Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.07.49

Claire Holleran, April Pudsey (ed.), Demography and the Graeco-Roman World: New Insights and Approaches.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. ix, 215.  ISBN 9781107010826.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Timothy Doran, University of California at Berkeley (


A culture war still tears at the Classics. One camp, the Literary Theorists, sees culture as independent of non-cultural forces, revels in truth’s alleged elusiveness, distrusts science, and opines that the world is constructed of words. Another camp, the Social Scientists, utilizes models derived from economics, political science, and demography, and sees the world as composed of physical elements. The Literary Theorists find charts full of information incomprehensible and deplore the Social Scientists’ reduction of reality to numbers and generalizations, suspecting that political bias lies behind much scientific enterprise. The Social Scientists ridicule the Literary Theorists’ befuddlement at the alleged kaleidoscope of human culture and deplore postmodernism’s rejection, and relegation to scare-quote status, of science, facts, and truth. And an older third camp, the Historical Positivists, dismisses both literary theory and social-science theory, working particularistically from surviving fragmentary evidence. Each group’s only conceivable strategy is to produce scholarly work of as high a quality as possible to receive attention, readership, and praise in order to attract new graduate students into their factions, which will remain separate until or unless some presently inconceivable synthesis be achieved.

Happily for the Social Scientists in the Classics world, this latest book from their stable is sufficiently meritorious to impress readers of all persuasions—newcomers to ancient demography’s position in the juncture of the social and biological sciences, scholars working outside the ancient Mediterranean, surely some Historical Positivists, and perhaps even a few Literary Theorists looking for something new.

The Introduction qualifies the editors’ bold placement of “demography in its rightful position at the centre of studies of the ancient world” with an initial semi-recusatio specifying the multiple variables affecting the demographic behavior of historical populations and these populations’ great diversity. Such a focus on specificity naturally risks the sort of infinite fragmentation visible in Purcell and Horden’s The Corrupting Sea, in which no microregion is judged small enough for any generalization to hold. Fortunately, the editors also stress the common aspects of ancient Mediterranean populations’ demographic behavior. They explain how age structure, gender ratios, migration, population size, osteological analysis, model life tables, and population dynamics can be used as tools for quantitative and qualitative analysis in all aspects of ancient history, including economic development, political participation, urbanization, military recruitment, marriage, cultural attitudes toward childbearing, household organization, and the cultural interactions of different populations or ethnic groups: exciting prospects indeed. The introduction then proceeds to survey the last several decades of work in ancient demography from Hopkins through Scheidel and onward, bestowing deserved praise on de Ligt and Northwood’s recent edited population studies-centered volume on Roman history.1

The remaining chapters present either commentaries or case studies on how population studies illuminate ancient historical and cultural problems.

Extensive methodological cautions animate the first two essays.2 First, Neville Morley’s “Demography and development in classical antiquity” presents a highly learned history of modern ideas cross-referencing economic development with population, from Hume, Godwin, and Malthus to Esther Boserup to current development studies, and then critiques demographic approaches limited to population size since more can be done. Morley’s essay mostly limits itself to a status quaestionis: the conclusions of the essay itself are negative overall, surveying the debate and pointing out difficulties rather than offering much contribution. An essay offering a new, more unified, positive argument might have been preferable in this position.

Next, Ben Akrigg’s essay “Demography and classical Athens” carefully analyzes the epistemological bases and reasoning behind the Athenian population size estimates of Beloch, Gomme, A.H.M. Jones, and particularly M.H. Hansen, criticizing Hansen for likening Classical Athenian population structure to that of the Roman Empire and noting that our poor empirical data for ancient Roman and Greek populations necessitate reliance upon comparative data and human biology. Why Akrigg phrases this as a negative (our poor data render our conclusions “baseless and inadequate”) rather than a positive (our information and models are quite applicable to these periods) is curious. After eighteen pages, he finally gives positive suggestions: a new mortality table revealing Hansen’s estimates as reasonable. The essay ends by asking fascinating questions like “did the ratio of young to old men affect perceptions of intergenerational conflict?” and “did the Athenians produce fewer children in an atmosphere of [wartime] gloom and pessimism, or did they experience a baby boom at the end of the war as immediate threats dissipated and new opportunities arose?” These might have served better at the essay’s beginning, leaving finer-tuned specialist debates for its end.

Pudsey’s substantial “Nuptiality and the demographic life cycle of the family in Roman Egypt” emphasizes the constantly changing composition of families in contrast to “snapshots” given in single census records and uses the same families’ multiple census records (usefully presented to the reader) to narrate change more dynamically within individual households. Pudsey follows the work of, among others, Bagnall, Frier, Saller, Shaw, Scheidel, and theorists on the emergence of nuclear versus extended families, but more engagement with Sabine Hübner’s recent work on incest in Roman Egypt might have been desirable.3

Saskia Hin’s outstanding “Family matters: fertility and its constraints in Roman Italy” begins with a million-dollar question for the vexed issue of late Republican population. Was it more functional for impoverished Italian households to have many children, or to restrict fertility? Contra Brunt and several demographers, Hin argues against a rational-actor (in terms of intergenerational wealth flows) approach to fertility, employing evidence and clever models: Richerson and Boyd’s model of biology-culture interaction.4 Roman funerary inscriptions, Juvenal and Cassius Dio, evidence of contraception, models of ‘natural fertility,’ elite fertility limitation, the impact of birth spacing and prolonged breastfeeding, and adaptive strategies to avoid wealth reduction.

