This paper focuses on the justifications for feeding Rome as a case study for evaluating the transition from a classical model of civic euergetism to one of Christian charity. Civic euergetism, which customarily entails public philanthropy publicly directed toward one's city or fellow citizens, was a social transaction intended to gain personal glory. In Christian charity, the poor were now supposed to be the objects of acts of public giving. Based on my analysis, I propose that scholars who view this transition as either continuity or novel change are adopting flawed models. I offer an alternative model for this transition that stresses the dynamic, on-going interaction of civic euergetism and Christian charity. These two sets of ideas influenced one another even as they remained distinct components of justifications for the feeding of Rome well into the late sixth century.
- Annona (Grain) Supply
- Bishop of Rome
- Urban Prefect
- Theodosian Code
In 384 C.E. the urban prefect Symmachus wrote to the emperor concerning the food supply of Rome: “Your reign, your divine qualities of character demand that one of your first and principal cares should be freedom from care for the Roman people.”1 Symmachus was reminding the emperor that the demonstration of liberality to Rome, a traditional imperial virtue, required support for the food supply of the city. As urban prefect, Symmachus was directly involved in ensuring the administration of this imperial benefaction, the annona civica. This system for feeding Rome had evolved over the centuries, but it remained central to traditional elite and imperial demonstrations of civic euergetism. Although its administration has attracted a number of studies by modern historians intent on explicating the complexities of this system, this article takes a different apprpoach.2 I consider the feeding of Rome as a case study for evaluating a fundamental development in late antiquity: the transition from a classical model of civic euergetism to the late Roman model of Christian charity. In the former, as articulated by elites such as Symmachus, philanthropy publicly directed toward one's city or fellow citizens was a social transaction intended to gain personal glory, while in the latter “the poor…were now supposed to be the objects of acts of public giving…”3 So fundamental was this transition that some scholars have considered it the source of a veritable upheaval in social relations.
Peter Brown is perhaps the most influential scholar in the Anglophone world to diagnose this development. In his 2002 book, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, he considered this shift by focusing on the role of the bishop who, in a sense, “invented the poor.”4 In more recent work, Brown called attention to the bishops who, over the course of the fourth and the fifth centuries, came to define the recipients of Christian charity not as the indigent in their cities, but the solid “middling and lower classes of the cities” who were much like the plebs in Rome and hence in need of justice and protection from oppression by the wealthy.5 Brown has gone on to argue that Christian charity, though showing some continuities with classical institutions of civic euergetism, was a “novelty not only in the professed aim of this giving—to give to the poor—but in the motivations ascribed to the giver. What differed most of all was the emphasis on the supernatural efficacy of the Christian gift.”6 That gift was the offer of salvation.7 The views of Brown supply a welcome alternative to the still-frequently found model of social change which implies the easy replacement of one set of ideas and actors for another.8 So, for instance, Bronwen Neil's excellent studies of Christian charity nonetheless suggest this latter model when she writes that “the change in definition of civic largesse was effected in Rome by the mid-fifth century by the bishop's adoption of many civic responsibilities that had formerly been the province of imperial largesse. The poor were now the legitimate recipients of civic giving.”9 Neil goes on to describe this transition as a “partnership.”10
My study of the annona, the subsidized food system that fed late antique Rome, leads me to support Brown's conclusions about the novelty of the idea of Christian charity, but to propose an alternative model for the transformation of ideas on and attitudes toward public giving in late antique Rome. This model emphasizes the development of these ideas within a dialectical relationship with civic euergetism. I stress the dialogue because I find that both models of public giving—civic euergetism and Christian charity—continued to interact with one another in an on-going, dynamic, and sometimes contested relationship. I find that secular elites—emperors, aristocrats, and later Gothic Kings—continued to practice civic euergetism through the late sixth century, and continued to employ traditional justifications for doing so. Certainly, these same secular elites were also influenced by Christian ideas about charity, and consequently adopted Christian ideology to justify feeding not just Rome's citizenship, but also the poor. But bishops and aristocratic Christians, too, were influenced by the ideals of civic euergetism. They too justified, at times, the feeding of Rome's citizenship, not just the indigent. Some Christian elites performed acts of public giving out of the a desire to win honor and prestige, traditional motivations for civic euergetism. As secular elites and bishops bumped up against one another in Rome, they sometimes competed for resources and beneficiaries, even if they acted in tandem with one another on other occasions. Such interactions also influenced justifications for feeding Rome.
