BMCR 2020.10.40

Population and economy in classical Athens

, Population and economy in classical Athens. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xi, 272. ISBN 9781107027091 $99.99.


If the population of Attica was 400,000 or more on the verge of the Peloponnesian War, as Ben Akrigg convincingly argues in this book, what might that demographic fact alone mean for Athenian history? The question just posed roughly maps on to Akrigg’s stated concerns: 1) to show that the population was in fact in that range, as scholars have previously suggested but have left relatively unexplored; and 2) to “show why such an account is necessary…and to persuade the reader that this subject…is an important part of the history of the city” (1). To sum up my conclusions at the outset, I would observe that much more space is given to question 1 than to question 2, and that when the author turns to the bigger picture, the results must, given the state of the evidence, remain ambiguous. Thanks to the author’s efforts, the fact of Athens’ population explosion during the pentecontaetia is now quite secure. The book shows that basic demographic questions are inseparable from other historical lines of inquiry concerning society, politics, economics, and, for lack of a better term, social peace. Much of it represents a thorough historiographical exploration of the status quaestionis, laying out with great care what can and cannot be said about Athens’ population based on what evidence we possess, as well as articulating the extent to which previous scholars’ approaches are compatible or not. The book must serve as the prolegomenon to any future discussion of Athenian demography—but it aims at more.

The book comprises eight chapters, the first six of which seek to establish Athens’ population (and its basic material needs) down to 431. (Chapter 6 bills itself as “Immediate Implications of Population Change” [emphasis added], but in fact it describes a mostly static and very large pre-war population; a focus on the ramifications of massive population change during the later fifth century comes in Chapter 7.) Specialist readers will know these arguments from a series of book chapters produced by the author since 2007, but there is much new (and important) material, and it is useful to have everything in one place under a coherent framework.[1] The introductory Chapter 1 emphasizes that sustained studies of the fourth-century population of Athens, above all that by M. H. Hansen,[2] had as their impetus the questions of whether and how the Athenian constitution made good on its stated goal of a highly participatory state. Akrigg rightly notes that there are research questions beyond that of the fourth-century democracy’s ability to live up to its values and that the population of the fifth century has been largely sidelined, despite its importance. In conclusion he makes the salutary point that there can be no single explanation for the development of Athenian society but that demography ought to be one tool among many for understanding history.

Chapter 2, “Population Structures,” approaches the total population of Attica, for which we have no explicit ancient evidence, according to age structure and sex structure. Akrigg believes that we can do better than Hansen’s conclusions on this front. First, however, he summarizes earlier approaches to the Athenian male citizen population, beginning with J. Beloch and A. W. Gomme. With the pioneering work of M. K. Hopkins on the age structure of the Roman population, however, ancient demography was put on better footing, since Hopkins recognized the importance of UN model life tables.[3] Hansen, in turn (above, n. 2), exploited the superior life tables of Coale and Demeny. In a much shorter concluding section on sex structures, the author suggests that the practice of infanticide was relatively rare in Classical Athens, given that war casualties were consistently replaced.

In Chapter 3, “Population Size 1: Citizens,” Akrigg exploits our single most important piece of evidence, Thuc. 2.13.6 on hoplite and reserve sizes, to argue for a total citizen hoplite group of anywhere between 19,000 to 34,000. To these he would add 40,000 or 30,000 non-hoplites, respectively, for the total citizen adult male population, but his grounds for doing so are unclear at this stage, since he addresses neither the distribution of wealth in Athenian society nor the relation, if any, of the Solonian census classes to military functions until later in the book.

Chapter 4, “Population Size 2: Non-Citizens,” deals with the much thornier question of slave and metic populations. At least 32,000 enslaved men were required for the mines and the navy, with all that that implies for the number of enslaved women and children. The ensuing discussion of metics is striking for its insistence that the label “metic” connoted servility and that Athenian citizens aligned metics more closely with slaves than citizens. Akrigg’s statement that “the role of metic women in the Panathenaic procession can hardly have been seen as anything other than servile” (134) finds its mirror opposite in the recent study of S. Wijma, with which the author does not engage.[4] Did the average Athenian really view the family of Cephalus—wealthy, pro-democratic metics from Syracuse—as closer to slaves than citizens? On the other hand, Akrigg rightly emphasizes that the single legal category “metic” comprised a heterogeneous population of wealthy Greeks, freedpeople, and non-Greek traders and laborers.

Chapter 5, “Population Changes,” observes that the citizen population, at least, of Attica appears to have doubled during the pentecontaetia and then contracted again due to the Peloponnesian War and the plague. Akrigg plausibly suggests that the land grabs under Athenian imperial rule would have afforded opportunities for emigration and thus an incentive for natural fertility increase that might otherwise have been lacking in a Greek community.

Chapter 6, “Immediate Implications of Population Change: War and Food” (but see above on this “change”), entails a dense summary of the fifth-century Attic population’s food requirements. The population’s needs for barley, olive oil, and wine are helpfully set out in Table 6.1; the obvious takeaway is that Athens depended on imports to meet its needs, given its own limited area of cultivable land. The chapter ends with an illuminating discussion of the wood required for minting coins and feeding the workforce of the silver mines.

