Rome had already crossed the magic number of 1 million inhabitants in the first century BC and that number continued to grow during the time of the Roman Empire. Needless to say that supplying a city of 1 million people with food was a huge task.
Now one might think that the food, especially grain was the basis of the Roman diet, could just be transported from the agricultural hubs of Italy to Rome. But that was not the case! There were several reasons and development that made it necessary for Rome to import grain from all over the Empire instead of growing the grain in Italy. In the following, these developments and the reasons for them will be presented.
Until the second century BC, the small grain-producing farms of Roman middle-class farmers dominated Italy. But due to impoverishment, many small farmers were forced to sell their land to big landowners. After the second century BC Italy was shaped by large agricultural operations, so-called lafundiae, that were specialized in the production of goods with a higher return on investment than the production of grain offered. So from that point on the import of grain from provinces like Egypt, Spain, Syria, or North Africa became essential for feeding the population of Rome.
Let`s find out more!
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links that are identifiable by the *. If you use these links to buy something we may earn a small commission without additional cost for you. Thanks.
- 1 Why did Rome have to import Grain?
- 2 From where did Rome import Grain?
- 3 How did Rome import Grain?
- 4 Sources
Why did Rome have to import Grain?
When one first hears about ancient Rome having to import grain the logical conclusion is oftentimes that Italy just didn`t offer the agricultural possibilities to feed the 1 million inhabitants of Rome and to supply them with, depending on the point of time, either discounted of free grain (more on that here).
But that was actually not the case. Because of the Apennine, a mountain range that divides Italy into west and east, the good agricultural land in the main land of Italy was limited to a narrow strip between the coastline and the Apennines. But that strip still offered really valuable soil.
Famous Italian centers of agriculture like the Po-delta in the North, Campania in the South (around Naples and mount Vesuvius), but also the region of Etruria offered rich soil and good foundations for agriculture.
So a lack of productive soil was not the reason why Rome had to import grain instead of using grain that was grown in Italy. So let`s now turn to the reasons why Rome imported grain before we then look at the provinces from where the grain was imported to Italy and how that import was done.
One major reason why the production of grain in Italy disappeared during the time of the late Roman Republic was the low return on investment in combination with the vanishing of the Roman middle class that was made up of small farmers.
Here you can find my article with more details on the political developments that eventually caused the disappearance of the Roman middle class.
The low return on investment of growing grains
One major reason and the basis for the developments that will be presented in the following paragraphs was the low return on investment that could be made with growing grain.
In ancient Italy, the production of grain did only bring around 5 times the amount of the set-in seeds. Just in comparison, a farmer today can (depending on the quality of the soil) harvest between 30 and 80 times the amount of seeds he planted. Additionally, the two-field agriculture meant that only half of the fields were planted each year while the other half was left alone so that the soil could recover its fertility.
That resulted in a very limited profit that could be made with the production of grain.
In ancient Italy, the net return of producing grain was only around 3-5% per year while the production of wine could easily bring in a net return of over 10% per year.
Producing grain was just not as profitable. And as a result, the production of grain ranked 6th in a list of different types of agriculture that Roman agricultural writers recommended. Should you be interested in reading the book that Cato the Elder wrote about agriculture then I would recommend you check out the translated edition here* on Amazon.
And Roman writers did not only rate the production of wine or olive oil but even the extensive grazing of livestock as more profitable than the production of grain by Roman writers
But there was one downside to the more profitable production of wine or olive oil. Setting up a vineyard or an olive grove meant that there would be no profit but only costs for the first years! So only wealthy landowners could invest in planting vineyards and olive groves and survive the first few years without any profit.
Smaller landowners, for example, the members of the landowning Roman middle class, did not have the financial means to survive a few years without any income from their land. So they were bound to the less profitable production of grain since grain would be harvested each year and did not have the kind of years-long start-up time that a vineyard had.
The production of grain during the Roman Republic was mostly done by small family farms that produced enough to live off but not enough to invest in more profitable types of agriculture. Only big landowners with enough money to survive a few years without any income from their land could invest in the highly profitable types of agriculture like vineyards, olive groves, horticulture, or raising livestock.
So the production of grain in ancient Italy was mostly done in the shape of a subsistence economy by members of the Roman middle class. But during (and because of) the Roman Expansion the Roman middle class came under pressure until it almost completely disappeared as a landowning class.
Let`s find out more!
The vanishing of the small Roman farmers
As mentioned, Italy has and had some excellent farmland. Especially Campania, the Po-delta, Etruria, Lucanium, and Bruttium were the heartland of Roman agriculture. And all these territories were occupied by Rome during the early to mid-stages of the Roman expansion, more on the expansion of Rome during the time of the Roman Republic here.
