BMCR 2009.12.30

People, Land, and Politics: Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 BC-AD 14. Mnemosyne, Supplements; History and Archaeology of Classical Antiquity, 303

, , People, Land, and Politics: Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 BC-AD 14. Mnemosyne, Supplements; History and Archaeology of Classical Antiquity, 303. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2008. vii, 654. ISBN 9789004171183. $262.00.

This volume is the product of a three-day conference at the Department of Ancient History at the University of Leiden, and contains twenty papers from the leading scholars on the mid to late Republic, collected in six sections. The theme of the conference and the resulting volume was “New Approaches to the Demographic, Agrarian and Political History of the Middle and Late Republic” and was an attempt to draw together the key scholars and research on the central issue of changes in land occupation in the middle Republic and the political and military consequences.

The introduction provides an excellent overview of the papers included, which have been divided into six separate categorisations; demography, census figures and population, survey archaeology and demography, allied manpower and migration, ager publicus and demography and the end of the Republic. The introduction ends with a short bibliography of some of the key recent works on the issues involved. Each of the subsequent chapter is accompanied by an extensive bibliography of the key works on that area.

The first section, on demography, opens with an excellent paper by Walter Scheidel entitled “Roman Population Size: The Logic of the Debate”, which presents an overview of the both the key issues involved in attempting to determine the size of the Roman population and where current scholarship lies. Scheidel tackles the subject in a comprehensive manner, breaking it down into thirteen separate sections that cover such topics as the competing interpretations of the census returns and the roles of urbanisation, military service, labour markets, political stability, living standards, field surveys and comparative evidence in the population debate. In each case Scheidel presents the key problems and latest scholarship on the topics. Of particular interest is his dismissal of the role of evidence gained from studies of urbanization, military mobilization rates and field surveys on the population size debate.

Scheidel admits that although the population question is a crucial one for understanding Roman history, and despite all the scholarship on the issue, we are no nearer to establishing a viable model for the size of the Roman population. Although he ultimately comes to the conclusion that both the low count (which he previously supported) and the high count models are flawed and argues for a compromise between the two, he argues that the high count theory is more flawed than the low count.

J. Geoffrey Kron, in “The Much Maligned Peasant, Comparative Perspectives on the Productivity of the Small Farmer in Classical Antiquity”, argues that the deterioration of the Roman peasant farmer in the late Republic has been greatly overstated, both in the classical sources and more importantly in modern scholarship. In particular Kron takes on the arguments of Toynbee and Brunt whom he considers to take an overly negative view on the Roman peasant farmer.

Neville Morley’s “Urbanisation and development in Italy in the Late Republic” is a shorter chapter on the role of the development of a networkof Italian cities during the Republic and their integration into a unified Roman system.

Morley starts out by rightly setting out the limitations we face in engaging in such a discussion; notably the paucity of evidence and difficulties with defining what actually constitutes an Italian city. He argues that comparisons to the urbanisation process of the early modern period cannot be used for assessing the rise of Italian cities, and lays out a theoretical framework for the development of the urban communities of Italy based on the processes of concentration, crystallisation, integration and differentiation. Morley concludes by raising some interesting questions over whether the Roman process of integrating the urban centres of Italy into one unified system actually backfired on them, by allowing men such as the Gracchi to tap into this network and allowing the Italian cities to present a united front against Rome.

The final chapter of this first section, comes from Lukas de Ligt, and is entitled “The Population of Cisalpine Gaul in the Time of Augustus”. While admitting that the population of Cisalpine Gaul can never be determined with accuracy, de Ligt presents an interesting analysis centred around the urbanisation process. He begins by trying to break down the seventy-eight towns of the region by geographical size, with categories of over forty hectares, twenty to forty and below twenty, the full analysis of which can be found in his first appendix. From this he produces an estimate for the amount of urban space in the province. He then builds on this by tackling questions of urban density and rates of urbanization in the province, before finally tackling the issue of the slave population. Much of his analysis centres on comparison to the late medieval / early modern period of northern Italy. For Cisalpine Gaul he concludes that the population is more consistent with the low count rather than a high one, but with a low urbanisation rate as well. Using this as a case study he concludes by arguing that whilst this does not prove the case for the low count theory of the Roman population, it does raise many more difficulties against the case for a high count, especially given the high urbanisation rate which would be required.

