Rome’s Fifth Century Grain Supply

23 Jun

I took a break from reading about Christianity to catch up on some things that have been laying around here a while and came across several good articles in last fall’s issue of the Journal of Late Antiquity. Among these is an analysis by Jason Linn of the city of Rome’s grain supply between the signing of a treaty between Rome and the Vandals in 442 and the resumption of hostilities in 455 after Valentinian III’s death.

Genseric_sacking_Rome_45519th century painting of Geiseric’s sack of Rome in 455 by Karl Briullov. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

For background, Roman cities were something of an anomaly, or at least appear that way to those of us who are interested in the Middle Ages. The Medieval city was relatively modest in size through most of the period and its population appears to have been largely supported by local agricultural production. A Medieval city with a population of 10,000 was large, one with a population of 50,000 was huge, and possibly unknown in Western Europe before about the millennium. In contrast, the Roman Empire possessed several cities with populations of over 100,000 and Rome, Alexandria(probably), and – later – Constantinople over 500,000 and, in the case of Rome at least, possibly approaching a million. These cities could not have been supported by local agricultural production, except for Alexandria due to Egypt’s fertility, but must have been part of more extensive trade networks. 1

I’ve been interested in discussions of trade networks for several reasons. Among these are as indicators of economic wealth, particularly among elites, how involved medieval people were in the wider world compared with their immediate environment, and what types (and the extent) of networks existed. In the case of Roman cities, one purpose for these networks was to provide a more basic need; to feed the population.

Some of the theories that have been proposed include that with the loss of Roman North Africa, the city also lost the annona which was basically a taxation paid in kind by agricultural areas. Instead Rome had to pay the Vandals for its grain. A related theory is that this supply was less reliable than the taxation system and resulted in food shortages in the city. Linn sets out to disprove both of these concepts.

Linn believes that the treaty of 442 was not some sort of watershed as it has often been viewed. While he believes the grain supply from North Africa did decrease, the western empire possessed enough agricultural land to make up this shortage.(298-9) He discusses this using a combination of reasoned argument, evidence related to grain production, and coinage. There are multiple sub-arguments within his overriding thesis and I’ll try to touch on some of these as I go along.

He opens by discussing the provisions of the treaty. The treaty itself does not survive, just reports of it from various sources. Without going into too much detail, Linn believes that this treaty was signed from a relative position of Roman strength. He accepts Procopius’ report that one of the terms of the treaty involved Geiseric handing over his son, Huneric, as hostage, something which would be doubtful if the Vandals were completely dictating the terms.(301) 2

The terms of the treaty have been debated with some believing that the grain shipments from North Africa represent an economic transaction and that Rome paid for what it received. Linn believes this is not supportable and that the grain was sent to Rome free of charge. He discusses Roman coin finds in North Africa and says, “Hardly any Roman coins from the mid-fifth century have been found in Carthage.”(309) Linn believes that this indicates that Geiseric possessed the ability to compel North African farmers to produce grain for Rome without financial return, possibly continuing a taxation in kind system. 3

Linn is careful to note that it is almost certain that less grain was sent to Rome than had been prior to the Vandal conquest.(306-309) Procopius indicates that much of the land allocated to Geiseric’s Vandal subjects was granted tax-free. Some land went out of production. Meanwhile, the local population level did not change substantially so a higher proportion of grain would have been required to meet local needs.

While the grain supply from North Africa would have been reduced, Linn believes that local regions such as Sicily, parts of Gaul, and Italy would have been able to make up the difference.(315-6) He also spends a fair amount of time discussing how by this time Rome had fewer mouths to feed.(317-21) I won’t go into detail on this but his two main points are that the size of the standing army was radically reduced by this time and that the population of Rome was, at most, about 500,000, substantially reduced from its height. In addition, much of the army that remained received their pay in coinage rather than in grain. 4

One additional piece of evidence which I think deserves mention is that, based on contemporary sources, it appears that Rome had enough grain to feed its population during the period. Between 442 and 455 there is evidence for a single famine, from 450-2, and this affected all of Italy, not just Rome, indicating a broader event, either due to weather or some other factor, and not a failure of the annona payment.

I enjoyed this article. Linn uses a lot of evidence, enough for you to see how he arrives at his conclusions. I have some questions about a couple of those (see footnote 4, below) but based on the evidence he provides I think his overall conclusions are on fairly solid ground; Rome was adequately fed between 442-455, grain continued to arrive from North Africa, and this was along the lines of a free payment, not something Rome had to buy.

