In 436 B.C. the city of Rome suffered a severe shortage of food, and thousands of people threw themselves into the Tiber River to escape the agony of starvation. Famine—a disastrous general shortage of essential foods, resulting in widespread disease and starvation—did not occur often in the ancient Mediterranean world. However, serious food shortages were common in small local areas, and people lived with the constant threat of not having enough to eat. Both Greeks and Romans knew that, in any season, the crops might fail. Although some foods, especially grains, were often imported from far away, times of scarcity might always be just around the corner.
The causes of famine were both natural and political. Natural causes included drought*, especially a delay in the arrival of the autumn rains; pests that destroyed crops; and floods. Political causes included the destruction that resulted from war or siege, including the purposeful burning of an enemy city’s fields. During the Peloponnesian War, clashing Greek armies destroyed many olive groves, crippling the rural Greek economy for some 40 years—the length of time it took for young olive trees to reach maturity. As a result of war, there were also breakdowns in food-distribution systems. Such breakdowns sometimes were the deliberate acts of those in power intended to oppress the people of a local area. Other times, the breakdowns occurred as a result of the incompetence of those responsible for gathering, transporting, storing, or distributing food.
When a food shortage did occur, emergency supplies were sometimes available from neighboring areas, and substitute foods provided some immediate relief. Barley replaced wheat, for example, and chestnuts were used for making bread. Various wild herbs and even weeds enabled some people to survive starvation. Even in good times, however, the poor of the ancient world often suffered from malnutrition*. (See also Agriculture, Greek; Agriculture, Roman; Climate, Mediterranean; Food and Drink.)
* drought long period of dry weather
* malnutrition lack of proper nourishment