Food insecurity in Early Rome

Responsibility for solving food crises often falls to a community’s leaders. Early Rome was no different, and in the first centuries of the Republic suffered from, and solved, the problem of food scarcity.

Joshua R. Hall

Maintaining a steady supply of food was one of the primary struggles of ancient societies. For Early Rome, we have unusually good evidence for the causes of food scarcity and a number of examples of how the Romans responded to it. In this article, I will discuss Roman fears of crop failure, which would lead to food insecurity, and the frequency of famines, as far as we can tell from our paltry sources on the Early Republic.

Assuming that food security was a concern for the early Romans, a priori, is problematic, although it is a common perception of preindustrial societies. Thanks to a text commonly referred to as the Brontoscopic Calendar, however, we have strong evidence that crop failure was a major concern. This is a text which has been neglected until recently, but brings along with its use a major methodological quandary: can it be trusted? As it comes to us, it is a third-hand account of an Etruscan divinatory calendar.

The origin of the original is debatable, but it has recently been argued by the eminent Etruscologist Jean Macintosh Turfa that it came into being in the early seventh century BC. (For the most detailed discussion of the text and its origins, see Turfa 2012. A shorter introduction to it can be found in Turfa 2006. Both of these contain the Greek text from John Lydus as well as an English translation.)

In Rome, a contemporary of Cicero named Publius Nigidius Figulus translated this calendar from its original Etruscan into Latin. It was this translation that a Byzantine civil servant and philosopher, John Lydus (Johannes Laurentius Lydus/John the Lydian), translated into Greek in the Constantinople of Justinian’s day. This latter translation is what survives today, with both Figulus’ Latin version and the original Etruscan both being lost to antiquity. (This is a very brief introduction to a much more complex history than I have space for in this article. For this, see Turfa 2012, pp. 3-18. I acknowledge Turfa’s arguments relating to the authenticity of the calendar and agree that the version we have today is probably rooted in an early Etruscan original.)

The Brontoscopic Calendar is a religious, divinatory, text set out in twelve months, with each day given an entry. It would have been used by priests to interpret thunderous noises coming from the heavens, whether due to a storm or otherwise.

To the Etruscans, these were divine signals of events to come. We can be tempted into seeing the images of deities in Etruscan art who are holding or throwing lightning bolts and equate this to the practice of brontoscopy. As has recently been pointed out by Nancy de Grummond, however, it is problematic for us to think that the two phenomenon were known to be related by the ancients (see De Grummond 2016).

Food and thunder

Despite that the Brontoscopic Calendar we possess is originally attributed to Etruria, the closing line of Lydus’ text says that it was valid only for the area around Rome. Because of this, I believe that its use as evidence is acceptable in discussing Early Rome. So how does it help us to understand food insecurity?

References to food are common throughout the text, with Turfa declaring that this was “the most important aspect of life attested by the Brontoscopic” omens (Turfa 2012, p. 137). Some of the references point to abundancy, but others to shortage, which are the ones we are most concerned with in this article. Taking just those mentioned for the month of June, we see that there were many threats to the Roman food supply.

Uncooperative weather is a major concern. For instance, if thunder is heard on the third day of the month, it indicates that grain and fruit will shrivel up because of a hot wind. But, if thunder is heard on the fourth, it indicates that excessive rain will rot all of the crops. Interestingly, thunder on the twenty-sixth would indicate a harmful winter for the crops, evidence that the events predicted by brontoscopy would not necessarily play out immediately.

The predictions of the Calendar are not limited to the failure of crops, and some shed light on the politics and economics of food in Early Rome. For instance, if thunder is heard on the third day of March, there will be discord following a famine. One imagines that this “discord” would manifest as riots and other types of civil strife.

Sorting out the crises

Thankfully for the people of Rome, and its magistrates, there was a solution for when the crops failed. This was in the form of imports. Throughout the narratives of Early Rome we hear of grain being brought in from outside of Roman territory. It could be sought from the city-states nearby in Italy, such as those in Etruria or from further afield, notably from Cumae on the Bay of Naples and from Sicily (e.g. Livy 2.34).

In circumstances such as this, special magistrates may have been appointed to make sure that grain would make its way into the city. In 440/439 BC, Lucius Minucius was supposedly named as praefectus annonae, prefect of corn (Livy 4.12).

Although the historicity of the story and the events which surround it is generally held in doubt by many skeptical modern historians of the period, there is no reason to disbelieve that an ad hoc position of praefectus annonae could not have occasionally been used. (An important commentary on the story of Minucius, as well as Spurius Maelius, can be found in Ogilvie 1965, pp. 550-557. I agree, however, with the conclusion of Scullard 1980, p. 83: “attempts to undermine the historicity of Minucius have failed.”)

Peter Garnsey identified sixteen instances of food shortages in Rome between 509 BC (the traditional date for the foundation of the Republic) and 296 BC (Garnsey 1988, pp. 168-172). In this period, despite the possible use of a praefectus annonae, the consuls were apparently responsible for finding a solution to food crises (Garnsey 1988, pp. 178-179). It could have been a practical approach, as these men would have been part of an “international” network of wealthy elites in the Central Mediterranean, especially in Central Italy, they would probably have had existing connections in the cities whence they sought grain.

When someone outside of the governmental structure sought to bring in grain, such as Spurius Maelius, they were viewed with suspicion. During the food shortage of 440/439 BC, as a private person he imported much grain into the city. Using his own money to do this, Maelius ended up being admired greatly by the plebs.

The events of this year were so worrisome for the Senate that a dictator was elected, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. Being accused of aspiring to become king, Maelius was eventually cut down on the streets of Rome by Gaius Servilius Ahala, Cincinnatus’ Master of Horse (Livy 4.13-15). This story is deeply rhetorical and is generally considered ahistorical by modern sceptical historians.

Although the story of Maelius is spurious, there may be a kernel of truth to it. In the Brontoscopic Calendar we read for the entry of April the third, that thunder would signal “profit out of a grain supply brought from abroad” (transl. Turfa 2012, p. 99).

This could be an archaic memory of certain individuals exploiting food crises in order to make a profit, which would not necessarily fit with the story of Maelius, but does substantiate ill-feelings towards avaricious individuals importing grain from abroad without the consent of the consuls or the governing bodies of Rome.


Maintaining the food supply was a major concern in Early Rome. Responsibility for this fell to magistrates, perhaps the occasional praefectus annonae, or more regularly to the consuls.

When food did go scarce, they could seek imports from abroad which seemed to be enough to alleviate the crises. They may have been aided in predicting these shortages by priests interpreting omens, such as those who would have interpreted the hearing of thunder.

Thanks to the Brontoscopic Calendar, we can say with some certainty that these things really did happen in Early Rome, and that what we read about in the generally problematic Annalistic sources (i.e. Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus) have some kernel of historicity to them.