The modius: social policy in ancient Rome
The original social and political model of the early Roman Republic was based on the idea of a citizen-soldier, who in ordinary times was an agricultural worker owning his own small plot of land. When a military campaign was necessary he would temporarily leave his farm and family, fight alongside the members of the senatorial and equestrian classes, the first to be called to fight, pay taxes and take decisions in the Roman census-based system. At the end of these short wars, initially not far from Rome itself, the Roman soldier would return to being an independent farmer. Slaves and citizens without any wealth or land were not admitted into the army.
The unexpected long term consequences of Roman military victories, however, progressively destroyed this social model. This happened especially after the victory against Carthage and its late Greek allies in Italy (Syracuse and Taranto in particular) and then Macedonia and the remaining independent Greek states in the late third century and first half of the second century B.C. As a consequence large amounts of money and of slaves arrived in Rome, leading to an increase in the wealth of the upper classes and the displacement of free labour by slaves. The farmer-soldier had to fight ever longer and more distant campaigns, losing more frequently the lands he could not work during his absence. The senatorial class constructed larger farm holdings, the latifundia, buying up private land or usurping public land (ager publicus, expropriated from defeated enemies). More impoverished farmers ended up going to Rome to look for subsistence. This demographic and social problem also threatened the availability of sufficient numbers of eligible soldiers.
The uneven distribution of the benefits of the successes of the Republic motivated the Gracchi brothers and the populares faction (an early form of democratic party) to campaign for change, achieving election to the position of Tribunes of the plebs, with important powers to block decisions of the consuls and the Senate of a more aristocratic nature, natural defenders of rich landowners. Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus achieved some success at the cost of their lives. Tiberius Gracchus in 133 B.C. obtained the recovery of usurped public lands and their distribution to impoverished veterans through land reform, the so-called agrarian law. To get the decision through he had to force a vote of the Roman tribes against the veto of the other Tribune of the plebs, who had sided with the optimati (the aristocratic party). The conservative Senators and their supporters murdered Tiberius Gracchus and several hundreds of his supporters in the Capitol, on grounds of his constitutional violation of the system of checks and balances between the different classes. The Senate did not dare cancel the land reform but tried to weaken its implementation.
Gaius Gracchus, the younger brother of Tiberius, reconstructed the group of the populares and became Tribune of the plebs in 123 B.C., continuing his brother’s work, only to face a similar death along with three thousand of his supporters in 121 B.C. Roman politics had been a bloody exercise in the past because politicians led the armies in battle, but civil war from then on accompanied the last century of the Republic.
One of the measures Gaius had managed to see approved was the introduction of a distribution to poor Roman citizens of grain subsidized by the Treasury, the Lex frumentaria. Each citizen had the right to approximately 35 kgs of grain per month. In 58 B.C. another member of the populares faction passed the Lex Clodia, which made the distribution of grain free of charge. In the mid first century 320,000 citizens received this subsidy, amounting to about 30% of the population of Rome and absorbing 20% of government spending. At a later date bread started to be distributed instead of grain.
For several centuries thereafter, the distribution of food was one of the main social policies used to keep the poor under control in Rome, together with free access to water, brought to public fountains through aqueducts, and to free entertainment through the Thermae and games in the Circuses and the Colosseum (summarized by the expression panem et circenses).
The distribution of grain took place close to the Sacred Area of the Campus Martius, in the Porticus Minucia (today’s Via delle botteghe oscure in Rome), through 44 counters serving freeborn male citizens. The instrument used to measure, in public, the amount to which each citizen was entitled was the modius. It was an open cylindrical container, narrower at the top, held on three feet. The modius became one of the symbols of the duties of Roman magistrates and later of Emperors to supply the city with food, appearing repeatedly in coinage well into the third century A.D.
The Gracchi did not produce coins but a silver denarius of 100 BC shows the quaestors (Lucius Calpurnius Piso and Quintus Servilius Caepio) seated on a bench, wearing the togas marking bearers of public office, flanked by two corn-ears, in a scene of grain distribution. The regulated price of a modius of grain was initially 6 and 1/3 asses and therefore 2 denarii coins would pay for 3 months of grain.
A similar scene was also reproduced in 86 B.C. for two aediles plebis, M. Fannius and L. Critonius, sitting on a similar bench, with a ear of corn and the letters PA, to signal that the coin has been minted with public silver from the State’s bullion reserves. The obverse presents a portrait of Ceres, goddess of agricultural fertility, particularly appropriate for the circumstances.
At the time Rome was already depending for its subsistence on imports of grain from Sicily, North Africa and Egypt. Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. created two special magistrates, the aedilis ceriales, in charge of the grain supply of the city (annona). In 42 B.C., during the triumvirate of Anthony, Octavian and Lepidus, the praetor L. Livineus Regulus was the first to represent the modius in a denarius, flanked by the usual corn-ears.
In the imperial period, the modius was represented more frequently in coinage, sometimes alone, sometimes together with the female personification of the annona augusta, holding a cornucopia. We have represented here a denarius from Antonino Pio (138-161 A.D.), where the modius is topped by four highly decorative corn-ears and a poppy at the centre.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics
Centre for History and Economics,
Cambridge CB3 0AG, UK
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