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Grain and Civil Unrest in the Republic

In his introduction to “The Roman Republic”, Michael Crawford writes:

“Some parts of the story may perhaps seem unduly dramatic; I can only say that a century like that between 133 BC and 31 BC, which killed perhaps 200,000 men in 91-82 and perhaps 100,000 in 49-42, and which destroyed a system of government after 450 years was a cataclysm.”

-Michael Crawford, The Roman Republic, Historical Introduction

91-82 BC is the period that includes the Social War, the first War with Mithridates War, the Civil Wars of Marius and Sulla and the destructive impact of Sulla's reign. That sounds like a difficult decade and I only scratch the surface. To provide some context for Crawford’s population numbers, the Roman census just before the Social Wars was about 400,000. The census was focused on male citizens over 17.

The frustration in a short write-up of any coin from the Roman republic is dealing with a depth of political and military agendas, governance issues, and events for which a short write up can only hope to introduce characters and oversimplified themes.

My coins today are from the period leading up to the Social War. Conflict was growing over who should be a citizen, over the politics of power between the aristocracy and the populace, and over responsibilities of government to support veterans and the poor. Violent clashes between Roman citizens were increasingly the way conflict was resolved.

Tiberius Gracchus’ land reform in 133 BC, Lex Sempronia Agraria, enforced limits on land ownership and redistributed public land from the senatorial classes to the lower classes to reduce debt and unemployment in Rome. The unpopularity of this with senators and the aristocracy was a contributing factor in his murder in 133 BC as were the political manipulations in favor and against the legislation.

© Image used under license from Shutterstock

A quick review of the changes in Social programs that preceded the minting of this coin will provide some context. [Note: Liv Mariah Yarrow has a useful Timeline of Roman Grain Supply on her website]. Cicero, who took a dim view of Tiberius Gracchus, gives a perspective:

"Tiberius Gracchus brought forward an Agrarian law. It was very acceptable to the people; the fortunes of the poorer classes appeared likely to be established by it. The nobles strove against it, because they saw that discord was excited by it; and because, as the object of it was to deprive the wealthy men of their ancient possessions, they thought that by it the republic was being deprived of its defenders. Caius Gracchus brought forward a law respecting grain. It was a very pleasing proposal to the common people at Rome; for food was to be supplied to them in abundance without any trouble. The good resisted it because they thought that its effect would be to lead the common people away from industry to idleness, and because the treasury was likely to be drained by such a measure."

-Cicero, Pro Sestio 48

After Tiberius was killed, his brother Gaius Gracchus was even more aggressive in his push for social reforms.

"His [Gaius Gracchus’] aims, however, were far more ambitious and drastic. He was for giving the citizenship to all Italians, extending it almost to the Alps, distributing the public domain, limiting the holdings of each citizen to five hundred acres as had once been provided by the Licinian law, establishing new customs duties, filling the provinces with new colonies, transferring the judicial powers from the senate to the equites, and began the practice of distributing grain to the people. He left nothing undisturbed, nothing untouched, nothing unmolested, nothing, in short, as it had been. "

The grain law would give Romans the right to buy grain at a subsidized price (perhaps close to ½ price).

Tribune Gaius Gracchus, brother of Tiberius and a better orator, carried several dangerous laws, among which was one on the supply of grain, which was to be sold for six and one-third asses to the plebs; a land bill like that of his brother; and a third law, aimed at corrupting the equestrian order (which at that time was collaborating with the Senate), that six hundred knights should be added to the Senate. Because back then, there were only three hundred senators, and the six hundred knights and three hundred senators would be mixed, the equestrian order would have a majority of two to one in the Senate.

Gaius Gracchus was also murdered (for more on both brothers see: The Gracchi Brothers and Social Reforms) . Issues of land grants and grain subsidies are again central in the agenda of L. Apulius Saturninus. Saturninus, who aligned himself with Marius and proposed legislation to provide for the settlement of veterans from Marius’ campaigns. This coin issued by Saturninus as moneyer in n 104 BC.

Lucius Appuleius Saturninus, 104 BC, AR denarius (17.5mm, 3.17 g, 6h), Rome mint

Obv: Helmeted head of Roma left

Rev: Saturn, holding harpa and reins, driving quadriga right; M with three • (above, below and left)

Ref: Crawford 317/3a; Sydenham 578; Appuleia 1

In 100 BC, he proposed that the grain subsidy be increased, reducing the price per modius to only five sixths of an As for a modius (about a quarter of a bushel, or a peck). Q. Servillius Caepio was strongly against the proposal as fiscally irresponsible. However, he issued these coins the same year for the purchase of grain by decree of the Senate.

L. Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus and Q. Servilius Caepio, 100 BC, AR denarius, Rome mint

Obv: PISO · CAEPIO · Q, laureate head of Saturn right; harpa to left, bow below

Rev: Two quaestors seated left between two stalks of grain, AD·FRV·EMV / EX·S·C

Ref: Crawford 330/1b (control above off flan); Sydenham 603; Calpurnia 5

An obverse die match confirms the control on this coin is a crescent (Crawford notes star, crescent, and hare as known symbols).

The coin was issued by Quaestor Urbanus (Q. Servilius Caepio) and the Quaestor Ostiensis (L. Calpurnius Piso). The reverse text abbreviates: AD FRVmentum EMundun EX Senatus Consulto (for the purchase of grain by decree of the senate).

Violence in politics beoming the norm as Saturninus and Gaius Servilius Glaucius are implicated in the murder of the opposition candidate for election as consul in 99 BC (an optimate) C. Memmius. They end violently as well. As with many Roman republican stories there are competing and often conflicting versions, here are two from Livy and Florus .

The same tribune Appuleius Saturninus assassinated Gaius Memmius, a candidate for the consulship whom he feared to be against him. Shocked by these crimes, the Senate, to whose side Gaius Marius (a man of constantly changing ideas and plans, always following fortune) had gone over, put Saturninus down, together with the praetor Glaucia and other allies who accompanied him in his madness, and had him killed in something like a battle.

Then at last the senators leagued themselves against him, and Marius himself, now consul, finding that he could no longer protect him, turned against him, and the two parties faced one another under arms in the forum. Driven from the forum Apuleius seized the Capitol. When he was besieged there and the water-supply had been cut off, he made the senate believe, through his representatives, that he repented of what he had done, and coming down from the citadel with the chief men of his party was received in the senate house. Here the people, bursting their way in, overwhelmed him with sticks and stones and tore him to pieces at the very moment of his death.

- Florus, Epitome of Roman History, Book II 4.16 The Revolution of Apuleius

The reverse is similar on this later coin from 86 BC issued by Critonius and Fannius which again is connected to responsibility for grain supply and grain distribution.


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