BMCR 2013.01.40

Peasants, Citizens and Soldiers: Studies in the Demographic History of Roman Italy 225 BC – AD 100

, Peasants, Citizens and Soldiers: Studies in the Demographic History of Roman Italy 225 BC - AD 100. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. xvi, 391. ISBN 9781107013186. $110.00.


This volume is a product of Luuk De Ligt’s extensive research project on Roman demography at Leiden and is a re- examination of the evidence on the demographic history of Roman Italy from the third century BC to the first century AD. The work contains six chapters and four appendices. The chapters other than the first are arranged thematically, each focussing on one key area of evidence; Polybius, the Republican and Augustan census figures, the literary evidence, Italian urban networks and survey archaeology.

In chapter one, ‘Evidence, theories and models in Roman population history’, De Ligt provides an overview of the all the key areas of evidence for Italian population size and the key works of scholarship on them, with a particular focus on high and low count debate and its leading proponents. De Ligt provides a summary of the key aspects of the high and low count debate, centred upon whether the population grew slowly or expanded rapidly in the last two centuries BC. Proponents of each camp have estimated that the total population of Italy under Augustus’ census of 28 BC was either nearer the 5 million or over the 15 million mark, dependant upon their extrapolations from the evidence. As is detailed however, individual scholars have a variety of exact totals they have calculated.

De Ligt sets out his reasoning for choosing the starting and finishing points for his own study, beginning with the Polybian account of the situation in 225 BC. However he extends his analysis past the usual terminus point of the Augustan census of 28 BC into the first century AD. He concludes his opening chapter by summing up his own views on the debate by describing them as a modified low count argument; a belief that the size of the population of Rome and Italy was nearer the census return figures, albeit without suffering a decline in population during the timespan in question.

In chapter two, ‘Polybius’ manpower figures and the size of the Italian population on the eve of the Hannibalic war’, De Ligt begins his re-examination of the key evidence by taking a fresh look at the data found in the account provided by Polybius of the size of the Roman military resources in 225 BC, during the Gallic War. In an in-depth argument, he defends the Polybian figures, but argues that neither the high nor low camps have the correct interpretation. He goes onto argue that the levy of 225 was a particularly rigorous one given the acute nature of the crisis facing Rome and thus achieved a far higher registration rate than a normal census. De Ligt argues therefore that the population of Italy was 4.2 million in 225 BC.

In chapter three, ‘Census procedures and the meaning of the republican and early imperial census figures’, De Ligt turns his attention to the census figures and the arguments centred on their reliability. In a wide-ranging argument he discusses the issues of who was recorded in the census, matters surrounding possible procedures, the use of previous census records and the combination of centralised and localised census figures. De Ligt then pays particular attention to the census returns of 86/85 B.C. and the Augustan census of 28 BC. For both he examines a range of potential procedural changes which separated them from those preceding the Social War. Overall he argues that we should place a greater reliability on the figures as they are transmitted to us, and he provides some useful possible procedural factors which may account for the fluctuation in figures.

In chapter four, ‘Peasants, citizens and soldiers, 201 BC-28 BC’, De Ligt analyses the literary sources for the demographic picture in Italy in the period between the Second Punic War and the Augustan census. His analysis is broken down into three sub-periods, of 201-163, 163-133 and 133-28 BC. A key conclusion that the rural population grew in the generation following the end of the Third Macedonian War, partially as a result of the reduced military commitment. This growth, combined with a growth of slavery and reduced colonisation, led to an impoverishment of this growing population, through pressures on land, resulting in more men falling below the minimum threshold for military service. This in turn resulted in the paradox of a growing rural population yielding fewer eligible recruits. Furthermore, De Ligt identifies as a key flaw in the Roman system the inability of the rural poor to lease land from the great landowners, partially as a result of their potential liability to military service. De Ligt also argues that the Romans lowered the threshold for military service in this period. This, combined with the Gracchan reforms, boosted the figures in the census returns of 125/124 BC.

In chapter five, ‘The Augustan census figures and Italy’s urban network’, De Ligt analyses the urbanisation of Italy at the time of Augustus and in particular the role of Cisalpine Gaul following its enfranchisement. He breaks down the urban centres of Italy into three types (small, medium and large) and examines overall urbanisation rates. His arguments conclude that Italy had a far lower urbanisation rate than others have argued and that within this framework there were far more towns of the smaller size than the medium ones, supporting his low count theory.

In chapter six, ‘Survey archaeology and demographic developments in the Italian countryside’, De Ligt turns to survey archaeology and its potential contribution to the demographic debate. He begins with a discussion on the methodological problems associated with this type of evidence, especially in determining the size of identified sites. He does acknowledge that whilst there is evidence for an increases in number of overall sites throughout the period, there are problems with determining their size and thus acknowledges that this evidence can be interpreted by proponents of both the high and low count arguments. He also argues that the mismatch between land and labour that he identifies under the Republic eased under the Empire. Overall, he again argues that this category of evidence supports his modified low count theory.

Having provided a summary of his arguments at the end of each of the chapters, De Ligt ends the work with a short but effective epilogue. He analyses the flaws, as he sees them, in both the current high and low count theories and argues that the population of Rome and Italy did expand in this period, but was slowed by military mortality rates. He reiterates his argument that the expansion of both the free and non-free rural population increased rural poverty, leading to fewer men being eligible for military service. He thus argues for a low count interpretation of the population of Italy, albeit one combined with slow continuing population growth.

The book has four appendices, the first two of which contain a detailed breakdown of the cities of Cisalpine Gaul and Central and Southern Italy to support the analysis of the Italian urban networks seen in chapter five. The third appendix looks at comparative data from Italy in 1600 AD. The fourth and final appendix provides a summary of the key elements of his revised low count theory, which is an excellent summation of his arguments to date and the position he takes on a number of key issues. The work is concluded with an extensive bibliography on the subject.

Overall, this is an impressive work of scholarship. It provides a fresh and insightful analysis of the key evidence upon which the debates over the size of the Italian population are based. As well as revising existing theories surrounding the key issues, De Ligt provides a number of thought-provoking comments and analyses throughout which will surely stimulate further debate on a long-standing subject.

The work benefits from his honest scholarship and his willingness to argue both sides of the debate. The book serves two purposes: not only is it the latest entry in the ongoing debate around the question of Italian population size, it also acts as an important summation of the evidence and literature to date, and would be an excellent entry point for anyone who wishes to become acquainted with this key debate in Roman history.