For Greek city‐states of the Archaic and Hellenistic periods the ethos of autarky dominated the ideology of food supply. Few Greek cities ever outgrew the food production capacities of their territory, and the small number which did responded by intensifying production. This is well documented in the case of Athens. However, most Greek states operated in politically and environmentally unstable conditions. Weather (see climate) and warfare posed constant, but unpredictably timed, hazards. So, some shortfall in food supply could be expected perhaps as often as once in five years.
By ‘food’ (sītos) is meant cereals. Though other crops were grown and important, corn was the preferred staple, esp. wheat and barley. Hence shortfalls in these crops proved the most troublesome. Corn was at the heart of the political discourse which evolved around the problem of food supply in most city‐states.
Corn was grown not by cities but by individual households, on private land. So shortages had to be met with ad hoc measures on the part of government, city‐states virtually never having either central corn production or storage facilities. General shortfalls in the cereal harvest enhanced class tensions, since rich landowners would have suffered less than small‐scale cultivators. Shortfalls also provided opportunities for the rich to gain political capital and to manipulate grain supplies. From the 4th cent. bc onwards, benefactions of corn by rich men are regularly documented in inscriptions, and become part of the political strategies employed in élite competition for power (see euergetism).
City‐states could do little in the event of corn shortage. Generally states behaved as middlemen, aiming to encourage imports, or donations and subsidized sales by the rich. Incentives might be offered to private traders, but many were not citizens, and the profits they made were greatly resented.
It is sometimes hard to tell how ‘genuine’ food shortages were. Barley, which was considered inferior as food, was not imported. Wheat, the preferred cereal (and most of the time probably the prerogative of the rich) was the usual corn from overseas. It is hard to know how much of this imported wheat the poor ever ate. However, ensuring the supply of wheat itself became a political issue, as is shown by the careful diplomacy with which the Bosporan kingdom (a major supplier of wheat to Athens) was treated (See bosporus (2)). See also agriculture, greek; famine.
The growth of Rome to a city of perhaps 250,000 inhabitants in the time of the Gracchi and of up to one million under Augustus, far outstripping the productive capacity of her hinterland, created an unprecedented demand for imported foodstuffs. The supplying of Rome was left mainly to private enterprise, and the main source was always Italy (including Sicily and Sardinia), but the political pressure on the Roman government to deal with actual or feared shortages led to some institutionalized public underpinning of the mechanisms of supply, which were enabled by exploitation of Rome's imperial revenues. In the early and middle republic individual magistrates competed either to win popular favour by securing extra supplies from subject or allied states where they had some personal influence, or to win noble approval by quashing popular complaints. Gaius Sempronius Gracchus took the momentous step of establishing a regular public distribution of a set monthly ration of corn at a set price to adult male citizen residents, which Clodius Pulcher made free in 58 bc. Other legislation alternately cut and increased the number of entitled recipients, called the plebs frūmentāria, until in 2 bc Augustus stabilized it at or below 200,000. Augustus also reorganized the system of storage and distribution under an imperial appointee of equestrian status, the prefect of the corn supply, who also had a more general remit to watch over food supplies. This public supply, drawing on the corn paid to the state as rent or tax in Sicily, Africa, and (from 30 bc) Egypt, helped the privileged minority who held tickets of entitlement, which could be inherited or sold. But the monthly ration did not meet a family's need for corn, and the tickets did not necessarily go to the poor. All residents will still have relied on the private market to some extent (or, if they had them, on produce from their farms), and most will have used it for most of their supplies. Shortages could and did occur, esp. in the supply of wheat (see cereals), which led emperors to make ad hoc interventions to hold down prices, or stimulating long‐term improvements such as the successive new ports at Ostia. Rich private individuals often gave free meals or tokens for food to their clients (see cliens), but this generosity was unreliable and also not esp. directed at the poor. At the end of the 2nd cent. ad Septimius Severus added free olive oil to the rations received by the plebs frumentaria, and in the 270s Aurelian added free pork and cheap wine, and the monthly wheat ration was replaced with a daily issue of bread. As Rome ceased to be the empire's capital in the 4th cent., the responsibility for maintaining supplies to the decreasing population fell first on the senatorial nobility and then on the Church.