should you want to find out more about how the grain that was handed out came to Rome then you might want to check out my article here.
And here you can find more information on the Gladiator fights that I mentioned worked and how they would be the peak of an entire day of games and distractions in the arena.
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).