APPROACHING THE DIALECTIC BETWEEN CIVIC EUERGETISM AND CHRISTIAN CHARITY IN ROME
If we see civic euergetism and Christian charity as a dynamic interaction, we can better explain the powerful expression of these ideas that shaped life in Rome from the fourth through the sixth centuries. My approach to the issue is based on a particular time and place because, as Peter Brown well observed, “to have characterized an evolution is not the same thing as to have explained it.”11 I focus on Rome, since issues of public giving and its food supply arose most starkly there. Especially in the fifth century, the emperors and the elites faced considerable challenges in feeding Rome. At this time, Rome faced a series of political and military disasters—the sacks of 410 and 455 in particular.12 Rich and poor were both affected by these crises, though the poor had fewer resources to alleviate their suffering. The need for public giving was clear. An upheaval in social relations based on a newfound awareness of the poor would seem to have found fertile ground.
Yet this revolution did not happen, nor did Christian charity to feed the poor mean the end of civic euergetism. Rather, emperors, aristocrats, and (in the later fifth century) Gothic rulers continued to feed Rome, justifying their civic euergetism in accustomed ways. Part I therefore focuses on imperial civic euergetism and its justification as evidenced in efforts to feed Rome through the annona civica from the fourth through the sixth centuries. Part II focuses on imperial civic euergetism and Christian charity in relation to feeding Rome, as articulated especially by imperial laws. Because the bishops were the predominant voices advocating Christian charity, I turn, in Part III, to the role of the bishops. I focus first on one influential bishop, Leo (440–461 C.E.), who preached the value of charity in what Bernard Green has called an ideal of “civic Christianity.”13 Leo, as was the case with some other Christians and bishops that I discuss in this section, was influenced by civic euergetistic ideas in certain regards. In Leo's theology, charity to feed Romans led not just to individual salvation, but to the recovery of society as a whole. Indeed, Leo's notion of charity was a timely response to the political upheavals of the age, including the Vandal sack of the city in 455. But, as I discuss in part III, the dynamic interaction between Christian ideas of charity and civic euergetism pertaining to the feeding of Rome continued to influence bishops and secular elites down through the age of Pope Gregory (590–604).14
Part I. Imperial Civic Euergetism: The Annona Civica
To understand the complex interaction of dialectical change in the city of Rome, we need to begin in the fourth century when we see a still-vital system of imperial civic euergetism feeding the city. Imperial largesse was a traditional virtue that demonstrated the rulers’ philanthropia (or in Latin, their humanitas), the possession of which proved their right to rule.15 Consequently, the emperors took responsibility directly for the food supply of the capital. The key figure to implement imperial beneficence in regards to the food supply of Rome was the urban prefect, and this office therefore also accrued honor or disapprobation; as “the symbol of relations between the emperor and the aristocracy,” he was the magistrate responsible for the system on the ground, especially important in late antiquity because the emperor was not regularly resident in Rome, with some few exceptions.16
In Rome, as in Constantinople and a number of cities across the empire, the emperor provided a subset of the citizenship, the plebs frumentaria, bread sufficient for one individual (not a family) for a month; hence this bread was called annona civica.17 This grant was viewed as a right which entitled recipients not only bread, but by the fourth century also included other foodstuffs (pork and oil).18 This right was based on citizenship and domicile, and was hereditary, though it could also be sold if one left the city.19 The number of citizens who had this right at any one time in Rome is hard to certify. In Augustan Rome, Cassius Dio indicates that around 200,000–250,000 out of a population estimated between 750,00–1,000,000 had this right (approximately 30 percent of the population).20 Even after Caracalla, when all Romans were citizens, only a subset of Rome's citizens received the right to free grain.21 Most scholars believe that under Alexander Severus, the annona shifted from distributing grain to supplying bread.22 In any case, if we assume similar proportions for grain and pork recipients of the dole in the mid-fifth century, when we have information about the latter, we can use the figures advanced by Sam Barnish to estimate that there were ca. 120,000 recipients of the dole in Rome in 419 and ca. 140,000 in 452, implying a total population of between 300–500,000 by the mid-fifth century.23
This right to free bread was more than a symbol of citizenship; though not enough to live on for the year, the annona could make a critical difference to a family in a time of food shortages, a common enough phenomenon in Rome and other ancient cities.24 We hear of mobs, enraged by food shortages, rioting or destroying the homes of those officials responsible for the bread, wine, and pork supplies.25 To avoid such a turn of events, the urban prefect and his colleague, the prefect of the annona, oversaw a bureaucracy that was tied to the Praetorian Prefect of Italy.26 To forestall shortages, the urban prefect, as head of the senate, could take certain actions: he could write to the emperor to ensure the grain supply; he could buy corn in the provinces; he could levy food from senatorial landowners with imperial approval; or he could ask the senate for the right to expel foreigners.27 Yet this latter action, it should be noted, could lead to criticism from Christians, as was the case when the bishop Ambrose attacked Symmachus for doing this in 384.28