1 Amazingly, I haven’t read anything which specifically discusses Late Ancient/Late Antique population in detail. The book I’ve seen most frequently referenced is Liebeschuetz, J.H.W.G., The Decline and Fall of the Roman City. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2001). ISBN: 978-0-19815-247-7.

2 Other than a brief comment Linn does not discuss the possibility that this arrangement may have been something Geiseric wanted as a precursor to his son’s possible marriage to Valentinian III’s daughter and to become, possibly, Emperor through marriage. Without some sort of textual evidence this is impossible to prove but Geiseric showed himself, throughout his career, to be an able ruler who was able to take a long-term view. I can hypothesize him thinking something along the lines of, If my son marries Eudoxia there’s a good chance he could become Emperor. It would be a good thing if he spent a few years in Rome so if and when the time comes, he’ll have learned the things he needs to so he can handle the job. I could see him thinking along the same lines when it came to making sure the grain got through – that Rome would be more willing to accept a Vandal Emperor if they couldn’t blame his father for not feeding Rome, and that by continuing the custom of free grain from North Africa, Geiseric and Huneric could demonstrate their worthiness to be rulers of the Western Empire if the opportunity arose. There’s also the concept that if Rome continued to receive grain, it would be less motivated to cross the Mediterranean and try to get North Africa back as it tried (and failed) to do in 460 and 468. As you can see from this lengthy note, I can come up with a bunch of reasons why a treaty which included free grain shipments and a “hostage” may have been exactly what Geiseric wanted. Also, I think it’s important to note that many scholars believe Huneric was sent as a hostage in 435, not 442. Linn outlines his reasons for disagreeing with them on page 300.

3 Every time I read more about North Africa in the fifth century I become a little more impressed with Geiseric. He certainly is viewed badly by contemporary sources but even these criticisms point to his ability as a ruler. Even his repression of Orthodox Catholicism in favor of Arianism, despite Victor of Vita’s account, points to an ability to do so without negatively impacting much beyond the type of service conducted at churches. He had the foresight to begin building a fleet of ships well in advance of his crossing into Africa and 25 years later the Vandals, who had just about zero experience with the sea prior to reaching North Africa, were able to assemble a fleet and sack Rome. Under his rule the Vandals went from a nothing grouping to ruling one of the wealthiest areas of the Empire and, evidently, without causing massive local disruptions, at least long-term (other than to Orthodox Christianity).

4 To be honest, Linn’s use of this last piece of evidence puzzles me. Even if the army was paid in cash rather than grain they still would have had to eat, resulting in little or no net change in total grain requirements. This and his lack of emphasis on the possibility that Huneric may have been sent to the Roman court because Geiseric wanted it that way are the two pieces of this article I have my strongest doubts about.

Linn, Jason, “The Roman Grain Supply, 442-455,” Journal of Late Antiquity 5.2 (2013), 298-321.

Victor of Vita, Victor of Vita: History of the Vandal Persecution, John Moorhead, ed. and trans. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1992). ISBN: 978-0-85323-1271-1.


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8 responses to “Rome’s Fifth Century Grain Supply

  1. Michelle Ziegler

    June 23, 2013 at 10:41 pm

    Interesting post. On a tangent, wondering if you have read Peter Sarris’ Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, 500-700. (2011). I picked it up this year at Kzoo but I haven’t read it yet. Seems right up your alley and maybe in line with some of your reading in early Christianity.

    • Curt Emanuel

      June 23, 2013 at 10:50 pm

      No, I haven’t. I read and enjoyed his Economy and Society in the Age of Justinian. I even wrote a review of it on Amazon back before I started blogging. I imagine this one is good also.

  2. Michelle Ziegler

    June 23, 2013 at 10:43 pm

    Btw, the paperback is out. That is what I picked up at Kzoo.

  3. Mark H.

    June 26, 2013 at 9:18 am

    Now, if you were an Italian buyer of North African grain in the fifth century would you pay up front or on delivery? Given the vagaries of harvests, storms, pirates, shipwrecks and such like, I would have said on delivery. This means that the the money to pay for a shipload of African grain would have been handed over in Italy. Now if you were a North African merchant/sea captain and had just been paid for a cargo of grain, would you sail home with a purse of coins and no cargo, or would you buy up some goods to sail south with? If only for ballast I would have said you’d buy up some cargo. Which means that by the time you’ve reached North Africa again you have no Roman coins on you. I haven’t read the article (yet), but I’m unconvinced from this distance as to the argument that the lack of Roman coins in Africa means the grain was delivered free.

