What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us? A Brief Examination of the Roman Welfare State

By Kabira Namit


In 1787, Edward Gibbon completed ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ wherein among several other reasons, he attributed “higher taxation and spending of public monies for free bread and circuses for the populace” as one of the reasons for the decline of the Roman Empire. Since then, the ‘Libertarian Consensus’ seems to be that the expansion of the Roman welfare provisions was the primary cause of the downfall of the Empire. In order to assess the merit of the Libertarian argument, this paper explores the generosity of the Roman Empire towards its citizenry through the provision of welfare. Primarily, it explores the core components of welfare through the provision of food assistance; subsidized/ free water, healthcare and the Roman Empire’s pension plan for veterans. Subsequently, the paper negates the standard libertarian argument that Rome’s welfare largesse was responsible for its downfall.



Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, were the first to implement a food assistance program during the days of the Roman Republic when they served as tribunes in the second century B.C. E. The consolidation of Roman agricultural land into the hands of a few elite had pushed a number of landless Romans into the city (Garnsey, 1988). These individuals found it difficult to find gainful employment and were living in poverty. Under Gaius’ grain law of 123 B.C.E., a portion of the grain that had been collected by the state as revenue was sold at a subsidized rate to everyone who was willing to stand in line for an allotment once a month at one of the public granaries (Hazlitt, 1971). Historians estimate that the grain was sold at half the market price. Apart from feeding the poor, the program was meant to reduce the fluctuation in grain prices that occurred due to transport difficulties (ibid). It should be noted that the costs of this welfare program were divided between Rome’s richer citizens who were taxed at a higher rate and the provinces that were forced to sell part of their produce to the state at a price that was lower than the prevailing market rate (ibid). Haskell (1947) points out that during the early days of the subsidy, there was no means test. Anyone who was willing and able to stand in the queue could benefit from the program. The program was popular enough that no attempts were made to withdraw it till Sulla’s conservative government attempted to do so around 80 B.C.E. However, following a period of unrest, the subsidy was restored. In 58 B.C.E., Clodius turned the subsidy into a free grain program. Free distribution of grain considerably eased the burden on the poor, as they already had to meet milling and baking charges before they could eat the grain (Robinson, 1994). Within a decade, by the time Caesar came to power, 320,000 people were benefitting from the free grain. As the expense was considerable, Julius Caesar held a special census in 46 B.C.E. and began employing a means test for the free distribution of grain. Only 150,000 of the poorest citizens of Rome were to benefit from the distribution of grain. A special aediles cereales position was created and the political appointee was responsible for overseeing the distribution (ibid). Augustus expanded the program to 200,000 beneficiaries in the early days of the Empire. For the next three hundred years, the number of beneficiaries was kept stable at 200,000 and emperors continued to provide free or greatly subsidized grain to keep the poorest populace of Rome from starving. In 270 C.E., Emperor Aurelian reorganized the relief program. The distribution of grain was halted and instead, two pounds of bread were issued to the poorest citizenry. Moreover, pork, olive oil and salt was distributed free of cost at regular intervals. The program continued in a similar form till the fall of the Roman Empire and cumulatively lasted nearly six hundred years. As only the poorest 200,000 (as decided by a periodic census and the political appointee) could receive benefits, the cost of the program never became prohibitive. However, the percentage of the poorest population of Rome benefitting from the program declined with an increase in population. Moreover, no subsidized or free grain was available for the citizens living in the provinces of the Roman Empire. In fact, they had to bear part of the burden of the subsidy.