It is worth remarking that meritorious individuals, as is defined in subsequent law codes, were also the proper recipients of the annona, an idea that goes beyond simple hereditary citizenship rights. As a law of Theodosius, Arcadius and Honorius in 392 C.E. asserts, the right to food was granted by good emperors (i.e. Constantine) not to “titles of dignity as individually [but] to the merits of separate persons.”29 Hence, “imperial generosity” (beneficium divale) can assign the right to municipal food rations to military men.30 With this law, we see an expanding notion of the category of meritorious citizens who deserves the grant of free bread, but this is always at the prerogative of the emperor whose largesse is so demonstrated though this act.
Imperial public giving to feed Rome was acutely needed in the immediate aftermath of the sack of the city by Alaric and the Goths in 410. The Goths had plundered the city for three days, and taken as much movable wealth and captives as they could manage. As a sign of the emperor's concern, the city's urban prefects, using imperial funds, oversaw the repair of a number of important civic buildings in Rome.31 But the most critical sign of imperial concern was the emperor's funding for food for the citizens of Rome, a task assigned naturally to the urban prefect. It is a sign of Rome's resurgence that, as Olympiodorus tell us, in 414/415 the urban prefect Caecina Decius Acinatius Albinus wrote to the emperor that the food ration provided for the people was inadequate because of the increased population of the city. The prefect claimed that he had enrolled 14,000 new inhabitants of Rome in a single day, and the return of refugees and new births makes this a plausible figure.32 Indeed, as Philostorgius remarks (12.5), after 410 Honorius had put in hand a synoikismos which, as Nicholas Purcell has explained, meant the “the deployment of imperial authority to gather from whatever source was available a new population.”33 It may well be that the urban prefect was overstating his success and exaggerated the amount of food that he needed to distribute.34 If so, the urban prefect would be aiming to gain prestige by demonstrating his and the emperor's largesse by this display of excessive food for Rome.
In the wake of the sack in 410, the emperor Honorius was certainly aware of the need to repair his image. Many blamed him for the failed negotiations that led to the disaster.35 To demonstrate imperial concern as well as largesse, Honorius gave games in Rome in 414 and 416, the first set to celebrate the defeat of a usurper Heraclianus and the second set, in conjunction with a peace treaty with the Goths subsequently settled in Gaul. The games manifested authority over the city: in 416, in front of the assembled senate, he called forth Attalus, the rogue senator turned emperor, and when ordered to offer his hand in obedience, Honorius is alleged to have promptly “cut two fingers from his right hand, one being the (thumb) and the other the index finger.”36 To further demonstrate his authority and manifest his largesse to Rome, Honorius, in 419, increased the ration of free pork, stipulating five pounds of pork per individual citizen recipient for five months of the year.37
Even after the loss of Africa to the Vandals in 428, the western emperor, Valentinian III (423- 455), continued to feed Rome as a means of demonstrating his liberality and thereby proving that he had the right to rule. He negotiated with the Vandals to ensure the grain supply for the city. Procopius tells us that in 442 Geiseric gave annual tribute (dasmos) to the western empire, and this has led scholars to argue, rightfully in my view, for the continuation of the annona through the reign of Valentinian III, whose frequent visits to and residence in Rome after the 440s similarly demonstrated imperial concern for the urban population.38 Indeed, Valentinian III was the first emperor to reside in Rome since Maxentius (306–312), a clear sign of his concern for the city and its people.39
Valentinian III also ensured the provisioning of pork to the city's plebs frumentaria. A law of his issued with Marcian dated to 452 commends the reorganization of the guilds of swine collectors, cattle collectors, and goat collectors by Aetius for:
Such foresight aids the privileges of the sacred City [i.e. Rome], both by the providence of the administrator and by the affection of our best citizen [i.e. Aetius], and it has established the function of the guild that was on the point of failing, by an arrangement so salutary that all losses have been eliminated…40
This law expresses the traditional imperial concern for provisioning Rome. These emperors conclude with an order to the guilds to follow through on this new arrangement, for in this way they too can acquire honor in the eyes of their fellow citizens:
We consider that the devoted (guildsman) should be assisted not only by such a provision but also by honor (honore), in order that with greater distinction they may also be diligent in the service of the Eternal City and may consider that whatever an uninterrupted payment of taxes procures is added to their own profit.41
Honorius and Valentinian III were working within the framework of a system, justified as traditional civic euergetism, that had enabled Rome to become the largest city in the western Mediterranean.