Section Two, on “Census Figures and Population”, opens with a chapter by Saskia Hin entitled “Counting Romans”, in which Hin attempts to construct an alternate model of the Roman population as found in the Republican and Augustan census figures, which lies between the low and high count models. Hin’s starting point is the manpower figures found in Polybius for 225 BCE and their relationship to the census total of 234 BCE. Hin argues that the two figures do not have to represent the same section of the population, and that the Polybian figure is based on men of fighting age, or those under 45, whilst the census reported those men of legal age. The chapter concludes with Hin arguing that the Republican census excluded widows and orphans, but that Augustus began to include them, based on the needs of the introduction of a new inheritance tax. This theory produces a total population figure between the traditional high and low counts of around ten million for Augustan Italy.

The next chapter comes from Elio Lo Cascio and is entitled “Roman Census Figures in the Second Century BC and the Property Qualification of the Fifth Class”. The chapter is a short one which takes an overview of the question of whether there was a drop in the Roman citizen population of Italy in the second century BCE. Lo Cascio analyses the variations in the census figures throughout the century, which he explains away as being the result of practical issues surrounding the collection of each census, and argues that there is no actual evidence for a change in the property qualification for the fifth class in the second century. He concludes that variations in census data cannot be used to interpret any wider demographic patterns.

The third and final chapter of this section is from Simon Northwood and is titled “Census and Tributum”. The first section of the chapter explores some practical questions around the census and its links to the payment of Tributum, focussing on the question of the valuations given by the citizens. Northwood’s argument is that the valuations given would be at market value, as determined by the officials who would have had a widespread knowledge of such issues. Declarations were given in public and thus the opportunity for deception was limited. Furthermore he also points out that it is unlikely that each census was done from scratch, but used its predecessor as a guide, making it more difficult for men to suddenly appear or disappear from a new list without raising questions.The second section of the chapter shifts focus to the Tributum itself, and explores its origins and evolution prior to 169 BC. He concludes that it is most likely that it was paid only by those of the first five classes and not the proletarii, who were thus more likely to have declared themselves to the census officials, even if they were exempt from military service or the payment of Tributum.

The third section of this work is entitled “Survey Archaeology and Demography”. In “Regional Field Survey and the Demography of Roman Italy” Robert Witcher presents a wide ranging argument on the role of field surveys in contributing towards the history of the late Republic. He details the problems with accurately dating pottery to a specific time period and concludes that it is impossible to use the South Etruria survey to show a reduction in the number of active farmsteads in the second century BC. Witcher then shifts his focus onto testing and analysing the various demographic models of suburbium in the Imperial period. He argues that the different population densities of the different Italian regions have a significant impact on creating any wider view of Italy as a whole. He finishes by revisiting the high and low count models for early imperial Italy and highlights their reliance on assumed recovery rates in each region. Witcher concludes that the key aspect of this study of the role of field surveys is in highlighting the key role of regionality in any wider discussions.

In “Poor Peasants and Silent Sherds”, Dominic Rathbone builds on the previous chapter by focussing on one aspect of the wider questions; namely the size of farms in the late Republic. Rathbone reviews both the surviving textual references to the size of peasant allotments and then the few identifiable sites of small farmsteads from archaeological surveys and concludes that the Roman peasantry ranged from below subsistence level to the prosperous and that there are inherent dangers for both historians and archaeologists in ignoring this differentiation.

Jeremia Pelgrom’s paper “Settlement Organisation and Land Distribution in Latin Colonies Before the Second Punic War” analyses the literary and archaeological evidence for Roman colonies in the fourth and third centuries BC to see whether they conform to long assumed pattern of a planned urban centre and ordered division of land. In analysing the first aspect, of a planned urban centre, Pelgrom raises the issue of the absence of colonial dwellings from the archaeological record and suggests that colonists lived in agricultural villages rather than isolated dwellings for reasons of security. He concludes that there is no evidence for a formal distribution of land, as was the case in later Roman colonies, though his arguments are based on the slenderest of evidence.

The fourth and fifth chapters; “Polybius and the Field Survey evidence from Apulia” by Douwe Yntema and “Lucanian Landscapes in the Age of Romanization (Third to First Centuries BC): Two Case Studies” by Maurizio Gualtieri are short case studies that compare data from field surveys with literary sources on agrarian change. Yntema compares estimates of the population gained from field survey data from Apulia with figures given by Polybius of available manpower. Though the data is highly speculative, Yntema concludes that the figures given by Polybius match the data extrapolated from field surveys. Gualtieri focuses on the region of western Lucania and in particular the regions of Mingardo/Bussento and Buccini/Volcei and provides an interesting analysis of the evidence, though he fails to draw any new conclusions.

The fourth section of the work, “Allied Manpower and Mobilisation” contains three chapters. Paul Erdkamp, in “Mobility and Migration in Italy in the Second Century BC”, analyses the degree of peasant mobility in Italy in the second century that took place as part of a normal process, rather than as a result of specific political or military upheaval. His analysis ranges from the economic opportunities of migrational labour to the growth of the city of Rome itself and concludes that the free population of Italy was more mobile than is most commonly thought.

