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Interesting Roman As reverse types - Annona, the Modius, and the Grain Supply of Rome


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Good day everyone! Hope you are all doing well.

Last time, I posted about a very rare as of Trajan. Today I want to show a much more common coin, struck by his successor.


I was pleased to be able to win this coin a few months ago for a reasonable price. The surfaces are fairly worn, as is often the case with asses, but there is good detail remaining which is further highlighted by a slight earthen patina.

The reverse design is interesting, and a departure from the typical god/goddess type. We see a modius, which was a dry unit of volume about equal to two US gallons, with ears of grain and poppy poking out the top. The inscription reads simply “ANNONA AVG”, which could be translated as “The Grain Supply of the Augustus” and reinforces the beneficence of the Princeps in his constant provision for the populace.

Annona was the personification of the grain supply to Rome. From the earliest times of the Empire, Rome had been heavily dependent on other regions, most notably Egypt, for its regular supply of grain. After the death of Cleopatra in 30 B.C., Egypt fell under the direct control of the Emperor.

Ensuring a regular and plentiful supply of grain was vital to the interests not only of the people, but also for the security of the state and the Emperor, since interruptions or delays in the grain supply could lead to serious civil unrest and riots.

Government-subsidized grain distribution had been implemented off and on during the Republican period, but mainly as an emergency measure. Toward the later Republic, popularis politicians such as Publius Clodius Pulcher and Gaius Julius Caesar gained favor with the public by offering free grain distribution. Later, after the fall of the Republic, Augustus, though personally reluctant to establish a permanent dole, nonetheless felt constrained to continue the free distribution, and the program became a permanent part of the Emperor’s obligation to the public.

Annona was closely linked to Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, who was in turn the Roman equivalent to the Greek goddess Demeter. Roman coins depicting Ceres go back into Republican times; Annona (as the personification of the grain supply) comes later. The first depiction of Annona as a goddess in her own right appears on this beautifully designed sestertius struck under the Emperor Nero in A.D. 65:


Annona is here accompanied by Ceres, along with imagery which would become inseparable from the goddess - a modius, grain stalks, and the prow of a ship - together painting a vivid picture of the vital import of grain from overseas. Nero himself was careful to advertise his support of the grain distribution, the efficiency of which was improved by the completion of the port at Ostia (begun under Claudius), and commemorated on an even more famous sestertius design:



The modius, as we have seen, was a unit of measure about equal to two US gallons. This bronze modius was found at Carvoran, a Roman fort on the British frontier, near Hadrian’s wall. It is an extremely rare find, dated by the inscription to the reign of Domitian (although his name has been erased):


Curators' Collections: Hadrian's Wall | English Heritage (english-heritage.org.uk)

During the 1st century A.D. the allowance was 5 modii per month for every adult male citizen; I’ve also read that a slave’s allowance was 4 modii. Five modii per month is the equivalent of 3,000 to 3,500 calories per day for a single person - less if the amount were to be shared within a family, as is likely to have been the case in most circumstances.

The grain needs of Rome in this time would have been extraordinary; perhaps as much as 40 million modii - 250,000 tons - of grain per year. This huge amount would have required a fleet of thousands of seagoing ships and a vast army of porters to unload and handle the cargo, plus warehouses for storage, and over everything, the mind-boggling logistical complexity of coordinating and managing it all. It would have been a task fully worthy of the organizational skills of the Romans.

In summary, we see that the message of this coin’s design is simple: to emphasize the continued assurance that the Emperor took the highest interest in maintaining the free flow of life-sustaining grain to the population of Rome. Such a statement could hardly have failed to resonate with the people, and under the reign of Hadrian and his immediate successors, they would be assured of peace and prosperity for some little time to come.

Thanks for reading - I hope you found it interesting, and please feel free to comment and post your own ANNONA coins!




"The Grain Trade under the Roman Empire", G. E. Rickman, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 36, 1980

"Ancient Roman units of measurement", Wikipedia

Curators' Collections: Hadrian's Wall | English Heritage (english-heritage.org.uk) (Modius)

ACSearch, Classical Numismatic Group (Annona coin)

ACSearch, Roma Numismatics (Port of Ostia coin)



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A wonderful presentation that strikes a theme that carries to the present day: the dependence of the world on sources of grain from the world's breadbaskets, such as the Ukraine.  The Roman emperors were well attuned to this vital link and were not hesitant to make the point that they guaranteed a safe and continuous supply of grain for the populace.  Indeed the symbols of abundance were, such as the cornucopia, quite commonly used on earlier coinage of other empires or city/states to link the issuing authority with general wellbeing. 

Commodus, 177-92 AD, sestertius, Rome, 181 AD.  Annona reverse.

BM 442, bust variety C 4-5

25.08 grams


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A great post thank you and also interesting comments.

Here is an early depiction of a Modius and ears of corn.

image.png.80b56ec703ab2e5616c2b35ffa5ac1f9.pngHelmeted head of Roma facing rght. X (XVI monogram) below chin, modius behind.
Victory in biga right, M.MAR  ( MAR in monogram)/ROMA divided by two corn ears below.  134 BC   3.89 gmimage.png.3af0f05f2c106b915401bbc1a712c9b4.png

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