Imperial concern for feeding Rome continued despite the challenges of the second half of the fifth century. The Vandal sack of Rome in 455 and the loss of the African tribute brought systemic disturbances to the grain supply. Admittedly, it was easier for emperors to feed Rome after 455, since the population had declined. Unfortunately, absolute numbers are lacking. Our best evidence for the population of Rome after the 455 sack is unreliable and comes quite a bit later.42 But we do know that a number of elites, as well as the military, returned to Rome soon after 455, and this put pressure on would-be contenders to the throne to restore the food supply for the city.43 Emperors turned mostly to Italy for provisions; the grain fields of Sicily, Sardinia, Apulia, and parts of Gaul adjusted to provide for Rome and Ravenna, making good the loss of the African grain.44 One good indication of the the restoration of this system comes from Letter 1.10.2 of Sidonius Apollinaris, urban prefect of Rome in 468. He describes his concern for his reputation (fama) over food shortages, and his great joy over the news that the grain ships from Brundisium had reached the Port of Ostia. Indeed, this event was so welcome that it was recorded even in the city's civic calendar.45 As Sidonius's letter indicates, food distribution continued into the late fifth century to be both the responsibility of and the means to accrue honor for late Roman elites and the emperors they served.
According to the sixth-century senator Cassiodorus, the expectation that the ruler of Italy demonstrate his liberality by supplying Rome with free grain continued under the Ostrogothic kings, administered at Rome by the same functionaries as had held the position under the emperors: urban prefect and prefect of the annona. Cassiodorus describes the rewards of being an urban prefect and being prefect of the annona in terms of traditional civic euergetism, namely gaining honor (honorabilis) and influence (gratia) in front of one's fellow citizens.46 And it is with a direct nod to this civic precedent, as set by Theodoric, that Justinian described his willingness to continue the annona for Rome in his Pragmatic Sanction, issued after he had reconquered the city in 554. In section 22, entitled “That food (annona) shall be given to doctors and others,” the emperor stipulated the following:
We direct that the food supply which Theoderic was accustomed to give to the Romans and which we also have given them, shall continue to be given in the future, and we also direct that the food supply which was formerly customarily given to grammarians, orator, physicians and lawyers, shall also hereafter be given to those of them who are engaged in their profession, so that youths instructed in the liberal arts may abound in our state.47
Thus Justinian continued the traditions of civic euergetism that demanded the good ruler demonstrate his right to rule by feeding Rome.
