I'm curious to what degree Rome of the late republic was fed by imports as opposed to local goods. (Rome in this case meaning the city and the Italian peninsula, as opposed to her client states and various holdings.) I've read several times that Egypt was "the breadbasket" of the Roman republic, but I've also heard that the Romans exported cereals to the greater mediterranean.

So could the people of the Italian peninsula support themselves agriculturally, or was the population reliant on plunder, tribute, and foreign trade? If so, what were the major sources of Roman food imports? Thanks for your time.

2 Answers 2


Before the Romans took over Egypt, Sicily and Africa were the primary sources of grain. ("Africa" in the Roman context means just the Northwest portion of the continent.) These areas continued to be a major source of grain until the provinces were lost to first the Vandals and later the Muslims after the fall of the Western Empire.

Italy itself ceased to be able to feed itself quite early. Basically the only way Rome could support the population it had in the late Republican and early Empire (over a million people) was through massive grain imports from throughout the whole Mediterranean. The Western Collapse accelerated when Africa was lost to the Vandals, and the loss of Egypt to the Muslims hurt the Eastern Empire critically. Without the grain shipments, the city of Rome fell to a population of less than a hundred thousand.


The late Roman Republic was the time when Rome made the transition in food from "self-sufficient" to imports.

Earlier on, the Roman food supply had been dependent on the production of "small," yeoman farmers. The Punic Wars (which led to a transition from Republic to empire) changed all that for several reasons.

  1. "Small" yeoman farmers could no longer produce enough food when many of them were off fighting a war, instead of farming. Under the circumstances, the only way production could be kept up was to consolidate many small farms into larger holdings.

  2. The conquest of Sicily,and later North Africa from the Carthaginians brought into play more fertile lands further south, whose production costs undercut those of the less fertile Roman small farms. Egypt (conquered from Cleopatra) was just "icing on the cake."

  3. Even for farms that continued to operate around Rome, the capture of slaves from war meant that the newly-enlarged holdings could be farmed more efficiently with slave, rather than free, labor.

While Rome "could" be self-sufficient, the changing external environment provided incentives to import grain, or at least slaves to produce grain "locally."

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