Skip to main content

The Transformation of Italy, 225–28 B.C.

  • Neville Morley (a1)

For a study of social and economic questions an assessment of population is indispensable. It must make a difference to our picture of the agrarian troubles that vexed the late Republic, whether we take Italy to have been densely or thinly settled.

Although debate continues on the causes, chronology, and extent of the ‘second-century crisis’ in Italy, a consensus has developed on its main symptom: the free peasantry, numbers already depleted by the burdens of military service, was displaced from the land by imported slaves and so continued to decline, a development which contributed significantly to the troubles of the succeeding century. Underpinning this consensus is widespread acceptance of what might be called the ‘Beloch-Brunt’ model of the demographic history of Italy in this period. This model suggests that between the late third century (Polybius' account of the numbers of Romans and Italians under arms in 225 B.C. permits an estimate of the total population) and the late first century (Augustus' first census of Roman citizens in 28 B.C., the first truly reliable one since the enfranchisement of the Italians) the free population had declined from about four and a half million people to about four million.

Corresponding author
Hide All

1 Brunt, P. A., Italian Manpower 225 B.C.–A.D. 14. (1971), 3.

2 Standard works on the crisis include Toynbee, A. J., Hannibal's Legacy: the Hannibalic War's Effects on Roman Life. Volume II: Rome and her Neighbours after Hannibal's Exit (1965); Hopkins, K., Conquerors and Slaves: Sociological Studies in Roman History I (1978), 198; Rathbone, D. W., ‘The development of agriculture in the Ager Cosanus during the Roman Republic: problems of evidence and interpretation’, JRS 71 (1981), 1023; A. Giardina and A. Schiavone (eds), Società romana e produzione schiavistica (1981); P. W. de Neeve, Peasants in Peril: Location and Economy in Italy in the Second Century B.C. (1984); A. Carandini, Schiavi in Italia: gli strumenti pensanti dei Romani fra tarda Repubblica e medio Impero (1988).

3 Brunt, op. cit. (n. I), 44–60, 113–20 (cf. the review by Hopkins, K. in JRS 62 (1972), 192–3); K. J. Beloch, Die Bevölkerung der griechisch-römischen Welt (1886), 388–443.

4 Hopkins, op. cit. (n. 2), 68–9; his figures for population change are for the most part derived from those offered by Brunt.

5 Hopkins, op. cit. (n. 2), 67.

6 An alternative view was put forward by Frank, Tenney in ‘Roman census statistics from 225 to 28 B.C.’, Classical Philology 19 (1924), 329–41, and by R. P. Duncan-Jones in his article on ‘Population (Roman World)’ in the Oxford Classical Dictionary (2nd edn, 1970), 863. The new edition of the OCD (1996), 1223, summarizes both sides of the argument without wholeheartedly endorsing either. Beloch's interpretation is discussed at length by Lo Cascio, E. in ‘The size of the Roman population: Beloch and the meaning of the Augustan census figures’, JRS 84 (1994), 2340, and La dinamica della popolazione in Italia da Augusto al III secolo’, in L'Italie d'Auguste à Dioclétien: actes du colloque international (= CEFR 198) (1994), 91125; the rest of this paragraph is heavily indebted to his analysis.

7 The figure for the proportion of adult males in the population is given as 31 per cent by Brunt (op. cit. (n. I), 52–3), drawing on comparative evidence from early twentieth-century Italy, and as 30 per cent by Hopkins (op. cit. (n. 2), 69), drawing on UN Model Life Tables. In the absence of reliable evidence on the demographic structures of Roman Italy, it can only be an estimate. Its most obvious flaw is the assumption of a sex ratio of 100; if there were more men than women (which seems to be the case for the ancient world through most of the Roman period: Parkin, T. G., Demography and Roman Society (1992), 98105), the proportion of adult males would be slightly higher (perhaps 33–34 per cent) and the total population lower (just under 12 million); if, as Brunt in fact argues, the ravages of war had primarily affected the male population, the percentage figure will be lower and the total population correspondingly higher. At least 375,000 adult male citizens in the provinces: Brunt, op. cit. (n. I), 262–3.

8 Brunt, op. cit. (n. I), 91–9 on the censuses of 86/5 B.C. and 70/69 B.C., and 70–83 on the second-century census figures.

9 Brunt, op. cit. (n. I), 83.

10 Pliny, NH 33.16; Beloch, op. cit. (n. 3), 342.

11 Brunt, op. cit. (n. I), 76–7, 106–12.

12 op. cit. (n. 6, ‘The size of the Roman population’), 31.

13 On the defective nature of the census in 70 B.C., see Wiseman, T. P., ‘The census in the first century B.C.’, JRS 59 (1969), 5975, esp. 71.

14 One might relate this to the arguments of Hayden White about the importance of narrative structures in forming and conditioning historical understanding: see ‘Interpretation in history’ and ‘The historical text as literary artefact’, in Topics of Discourse (1978), discussed at length in Jenkins, K., On ‘What is History?’ (1995) and more briefly in Morley, N., Writing Ancient History (1999), 100–11. The traditional account of the late Republic is an archetypal tragic narrative, and this may in part account for its appeal to both Roman and modern historians.

15 ‘If Frank's estimate [of the Augustan population] were by some means to be proven, the history of this period would have to be entirely rewritten’: Morley, N., Metropolis and Hinterland: the City of Rome and the Italian Economy (1996), 48. Perhaps through sheer terror at such a prospect, the author then hurriedly opted for the Beloch-Brunt interpretation.

