Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Saskia Hin, The Demography of Roman Italy: Population Dynamics in an Ancient Conquest Society (201 BCE – 14 CE). Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xii, 406. ISBN 9781107003934. $99.00.

Reviewed by Gareth C. Sampson (

Version at BMCR home site


This is the latest of a number of recent works on the topic of Roman Demography in the second and first centuries BCE of the Roman Republic. The work is a revised PhD thesis and follows the 2012 work by Luuk de Ligt1 who was Hin's doctoral supervisor at Leiden. The book has two stated purposes; the first of which is another attempt to redefine the long standing debate between two main strands of Roman population theory, namely the high and low counts for population size and growth. The second is to provide an overview of the topic of Roman demography, surveying a wide range of the differing types of evidence that are needed for anyone working in this field. The book has nine chapters divided into three sections: "economic and ecological parameters"; "demographic" parameters relating to mortality, fertility and migration; and "population size". The book is supported by two appendices and a substantial bibliography.

The first section, on economic and ecological parameters, has three chapters; the first of which acts as a short introduction. Here Hin provides a brief historiography of the high and low count debate, critiques both views and sets out her proposal for an intermediate position between the two traditional camps of limited and massive population growth. Hin also provides an overview of the key elements of her argument in the chapters which follow.

Chapter two explores the first of these key elements--the economic background. Hin sets out an analysis of the Roman economy in the period from the Second Punic War to Augustus to see whether there was enough capacity to support population growth or whether a slow economy would act as a break on the population. Hin discusses topics as varied as diet, the slave economy, the impact of empire, and the interrelationship between the growth of the city of Rome itself and the countryside, which was needed to support such growth. Ultimately Hin concludes that the Roman economy experienced real growth during this period and thus was able to support population growth.

In the next chapter, Hin provides an analysis of the ecological factors that affected Italy, in terms of climate and climate change. Here Hin introduces and discusses a range of factors from solar activity to plankton levels and concludes that during the Republican period the climate was still warming, which had a positive effect on Roman agriculture. Hin does question whether this would have an overall positive effect on population growth as she introduces the possible negative effects that a warming climate would have, namely a rise of diseases such as malaria. Overall however she concludes, as before, that the climate factors would support population growth.

In the second section, Hin moves onto examine the core issues of demography: mortality, fertility and migration. Chapter four provides an overview of the topic of mortality and is the largest chapter in the book, covering a wide variety of topics in varying depth across thirteen subsections. There are brief discussions on life expectancy at birth and the different types used, followed by a lengthier discussions on model life tables, covering both their possibilities they offer and their limitations. Hin uses a range of comparative data from civilisations as varied as Chile and sub-Saharan Africa and presents five different possible model life tables. This is followed by a brief discussion on variations in mortality levels, and short sections on geography, socioeconomic status and gender, followed by a lengthier section on infanticide. The theoretical sections are followed by case studies examining population recovery after the Second Punic War and another on the impact of warfare in the second century BCE.

Overall Hin argues that the impact of military service on the population was less than had previously been thought, falling primarily on men prior to marriage. The impact on families was therefore also less than previously thought. Hin further argues that the population of Italy possessed a number of mechanisms that allowed for a rapid post-war recovery following periods of heavy warfare and demographic rupture. It must be said that the structure of the chapter does little to help the argument, varying between lengthy debates on particular issues, interspersed with short sections where other topics are mentioned and swiftly discarded. Model life tables and infanticide are covered in depth, while socio-economic factors and gender are briefly discussed. The chapter also suffers from excessive partitioning into sub-sections, some of which are only a paragraph long, which jars the flow of the argument.

Chapter five provides an overview of the topic of fertility, examining the evidence to see if there was a decline in fertility across this period. Here Hin analyses key areas such as marriage and household formation, including arguments over the average ages of marriage, childbearing, and the key differences between the socioeconomic groups. The chapter is better structured than its predecessor with lengthier discussions of all the key areas. Ultimately Hin argues that it was unlikely that there was a structural decline in fertility, with the societies of Republican Italy possessing a greater flexibility when it came to issues of marriage age and childbearing, which could meet the changing circumstances families faced. Thus Hin argues that there was not a decline in fertility in the late Republican period.

