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Frumentariae Leges

p548 Unsigned article on pp548‑551 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

FRUMENTA′RIAE LEGES. From the earliest times the supply of corna at Rome was considered one of the duties of the government. Not only was it expected that the government should take care that the corn-market (annona) was properly supplied, but likewise that in all seasons of scarcity, they should purchase corn in the surrounding countries, and sell it to the people at a moderate price (Liv. II.9, 34, IV.12, 52, X.11, &c., XXVI.40; Cic. pro Dom. 5). This price, which is spoken of as annona vetus (Liv. II.34), could not rise much, without exciting formidable discontent; and the administration was in all such cases considered to have neglected one of its most important duties. The superintendence of the corn-market belonged in ordinary times to the aediles, but when great scarcity prevailed, an extraordinary officer was appointed for the purpose under the title of Praefectus Annonae (Liv. IV.12). With the decay of agriculture in Italy, which followed the importation of corn from the provinces, and the decrease of the free population, the government had to pay still further attention to the supply of corn for the city. In addition to this, an indigent population gradually increased at Rome, which could not even purchase corn at the moderate price at which it was usually sold, and who demanded to be fed at the expence of the state. Even in early times it had been usual for the state on certain occasions, and for wealthy individuals who wished to obtain popularity and influence, to make occasional donations of corn to the people (donatio, largitio, divisio; subsequently called frumentatio). But such donations were only casual; and it was not till the year B.C. 123, that the first legal provision was made for supplying the poor at Rome with corn at a price much below its market value. In that year C. Sempronius Gracchus brought forward the first Lex Frumentaria, by which each citizen was entitled to receive every month a certain quantity of wheat (triticum) at the price of 6-⅓ asses for the modius, which was equal to 1 gallon and nearly 8 pints English.1 (Liv. Epit. 60; Appian, B. C. I.21; p549Plut. C. Gracchus, 5; Vell. Pat. II.6; Cic. pro Sext. 48). This was only a trifle more than half the market price, since in the time of Cicero 3 sesterces = 12 asses were considered a low sum for a modius of wheat (Böckh, Metrol. Untersch. p420). It must not be supposed that each person was allowed to receive as much as he pleased every month; the quantity must of course have been fixed, and was probably five modii monthly, as in later times. This quantity was only given to fathers of families; but it was not confined to the poor, as Plutarch (l.c.) would imply, for every citizen had a right to it, whether he were rich or poor (ἑκάστῶ τῶν δημοτῶν, Appian, l.c.; viritim, Cic. Tusc. Disp. III.20); and even Piso, who had been consul, applied for his share at the distribution (Cic. l.c.). It appears, however, from the anecdote which Cicero relates about Piso, that each citizen had to apply in person, a regulation which would of itself deter most of the rich. The example that had been set by Gracchus was too tempting not to be followed, although the consequences of such a measure were equally prejudicial to the public finances and the public morality. It emptied the treasury, and at the same time taught the poor to become state-paupers instead of depending upon their own exertions for obtaining a living.

The demagogue Appuleius Saturninus went still further. In B.C. 100 he brought forward his Lex Appuleia, by which the state was to sell corn at ⅚ths of an as for the modius. The city quaestor Q. Caepio pointed out that the treasury could not bear such an expense, and the most violent opposition was offered to the measure. It is doubtful whether it ever passed into a law; and it is at all events certain that it was never carried into execution (Auctor, ad Herenn. I.12; cf. Cic. de Leg. II.6). The Lex Livia, which was proposed by the tribune, M. Livius Drusus, in B.C. 91, was likewise never carried into effect, as it was repealed by the senate, together with all his other laws as passed in opposition to the auspices. Of the provisions of this Lex Frumentaria we have no account (Liv. Epit. 71). About the same time, either shortly before or shortly after the Lex Livia, the tribune M. Octavius, supported by the aristocracy, brought forward the Lex Octavia, which modified the law of Gracchus to some extent, so that the public treasury did not suffer so much. He probably either raised the price of the corn,º or diminished the number of modii which each citizen was entitled to receive (Cic. Brut. 222, de Off. II.21). Sulla went still further, and by his Lex CorneliaB.C. 82, did away altogether with these distributions of corn, so that in the language which Sallust puts into the mouth of Lepidus, populus Romanus — ne servilia quidem alimenta reliqua habet (Sall. Hist. in Orat. Lepid. p939, ed. Cort.). But the senate soon found it inexpedient to deprive the people of their customary largesses, as the popular party began to increase in power; and it was accordingly at the desire of the senate, that the consuls of B.C. 73 brought forward the Lex Terentia Cassia, which was probably only a renewal of the Lex Sempronia, with one or two additions respecting the manner in which the state was to obtain the corn. The law enacted that each Roman citizen should receive 5 modii a month at the price of 6-⅓ asses for each modius. It appears from the various orations of Cicero, that by this law the provinces were obliged to furnish the greater part of the corn at a fixed price, which was paid by the Roman treasury, and that the governors of the provinces had to take care that the proper quantity of corn was supplied (Cic. Verr. III.70, V.21, pro Sext. 25; Ascon. in Pis. 4, p9, ed. Orelli). Occasionally extraordinary distributions of corn were made in virtue of decrees of the senate (Cic. Verr. l.c.; Plut. Cat. min. 26, Caes. 8).