This theme is continued in Will Broadhead’s chapter on “Migration and Hegemony: Fixity and Mobility in Second-Century Italy”. Central to Broadhead’s argument is an examination of the tensions between the apparent mobility of the Italian population and the needs for a fixed population for recruitment purposes. This topic is concluded in an important chapter by Henrik Mouritsen; “The Gracchi, the Latins and the Italian Allies”. Mouritsen revisits the role of the Latins and Italians and in the Gracchan land reforms. He argues that the main thrust of the various reforms was an extension of Roman citizenship to the Latins, to clear up an increasingly anonymous position which they occupied as the second century progressed and that the Italians were excluded from the scope of the reform, dismissing the arguments of Appian.

The fifth section of the work contains three chapters collected under the theme of ager publicus and opens with Daniel Gargola’s section on “The Gracchan Reform and Appian’s Representation of an Agrarian Crisis”. Gargola analyses Appian’s accounts of the background to the Gracchan reforms but aside from a restatement of the key issues of Appian’s account, he presents nothing new.

The same cannot be said of the next chapter by John Rich, “Lex Licinia, Lex Sempronia: BG Niebuhr and the Limitation of Landholding in the Roman Republic”, which is based on a paper he initially delivered at a conference in Nottingham in 2007. This important chapter challenges the view that the limitations on landholding allegedly brought in by the Lex Licinia of 367 BC, focussed only on ager publicus and not ager privatus. Rich does this by arguing that the link between the Lex Licinia and ager publicus derives ultimately not from the ancient sources but from the works of Niebuhr. In doing so he follows the path taken by Ridley in challenging the erroneous belief that prior to Niebuhr no historian linked the Lex Licinia to ager publicus.1 Rich’s article contains an excellent analysis of the treatment of the Lex Licinia by historians prior to Niebuhr from the sixteenth century onwards. Rich then goes onto examine the ancient sources for the Lex Licinia, all of which refer to the law limiting landholding in general, not just to ager publicus. He concludes that whilst the Lex Licinia restricted the amount of land a man could hold (public and private) and that when the law was reasserted by Tiberius Gracchus, this restriction was amended to holding of ager publicus only. On a wider note this article shows the dangers of accepting myths perpetuated by earlier historians at face value.

In “Regional Variations in the Use of the Ager Publicus” Saskia Roselaar presents an informed discussion which analyses the types and distribution of ager publicus throughout Italy and argues that whilst there still were large amounts of ager publicus left in Italy in the second century, it was confined to peripheral regions. She argues that this, combined with a growing population in central Italy, produced the conditions which we are told led to the actions of the Gracchi.

The sixth and final section of this work has two chapters grouped together under the title of “Demography and the End of the Republic”. In “Revolution and Rebellion in the Late Second and Early First Centuries BC”, Nathan Rosenstein seeks a model for the crisis that enveloped the Republic in the period 133-88 BC. Rosenstein applies the model developed by Goldstone in his work on early modern Europe and its crises; central to this model are the elements of rising population resulting in rising prices and cost to the central government.2 Rosenstein argues that a reduction in the military burden placed on the population in the mid second century resulted in a greater survival rate of young men, which in turn resulted in a rising population. Whilst Rosenstein argues that the Roman Republic matched the first element of Goldstone’s model he admits that the structure of the Republican government was so different to those of early modern Europe that the second element, of rising financial burden, does not fit into next stage of the model. Overall, the Goldstone model appears to be an interesting tool for analysing the Republic, but one that ultimately does not fit well.

In “States Waiting in the Wings: Population Distribution and the End of the Roman Republic”, Michael Crawford starts with the work of Brunt and analyses the growth of alternate states within the territory controlled by Rome, such as Sertorius in Spain in the 70s, Pompey in the east in the 60s and Caesar in Gaul in the 50s. Crawford argues that the rise of these statelets and their Roman rulers saw both a weakening of the central Republican power and the rise of the dynasts who would come to end the Republic. Furthermore, Crawford argues that the rise of these states led to an increase in the number of Roman citizens, which could account for the high count of the Roman population. This is an excellent chapter to draw the book to a conclusion, with the end of the Roman Republic.

To conclude, this is an excellent work drawing together the key scholars in the field and presents fresh research on one of the fundamental aspects of the history of the Roman Republic. It will be an indispensable one volume collection for any Roman historian.


1. Ridley, R.T. (2000). ” Leges agrariae : myths ancient and modern” CPh 95, 459+-467.

2. Goldstone, J.A. (1991). Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (Berkeley).