BMCR 2000.02.08

La Rome impériale: Démographie et logistique. Actes de la table ronde (Rome, 25 mars 1994)

, La Rome impériale : démographie et logistique : actes de la Table ronde (Rome, 25 mars 1994).. Collection de l'École française de Rome, 230. Rome: L'Ecole française de Rome, 1997. 232 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm.. ISBN 2728303703 FRF260.

Those who take comfort in texts, and are not too hardened by the ascetic rigors of modern hypercriticism, will find interesting things in this all-European collection. Perhaps most importantly, it sustains the conviction that the officials of the world’s largest ancient city were capable of real urban planning and not just intelligent reaction.

Virlouvet revisits the question of whether a death register was maintained at Rome, at least for male citizens and possibly for all freeborn adult males. Death rolls were kept for carefully controlled groups of beneficiaries such as the plebs frumentaria and recipients of aqueduct water grants; but a more general list, the ratio Libitinae, seems to have existed at the time of a plague in 65 CE (Suet. Nero 39.1). Some scholars complain that Suetonius’s count of 30,000 funera in this register looks suspiciously like a symbolic figure and dismiss it wholesale. Others conjecture that measures of this sort were taken only in extremis, constituting little more than a body count to mark the magnitude of a disaster. But was there a more comprehensive and central strategy at work which meshed with the needs of the living?

In Egypt, Virlouvet notes, a death register was in place for adult males, but its purpose is transparently anomalous: the men in this province between age 14 and 60 paid a poll tax. She cites a better comparandum, the lex of Puteoli, which refers to denuntiationes (registrations?) of the deceased. Denuntiatio was continuous, even during plagues — when, according to the law, burial did not have to follow the list sequentially. Virlouvet suggests that a similar register existed in Rome, and may even have been employed to estimate life expectancy. Such actuarial precision is evident in the “life table” of Ulpian ( D. 35.2.68); it may have been necessary, she argues, for regulating the assessment of Augustus’ five-percent inheritance tax, which paid for military discharge donatives.

One might argue further that in Rome death records were part of an aggregate of statistics that could be used to estimate overall population. The Puteoli law includes criminals and slaves among the denuntiati — a remarkable detail suggesting a universal and status-blind purpose. Such data would have aided the city administration in crucial ways, as in planning the annual annona. Rome probably kept citywide records that were not confined to an interest group or social order — for example, the tally of insulae and domus recorded in the regionary catalogues. Frontinus reports that a vectigal fell upon all properties near public outlets of aqueduct water ( Aq. 4.4, 118). This was a consumption fee, and since most properties in Rome would have been near enough to a fountain basin or public bath to benefit from it, they would have been registered in the tax records. Some effort must have been made to bracket the assessment according to the property’s level of consumption — which, in turn, was a function not only of size and type, but also of the number of people living on it, including noncitizens. Were all these records independent of one another, or did they rely on something like a master list?

In the longest article of the anthology, Lo Cascio lays out the rationale for an inclusive census of the free Roman population. While duly recognizing the debt owed to Claude Nicolet, he makes a daring suggestion that would equate Caesar’s recensus at Rome (Suet. Caes. 41.3) with reforms in the Tabula Heracleensis; that is, the establishment of a registry to disqualify landowners and their familiae from the newly restructured plebs frumentaria, now defined as free adult males permanently residing within Rome who were not landowners. Such a registry would have been administered vicatim, as in the towns of Roman Egypt, and records kept current by the annual subsortitio, the drawing of lots to replace the dole recipients who had died. Lo Cascio further suggests that the landowners in Rome, as in the Tabula Heracleensis, were required to contribute to the maintenance of the streets; but there is absolutely no evidence of this.

Caesar’s measure, which reduced the number of dole recipients from 320,000 to 150,000, is seen here as a decisive reform of a system that had relied on tribal membership as its sole means of determining qualification for the grain dole. It was evidently designed to encourage “marginal” populations, such as members of the 31 nonurban tribes who had made Rome their permanent residence, to emigrate. By Lo Cascio’s estimate, the grain supply would have fed over 700,000 before the reform; afterwards, the dole would seem to have supported a population of no more than 500,000, not including slaves, foreigners, landlords, and their families.