All the Leges Frumentariae, that have been hitherto mentioned, had sold corn to the people, although at a price much below what the state had paid for it; but as the great party-leaders towards the close of the republic were ready to purchase the support of the people at any sacrifice to the state, the distribution of corn became at length quite gratuitous. Caesar, in his consulship, B.C. 59, had threatened to make it so (Cic. ad Att. II.19; cf. pro Dom. 10); and this threat was carried into execution in the following year, B.C. 58, by the Lex Clodia of the tribune Clodius. The corn was thus in future distributed without any payment; and the abolition of the payment cost the state a fifth part of its revenues (Cic. pro Sext. 25; Schol. Bob. ad Sext. 25, p301, ed. Orelli; Ascon. in Pis. 4 p9; Dion Cass. XXXVIII.13). In B.C. 57, Pompey received by the Lex Cornelia Caecilia the superintendence of the corn-market (cura annonae) for a period of five years; but no alteration was made in the distribution of corn by virtue of this measure. The only extension which he gave to the distribution was by allowing those citizens, whose names had not hitherto been entered in the lists of the censors, to share in the bounty of the state (Dion Cass. XXXIX.24).

The dangerous consequences of such a system did not escape the penetration of Caesar; and accordingly, when he became master of the Roman world, he resolved to remedy the evils attending it, as far as he was able. He did not venture to abolish altogether these distributions of corn, but he did the next best thing in his power, which was reducing the number of the recipients. During the civil wars numbers of persons, who had no claim to the Roman franchise, had settled at Rome in order to obtain a share in the distributions of corn. The first thing, therefore, that Caesar did was to have an accurate list made out of all the corn-receivers, and to exclude from this privilege every person who could not prove that he was a Roman citizen. By this measure the 320,000 persons, who had previously received the corn, were at once reduced to 150,000.2 Having thus reduced the number of corn-receivers to 150,000, he enacted that this number should not be exceeded for the future, and that vacancies that occurred by death, should be filled up every year by lot by the praetor urbanus (Suet. Caes. 55; Dion Cass. XLIII.21). It is further exceedingly probable that as a general rule, the corn was not given even to these 150,000, but sold at a low price, as had been the case at an earlier period; and that it was only to the utterly destitute that the corn was supplied p550gratuitously: the latter class of persons were furnished with tickets, called tesserae nummariae or frumentariae. Thus we find it stated (Suet. Octav. 41) that Augustus, on one occasion, doubled the number of the tesserae frumentariae. If, therefore, the corn was, as a general rule, not given, but sold, we may conclude that every citizen was entitled to be enrolled in the 150,000 corn-receivers, independent of his fortune. The opposite opinion has been maintained by many modern writers; but the arguments, which have been brought forward by Mommsen (Die Römischen Tribus, p187) and others, but into which our space will not allow us to enter, render the above supposition exceedingly probable.

The useful regulations of Caesar fell into neglect after his death, and the number of corn-receivers was soon increased beyond the limits of 150,000, which had been fixed by the dictator. This we learn from the Monumentum Ancyranum, in which Augustus enumerates the number of persons to whom he had given congiaria at different times; and there can be no doubt that the receivers of the congiaria and of the public corn were the same. Thus, in B.C. 44, and on the three following occasions, he distributed the congiaria to 250,000 persons; and in B.C. 5, the number of recipients had amounted to 320,000. At length, in B.C. 2, Augustus reduced the number of recipients to 200,000, and renewed many of Caesar's regulations (Suet. Octav. 40; Dion Cass. LV.10). He had, indeed, thought of abolishing the system of corn-distributions altogether on account of their injurious influence upon Italian agriculture, but had not persevered in his intention from the conviction that the practice would again be introduced by his successors (Suet. Octav. 42). The chief regulations of Augustus seem to have been: 1. That every citizen should receive monthly a certain quantity of corn (probably 5 modii) on the payment of a certain small sum. As the number of recipients was fixed by Augustus at 200,000, there were consequently 12,000,000 modii distributed every year. Occasionally, in seasons of scarcity, or in order to confer a particular favour, Augustus made these distributions quite gratuitous: they then became congiaria. [Congiarium.] 2. That those who were completely indigent should receive the corn gratuitously, as Julius Caesar had determined, and should be furnished for the purpose with tesserae nummariae or frumentariae, which entitled them to the corn without payment (Suet. Octav. 41).

