Classical demography

Classical demography refers to the study of human demography in the Classical period. It often focuses on the absolute number of people who were alive in civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea between the Bronze Age and the Fall of the Roman Empire, but in recent decades historians have been more interested in trying to analyse demographic processes such as the birth and death rates or the sex ratio of ancient populations. The period was characterized by an explosion in population with the rise of the Greek and Roman civilizations followed by a steep decline caused by economic and social disruption, migrations, and a return to primarily subsistence agriculture. Demographic questions play an important role in determining the size and structure of the economy of Ancient Greece and the Roman economy.


Ancient Greece and Greek colonies

Beginning in the 8th century BC, Greek city-states began colonizing the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts. Whether this sudden phenomenon was due to overpopulation, severe droughts, or an escape for vanquished people (or a combination) is still in question.

Greece proper

The geographical definition of Greece has fluctuated over time. While today Macedonia is sometimes considered part of the Greek world, in the Classical Period it was a separate kingdom using a Doric Greek dialect (before adopting Attic Greek). Similarly, almost all modern residents of historical Ionia, now part of Turkey, speak the Turkish language, although from the 1st millennium BC Ionia was densely populated by Greek-speaking people and an important part of Greek culture.

Estimates of the population of Greek speakers in the coast and islands of the Aegean Sea during the 5th century BC vary from 800,000 [1] to over 3,000,000.[2] The city of Athens in the 4th century BC had a population of 60,000 non-foreign free males. Including slaves, women, and foreign-born people, the number of people residing in the city state was probably in the range of 350,000 to 500,000 people, of which 160,000 normally resided inside the city and port.

The population of the entire Greek civilization (Greece, the Greek-speaking populations of Sicily, the coast of western Asia Minor, and the Black Sea) in the 4th century BC was recently estimated to be 8,000,000 to 10,000,000. This is over ten times the population of Greece during the 8th century BC, about 700,000 people.[citation needed]

Magna Graecia

The population of Sicily is estimated to range from about 600,000 to 1 million in the 5th century BC. The island was urbanized, and its largest city alone, the city of Syracuse, having 125,000 inhabitants or about 12% to 20% of the total population living on the island. With the other 5 cities probably having populations of over 20,000, the total urban population could have reached 50% of the total population.

Other colonization

The ancient Roman province of Cyrenaica in the eastern region of present-day Libya was home to many hundreds of thousands of Greek, Latin, and Jewish communities. Originally settled by Greek colonists, five important settlements (Cyrene, Barca, Euesperides, Apollonia, and Tauchira) formed a pentapolis.[3] The fertility of the land, the exportation of silphium, and its location between Carthage and Alexandria made it a magnet for settlement.

Demography of the Hellenistic Kingdoms

Ptolemaic Egypt

Greek historian Diodorus Siculus estimated that 7,000,000 inhabitants resided in Egypt during his lifetime before its annexation by the Roman Empire.[4] Of this, he states that 300,000 citizens lived within the city of Alexandria.

Seleucid Empire

The population of the vast Seleucid Empire has estimates that range from 25 million to 35 million.

Demography of the Roman Empire

There are many estimates of the population for the Roman Empire, that range from 45 million to 120 million with 55-65 million as the classical figure. More modern estimates place this number at the higher end (80-120 million).

The estimated population of the empire during the reign of Augustus: [5]

Region Population (in millions)
Total Empire 56.8
European part 31.6
Asian part 14.0
North African part 11.2

Roman Italy

The total population of Roman Italy (south of the Po Valley) was estimated to be around 4 million before the Second Punic War. The figure is approximate: the Romans carried out a regular census of citizens eligible for military service (Polybius 2.23), but for the population of the rest of Italy at this time we have to rely on a single report of the military strength of Rome's allies in 227 BC - and guess the numbers of those who were opposed to Rome at this time.[6]