Augustus set the number of dole recipients at 200,000 in 2 B.C. (Dio 55.10.1), yet in the Res Gestae the number of recipients of his congiaria deviated from this number: “never fewer than 250,000” of “the Roman plebs” in 44, 29, 24, and 11 B.C.; 320,000 of “the urban plebs” in 5 B.C.; and in 2 B.C. “somewhat more than 200,000,” that is, “the plebs then ( tum) receiving public grain.” The irregular numbers, Lo Cascio notes, are significant: far from reflecting a target figure, they point to a comprehensive tally taken periodically to readjust the number of qualified recipients. This was probably updated through neighborhood canvasses of the age, sex, and resident status of each domiciled citizen and his (free?) dependents. Accordingly, the annual subsortitio may be seen as a relatively minor stopgap until the next recensus was taken. Later certain modifications were made; the right to the dole became heritable, and in certain cases it could be acquired or awarded, even to women and children.1

To account for the variation in Augustus’ numbers, Lo Cascio suggests that in 44 B.C. he had followed the tradition of distributing the congiaria to all free males over 10, and had eliminated the age limit in 5 (see Suet. Aug. 41.2). Then in 2, the congiaria went only to those qualifying for the dole, that is, males who had received the toga virilis. Using a general statistical model for stable populations, Lo Cascio demonstrates that the three totals conform well to the expectations for the proportion of the free male population under 17 and under 10. According to this model, the population of plebs frumentaria and their free dependents in Augustan Rome would have been about 600,000.

Lo Cascio’s total excludes landowners and slaves (a logical pairing, since the former owned most of the latter). Their numbers must have been huge, and one wonders how well they could have provided for themselves. The extent to which the annona accounted for them, even as unsubsidized consumers, remains unknown. I am inclined to believe that if water consumption fees were based on a status-blind formula, then grain consumption was calculated in a similar way. Both could be founded upon simple door-to-door censuses taken in each of the city’s several hundred vici.

And that brings us to the topography of Rome’s demographics. Any analysis of ancient Rome’s population must wrestle with the notion of an insula as an urban spatial unit and the apparent superabundance of insulae in the fourth-century regionary catalogues. Lo Cascio’s solution is simple: the 46,000-plus insulae are not just residences, but, following Ulpian’s vague definition ( D., they are all freestanding buildings, private and public, in the entire city. Thus the term insula becomes the heading for the terms immediately following it in the breviarium of each catalogue: horrea, balnea, lacus, pistrinae. But it seems absurd to suggest that every lacus (a small fountain basin), bakery, and bath was an insula unto itself, isolated from surrounding buildings. Was the insula of the regionary catalogues, then, an apartment, a story, a freestanding apartment block, or a legal construct that assumed different physical shapes? Coarelli concludes that it is best understood in the legal sense — as a vertical block of apartments owned by a single interest, but not necessarily isolated physically from its neighbors. Each would have had its own entrance and street address. We cannot determine the number of tenants attached to such a construct, but the Imperial bureaucracy certainly could have. Then as now, a universal street-address network was essential to the census.

Coarelli also tackles the flawed manuscript tradition of the two regionary catalogues. The total number of vici recorded in each breviarium (423/424) greatly exceeds the sum of the parts recorded region by region (307/303). Less well known is the total recorded by Zacharias of Mytilene, 323. The 423 of the Curiosum, then, may be a simple scribal error introducing one C too many. By suggesting two other corrections, in regions 11 (XXIIII for XVIIII) and 13 (the XXXI which appears in some MSS instead of XVII / XVIII) Coarelli arrives at Zacharias’ total of 323 for the aggregate sum as well. This represents a believable 20-percent increment over the total of 265 recorded by Pliny for AD 73. Coarelli obviously trusts in the fundamental veracity of the regionary catalogues. Javier Arce has recently offered a hypercritical assessment, placing them well below the Historia Augusta on the reliability scale.2 Whatever one’s opinion of these documents (and I tend toward Coarelli’s perspective), in the final analysis, they are not very useful aid in estimating the urban population of Rome.

Nor can the volume of aqueduct supply in Rome be taken as an indicator of the city’s population. So argues Bruun, and unobjectionably: too many unknown quantities were in play, such as the volume of water drawn from wells, springheads, and cisterns, not to mention the ratio of consumption to waste. Yet behind many of Bruun’s arguments is the conviction that despite all the evident abundance, Rome’s water was perpetually in short supply during the Empire. He notes, for example, that much aqueduct water was diverted illegally, and that Pliny ascribes more lacus to Agrippa’s building program than existed over a century later in Frontinus’ time. He also cites the vast amount of water Frontinus assigned to private and imperial interests in relation to public supply. But illegal tapping of water lines probably arose from opportunity, not want; opportunistic abuses are known to have occurred with the grain dole too (Dion. Hal. 4.24.5). And Pliny may have been referring to the entire metropolitan network, including suburbs, whereas Frontinus confined his count to lacus intra urbem. 3 Further, there is little reason to assume that water to private and imperial properties was not enjoyed by the public. Restricted ownership does not necessarily imply restricted access, and some of the heaviest private water consumption — for balnea and urban gardens and groves — must have benefited many.4

Jolivet’s article emphasizes the benefits to the public of these gardens. The famous urban and suburban horti of Rome, he notes, survived the Empire almost intact. In the late Republic they served as gathering places for partisans and even armies, as when Milo hosted a military force in the Horti Pompeiani. From the end of the Republic through the Flavian period, they either were made public, like the gardens of Caesar and Agrippa, or fell into imperial hands. By Nero’s reign these properties formed a virtual belt of imperial parkland surrounding the city. The zone was a strategic buffer against fires and perhaps against urban sprawl as well; and it improved the “command and control” structure of the imperial court and the Praetorian guard. It might be added that such a monopoly forestalled any possibilities of a conspiratorial congregation of forces on a late-Republican scale.

