Walter Scheidel

(under contract with Cambridge University Press)




Purpose and structure


Demography is essential for our understanding of ancient societies: patterns of mortality, the social organization of reproduction, household formation and population density are among the crucial factors governing life in every society, including ancient Greece and Rome. Following a long period of neglect, scholarly interest in ancient population history has grown quite considerably over the past thirty years. Even so, no comprehensive introductory textbook on this subject currently exists. The overall structure of this book is shaped by the central concerns of the historical demography of the more recent past. It seeks to acquaint classicists with the perspectives of professional demography to be readily accessible and relevant to historical demographers and social historians of other periods. The core of the book consists of a discussion of the three determinants of population structure, namely mortality, fertility and migration. A separate chapter is devoted to questions of family and household structure, a topic of great interest to historical demography in general and of relevance to studies of the history of the family, women, and childhood in classical antiquity. The issue of population size, which has traditionally received most attention by ancient historians, is assessed with particular emphasis on the concepts of carrying capacity and population pressure. A final chapter focuses on the contribution of demography to our understanding of the ancient world in general.





The introduction describes the scope and approach of the book, which addresses two audiences, ancient historians and historical demographers. It briefly surveys the development of scholarship in the field and explains the relevance of demography for our understanding of the ancient world, and the contribution of ancient history to historical population studies more generally.


Chapter 1, on mortality, discusses the problems of deriving mortality rates from age distributions attested in samples of ancient evidence; their relationship to modern model life tables and comparative evidence; their implications for life expectancy and fertility; documented patterns of seasonal mortality and the light they shed on causes of death; the ancient disease environment; and the nature and impact of mortality crises.


Chapter 2, on fertility, introduces the concept of natural fertility; examines the principal determinants of fertility, such as age of marriage, incidence of marriage and re-marriage, birth spacing, stopping strategies; explores practices of contraception, abortion, and child exposure/infanticide; and the effects of fertility control on sex ratios.


Chapter 3, on family and household structure, deals with quantifiable evidence of the composition of families and households, especially from Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt; the information furnished by Roman epitaphs; and literary and legal records.


Chapter 4, on the size and distribution of ancient populations, addresses problems of determining population size; its change over time, with particular reference to classical Athens, the city of Rome, and Roman Italy; the notions of population pressure and depopulation; urbanization, colonization, the slave trade, and other means of population transfer.


Chapter 5 illustrates how demographic information affects our understanding of ancient history more broadly by exploring the relationship between demographic conditions and economic development as well as human capital formation, the demographic dimension of republican governance, the demography of religious change, and other salient topics. It concludes with a brief assessment of the prospects of the field.


© 2015 Walter Scheidel