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The Roman grain dole
 Rome’s population ~1 million inhabitants during the early empire.
The largest of 6 cities of the ancient world whose populations
exceeded 100,000
 Estimates of 300 Kg of grain (wheat) required per person per year.
Total importation estimated at 300 M Kg per year.
 2000 to 3000 Grain ships travelled from Sicily, Africa and the Black
Sea region annually to feed Rome. Some ships exceeded 1000 T
capacity. The average est. to be ~70 T. 7-8 month sailing season,
from March/April to October.
 Free grain dole of 60 modii (400 Kg) per year to Roman male head
of households.
Bronze gain dole token from the BM.
 Estimates range from 15 to 30% of the 200-250,000 households in
Rome received free grain.
 Prefect of the Annona responsible for administering the grain dole.
 Grain traffic and distribution primarily managed by private
enterprises run by Knights or Freedmen.
 Regular importation and distribution of grain amongst the citizens
of Rome was essential to maintaining harmony between the
people and their emperor.
 Personification of Annona or Ceres on the reverse of an imperial
coin not uncommon. Appearing on the reverse of coins of Claudius,
Nero, Galba, Vespasian and many other later emperors.
 Grain ships arrived at Ostia or Portus, for offloading to barges or
smaller vessels for transport up the Tiber to Rome. Prior to
construction of the port of Ostia by Claudius, depicted on the
sestertius of Nero, larger ships had to dock at Puteoli.
 Many guilds were involved in the transport and distribution of
grain, and were self-regulated.
 Methods employed to prevent corrupting grain shipments
included detailed receipts, describing the grain quality in detail,
and sealed pouches, containing a sample of what was loaded onto
to the ship, for comparison to what was off-loaded.
 Grain transport risky, with many shipments either delayed or lost
due to poor weather. Pirate risk greatly reduced by Pompey’s
campaign in 67 BC.
 Nero unpopular in his last months for grain and ship shortages.
Grain ships re-assigned? Delivery of sand for games instead of
 Reign of Titus, 27 months, from June 24 AD 79 to Sept. 13 AD 81.
 Aug. 24, AD 79: destruction of Pompeii and surrounding
communities by the eruption of Vesuvius. AD 80: serious fire in
Rome for three days, destroying many buildings and temples.
AD 79-80: serious plague afflicted Rome. Suetonius claims
numerous sacrifices by the emperor in an effort to restore calm
and order.
 Titus sestertius not only depicts a standing Annona, holding a
cornucopia, with grain ears protruding from a modius(?) at her
feet and the stern of a grain ship behind her, but her outstretched
right hand also holds a small figure of Aequitas, holding balancing
 Why no S C (Senatus Consultum)?
 Did Titus intend to tell the people of Rome that the grain dole
being handled fairly, and that it was under the direct control and
leadership of himself, as emperor? Had grain been in short supply
as a result of the ash fallout from Vesuvius? Or had the grain been
distributed unfairly, causing unrest amongst the recipients, thus
prompting Titus to take extraordinary action? Were members of
the senate part of the problem?
 The combined figures of both Annona and Aequitas do not appear
together like this on the coinage of later rulers. The closest
example can be found on a sestertius of Commodus, struck 102
years later.
Titus sestertius, RIC 86, photo from
Commodus sestertius RIC 326a, dated 182 AD. photo courtesy of
Classical Numismatic Group.
 The Commodus die engraver no doubt knew of the Titus coin, but
the figure of Aequitas is replaced with Concordia, and the SC
lettering is present. Perhaps reforms of the grain distribution
established by Titus were maintained after so many decades?
1. Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum, Vol. II, 2nd Ed. BM publications,
London, 1976, Harold Mattingly.
2. Roman Imperial Coinage, vol. 2, Spink & Son Ltd, London, 1926, Mattingly and
3. Dictionary of Roman Coins, BA Seaby, London, 1964, Seth W. Stevenson.
4. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire, Coin World, Sidney, OH, 1999, David Vagi.
5. The Roman Emperors, Phoenix Giant, 1997, London, Michael Grant.
6. The Organization of the Grain Trade in the early Roman Empire, David Kessler and Peter
Temin, Economic History Review 60, 2007.