For the 1st and 2nd centuries BC, historians have developed two radically different accounts, resting on different interpretations of the figure recorded for the census carried out by Augustus in 28 BC: 4,036,000. If this represents adult male citizens (as the census traditionally did), then the population of Italy must have been around 10 million, not including slaves; a striking, sustained increase despite the Romans' losses in the almost constant wars over the previous two centuries. Others find this entirely incredible, and argue that the census must now be counting all citizens - in which case the population had declined slightly, something which can readily be attributed to war casualties and to the crisis of the Italian peasantry.[7] The majority of historians favour the latter interpretation as being more demographically plausible, but the issue remains contentious.[8]

Evidence for the population of Rome itself or of the other cities of Roman Italy is equally scarce. For the capital, estimates have been based on the number of houses listed in 4th-century AD guidebooks, on the size of the built-up area and on the volume of the water supply, all of which are problematic; the best guess is based on the number of recipients of the grain dole under Augustus, implying a population of around 800,000-1,200,000.[9] Italy had numerous urban centres - over 400 are listed by the Elder Pliny - but the majority were small, with populations of just a few thousand. As many as 40% of the population may have lived in towns (25% if the city of Rome is excluded), on the face of it an astonishingly high level of urbanisation for a pre-industrial society. However, studies of later periods would not count the smallest centres as 'urban'; if only cities of 10,000+ are counted, Italy's level of urbanisation was a more realistic (but still impressive) 25% (11% excluding Rome).[10]

Rome's population seems to have contracted by the mid-3rd century AD, as Aurelian's wall enclosed an area smaller than the fourteen Regions established by Augustus. Also, the declining volume of shipping in the Mediterranean sea supports this hypothesis.

The population in 2010 of areas ruled by the Roman Empire at its greatest extent (in 117 A.D.) amounted to some 690 million people across 37 modern states.

See also


  1. ^ Brian D Joseph - Ohio State University Department of Linguistics
  2. ^ Demographics of Greece
  3. ^
  4. ^ Delia, Diana. "The Population of Roman Alexandria." Transactions of the American Philological Association 118 (1988): 275-92.
  5. ^ John D. Durand, Historical Estimates of World Population: An Evaluation, 1977, pp. 253-296.
  6. ^ P.A.Brunt, Italian Manpower, Oxford 1971: 44-60
  7. ^ Brunt, op. cit., 121-30
  8. ^ cf. N.Morley, 'The transformation of Italy', Journal of Roman Studies 91 (2001); W.Scheidel, ed., Debating Roman Demography (Leiden, 2001)
  9. ^ N.Morley, Metropolis and Hinterland (Cambridge, 1996) 33-9
  10. ^ ibid., 174-83

Further reading

Ancient Greece

Roman Republic and Empire

  • Brunt, Peter A.: Italian Manpower, 225 B.C.- A.D. 14, Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1971
  • Kron, Geoffrey, "The Augustan Census Figures and the Population of Italy," Estratto da Athenaeum: Studi di Letteratura e Storia dell'Antichita, Vol. 93, Fasc. 2 (2005) pp. 441–495
  • Fenoaltea, Stefano: "Slavery and Supervision in Comparative Perspective: A Model," Journal of Economic History, Vol. 44 No. 3, (1984) pp. 635–668
  • Frank, Tenney (ed.): An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome, Vol. 1, Octagon Books: New York, 1975
  • Frier, Bruce W.: "More is Worse: Some Observations on the Population of the Roman Empire," Scheidel, Walter (ed.): Debating Roman Demography, Brill: Leiden, 2001
  • Lo Cascio, Elio: "Recruitment and the Size of the Roman Population From the Third to the First Century BCE," Scheidel, Walter (ed.): Debating Roman Demography, Brill: Leiden, 2001
  • Moreley, Neville: "The Transformation of Italy, 225-28 BCE," Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 91 (2001), pp. 50–62
  • Rosenstein, Nathan: "Rome at War: Farms, Families, and Deaths in the Middle Republic", University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC, 2004
  • Scheidel, Walter: "Progress and Problems in Ancient Demography," Scheidel, Walter (ed.): Debating Roman Demography, Brill: Leiden, 2001
  • Scheidel, Walter; Morris, Ian; Saller, Richard (eds.): The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2007
  • Scheidel, Walter: Roman Population Size: The Logic of the Debate, July 2007, Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics

External links

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