Chapter 7, “Beyond Food and Fuel,” brings us to possible implications of Athens’ mid-fifth-century population boom and subsequent contraction. The author also now attends to the issue of the wealth distribution of Attica, discussing previous arguments by R. Osborne, L. Foxhall, and G. Kron. Akrigg questions W. Scheidel’s understanding of Athens as an exception to Scheidel’s general (bleak) picture of economic growth and wealth inequality. Scheidel has suggested that the redistributive and military aspects of the Athenian democracy put a brake on the usual runaway inequality involved in growth, but Akrigg rightly points out that Scheidel’s picture of Athens stems from the fourth century, after the ruinous effects of the war and the plague. It may be, then, that Athens was no less a “beneficiary” of two of Scheidel’s “four horsemen” of inequality reduction, war and disease.[5] This point is well taken. However, Akrigg’s further speculations that fifth-century imperial Athens was on a path of unsustainable economic inequality are harder to maintain. The author echoes M. I. Finley’s contention that the main beneficiaries of the empire were the already rich.[6] A (too) brief discussion of the Brea Decree (IG I3 46) concludes that “it is hard…to take the [decree] as unambiguous evidence for the Athenian poor benefitting hugely from the empire” (220). Akrigg does not deny that democracy and empire could have mitigated growing inequality (if that is in fact what was happening), but he still maintains that without war or plague “the democracy would have come under increasing strain and might not have lasted long” (223). The latter part of the chapter attempts to square the fourth-century evidence with Akrigg’s theory that drastic population decline from war and plague involved land redistribution. J. Ober’s work on defenses and C. Taylor’s on the increasing presence of rural demesmen in politics would seem to be compatible with the author’s picture.[7] A rise in the value of slaves would also account for the (apparent) first appearance of “cocky” slaves such as Xanthias in Aristophanes’ Frogs. We have also to deal with the fact that the institutions that E. E. Cohen sees as emblematic of the fourth century, such as commercialization and banking, probably emerged already in the fifth, albeit without the participation of women and slaves.[8] But was fifth-century Athens the ticking time bomb of wealth inequality the author suggests?

Here several alternative scenarios present themselves. Even if absolute inequality increased during the fifth century, as was probably the case, Akrigg does not sufficiently allow for overall income growth across the board,[9] nor does he explore at much length the possibility that the Athenian empire’s ability to export (and benefit) poorer citizens via colonies and cleruchies alleviated what otherwise would have been mounting population pressures. It is also worth noting that the numbers involved in individual colonial and cleruchal projects appear rarely to have surpassed 1,000 citizens at a time.[10] In other words, the Athenian imperialist democracy knew how to open the safety valve, but it does not appear to have been desperate to get rid of an excess underclass. Given the current state of our evidence, the author’s assumption that fifth-century Athens was on the road to perdition, as well as his comment that “the upheavals of the Peloponnesian War…can be seen as purgative” for an otherwise ruinously unequal society (243), cannot, I think, constitute the final word on the subject.

In sum, Ben Akrigg has produced a sophisticated demographic study that should establish new baselines for future debate and that has raised provocative questions about a famous ancient society’s sustainability. Answers to those questions, however, remain open.


[1] “The Nature and Implications of Athens’ Changed Social Structure and Economy,” in R. Osborne (ed.), Debating the Athenian Cultural Revolution: Art, Literature, Philosophy, and Politics 430-380 BC (Cambridge 2007): 27-43; “Demography and Classical Athens,” in C. Holleran and A. Pudsey (eds.), Demography and the Graeco-Roman World: New Insights and Approaches (Cambridge 2011): 37-59; “Metics in Athens,” in C. Taylor and K. Vlassopoulos (eds.), Communities and Networks in the Ancient Greek World (Oxford 2015): 155-76.

[2] Demography and Democracy: The Number of Athenian Citizens in the Fourth Century B.C. (Herning 1985).

[3] “On the Probable Age Structure of the Roman Population,” Population Studies 20 (1966): 245-64.

[4] Embracing the Immigrant: The Participation of Metics in Athenian Polis Religion (5th-4th Century BC) (Stuttgart 2014). The discussion of metics omits further recent contributions by R. F. Kennedy, D. Kamen, and J. Sosin, among others.

[5] See W. Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton 2017). Akrigg applauds the work of B. Strauss, Athens After the Peloponnesian War: Class, Faction and Policy 403-386 B.C. (London 1986) but disagrees with Strauss’s conclusion that the thetes were the hardest hit demographically and that their losses contributed to social peace in the fourth century.

[6] M. I. Finley, “The Fifth-Century Athenian Empire: A Balance Sheet,” reprinted in P. Low (ed.), The Athenian Empire (Edinburgh 2008): 14-40, at pp. 26-27.

[7] J. Ober, Fortress Attica: Defense of the Athenian Land Frontier, 404-322 BC (Leiden 1985); C. Taylor, Participation in Athenian Democracy (Unpublished PhD thesis, Cambridge 2005).

[8] The Athenian Nation (Princeton 2000).

[9] Instead Akrigg suggests that overall growth benefited the rich alone (226), but we simply do not know. Perhaps future archaeological work will tell us something about the wealth inequality and economic growth at the deme level.

[10] See the useful tables of T. Figueira, “Colonisation in the Classical Period,” in G. R. Tsetskhladze (ed.), Greek Colonisation Vol. 2 (Leiden 2008): 427-523.