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Roman society of the early empire presents a confusing and ambiguous image that we cannot easily situate in unidirectional accounts of European economic history. Clearly, public monuments in marble or other precious stone, military security, the urban food supply, roads, aqueducts and gladiatorial games testify to public consumption on a grand scale. On the other hand, the signs of poverty, misery, and destitution are no less obvious. Many inhabitants of the Roman empire only eked out a meager living, their skeletons grim testimonies to malnutrition and disease. Growth occurred because the wealth of the elite may have been a sign of effective exploitation of the poor. Roman National Income was indeed larger than that of any preindustrial European state. One of the requirements for an economy is to provide enough subsistence for its population to survive. The economic and social achievements of pre-industrial societies can be measured if standard of living of the masses exceeds bare subsistence levels.
The history of pre-industrial Europe shows that public authorities have almost invariably interfered with the urban food supply. In this paper, it is argued that there were sound reasons for such intervention. Fluctuations in supply would – in a free market – inevitably have led to enormous fluctuations in the price of the staple food. The mass of the urban population would not have been able to cope with these price fluctuations and would have demanded effective measures on the part of the authorities.
Theoretically a number of different types of measures can be predicted, and they can all be documented from the historical record. Specific historical circumstances, however, determine which coping strategy will be prevalent. A comparative analysis of Classical antiquity (in particular Imperial Rome) and the cities of late medieval and early modern Europe demonstrates that costs and benefits of particular coping strategies may differ considerably. It also demonstrates that a purely economic analysis is not sufficient. The nature and extent of state power is at least as important, and so are changes in popular expectations.
In the Digression concerning the Corn Trade and Corn Laws in the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith complains:
The laws concerning corn may every where be compared to the laws concerning religion.[…]