Part II. Imperial Civic Euergetism and Christian Charity
In this period, we also find emperors who, while living up to the traditional demands for civic euergetism, now show in their justifications for feeding Rome and in their actions the influence of Christian ideas about charity. As early as a law of 369, the emperor Valentinian I explained his generosity to citizens who received the right of the annona civica as justified by need, not citizenship alone:
Our Clemency has assigned this bread (panis) to the populace and to their successors, if they have no means of compensation (solacium) from any other source. And even if it is being sold to them today, it must be distributed from the appropriate steps in the place where it is now being purchased. To these a bronze ticket (titulus) shall be attached on which must be engraved the amount of bread and the name of the recipient.48
The justification is interesting here; the emperor is signaling his concern that the people who deserve bread receive their compensation, since they have no other food supply. Considering the notion of the gift of the annona as a solacium (“compensation” or “consolation”) harkens back to the language of Cicero.49 But the compensation here is not offered to citizens who, in the past, were granted grain on the grounds of legal residency and citizenship, but rather to those who had no other source of food. This is an idea that fits comfortably with notions of Christian charity.50 Indeed, we see a similar notion in two laws of Constantine that offered food for parents who were not able to feed their own children in times of food shortage.51 Yet in Valentinian's law, this imperial gift is further qualified by the customary civic concerns; those people who do not meet the standards of citizenship—i.e. overseers, procurators, or slaves of a senator—were not only denied this right, but were placed under suspicion because they tried to obtain it through “usurpation, favoritism, venality or even the consent of the scribe;” there is no food for those who try to fool the government, and certainly not for those who are “most poor” (pauperrimus rerum), for they will nonetheless be fined and even forced into slavery.52
By the middle of the fifth century, the influence of Christian charity is overtly expressed in imperial laws. In a law dated to 451 addressed to the Praetorian Prefect of the East, Palladius, the emperors Valentinian and Marcian expressed their support for feeding the hungry as a Christian virtue:
The privileges which former emperors… granted to all holy churches of the orthodox religion, shall be maintained… And since it is a part of our humanity (humanitatis) to provide for the needy, and take care that nourishment is not wanting to the poor, we order the pensions (in produce) also which have heretofore been given to the holy churches from the public treasury shall remain as heretofore and shall be furnished, undiminished by anyone.53
While these fifth-century emperors acknowledged Christian charity to the poor as an important idea that justified their largesse, they did not take on this task directly. Rather, these emperors gave pensions and financial support for this work to the church. But imperial willingness to grant monies to the churches to feed the poor—that is, the indigent and not the plebs frumentaria who deserved their food as a right—was a far less expensive commitment than the annona for the whole city, as Brown has well demonstrated.54 That we see justifications in laws like this in the mid-fifth century in relation to feeding the capital city of Constantinople (and perhaps also Rome) effectively reflects the strong influence of a number of bishops.55 Christian bishops had encouraged emperors to practice Christian charity and to give directly to the church as donors of buildings, lands, and precious objects from the reign of Constantine on.56 Here, the emperors are responding to these demands by donating to the church to feed the poor.
Part III. Christian Charity, Civic Euergetism and the Bishops of Rome
Bishops, too, were influenced to a degree by the ideas of civic euergetism. In the middle of the fifth century, the bishop of Rome, Leo, played a pivotal role in furthering public-giving, crafting what would become the prevalent idea of Christian charity in Italy during the critical period of his papacy, from 440–461 C.E. And while many bishops urged charity, Leo's articulation of this ideal was both distinctive and influential. For Leo, as J. M. Armitage has shown, almsgiving was “not just one expression of Christian caritas out of many… but the only expression of caritas that counts towards final redemption.”57 It is clear, moreover, that Leo's conception of almsgiving as fundamental to salvation was a central concern of his life. Of his ninety-six sermons (which were circulated in his lifetime), 40 address the issue of charity.58 There have been many good scholarly discussions of Leo's conceptualization of almsgiving.59 My focus here is to underscore the dialectical relationship between civic euergetism and Christian charity as it emerged in Leo's writings in relation to feeding Rome—not just the poor and indigent, but all those who deserved assistance. His efforts, as we shall see, also show the vitality of ideas of civic euergetism.
Leo, like many other fourth- and fifth-century bishops, preached redemptive almsgiving. The primary recipients of such acts were the poor; in his first sermon for the Collections of November, Leo promised that “those who ‘feed’ Christ in the poor store up their ‘treasure in heaven’,” an idea that plays on Matthew's text.60 Leo preached that charity, though entailing some material loss, was transformed into spiritual gain—salvation. As he says in Sermon 78.1, dated to 441: “Whatever we spend on food for the poor, on the care of the weak, on the ransom of captives and on any other work of mercy, is not lost but increased.”61 Indeed, in Leo's view, it is God's providence that there should be rich people to look after the poor; the poor give the rich their opportunity to be good.62 However virtuous a rich man might be, there is no true virtue without almsgiving so that there can be “food for the poor.”63
Leo's notion of charity as bringing personal salvation aligned quite comfortably with traditional civic euergetism, where the acquisition of personal honor was a valid justification for public giving to the city. In terms of feeding Rome, that honor accrued mostly to the emperor. However, the successful administration of the grain supply was also a source of pride and concern for the aristocratic magistrates who discharged the food supply, namely urban prefects like Symmachus and Sidonius, and prefects of the annona. But the audience for Leo's “theology of self- interested giving” included not just the aristocracy and not just the emperor Valentinian III and his court (though they were in residence in Rome after 440).64 Rather, Leo urged all to donate to the church, so that all could be saved. Leo's redemptive almsgiving benefitted not just the individual giver, but society as a whole; by making society more just and virtuous, he was aiming to benefit the entire city.65 These values show Leo's Christianity in dialogue with the traditions of civic euergetism.
