Oil for Food


Permalink 04:08:24 pm, by Chris Jones Email , 886 words, 2339 views   English (US)
Categories: News, Roman Culture

Oil for Food

The recent jump in US gas prices had me taking a look at another politically-sensitive commodity from ancient Rome: Annona, the supply and market price of grain in the city (this is often called the “corn supply” in literature per the British usage “corn” = “grain"; we ignorant Americans often use the term “corn” = “maize"). In some ways, the current wrangling over oil prices is a repeat of politics that our toga-wearing ancestors were quite familiar with.


From its earliest days, local agriculture couldn’t produce enough grain to feed the city, so imports was essential to keep the populace happy. In the Republic, annual elections meant the grain price had obvious political ramifications. Livy (IV.12-4) has an early example of a problem that became more commonplace in the last century of the Republic. In 440 BCE, a famine led to the usual round of finger-pointing by government officials:

(Multiplices calamitates anii) coepere a fame mala, seu adversus annus frugibus fuit, seu dulcedine contionum et urbis deserto agrorum cultu; nam utrumque traditur. Et patres plebem desidem et tribuni plebis nunc fraudem, nunc neglegentiam consulum accusabant.

(dulcedine - “the appeal” is modified by the genitives contionum - “(political) assemblies” and urbis)

The crisis led to the plebs appointing one Lucius Minucius to the new post of praefectus annonae. It didn’t go very well…

Qui, cum

(1) multis circa finitimos populos legationibus terra marique nequiquam missis, nisi quod ex Etruria haud ita multum frumenti advectum est, nullum momentum annonae fecisset,
(2) et revolutus ad dispensationem inopiae, profiteri cogendo frumentum et vendere quod usui menstruo superesset;
(3) fraudandoque parte diurni cibi servitia,
(4) criminando inde et obiciendo irae populi frumentarios,

acerba inquisitione aperiret magis quam levaret inopiam, multi ex plebe, spe amissa, potius quam ut cruciarentur trahendo animam, capitibus obuolutis se in Tiberim praecipitauerunt.

(For students, I’ve tried to untangle Livy’s rhetoric by breaking the passage up; the cum - “when” on the first line governs aperire and levaret after the four numbered clauses, which indirectly list Minucius’ actions. The unbelievable result of these is in the final line: multi ex plebe…in Tiberim praecipitaverunt; the plebs did this because they were spe amissa and it was better than they cruciarentur trahendo animam. Trahendo might be poetically translated as “plod on, hang on")

The dire situation inspired the wealthy (eques) Spurius Maelius to help via his business interests, a move that had political ramifications:

Frumento namque ex Etruria privata pecunia per hospitum clientiumque ministeria coempto, quae, credo, ipsa res ad levandam publica cura annonam impedimento fuerat, largitiones frumenti facere instituit; plebemque hoc munere delenitam, quacumque incederet conspectus elatusque supra modum hominis privati, secum trahere, haud dubium consulatum favore ac spe despondentem.

(Frumento…coempto is abl. abs. with a long explanatory phrase in-between; instituit is followed by the two acc. w. inf. phrases largitiones…facere and plebem…secum trahere as a kind of zeugma; despondentem describes the plebem and has consulatum as a direct object).

Publica cura here is a euphemism for the government. Maelius’ free distribution of grain won him popular favor but worried the government in general and Minucius in particular, since Maelius had essentially done his job. Under these circumstances, the subsequent turn of events isn’t too unexpected:

Hic Minucius…rem compertam ad senatum defert: tela in domum Maeli conferri, eumque contiones domi habere, ac non dubia regni consilia esse. Tempus agendae rei nondum stare: cetera iam convenisse: et tribunos mercede emptos ad prodendam libertatem et partita ducibus multitudinis ministeria esse. Serius se paene quam tutum fuerit, ne cuius incerti vanique auctor esset, ea deferre.

(Mercede here is “blood-money” after emptos; partita ducibus multitudinis ministeria refers to the expected division of spoils in the aftermath of the coup; In the final sentence, se refers back to Minucius, giving an explanation for why he raises these accusations so late in the development of the plot).

The Senate’s reaction was to appoint Cincinnatus as dictator. Now pushing 80, this was his second appointment to the post, so he left it to his Master of the Horse Servilius to do the deed:

(Servilius) dictatori renuntiat vocatum ad eum Maelium, repulso apparitore concitantem multitudinem, poenam meritam habere. Tum dictator “Macte virtute” inquit, “C. Servili, esto liberata re publica".

(The apparitor was the clerk sent to formally deliver the message to Maelius that the dictator requested his presence)

Livy clearly believes the accusation against Maelius, and there may have been compelling evidence against him at the time. But the annona was an issue that always haunted Roman politics through the Republic. A repetiton of this basic pattern is seen in the Gracchi Brothers, Saturninus, Caesar and Clodius, cases where self-serving demagoguery is not always so clear a motive.

Though the unelected emperor didn’t need to worry as much about the plebs, the wiser emperors knew the power of public opinion and the role of the annona in swaying it (after all, it’s half of Juvenal’s famous panem et circensis). The most startling example is Vespasian’s victory in the Year of the Four Emperors (68 ACE); while Galba, Otho, and Vitellius raced to Rome to be crowned and deposed in succession, Vespasian moved to occupy Egypt and secure Rome’s breadbasket.

Oil is arguably as important to the modern American economy as the annona was to ancient Rome’s. It’s always dangerous to press historical analogies too hard, but their study can often provide a new insight.


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Qui sciet quae quoque sint modo dicenda, nisi tamen in procinctu paratamque ad omnis casus habuerit eloquentiam, velut clausis thesauris incubabit.

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