Chapter six moves the argument onto the issues surrounding migration within Italy, especially between the countryside and the city, and in particular examines the various push and pull factors which drew people towards the cities. There are lengthy discussions on the causes and types of migration as well as an analysis on the role of Rome as the ultimate migrant city. Hin presents a lengthy discussion of the use of graveyards as evidence for mortality and life expectancy levels, accompanied by a demographic analysis of the migrants themselves. Finally the issue of the respective reproductive rates of the migrant and resident populations is examined. Hin finds that urban migration disrupted the natural fertility patterns and skewed the sex ratio within the cities. This was especially the case when it came to migration to Rome itself which magnified this disruption. Whereas previous chapters are concluded with a summary of the main points discussed, this chapter finishes with a sudden diversion into the issue of migration across the Alps, which somewhat disrupts the flow of the whole chapter.

Chapter seven opens the third and final section of the book (on population size) and offers a discussion on the key issue of the census and the recorded number of Roman citizens. Here Hin presents an overview of ongoing debate over the interpretation of the census figures, and the arguments over the high and low counts theories for the size and development of the Roman population. Hin then presents her own arguments for an alternative to the high and low count theories: a middle count. She begins by discussing why a new theory is needed and then examines the census process itself, in terms of the origins, purpose and evolution of the practice. Here Hin tries to trace the changing purposes of the census over the centuries. In taking the argument back to what the Romans wanted out of the census at a particular point in time, Hin supports the argument that Augustus changed the basis of the census, expanding it from men who were sui iuris to include woman and children who were sui iuris as well.

Based on this line of argument Hin then outlines an argument for the total population of Italy, based on the definition of the sui iuris element recorded in the census and therefore extrapolates figures for the growth of the population over the period 225 to 28 BCE. Hin argues that the Roman citizen population in 225 BCE was 4.95 million rising to 6.7 million in 28 BCE (8.2 million including slaves). Thus the population growth rate over the two centuries in question works out at 35.6%, equivalent to an annual growth rate of 0.18%. This, Hin argues, fits in with the 0.2% annual growth seen in other early societies and matches the evidence extrapolated from Egyptian papyri.

Hin then follows this important argument with a chapter examining archaeological evidence and its impact upon demographic arguments, which does again seem to jar in terms of the structure and flow of the book. Nevertheless Hin presents both the theoretical benefits and hazards of using archaeological evidence and then moves to examining a cross section of evidence from sites across Italy (in effect, re-examining the twenty seven sites used by Alessandro Launaro). 2 Hin addresses possible conclusions to this evidence comprehensively, pointing out the considerable biases and limiting factors, including the major issue that Launaro's evidence derives from the later part of the Republic and early Empire and does not fit easily with the period under study in this work. Hin argues that the evidence shows the growth of villas did not undermine the smallholding class in Italy in the late Republic and early Empire and that this conclusion could also be applied to the second century BCE. However the reader is still left with questions concerning the validity of this whole chapter, both in terms of its focus on one particular scholar's evidentiary base (and the poor chronological fit of that evidence), and its position in the book, following the book's key argument on her middle count theory in the preceding chapter.

Chapter nine provides a short summary and conclusion in which Hin reviews the key findings of her earlier analysis and examines the implications of her middle count theory on the size and growth of the Roman population across these two centuries. Hin again emphasises that, in her view, Roman Italy saw limited but steady population growth throughout the last two centuries of the Republic, resulting in a population size of 6.7 million by 27 BCE. This conclusion is followed by two appendices, the first containing the surviving census figures for the Republic and early Empire and the second providing supporting details for the calculations on population size found in chapter seven. The work is supported by an extensive bibliography.

Overall this is an interesting and thought provoking re-examination in the field of Roman demography which serves both as a refresher for the field as a whole and the latest entry in the ongoing debate around the size and development of the Roman population in the last two centuries of the Republic. Hin's conclusions are thought provoking and should stimulate further debate.


1.   Luuk De Ligt, Peasants, Citizens and Soldiers: Studies in the Demographic History of Roman Italy 225 BC - AD 100 (Cambridge 2012).
2.   Alessandro Launaro, Peasants and Slaves. The Rural Population of Roman Italy (200 BC to AD 100) (Cambridge, 2011).

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mr. Sampson,
    in your review you write: "in effect, re-examining the twenty seven sites used by Alessandro Launaro", impliying Launaro based his work on 27 archaeological sites, but it is 27 _surveys_ (corresponding to 5000 settlement sites) he worked with.
    Best regards, E. Breuker


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