Leo's definition of the worthy recipient of food also reflects the influence of traditional civic euergetism. Neil has shown that Leo had a tendency to dehumanize the poor, a remnant of classical attitudes toward giving which emphasized the giver and the gift, not the recipient.66 Moreover, Leo expanded the category of the recipients of almsgiving to include not just the poor, but all Christians in need.67 In opening up the categories for those deserving of food, Leo was addressing the needs of the city as a whole. In keeping with his civic concern, Leo preached that alms administered by the church should be used to “ransom captives, relieve the stranger, and aid the exiled.”68 As Green observed, “This is civic Christianity in action, transforming rather than undermining the positive values of traditional society.”69 Leo's emphasis on preserving Rome and the well-being of all its citizens runs against the view of those ascetic Christians who denied the physical city in favor of the “City of God.”70
Certainly, Leo articulated a view of Christian charity that was new as compared to civic euergetism, for he preached that almsgiving was intended to gain salvation, and feeding the poor—both those who were indigent and those who had suffered during the upheavals of the age—was now the concern of the Christian community as a whole, not just the wealthy. Sermons focus on the public donations (goods, food, money) that each Christian could give directly to the church at various points throughout the year.71 For Leo, charity—including feeding the poor and those in need—led not just to individual salvation, but was salvific for all society.72 It was the duty of each Christian citizen to give what they could to save the city, save themselves, and feed their fellow Romans.
Leo's formulation of the centrality of the city to the Church and the role of the bishop in feeding Rome set precedents for subsequent bishops of Rome to intervene on behalf of the city. So the sixth-century Liber Pontificalis records one such direct intervention on behalf of the city as whole by Pope Gelasius (492–496). Praised as “a lover of the clergy and of the poor,” Gelasius opened the storerooms of the church and acted to “free the city of Rome from the danger of famine.”73 Although Gelasius acted in the face of a specific crisis, his willingness to feed the entire city shows the kind of civic concern traditionally ascribed to the ruler.
Gelasius and later sixth-century bishops of Rome under the Ostrogoths still lived under rulers who preserved the ideal of civic euergetism that justified state support to feed Rome. Indeed, civic euergetism and Christian charity continued to influence rulers into the sixth century. No better demonstration of the on-going importance of these two ideas can be found than the description of the adventus to Rome of the Ostrogothic King Theoderic for his thirtieth Vicennalia celebration in 500 C.E. The anonymous sixth-century author of the Excerpta Valesiana wrote:
In celebration of his tricennalia he entered the Palace in a triumphal procession for the entertainment of the people, and exhibited games in the Circus for the Romans. To the Roman people and to the poor of the city he gave each year a hundred and twenty thousand measures of grain, and for the restoration of the Palace and the rebuilding of the walls of the city he ordered two hundred pounds to be given each year from the chest that contained the tax on wine. 74
The author is favorably describing what would have been an act of traditional civic largesse, but now the king directed his generosity to “the populus Romanus and the pauperes.” Poverty, not just citizenship, now justified feeding Rome in what was a fusion of Christian charity and imperial civic euergetism.