“With such an array of indispensable structures carrying so many waters, compare if you will, the idle Pyramids or the useless, though famous works of the Greek.” – Frontinus (Water Commissioner and author of De aquaeductu, an official report on the state of the aqueducts in Rome written at the end of the first century C.E.) The Tiber River and the local springs around Rome had been the natural choice for water in the early days of the Republic. But as the population grew and the water became more and more polluted, it became necessary to construct aqueducts to bring water into Rome from distant water sources. The first aqueduct was constructed approximately around 312 B.C.E. By the time of Frontinus (40 C.E. – 103 C.E.) nine aqueducts brought water from distant springs and streams to Rome. According to the ‘De aquaductu,’ the aqueducts had 591 major delivery points in the city. On average, each point delivered 60 cubic meters of water per day. Bruun (1991) estimates that 900 individuals were served by each delivery point and on average, consumed 67 liters per capita per day. The poor could collect water for free from any of the 591 major delivery points. Aicher (2000) points out that in Pompeii (probably the best-preserved distribution system) the street basins (delivery points) are regularly spaced. Thus, throughout the Empire, the majority of the poor didn’t have to walk more than a mere 150 feet to get access to fresh supply of water without paying any user fees.


Though the Romans may not have had Medicaid, they made provisions for the poor to get access to medical treatment for a subsidized fee or at no cost. Unlike the Greek society where health was considered to be a personal matter, the Roman government actively encouraged and made provisions for public health. Perhaps such provisions were made because the medical community in Rome was aware that infections could spread quickly through a population (from the poor to the rich). Moreover, the health of the Roman economy depended on the health and wellbeing of the poor, the slaves and the foot soldiers of the army. The first public hospital (Aesculapium) in Ancient Rome was constructed on Tiber Island as early as 293 B.C.E. following a plague that had devastated the city. Senate funds were used for the construction (Cornish et al, 2009). The location may have been chosen because the island was separate from the rest of the city and served as a de facto quarantined zone. The Aesculapium covered the entire island and included a long-term recovery center. Subsequently, other public hospitals were constructed across the Empire usually funded by the magistrates responsible for the region (ibid). There is no record of any fees being charged for a stay at an Aesculapium. The Senate bore the expenses of the initial construction of the facility (with the funds coming from the State treasury or from taxes). Subsequently, funding for recurrent expenditure was largely supplemented through pledges and donations from wealthy patrons (ibid). Individuals could pledge to contribute a certain amount if they were healed. Such a system took people’s ability to pay into account as a contributor could only pledge to contribute an amount that he could actually provide. For diseases that weren’t necessarily life threatening or required long-term hospitalization, patients within Rome could secure the services of a medicus (doctor). Each medicus had his clinicus (practice) set up in the city. Patients could visit the clinicus or the medicus could come and visit the patient at her home. The medical practitioners charged fees on a sliding scale according to the assets of the individual (Carcopino, 1943). Only nominal charges were made for diagnosing and providing a prescription to the poor. Platus (254 B.C.E. to 184 B.C.E.), quoted in Carcopino, points out that the charge was usually a symbolic sestertius. Physicians received supplemental income from the State Treasury during the age of Emperors. For example, Antonius Musa, a prominent physician of his time, received a salary of 300,000 sesterces from Augustus (ibid). Also, bathhouses were considered to be an essential part of the recovery process and were available in almost all Roman settlements at a subsidized rate (ibid). The entrance fee for the public baths was a quadrans (literally meaning a ‘quarter,’ it was a low-value Roman bronze coin worth one quarter of an as). The low price ensured that everyone was able to avail of the facilities.


