The reality of Rome is much sadder than the topic of the gargantuan feast, which is the result of a literary creativity that always pays attention to the exceptional and anecdotal instead of the ordinary and prosaic: thousands of hungry citizens.
In contrast to the exaggerated image of the “Dinner of Trimalchio” in the Satyricon by Petronius, or in contrast to the delicacies of the work by Apicius in his cookbook "De re coquinaria", the reality is a mass of citizens without sufficient purchasing power even to ensure their own subsistence. Food shortage crisis are common in Rome, especially when linked to poor harvests and constant civil wars.
During the Republican era, the subsistence problems are solved only sporadically at first, and then, in a more institutionalized way with Caius Gracchus (123 BC), who proposes the distribution of subsidized grain to the citizens, trying to solve the problem of lack of wheat. But the conservative senatorial class did not support these subsidized deals defended by the popular leaders.
In 57 B.C. there were serious riots in Rome and thanks to a Senate recommendation, Pompey received the “cura annonae”, the order to victual Rome, for a period of 5 years with a budget of 40 million sesterces; this is the precedent of what will later become the prefecture of the “annona”.
In time of Augustus (the first written reference dates from 14 A.D.) the "praefectura annonae" is an administrative building and a centralized service responsible for import grain and other products to supply the capital, exploiting and stealing resources from the provinces. Therefore, the hunger and frequent disturbances were common in the city. Seneca tells us that when Caligula was assassinated in Rome, there were only wheat stocks for seven or eight days.
We have to consider that in the year 270 B.C. Rome would have 180,000 people, 375,000 in 130 B.C. and a million or more in time of Augustus.
In the year 73 a 5 “modioi” ration is established per person and month (Sallust, Hist., 3.48). In time of Augustus it was distributed wheat to 320,000 people heads of family, then Augustus himself reduced to 200,000. More than 600,000 people benefited in total. If each person received 5 “modioi” (modii) per month (about 36.6 liters per month, the amount to make one kilogram bread daily), 60 modii per person and year, it would be consumed about 12 million a year, about 80,000 tons at the expense of the state. The city needed a total of 200,000 tons to adequate food.
Wheat came mainly from Sicily, Sardinia, North Africa and especially Egypt, which provided between 100,000 and 150,000 tons of wheat annually.
The “annona” was therefore an important aid for daily survival and to maintain the social order. Without the "annona" and without the "circus" things could have been very different. (panem et circenses)