Theoderic's claim to Christian charity demonstrated by his feeding the poor emerges in other sources as well. Procopius observed that Theoderic provided 3000 modii of corn each year to the poor who “lived near the Church of Saint Peter the Apostle.”75 This annual grant to the poor derives its outlines from the annona civica, but the location (the Church of Saint Peter in the Vatican) and the recipients show the influence of Christian ideas of charity. This site was well known from the fourth century onward as the locus for charity toward the Christian poor; as early as 365 C.E., the urban prefect Volusianus mocked the demands of the plebs for more games and bread by choosing instead to feed the poor from the Vatican sanctuary near St. Peter's.76 This cynical inversion of civic euergetism demonstrates how tied these two ideas were in the popular and elite minds of late Romans. Procopius similarly noted this location as he ironically contrasted the generosity of the Gothic ruler with the cruelty of Justinian, whose agent, Alexander “the Scissors,” eliminated this charitable act, thereby living up to his name.77
Justinian's reconquest put an end to Theoderic's rule and food for the poor, but not to free grain for Rome's plebs frumentaria. In his Pragmatic Sanction from the year 554 C.E. (noted earlier), Justinian continued the annona system that had been in place and specifically cites Theoderic's system as precedent. Yet is is a sign not only of the upheaval of the times but of the growing civic importance of the bishop that Justinian's Pragmatic Sanction was addressed to Vigilius, the bishop of Rome and not, as earlier in the fourth or late fifth centuries, to the urban prefect. Nonetheless, the imperial justification to oversee Rome's food supply is still expressed as a civic good, for Justinian claims he is acting “for the benefit of all those who live in the Western areas.”78
Even after Justinian's rule, the bishops in Rome apparently relied on some remnants of civic euergetism in their justifications for feeding Rome, as indicated, for example, by Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) when he tried to influence imperial agents concerning the city's food supply. In a letter dated to 590 written to the praetor of Sicily, Gregory, now bishop, wrote to lend his support for the request for grain since the man in charge of the public granary, Citonatus, was concerned about it.79 The feeding of Rome still involved civic magistrates, likely the urban prefect, a job that Gregory himself had apparently performed earlier in his career.80 As bishop, the aristocratic Gregory could marshal greater resources to negotiate on behalf of Rome. But Gregory was ready, if needed, to use Church granaries to supplement the state grain supply. Yet even then, Gregory will adopt the language of civic euergetism, along with Christian charity, to encourage the secular elites to feed Rome. In a letter dated to 600 to the Prefect of Italy, John, Gregory encouraged the prefect “so that the administration of this office may provide praise for you before your fellow men, and prepare a reward for you before almighty God.”81
By the early seventh century, the bishop was expected to feed Rome. Indeed, Gregory's successor, Pope Sabinius (604–606), made himself unpopular when, in an effort to alleviate famine, he sold corn from papal granaries rather than distributing it for free.82 After this point, we cannot find evidence for the annona system for Rome.83 By this date, the ideas of civic euergetism and Christian charity had been absorbed by the bishops who now were left to feed Rome.
Though there was an evolution in attitudes about classical civic euergetism that was deeply influenced by Christian charity over the longe durée, this shift cannot be explained so neatly on the ground. Nor should this evolution be taken for granted, as Brown well observed.84 It could have turned out quite differently; emperors, kings, and aristocrats could have abandoned the notion of feeding Rome's citizens as unfeasible, or redefined their role as simply feeding the indigent. Neither of these alternatives happened, however, nor did the bishops of Rome take over the role of feeding Rome's deserving citizens with any regularity until the complete disappearance of state structures. An important component of this evolution lies, I propose, in the dynamic, dialectical interaction of these two models of public giving that we can trace by focusing on the feeding of Rome.
From the fourth century on through the sixth, emperors, kings, and secular elites gave money to feed Rome, motivated in part by the traditional drivers of civic euergetism: honor and prestige. I have focused here on food, but secular elites continued to practice other aspects of public giving as well, most notably by continuing their support for the circus games at Rome. But even a strong and innovative advocate of Christian charity, Pope Leo, was himself influenced by civic euergetistic ideas. Leo's emphasis on redemptive almsgiving for societal as well as personal salvation, and his construction of an annual cycle for charity in his sermons, owes much to the ideals of civic euergetism that had survived in Rome.
At the same time, Christian ideas of charity to feed the poor, articulated most forcefully by the bishops of Rome, influenced emperors, Gothic Kings, and lay elites alike. So, for example, the expressed willingness of Valentinian III and Marcian to feed the hungry in order to demonstrate their humanitas (as discussed above) is a clear statement of the imperial adoption of Christian ideals of charity. This evolution was not always smooth. There were tensions at times, as when bishop Ambrose criticized the urban prefect Symmachus for expelling foreigners during a food shortage.85 At other times, these two sets of ideas reinforced one another, with the actors adopting the justification and/or beneficiaries of the other. It was not until the end of the sixth and early seventh centuries that we can see the full evolution in attitudes that led the bishops to integrate the dialogue between the traditions of civic euergetism and Christian charity as manifested by their concern for the feeding of Rome.
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