Government Welfare Programs of the Ancient Romans

The Roman Empire
The Roman Empire in the 1st Century

Since ancient times governments have been concerned about the welfare of its citizens. The Ancient Roman Empire established a program called  annona  when they realized that the agriculture around the city of Rome could not feed the population of Rome. Initially, they imported grain from the Campania region of Italy, and then from other areas from the empire. It goes all the way back to Emperor Gracchus in 123 B.C.

One of the reasons for Rome’s expansion to other areas of the Mediterranean was to find fertile soil and crops they could appropriate for the government supplies. The Empire’s borders stopped where there was no longer fertile land – the deserts of North Africa and Asia, the mountains, forests and rivers of Germany and the Atlantic Ocean.

Whoever controlled the grain supply controlled the city of Rome. Emperor Vespasian (69 A.D.) realized this and held Egypt as it was a major source of grain, thus the Port of Alexandria, became a major shipping point. Trade from the Far East also passed through Alexandria.

Later on, Emperor Trajan, who ruled from 98 – 117 A.D. created Alimenta, a welfare program to help orphans and poor children throughout the Roman Empire  providing general funds, as well as food and subsidized education.

As the empire continued, the annona became more complex. During the reign of Septimius Severus, olive oil was added to the distribution, and during that of Aurelian, pork and wine.

People were issued tokens, called tesserae (the equivalent of food stamps) and they went with containers to huge government warehouses where they received their portions including baked bread from government bakeries.

The more grain an emperor provided, the more popular he was. Bread and Circuses was a phase used to describe handouts and petty amusements that emperors used to gain popularity rather than gaining it through policy and civic duty.

Sound familiar?

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