The system, which had been established by Augustus, was followed by his successors; but as it was always one of the first maxims of the state policy of the Roman emperors to prevent any disturbance in the capital, they frequently lowered the price of public corn, and frequently distributed it gratuitously as a congiarium. Hence, the cry of the populace panem et circenses. No emperor ventured to abolish the public distributions of corn: the most that he dared do, was to raise the price at which it was sold. When, therefore, we find it stated in Dion Cassius (LXII.18), that Nero did away with the distributions of corn after the burning of Rome, we cannot understand this literally, but must suppose that he either raised the price of the commodity or, what is more probable, obliged those poor to pay for it, who had previously received it gratuitously. The care, which the emperors took to keep Rome well supplied with corn, is frequently referred to in their coins by the legends, Annona, Ubertas, Abundantia, Liberalitas, &c. We find in a coin of Nerva the legend plebei urbanae frumento constituto (Eckhel, vol. VI p406).

In course of time, the sale of the corn by the state seems to have ceased altogether, and the distribution became altogether gratuitous. Every corn-receiver was therefore now provided with a tessera, and this tessera, when once granted to him, became his property. Hence, it came to pass, that he was not only allowed to keep the tessera for life, but even to dispose of it by sale, and bequeath it by will (Dig. 5 tit. 1 s.52; Dig. 39 tit. 1 s.49; 39 tit. 1 s.87). Every citizen was competent to hold a tessera with the exception of senators. Further, as the corn had been originally distributed to the people according to the thirty-five tribes into which they were divided, the corn-receivers in each tribe formed a kind of corporation, which came eventually to be looked upon as the tribe, when the tribes had lost all political significance. Hence, the purchase of a tessera became equipment to the purchase of a place in a tribe; and, accordingly, we find in the Digest the expressions emere tribum and emere tesseram used as synonymous (Dig. 32 tit. 1 s.35).

Another change was also introduced at a later period, which rendered the bounty still more acceptable to the people. Instead of distributing the corn every month, wheaten bread, called annona civica, was given to the people. It is uncertain at what time this change was introduced, but it seems to have been the custom before the reign of Aurelian (A.D. 270‑275), as it is related of this emperor that on his return from his Eastern expedition, he distributed among the people a larger quantity of bread, and of a different form from that which had usually been given (Vopisc. Aurel. 35; Zosim. I.61). The bread was baked by the Pistores, who delivered it to the various depots in the city, from which it was fetched away on certain days by the holders of the tesserae (Orelli, Inscript. No. 3358). These depots had steps (gradus) leading to them, whence the bread was called panis gradilis; and there were the strictest regulations that the bread should only be distributed from these steps, and should never be obtained at the bakers (Cod. Theod. 14 tit. 17 ss.3, 4). When Constantine transferred the seat of government to Constantinople, the system of gratuitous distribution of bread was also transferred to that city; and in order to encourage the building of houses, all householders were entitled to a share of the imperial bounty (Zosim. II.32; Socrat. H. E. II.13; Sozom. III.7; Cod. Theod. 14 tit. 17). The distribution of bread at Rome was, however, still continued; and the care which the later emperors took that both Rome and Constantinople should be properly supplied with corn, may be seen by the regulations in the Cod. Theod. 14 tit. 15, De Canone Frumentario urbis Romae, and tit. 16, De Frumento Urbis Constantinopolitanae. The superintendence of the corn market, under the emperors, belonged to the Praefectus Annonae.

Many points connected with this subject have been necessarily omitted in consequence of our limit. The reader who wishes for further information is referred to: Contareni, De Frum. Rom. Largitione, in the Thesaurus of Graevius, vol. VIII p923; Dirksen, Civilist. Abhandlungen, p551vol. II p16E, &c.; Mommsen, Die Römischen Tribus, Altona, 1844, which work contains the best account of the subject; Kuhn, Ueber die Korneinfuhr in Rom in Alterthum, in the Zeitschrift für die Alterthumswissenschaft, 1845, pp993‑1008, 1073‑1084; Rein, in the Real Encyclopädie der classischen Alterthumswissenschaft, art. Largitio; Höckh, Römische Geschichte, vol. 1 part II. p138, &c., p384, &c.; Walter, Geschichte des Römischen Rechts, §§276‑28, 360, 361, 2nd ed.


The Author's Notes:

1 The price of 6‑⅓ asses (senos aeris et trientes) occurs in the Schol. Bob. ad Cic. Sext. c25, p300, c48, p300; but in the editions of Livy (Ep. 60), we find ut semisse et triente frumentum plebi daretur, that is, at 5/6ths of an as. But instead of semisse, the manuscripts have semis, sexis, sesis, evidently for senis, and therefore there can be little doubt that we ought to read senis instead of semisse (Mommsen, Die Römischen Tribus, p179).

2 It must be borne in mind that this was not a census, as Plutarch (Caes. 55) and Appian (B. C. II.102) state, but simply an enumeration of the corn-receivers.


Thayer's Note:

a The American reader is reminded that "corn" in British English means any kind of grain: usually wheat. What we Americans call "corn", they call "maize"; it's a New World plant that the Greeks and Romans did not know.


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