    • Curt Emanuel

      June 29, 2013 at 7:38 am

      What you say is possible but there’s zero evidence for it and some against. First, the person getting paid is the North African farmer and I doubt he’s delivering grain in Carthage without receiving his money there if this is a cash arrangement. The annona worked as an in-kind tax on farmers, not shipowners. The grain fleet, from what I know of it, was an arrangement where Rome paid private individuals for shipping only. They never owned the grain.

      Second, absent textual evidence there are two things archaeologists look for to indicate commerce below the luxury item level; coins and pottery. It’s possible there was a thriving economic exchange going on between Rome and N. Africa but there’s no evidence for that. Much more coinage is found originating from the Eastern Empire. Not particularly surprising as by this time the economy in the east was much stronger.

      So what you say could be true but there’s no evidence that I know of for it and it runs counter to the fact that the person getting paid for grain was the farmer. The shipper got some but that wasn’t where the bulk of money changed hands,

  4. Jonathan Jarrett

    September 4, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    This is an interesting debate. It would be nice if Linn were right, but there are certainly some wrinkles I’d want worked out first. The biggest of these is kind of a chicken-and-egg argument. If Linn says that the drop in grain supply is not so serious because Rome is shrinking anyway, that certainly sounds good but it is basically opposite to what people like Chris Wickham or the Ward-Perkins lineage have argued, that Rome shrinks exactly because the grain supply is dropping and its population cannot be fed. I agree with you that that ought to be reflected in sources speaking woefully of dearth, and that since it’s not it must be a fairly long-term trend, but I would still want to know why the causation must be Linn’s way round rather than Carandini’s or Wickham’s.

    The second is this:

    He discusses Roman coin finds in North Africa and says, “Hardly any Roman coins from the mid-fifth century have been found in Carthage.”

    I just can’t sit and take that by itself. How many coins of the rest of the fifth century have been found in Carthage? Is this actually a break of the trend or is it normal? Is metal-detecting legal in Tunisia? I want to be convinced that that is significant against whatever the finds background is. Otherwise, as long as we accept that the Vandal government has the power to direct grain shipments at all, surely the Roman money, if any, is going to the kings. Now, why do the kings need to distribute that money, if they’re running a Roman tax system and have a following of maintained-but-not-salaried warriors as their main tool of rule? Why wouldn’t you, for example, melt all that nice silver down and make arm-rings out of it? Perhaps Linn does work out the link from payments to finds better than this, but if not it seems like a weka part of tha rgument to me.

    There was also the whole “hey, army’s gotta eat too” thing but you caught that…

    • Curt Emanuel

      September 5, 2013 at 3:59 pm

      Hey Jonathan,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I don’t believe Linn is taking any sort of stance as to why Rome’s population would have been smaller at or around 442 compared with earlier, just that it was. His main point is that by 442 that decline was substantial enough that a reduced Vandal grain supply was less devastating than it would have been previously. He identifies grain shortages in 361, 397 and 409 as being mentioned in sources, contrasting with a lack of any mention beyond a single general Italy-wide famine during the years he’s discussing. I personally think that much of Rome’s population decline was at least somewhat a function of it becoming less economically prosperous, particularly compared with Constantinople, but I haven’t read enough on this to call this more than an uninformed opinion. I also tend to think numbers of people moving out of the city into rural areas may be understated but again, this is more from the “absence of evidence” angle; that as there’s no evidence of an abrupt population “die-off” folks must have gone somewhere.

      His coin evidence is certainly open to criticism such as you’ve given. Now he does talk about the frequency of Roman finds compared with others in the later 5th century, “Hoards in North Africa contain, in order of predominance, local, eastern Mediterranean, and Italian coins” and he also mentions in general terms that Vandal coins are found in Greece and Egypt along with Italy (310) however this isn’t for the specific period in question but a couple of decades later. He references Frank M. Clover a lot who, other than his translation of Merobaudes, I have nothing by.

      The lack of a discussion of any sort of famine in the sources is a pretty strong indicator to me that Rome wasn’t suffering from any serious shortages during the period. The trade vs annona discussion has less strong evidence though the lack of coins is another indicator for me.

      I don’t recall reading Ward-Perkins on population reduction in the city related to food shortages, is this something Wickham addresses in Framing?


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