What Often Caused The Poor Of Ancient Rome To Riot

Food-related riots

Rome was frequently beset by food-related riots, especially during periods of poor harvests. The Roman economy relied heavily on food imports from elsewhere in the empire and a breakdown in the supply was often enough to spark concerned citizens into a protest. Prices were often inflated due to a lack of control over the grain supply and there are numerous notable times when the bread shortages prompted starving people to take to the streets in uproar. Clodius Albinus, who served as prefect of Rome between 58-61 CE, was partly responsible for stopping grain riots, draining money from the treasury to pay them off in grain. Emperors such as Claudius and Nero had also tackled grain shortages, with Nero building a huge granary in the city center and Claudius enacting an emergency plan to import grain and provide it for free.


Another issue that commonly gave rise to unrest in Ancient Rome was taxation. The rich had to pay a land tax and the poor had to pay taxes in the form of labor. This meant citizens were forced to do work for the rich in order to pay their taxes. There were also sales taxes that affected essential items such as food. High taxes meant that citizens were forced into debt and often treated as commodities by the tax collectors. This misery was compounded further by the fact that many citizens had no rights and few chances of escaping the oppression of the poverty. These social issues gave rise to a series of well-known riots, such as the one in 19 CE when the people collected around the Capitoline Hill and shouted in chorus that they wanted justice.

Rise of Christianity

The rise of Christianity also created the potential for unrest due to the religious persecution of those who followed alternative beliefs. Roman officials viewed the new wave of Christianity with suspicion and fear, so much so that Nero had crucified Peter, the first pope, and countless others were sent to Roman prisons rather than risking public unrest. This draconian approach to the religion created a large homelessness crisis because those who couldn’t pay the rent were put onto the streets. Many churches were banned and oppressive laws meant that the population at large was denying themselves the right to express their beliefs freely. Sadly, these oppressive measures prompted riots during which churches were destroyed and havoc reigned.

Public Executions

Public executions were used by the elite to make an example of criminals and encourage others to stay out of trouble. The executions served as a warning to the population that the law should be held in high regard and any deviation could potentially bring death. Although the executions were meant to teach a lesson, in many cases the executions led to riots because of the cruel and uncompromising nature of the executions. Citizens were often outraged by the manner in which criminals were being brutally killed, and took to the streets in protest.

Discrimination against Women

Discrimination against women was pervasive in Ancient Rome and often became a source of widespread unrest. Women had no rights and were seen merely as objects of status and reproduction by powerful Roman men who held sway over public discourse and policy. Women were not permitted to vote or own property, and were frequently denied access to any form of education. This, combined with the harsh punishments for perceived lapses in moral conduct, often drove women to protest in a desperate attempt to secure some degree of autonomy.

Political Oppression

Political oppression was a common reason behind unrest in Ancient Rome. The Roman political system had been in place for centuries, and its structure allowed a powerful few to gain and maintain control over the masses. This meant that political dissenters were often met with violence and oppression, leading the population to direct their anger towards the government by taking to the streets in protest. The most famous example of this is when Julius Caesar had to send in troops to quell a rebellion, resulting in the death of over 15,000 people.

Guilds and Labor Unrest

The guild system and labor unrest was a constant source of tension in Ancient Rome. The guild system provided a form of labor organization, protecting rights and wages for skilled workers and artisans. However, the rigid structure of the guilds meant that the lower classes were often excluded from joining, leading to resentment and tensions. This generated a significant amount of protest, often taking the form of strikes, which if left unchecked, could turn violent.

Lack of Representation

Despite the rise of the Roman republic, representation within the government was lacking, leaving the lower classes at the mercy of the powerful. This, combined with the oppressive nature of the Roman system, led to several instances of protest and unrest. This was particularly evident in the numerous rebellions during the first century CE, with the Spartacus Rebellion being the most memorable, as it galvanized several slave groups into a single force and ultimately led to the death of over 6000 slave warriors.

Exploitation of the Poor

The Roman system was one of extreme exploitation, not just with taxation and labor but with cheap goods. Large landowners and merchants regularly underpaid artisans and laborers for their goods, often paying mere pennies on the dollar for their work. This generated a significant amount of resentment and poverty amongst the population, and riots were often the result of this economic injustice. The most famous example of this is the riot of 57 CE when the people gathered around the senate house and demanded an end to the inequality and exploitation of the poor.

Lack of Legal Protections

The Roman legal system lacked the resources and structure to adequately protect its citizens. The legal system was based on personalized relationships, rather than a more rational approach, so that the powerful could take advantage of the weak and poor. This led to numerous complaints, which then gave rise to rallies and riots in favor of greater legal protection. The most notable example of this was in 58 CE when a major legal reform led to widespread rioting as people called for greater legal protection under the law.

Reckless Spending

The ruling elite of Rome were known for their reckless spending and their ability to flaunt their wealth without care. This created a disparity between the haves and have-nots that was hard to stomach for those living in poverty. This prompted an increased sense of inequality and discontent amongst the poor, resulting in numerous riots that called for greater equality and accountability amongst the ruling class. One of the most famous instances of this was in 63 CE when the people gathered to protest against the opulent lifestyle of the ruling elite, resulting in numerous deaths.

Moshe Rideout is a professional writer and historian whose work focuses on the history of Ancient Rome. Moshe is passionate about understanding the complexity of the Roman Empire, from its architecture to its literature, political systems to social structures. He has a Bachelor's degree in classic studies from Rutgers University and is currently pursuing a PhD in classical archaeology at UMass Amherst. When he isn't researching or writing, he enjoys exploring ruins around Europe, drawing inspiration from his travels.

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