Augustus instituted a military pensions system (praemia) for veterans of the Imperial Roman Army in 6 C.E. The Imperial biographer and historian Suetonious suggests that Augustus created the system, as he was concerned that retired military men in financial constraints may be inclined to support a coup or foment unrest (quoted in Phang, 2012). In the late Republic, the solution had been to settle veterans in colonies in conquered territories or on public land in Italy that was being used by the aristocracy as private agricultural or pastoral land. Under the rule of Augustus, monetary grants replaced any land redistribution and were better received by the upper classes (ibid). A soldier earned a one – time pension or discharge benefit upon completing his service (service length varied between sixteen years for the Praetorian Guard and twenty years for regular duty in the army). At the end of Augustus’s reign, a Praetorian guard received a one – time pension of 20,000 sesterces while the corresponding pension for a regular legionary was 12,000 sesterces. As sesterces are difficult to convert into current dollar terms, a legionary’s retirement benefit can best be understood as equivalent to income earned from twelve years of military service. This pension amount remained stable till the time of Caracalla, (Roman Emperor from 198 C.E. to 217 C.E.), when he increased the pension for a legionary by 67% to 20,000 sesterces (ibid). On occasions when the treasury experienced a shortfall and could not afford the pension, Emperors increased the retirement age by extending the length of military service as a policy of forced retention (ibid). Funding for the pensions came through a dedicated pension fund (Aerarium militare) that was set up by Emperor Augustus in 6 C.E. Initially, he capitalized the pension fund with 170 million sesterces of his own funds along with voluntary contribution that client kings and cities. This amount was insufficient and was likely to run out in a short period of time. Augustus solicited proposals for revenue enhancement from his senators. After rejecting all of the recommendations, he finally decided to enforce an inheritance tax of 5 percent (Swan, 2004). The regular army stipendium did not come through this fund. Inheritance that was left to the immediate family was exempt from the tax as were all estates that were below a minimum threshold. An additional source of income for the military was a sales tax of 1 percent for goods sold at auction but there is debate about whether the funds collected were earmarked only for the pensions system (ibid). The pension scheme was initially met with hostility as it led to an increase in taxes on the wealthy (ibid). However, this permanent revenue source regularized the ad hoc provision for veterans that had taken place under the Republic and had often led to socially disruptive disputes over land rights. Moreover, such a state supported benefit helped redirect the loyalty of veterans from their immediate commanding office to the Roman state (Scullard, 2007).


The Libertarian authors like to draw grim parallels between the United States of America and the Ancient Roman Empire. In Conservative blog entries like ‘The United States of America and Ancient Rome: The Sobering Parallels of Big Government Failure,’ or ‘Will US repeat the welfare death of the Roman Empire?’ they present a standard narrative – The welfare program grew with the expansion of the Roman Empire. The government bankrupted the treasury to provide wheat, bread and pork to its poor citizens. As the poor had no incentive to work, they became lazy recipients of welfare. With a bankrupt treasury, the Roman Emperors increased taxation and began debasing and inflating the currency, which in turn devastated the Roman economy and led to the eventual downfall of the Empire. Given our examination of the Roman welfare state with its mostly minimal and somewhat flexible provisions of welfare, the Libertarian argument seems to be without much merit. Then why do the Libertarians seem to be so convinced by their narrative? As historian Glen Bowersock cautions “From the eighteenth century onward we have been obsessed with the fall (of the Roman Empire): it has been valued as an archetype for every perceived decline, and, hence, as a symbol for our own fears.” The notable lack of substantial historical evidence from the fourth and the fifth century has also lead to increased speculation among historians. There seems to be an unfortunate tendency to envision the fall through an ideological lens. Examining the true cause of the decline of the Roman Empire is beyond the scope of this paper. Alexander Demandt, the German historian and authority on the History of Ancient Rome, has enumerated 210 different theories as to why Rome fell and new theories are still emerging. However, the Libertarians would do well to remember that the fall of the Empire took place on September 4, 476 C.E. with the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire nearly 599 years after Gracchus introduced the grain law. A facile comparison would mean that we could expect the United States of America to be in decline by 2609 C.E., exactly 599 years after the signing of their feared Affordable Care Act.


Apart from being one of the earliest known Empires to have experimented with social welfare, the Roman Empire was remarkably progressive. The Roman Empire provided subsidized/ free grain to the poorest citizens in the city, access to clean drinking water without charging any user fees, affordable and free health care and had a well – funded pension scheme for its veterans for hundreds of years. However, none of these core components of the program were prohibitively expensive or unduly onerous for the economy. As shown earlier, welfare programs like the army pension plan were funded through earmarked taxes and the provision of free heath care in public hospitals was provided through donations collected from wealthy patrons or pledges made by individuals who had been healed. By the time the Roman Empire fell in 476 C.E., the Roman provision of welfare had been in place for nearly six hundred years. To assert that it was the primary cause of the Empire’s downfall is naive at best and intentionally duplicitous at worst.

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