Bollmann seeks to explain the locations of the epigraphically attested scholae of corporations in Rome. Many of the twenty-five scholae that can be located at least approximately do not seem to be within the sponsoring guild’s principal zones of activity. Bollmann recognizes four possible reasons why this might be so, shortage of land or money, state intervention; the proximity of an appropriate cult center; and prestige. However, we must not discount a fifth important catalyst: serendipity, especially in the form of property donations. Surely the dendrophori, for example, set up their guild hall in the Basilica Hilariana thanks entirely to the generosity of their benefactor, Poblicius Hilarus. And perhaps we presume too much by localizing the corporations’ geographic spheres of activity. In a city the size of Rome, many trades were more suited to wide distribution than to dense concentration. Bakeries, for example, appear in relatively even numbers throughout the city in the regionary catalogues. The tradesmen whose workplaces we can localize, such as the leatherworkers of the Trastevere, the wine merchants of the Cellae vinariae Nova[e] et Arruntiana[e], and the negotiatores of the Horrea Galbana, had their scholae just where we expect them.

Cracco Ruggini explores institutionalized euergetism in late-antique Rome. The literature from the second half of the fourth century has left a vivid record of relations between the urban plebs and those charged with the public welfare. The patronage structures of the city were evolving into a kind of proto-feudalism which was especially evident during the bloody rivalry for the papacy between Damasus and Ursinus in mid-century. Yet the pagan aristocracy held rigidly to the old political model of eligibility for the dole, resorting at times to the expulsion of all peregrini, regardless of need, during food shortages. Meanwhile other large cities developed more responsive ways to deal with their poor, while Christian leaders decried the retrograde policies of Rome. Some Christians, such as Aradius Rufinus, urban prefect in 376, tried to apply these more need-based models to Rome. The contrasting pagan attitude is projected upon Ceionius Rufus Volusianus who, we are told, undertook ruinous and vainglorious building projects during his urban prefecture in 365-66. One might pause to inquire, however, why a robust building program — which we now know included thirteen bridge projects, presumably throughout the prefect’s 100-mile-radius jurisdiction5 — was a burden upon the plebs.

Although its contributions vary considerably in quality and length, and make no pretensions to unity of purpose, this important collection will provoke thought, even among those who quarrel with its methods. The volume, however, is rather long on démographie and short on logistique. I would have welcomed deeper consideration of the reasons for and methods of record keeping in Rome, and a greater recognition of place in grounding the identities of its residents.


1. Lo Cascio also treats Severan and later evidence. The precise meaning of the canon, and the implications of its daily expenditure for seven years on the order of 75,000 modii per day ( SHA Sept. Sev. 23.2) remains elusive, probably because the claim of the SHA is simply false or confused. About all that can be said is that this figure is too high to be believed, especially in light of Dio’s claim that the congiarium of 202 was issued to the whole plebs frumentaria of 200,000, among whom were 20-30,000 praetorian guards.

2. J. Arce, “El inventario de Roma: Curiosum y Notitia,” in The Transformations of Vrbs Roma in Antiquity, JRA Suppl. 33, ed. W.V. Harris (Portsmouth, RI 1999) 15-22.

3. In Frontinus’ statistics, the suburban water distribution network lacks lacus altogether — a troubling omission, given that the urban continentia along the consular highways would have extended far beyond the regionary city. Frontinus himself, in fact, preserves the information that Agrippa built fountain basins not only in urbe, but also intra … aedificia urbi coniuncta ( Aq. 104.1), that is, in the areas of continuous habitation that extended into the suburbs. Any speculation on this matter is compromised by the realization that Agrippa’s city was the old Rome of four regions, which probably was not coterminous with Augustus’ new regionary city of 7 B.C.

4. Bruun’s estimate that only a few hundred private properties could have received water from Frontinus’ system is based on the observation that pipes inscribed with names of property owners (or possessors?) are of medium gauge. It assumes that water flowed constantly, contrary to some epigraphic evidence ( CIL 6.31566; 6.1261; 8.4440). Many properties probably received water for only a few hours on certain days of the month, as in CIL 6.1261.

5. The collection includes a short article by the late André Chastagnol outlining the development of the urban prefecture and the scope of its responsibilities.