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The Food Riots in the Roman Empire

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

By Julio Cesar Magalhães de Oliveira, University of São Paulo.

Why do people protest? The reasons for discontent are many, but discontent does not always result in protest or revolt.Studying the food riots in eighteenth-century England, E. P. Thompson opposed, a few decades ago, the interpretations that simplistically linked the rise in bread prices and riots, as if these protests were nothing more than “rebellions of the belly”, occasional and thoughtless reactions to economic stimuli. The problem with these interpretations is not just the obvious fact that food riots occur when the price of bread is high and people are hungry. It is also that the responses to hunger (or rather, scarcity) are not always the same everywhere. In different places and cultures, people may prefer individual outlets such as begging, resorting to the gods or even selling their children.

In the Roman Empire, the sale of children by poor families was one of those solutions to difficulties in times of scarcity. But in cities, starting with the capital, crowds could also protest against the authorities, the rich, bakers or foreigners and eventually take action against those responsible for public supplies. What made these urban riots possible was, in the first place, the feeling that the provision of cities was a right of the people and a duty of the authorities. It would also be possible to see here, as Thompson proposed for the 18th century, ingrained notions of rights and duties regulating access to basic food items, notions that could be described as a “moral economy of the crowd”. But unlike the English 18th century, the basic action of crowds in the Roman Empire was not the establishment of a fair price, but the punitive action against the authorities responsible for the supply, including throwing stones at them, burning their houses or even lynching them.

Sale of bread (fresco from the House of Julia Felix, at Pompeii - Naples' Archaeological Museum)

What drove people to revolt in the cities of the Roman Empire was the feeling of injustice rather than the hunger itself. Popular indignation was often aroused by the perception that the landowning elite, abandoning their moral obligation to guarantee market supplies, did not hesitate to take advantage of the situation of dependency in which the majority of the urban population found themselves. In fourth-century Antioch, the orator Libanius often described how the urban plebs turned against the city council in times of scarcity, believing that the notables were suspect of producing famine for profit (Liban. Or. i. 205-206). In a speech made in Julianus's time, Libanius himself acknowledged that the rise in the price of bread was due both to an insufficient control of the price practiced by the bakers, and to the avarice of some notables, “eager that they were to pocket money” (Liban. Or. xv. 23). In Rome in 409-410, the crowd gathered at the circus during a long time of scarcity ironically expressed this feeling that they were being exploited by the big landowners responsible for supplying the city. In a unison clamour, they asked that, since they were being reduced to cannibalism by the high price of food, those who hoped to profit from the situation should also "fix a price to human meat"! (Zosimus vi. 11. 1-2).

Protests against the price of basic items of ancient food, such as bread, oil, but also wine, were not restricted to shouted slogans at the entertainment venues. They could also take the form of a charivari or a more direct action. In Antioch, during the Kalends of January of 384, a group of young people leaving the hippodrome passed in front of the house of a leading notable accused of promoting last year's famine. Torches in hand, they called upon him "to disgorge all that he had unjustly consumed" (Liban. Or. i. 230). But in 354, in the same city, Governor Theophilus was attacked at the hippodrome and lynched, while the house of another leading notable was burned down (Amm. Marc. xiv. 7).

Actions like these did not depend on a high degree of organization, but only on the knowledge of forms of expression and, eventually, solidarity ties developed in everyday life. At most, our sources reveal the presence of improvised leaders, such as the five young metalworkers from the arms factories of the Empire, who attacked the governor Theophilus, or the agitator Peter Valvomeres, in Rome. The lack of formal organizations was, in fact, what made it so difficult for the authorities to prevent these actions from taking place or punish large numbers of their participants.

The occasions for these revolts were often found in shifting political opportunities. Thus, the attack on Governor Theophilus only occurred because the elite of Antioch was divided, part allied with the governor, part with Caesar Gallus, the coadjutor emperor then residing in the city, who assured the crowd that nothing would be lacking if Theophilus did not allow it (Amm. Marc. xiv. 7. 5-6). But the existence of other interests should not be confused with the absence of motivations proper to those who revolt. In Rome, it is possible that the riot that resulted in the burning of the house of Symmachus the Elder in 375 was ultimately provoked by an enemy of the prefect. In fact, according to the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, the popular revolt had been provoked by a rumour spread by a plebeian who said that Symmachus would rather mix his wine with the lime in his ovens than sell it at the price the plebs wanted (Amm. Marc. xxvii. 3. 4). But if the rumour provoked popular indignation (and if people believed it) it is because it coincided with the plebeian experience, mobilizing their awareness of the situation of economic dependence that marked their lives.

At a time when the formal modes of organization of workers have been dissolved and the revolts of the “precariat” once again take the form of riot (as in the recent “yellow vest” protests in France), it is good to return to this lesson of method: ephemeral and ambiguous revolts can have unpredictable directions and consequences, but it is essential to understand the actors' own logic, their motivations for acting and the reasons for their indignation.

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