That originally had its advantages for the Roman middle class since the settlements of Roman citizens were established within the newly conquered territories to secure Roman rule, more on that here. These settlers were usually provided with land that they could farm and through which they became eligible for serving in the Roman army.
During the time of the early Roman Republic Rome did not have a standing army. The concept of a standing army was only introduced by Emperor Augustus, more on that here. Before that, every Roman citizen from the age of 17 to 46 who was wealthy enough to afford weapons and armor could be drafted for a total of 16 campaigns.
So during that time, the bulk of the Roman army was made up of Roman farmers who would leave their farms for individual campaigns and return to their civil life as soon as the campaign was over. And that system worked pretty well as long as Rome only waged war in central Italy.
As soon as Rome started to expand its interest into Greece, Spain, or Northern Africa (more on the steps of the Roman expansion here) the system started to show its disadvantages.
Suddenly the Roman farmers could spend years on campaign and away from their farms. One example of that is the Roman campaigns in Spain. Some of the Roman soldiers, remember, most of them were farmers who were wealthy enough to afford weapons but still had to work on their farms themselves, served 6 consecutive years in Spain without returning to their farms during that time!
Needless to say that the absence of the main male worker on these small farms would financially ruin these Roman middle-class families. And when the men eventually returned from their campaign they would find their farms in massive debt. And since military service during that time was not really paid, more on how a regular pay for soldiers was only established during the time of the late Republic here, these men could usually not safe their farms and had to sell them.
Should you be interested in reading more about the development that I briefly presented then I would like to invite you to read my article on the topic here.
So large parts of the impoverished Roman middle class had to sell their farms. And guess who they would sell their farms to? Yes, to already wealthy men. And since land ownership was one of the marks of both equites and senators, more on the only difference between those two social classes here, the ownership of land would be concentrated in the hands of the (aristocratic) Roman upper classes.
The vanishing of the small Roman farmers resulted in the concentration of large estates in the hands of the Roman upper class.
And now we have to connect that information with the information I presented in the first paragraph. Remember, grain was mostly produced by small farmers who could not afford to invest in much more profitable types of agriculture! So as long as the majority of the agricultural land in Italy was owned by small farmers the production of grain was dominant.
But the concentration of large estates in the hands of already wealthy families changed that.
A higher return on investment for big landowners outside of growing grain
So now it is time to combine the information from the first and the second paragraph to find out why the production of grain basically disappeared in Italy during the first century BC.
Until around the second century BC, the small farms of the Roman middle-class farmers that produced grain were dominant in Italy. But more and more of these small farmers were forced to sell their land to big landowners. So after the second century BC, the Italian landscape was shaped by large agricultural operations, so-called lafundiae, that were specialized in the production of agricultural goods with a higher return than the production of grain offered.
Since the owners of these lafundiae were members of the wealthy upper class they were not depending on immediate returns on their investments. So they could afford to transform the land that had previously been used to grow grain into vineyards or olive groves.
As mentioned, both vineyards and olive groves took years to start producing money. But if an owner could survive these first years without any harvests the return on his investment was much higher than the return on investment that could be archived with the production of grains.
As a result the landscape of Italy drastically changed its face to a point at which the Roman writer Marcus Terentius Varro wrote in the first century BC that Italy resembled one giant orchard.
The small subsistence farming farms that produced grains had mostly disappeared and had been replaced by large estates that were specialized in the production of goods like wine or olive oil that brought a higher return on investment!
But grain was still the most important part of the Roman diet! Somewhere around 70-80% of the daily calory intake came from grain. For more information on the different shapes that grain would be eaten, I recommend you my article on the diet of poor Romans that you can find here.
But rich Romans, more on their diets here, also used grain as a staple of their diets.
Or in other words: The demand for grain was still there. But since the farms in Italy were now producing other goods the grain had to come from somewhere else.
Let`s take a look where the grain that was consumed in Rome (and at times even handed out for free, more on that here) came from.
From where did Rome import Grain?
The already presented reasons that resulted in the change of the agriculture in Rome from the subsistence farming of grain by small family-owned farms to the large estates that produced more profitable goods opened the need for importing grain.
Luckily the expansion of the Roman Republic had extended the Roman rule over parts of the Mediterranean in which the production of grain was much more lucrative than in Italy.
Provinces from where Rome imported Grain
The most important provinces and regions from which grain was exported to Rome were…
- The black sea area
- Southern Spain
- Northern Africa (especially the Cyrenaica in the eastern part of Libya)
All these territories had one thing in common!
The yield of growing grain was much higher than in Italy.