Claire Taylor’s “Migration and the demes of Attica” treats non-permanent internal migration within Attica, utilizing circular migration theory, deme decrees, slave manumission-inscriptions, grave markers, pinakia, material evidence at Hymettos and Atene, the usage of demotics, and historical texts to plot intra-Attica migration and assess its permanence, concluding that in terms of migration, “no strong town/country divide” existed for Attica/Athens and arguing that migration and lax deme registrations affected communal deme identity in Sounion. The constant migration of citizens within Attica, Taylor argues, invigorated deme structure rather than weakening it.

Christelle Fischer-Bouvet’s “Counting the Greeks in Egypt: Immigration in the first century of Ptolemaic rule” halves previous estimates of early Hellenistic Greeks and Macedonians immigrating into and living in Egypt. Her estimates, based on openly-laid out assumptions, calculations, and evidence, re-interpret Ptolemaic militaries, Egyptian religion’s popularity, intermarriage, and revolts in the final two centuries BC.

A useful contribution to the study of Roman poverty, Claire Holleran’s “Migration and the urban economy of Rome” examines push and pull factors for migration into Rome and posits an extensive informal urban economy created by and for migrants, primarily in the construction trade, street hawking, scavenging, and prostitution. She sees large classes of structurally impoverished individuals in Rome existing sustainably yet miserably in excess of the city’s employment opportunities.

“From the margins to the center stage: Some closing reflections on ancient historical demography” by Tim Parkin, whose 1992 book Demography and Roman Society introduced many to this field, provides the volume’s coda. Parkin reviews general thoughts on ancient demography, defends the usage of model life tables suitably modified to better emphasize increased post-childhood mortality, and comments on the book’s papers.

Overall this volume is very well-edited aside from one typo on page 115 (“temporarily” instead of “temporary”), an abnormal usage of “down” on page 162, line 5, and the volume’s only repeated infelicity: the editors’ and authors’ frequent belaboring of the unsurprising fact that real life varies from generalized models. Otherwise this fine book is a splendid step forward in precisely the editors’ goal, using population studies to better understand an extremely broad range of aspects of ancient Mediterranean life and culture.

What may we expect from this volume’s implicit heralding of a social-scientific revolution in Classics? Several things. First, the examination of comparative evidence and plausible models allows us partial escape from the “representativity trap,” that aporetic twilight zone whose enthusiasts assert that our knowledge of the ancient world is limited to what elite males have written, and that the reality that presumably inspired their representations is forever unattainable. Immense new vistas of potential research are opened: more analyses and fruitful theories can be brought to our texts, to our non-textual evidence, and to existing hypotheses, supplementing and challenging previous qualitative and poetic reconstructions of social phenomena, as other superb recent works have emphasized. 5

We may hope that authors and editors of volumes including material on Greek or Roman gender or family life, from infant-exposure through marriage through pronatalist discourses through maternal mortality through death rituals, will more closely attend to how demographic regimes structure these phenomena in a quite fundamental way. A long-needed reappraisal of Greco-Roman female roles and status is now possible along the lines sketched by Hin, finally providing a control for literary representations of, and polyvalent material evidence for, women’s behavior; more importantly, it may finally muster comparative evidence to ask whether – given the necessary production of 5-7 children per woman in order to maintain population homeostasis – ancient Mediterranean female role limitations should still be attributed primarily to misogyny, given that the requirements of the pre-industrial high-mortality fertility regime are a simpler culprit. This demographic fact is central to women’s existence in the pre-industrial world, and has received far less attention than it has deserved in existing published treatments on the lives of ancient Mediterranean women.

Finally, aside from imminent future work on the archaeogenetic end of demography permitting the study of ancient ethnicity to escape from the representativity trap, perhaps we may look forward to population thinking applied to broader cultural fields such as studies of ethnic conflict, the rhetoric on population found in tragedy and oratory, and most promisingly to the population-based models of cultural transmission in the work of Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson.

Much remains to be done to bring these to the Classics. Until then we can thank this volume’s writers and editors for introducing population studies to a wider scholarly audience and paving a road for more.


1.   de Ligt, L. and S. J. Northwood (eds.), 2008. People, Land and Politics: Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy, 300 BC – AD 14. Mnemosyne Supplement 303. Brill.
2.   The advisability of two entire cautionary essays here is uncertain: their caveats are well known to demographic- minded scholars, and newcomers are unlikely to find in them the sort of excitement that makes demography fascinating, as found e.g. in Massimo Livi-Bacci’s introductory textbook from 2007, A Concise History of World Population. Second edition. Blackwell.
3.   Hübner, Sabine, 2007. “ ‘Brother-Sister’ Marriage in Roman Egypt – A Curiosity of Humankind or a Widespread Family Strategy?” Journal of Roman Studies 97, 21-49.
4.   Richerson, Peter, and Robert Boyd, 2007. Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. University of Chicago Press.
5.   E.g., Scheidel, W., Morris, I. and Saller, R. P. (eds.) 2007, The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco- Roman World. Cambridge University Press.

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