It is not to be supposed that so important an event as a rise in the price of wheat would long remain unknown in Rome, a city of which one might fairly say that it contained more paupers than any other place in the world ever had or probably ever will have. The private bakers, who naturally took early care to guard themselves against loss, had already been charging their customers more for the loaf. Other provisions, too, were becoming dearer. The question which agitated the multitude of people who depended more or less on the State for their daily bread was not whether wheat was dearer, but whether the public distribution of it would be in any way affected. This was the topic that was freely debated by the crowd that was assembled round the steps of the public bread depôts one morning some three weeks after the incidents described in my first chapter. Public opinion was, as may be supposed, fairly unanimous against any diminution in the quantity distributed.
"What is the good of telling us that Rome is the capital of the world," cried a speaker who was evidently a favourite, "if we are not to get any advantage from the dignity? Of course the capital must be the last place to suffer. Rome is the mistress of the world, and it would be a poorly managed household where the mistress should be hungry and the servants well fed. If there is any shortage in the supply, let the country folk suffer first. There are plenty of ways in which they can make it up to themselves. They have got their gardens and their fields; they can hunt and fish; whereas we poor citizens have our bread and nothing else."
This oration was received with shouts of applause, and an imprudently candid bystander who ventured to observe that a common calamity would have to be put up with by all was hustled and kicked and generally given to understand that his opinions were highly unpatriotic.
The system in use for managing the distribution of bread without disturbance or delay was that every tribe—the tribes numbered a few over thirty—resorted to a depôt of its own. Each man or woman entitled to share in the public bounty was provided with a ticket, and a tribe, which in earlier times had been an important political body, was now practically nothing more than a corporation of such ticket-holders. These corporations again had an informal arrangement of their own by which the distribution was made easier. As each must have numbered several thousand persons, there might easily have been no little discomfort and even danger in obtaining the allowance. To guard against this a certain order was established. The older ticket-holders had precedence; and it was a practice for one man to act for others. He would go attended by two or three porters, and would so be able to carry away the allowances of a considerable number of ticket-holders. On the whole the matter was managed in a quiet and orderly manner; at the same time there were no small possibilities of disturbance. In a time of excitement voluntary arrangements of this kind are likely to become ineffective.
The time of distribution was at hand. At a signal given by the sound of a bugle, the doors of the depôt were thrown open, and the business began. It should be explained that the doors were approached by a flight of broad steps, up which each ticket-holder had to pass. As a matter of fact there were many buttery hatches, at which a considerable number of ticket-holders could be served at once. Passages were made by which those who had received their allowance could retire without interfering with fresh applicants. Not many minutes had elapsed before the first corners had been served and had made their way back to their fellows; a few minutes more and the whole multitude was in a state of excitement, which became greater when one of the loaves distributed was raised on the top of a long pole, and so made visible far and wide. No one who saw it could doubt for a moment that the size had been materially reduced. This was not all. It soon became generally known that the quality of the article had been reduced as well as the quantity. The colour and smell of the bread showed clearly enough that a good deal of grain other than wheat had been used in making it. The worst fears of the crowd were realized. It was evident enough that the authorities had the intention of putting off the pensioners of the public bakeries with a smaller quantity than they had been accustomed to receive, and that the diminished ration was also of a less palatable quality. A Southerner, in whose diet bread is an even more important thing than it is to a dweller in the north, is particularly sensitive as to its quality.
It was not long before the excitement began to vent itself in the usual acts of violence. Of course the first thing was to make an attack on the bread depôts. The authorities had foreseen the probability of such a result, and had made preparations accordingly. Each depôt had its garrison of soldiers. They had been kept out of sight as long as it was possible to dispense with their services, but were now instructed to show themselves. The mob were for the most part unarmed, though some of the most turbulent spirits had provided themselves with bludgeons and even more formidable weapons, and at sight of the armed men it drew back. The excitement had not yet become so intense as to make it ready for so unequal a conflict. Then there was a diversion; for Narcissus, one of the wealthy freedmen who shared the real though not the ostensible management of public affairs, was seen to pass in his gorgeous chariot close to the outskirts of the crowd. "See the scoundrel who battens on the hunger of the people," was the cry raised by the multitude in a hundred different ways, and an ugly rush was made in the direction of the equipage. But Narcissus was perfectly well aware of his unpopularity, and had made special preparations that day to protect himself against any manifestations of hostility. A strong escort of Praetorian cavalry was in attendance. They were riding at a considerable distance behind the carriage, so that an uninformed spectator might have supposed that their presence was accidental. But the officer in command was clearly on the watch for what might happen, and as soon as he saw the movement of the crowd he gave the order to his men to close up. Instantly the troopers put their horses to the gallop, and before the foremost rioters could come up, they had formed themselves in a close body on each side of the equipage. The crowd, baulked of their vengeance, could do nothing but give vent to a storm of shrill cries of rage and angry exclamations. These were redoubled when Narcissus was seen to salute the crowd with an ironical courtesy. Nothing more was possible; in a few minutes he was safe within the strongly guarded walls of the Imperial Palace.
But the crowd was not going to be so easily mocked and eluded. The rioters were not rash enough to venture on a collision with the Praetorian cavalry, nor to break their heads against the stone walls of the public bakeries. But there were other bakers who would furnish an easier prey. Some of the creatures, thoughtless or malignant, who are always at hand to suggest some kind of mischief to an excited crowd, raised a cry of "Down with the bakers," and a rush was made to the nearest establishments. Some had been prudent enough to shut up their shops and remove all their wares; others had sought and obtained the protection of the city-guards; but many were quite unprepared for the outbreak. They were not in the least to blame, as far as the ticket-holders were concerned. Possibly they had raised the price upon their private customers before they had felt the pinch themselves, and while they were still using the stock bought at the old prices—bakers and other tradesmen were not above doing such things in ancient Rome, as they are not above doing them in modern London. Possibly also they had charged these same customers with an increase which more than made up for the market rise—this is probably a practice as old as the baking business itself. But they were not in the least responsible for the small loaves, largely made up with rye-flour, which had been issued from the public depôts. Their innocence did not protect them. The crowd had a bread grievance on their minds, and were not at all particular on whom they vented it. Shop after shop was wrecked, most of the spoil being as usual trampled under foot and generally wasted. The plunderers were not hungry, but angry. Then it occurred to them that spoiling bread shops and bakeries with a blazing June sun overhead—it was almost noon—was thirsty work, and that there were wine shops near. Against the wine-sellers the rioters had no grievance whatever, except that some of them might have been refused the amount of credit to which steady customers thought themselves entitled. But, grievance or no grievance, the wine shops obviously called for the next visit. Some sagacious dealers saved their establishments and part at least of their stock-in-trade by a liberal offer of free drinks to all comers. The rioters could not for very shame do any harm to a generous host who rolled a cask on to the pavement and asked for no payment for its contents. Others, who were more inclined to stand upon their rights, escaped less easily. Considerable damage was done, more by waste than by robbery, for the wine that flooded the gutter was far greater in quantity than that which went down the throats of the rioters. The disturbance developed in the usual way. The professional thieves and robbers who always lurk in the slums of great cities, creatures of hideous aspect who seldom show themselves to the light of day, saw their opportunity. Their thoughts were fixed upon something more valuable than bread and wine, on plunder that could be carried away, turned into money, and so made to furnish pleasure for many nights and days. After the bakeries, the wine shops; after the wine shops, when the courage of the crowd had been raised to the necessary pitch, the establishments of the jewellers and the bankers. This turn of affairs threatened, as will be seen, the life and property of an important personage whose acquaintance we made in my first chapter.