As mentioned. A farmer in Italy could expect to harvest around 5 times the amount of seeds that he planted. So one pound of seeds would result in 5 pounds of harvested grain. Other parts of the Mediterranean were much more productive. Cicero claimed that the fields in Sicily could produce 8-15 times the amount of the sown grain. And Plinius mentioned that the fields around Babylon could even produce 50 times the amount of the sown grain!
And although it seems like the numbers that Plinius gives for the fields around Babylon were only reached under perfect conditions and only on the best land it still shows that producing grain outside of Italy was much more economical.
By the way, not only the yield of the grain production was higher.
The time between sowing and harvesting the grain in Egypt was only 6-7 months while the grain in Italy needed 8-9 months to ripen.
But in order to feed the population of Rome, the grain had to be brought from the mentioned provinces to Rome. Let`s now look at how that was done!
How did Rome import Grain?
Even during the time of the Roman Republic, the population of Rome had grown to roughly a million people.
By the way, not all of them had to pay for their grain. The first emperor Augustus even introduced grain stamps, basically an early version of food stamps to identify the lucky recipients of the free grain. More on these food stamps and if poverty was a requirement to apply for them in my article here (Link zu food stamps).
But let`s return to the question of how the grain was transported from the provinces to Rome.
Since most of the provinces in which grain was produced could best be reached by ship we have to look at the significance of the transport by ship to learn more about how the grain was brought to Rome.
The transport by ship
While Rome was and still is famous for its streets these streets were not really suitable to transport large amounts of grain to Rome. Not only were several provinces in which grain was produced not accessible without ship transport but the volume of grain was also too large to transport on carriages.
In order to transport grain from the provinces to Rome, ships were constructed that could each hold between 100 and 500 tons of grain. To transport the annually needed amount of 250.000 tons of grain from the provinces to Rome a total of 550 to 2.500 ship movements were necessary.
By the way, not only grain was brought to Rome by ship. Even exotic spices such as pepper from India were shipped to Rome. But India was not only familiar to the Romans.
The Greeks knew about India long before Rome had become a global power. And depending on if you do follow the ancient greek or the modern-day idea of the Indian territory then Alexander the Great even conquered parts of India. Find out more about why the question of if Alexander the Great conquered India is a question of defining the area of India in my article here.
But these huge transport ships had one disadvantage: They were much too large to be able to enter the Tiber river and deliver the grain to Rome. So while the Tiber river had been one of the reasons why early Rome was so successful, more on that here, it now posed a problem.
The ships that transported the grain from the provinces to Rome could only anchor at the city of Ostia at the estuary of the Tiber river. There the load had to be transferred to river barges that would then bring the grain to Rome.
Over the years several emperors would build new harbor basins in the city of Ostia to streamline the transfer from the large ocean-going vessels to the river barges and also to better protect the ships against storms. In 103 AD, emperor Trajan ordered the construction of a 97 acres large hexagonal harbor basin that was situated further inland and was connected to the sea and the Tiber river by canals.
That basin can actually still be seen today!
So as soon as the ships had arrived in Ostia the hard part was over. But actually getting to Ostia was challenging! Let`s now look at how long it would take the ships to bring grain from Egypt to Italy.
How long did it take to sail from Italy to Egypt (and back)
Since Egypt was one of the most productive grain-producing Roman provinces and the harbor of Alexandria is pretty well known I will focus on how long the fleet that transported the grain needed to sail from Italy to Alexandria and back.
The Roman season for sailing the Mediterannean was from March to October. Sailing during the winter months was only done in exceptional cases. Under best conditions (a calm sea and tailwind) Roman trade ships could sail 4-5, sometimes even 6 knots.
But these perfect conditions were rare. A much more realistic travel speed was somewhere around 2 knots. So the transport ships would need 18-20 days to sail from the street of Messina on the southern tip of Italy to Alexandria in Egypt. Now that does not sound too bad for crossing the Mediatrannean. The problem was that the way back from Alexandria to Italy would usually take 40-65 days (or even longer).
The reason for that can be found in the square rigs of the Roman cargo ships. These square rigs of the Roman cargo ships were perfect for running downwind from Italy to Egypt. But on the way back, on the journey from Egypt to Italy, the Roman cargo ships had to tack against the wind.
So there we have it.
The Roman sailing season lasted from March to October and the cargo ships would need 18-20 days to sail from Italy to Egypt and another 40-65 days back. That meant that grain could only once per year be shipped from Egypt to Italy. Other, much closer, provinces like Spain, Northern Africa, or Sicily allowed for two or more trips per year.
I hope you enjoyed our trip on the fascinating topic of Roman grain imports. For more information on how that imported grain was used within the Roman welfare state (and if one can even call it a welfare state), you might want to check out my article here.
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).