16 Figures taken from Brunt, op. cit. (n. I), 61–83.

17 On the likely effects of military service on the population, see Rathbone, op. cit. (n. 2).

18 On nutrition, Garnsey, P., Food and Society in Classical Antiquity (1999), 43–61 and 113–27. On Roman medicine, R. Jackson, Doctors and Diseases in the Roman Empire (1988) and J. Scarborough, Roman Medicine (1969); more generally, J. Longrigg, ‘Medicine in the classical world’, in I. Loudon (ed.), Western Medicine: an Illustrated History (1997), 25–39. Family limitation: K. Hopkins, Death and Renewal: Sociological Studies in Roman History II (1983) and Harris, W. V., ‘Child-exposure in the Roman Empire’, JRS 84 (1994), 122.

19 Urban natural decrease in Rome is discussed by Morley, op. cit. (n. 15), 39–46. However, the theory that this makes it impossible to believe in the higher figure for the Italian population (49–50) is undermined by the curious assumption that migration to Rome would have taken place at a constant rate of 7,000 people per year. One might for the sake of argument assume that the migration rate was proportional to the size of the city (rising as the city expanded), or that it was proportional to the total population of Italy (the assumption used in this model), but a constant rate is scarcely credible.

20 The figures for the urban population are taken from Hopkins, op. cit. (n. 2), 68–9 and Morley, op. cit. (n. 15), 181–3 (estimate based on cities with over 5,000 people; categories i–iv in Table I on p. 182); see also Duncan-Jones, R. P., The Economy of the Roman Empire: Quantitative Studies (2nd edn, 1982), 266–77.

21 The rate for urban natural decrease is taken from Morley, op. cit. (n. 15), 43–4, drawing on comparative evidence from Wrigley, E. A., ‘A simple model of London's importance in changing English society and economy’, Past & Present 37 (1967), 46. I then experimented with different rates of growth and migration until I obtained figures in the right general area.

22 contra Morley, op. cit. (n. 15), 50, where it is suggested that a rate of only 6 per thousand is too high to be credible.

23 Cited by Sallares, R., The Ecology of the Ancient Greek World (1991), 75, 86.

24 All taken from Grigg, D. B., Population Growth and Agrarian Change: an Historical Perspective (1980), 2, 54–9.

25 Bagnall, R. S. and Frier, B. W., The Demography of Roman Egypt (1994), 8190; they suggest (87) that the most likely figure is about 0.2 per cent p.a.

26 Gottfried, R. S., The Black Death (1985), 133–40; Bolton, J., ‘The world upside down’, in W. M. Ormrod and P. G. Lindley (eds), The Black Death in England (1996), 1778; Herlihy, D., The Black Death and the Transformation of the West (1997), 3957.

27 On numbers under arms, see Brunt, op. cit. (n. I), 416–512. It is clear that an extraordinarily high proportion of citizen males continued to be conscripted throughout the late Republic (cf. Hopkins, op. cit. (n. 2), 31–5), but the burden on the allies, though still heavy in absolute terms, became proportionately less significant as the population expanded.

28 Sallares, op. cit. (n. 23), 65–6 and 221–4 on population cycles, 266–70 on bubonic plague (arguing that the ancient Greeks benefited from living in a period of inactivity on the part of the plague organism); C. Wills, Plagues: their Origins, History and Future (1996), 53–102.

29 Sallares, op. cit. (n. 23), 224: ‘The ultimate regulatory factor is not disease but the food supply.’ See generally 129–60 on natural fertility and family limitation in ancient Greece.

30 On GRR, see Parkin, op. cit. (n. 7), 86–8 and 160.

31 e.g. Saller, R., Patriarchy, Property and Death in the Roman Family (1994), 42, who simply determines the GRR necessary to maintain a stationary population at eo = 25.

32 Parkin, op. cit. (n. 7), 113.

33 Parkin, op. cit. (n. 7), 115–19; Brunt, op. cit. (n. I), 558–66; Wallace-Hadrill, A., ‘Family and inheritance in the Augustan marriage laws’, PCPhS 27 (1981), 5880.

34 Sallares, op. cit. (n. 23), 135. Cf. Saller, op. cit. (n. 31), 155–224, generally on succession and inheritance in the Roman family.

35 Sallares, op. cit. (n. 23), 140–4, citing Agyei, W. K. A., Fertility and Family Planning in the Third World (1988) on New Guinea.

36 cf. Harris, op. cit. (n. 18), 17–18, who makes the important point (18, n. 162) that exposure might have increased fertility, or at any rate not diminished it, by curtailing lactation.

37 Saller, op. cit. (n. 31), 42. He observes (n. 70) that the assumption of a rate of growth of 0.3 per cent p.a. would affect, for example, the figures for the proportions having living kin by no more than 2–3 per cent.

38 Sallares, op. cit. (n. 23), 113–14; Lo Cascio, op. cit. (n. 6, ‘La dinamica’), 118 and 123–4.

39 Parkin, op. cit. (n. 7), 84; Hopkins, K., ‘On the probable age structure of the Roman population’, Population Studies 20 (19661967), 245–64;Weiss, K. M., Demographic Models for Anthropology ( = American Antiquity 38.3.3) (1973), 4851.

40 Sallares, op. cit. (n. 23), 112–14, Puts forward other objections to the use of the Coale-Demeny life tables; cf. Parkin, op. cit. (n. 7), 82–4.

41 See the general discussions in Garnsey, 1. P. and Saller, R., The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture (1987), esp. 7782; Pleket, H. W., ‘Agriculture in the Roman Empire in comparative perspective’, in H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg et al., De Agricultura: in memoriam Pieter Willem de Neeve (1993), 317–42; and Morley, op. cit. (n. 15), 115–21.

42 The figures for arable land are taken from Jongman, W., ‘Het Romeins imperialisme en de verstedelijking van Italië’, Leidschrift 7.1 (1990), 52–3; see also The Economy and Society of Pompeii (1988), 67. The figures for yields and consumption are taken from P. Garnsey, Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World (1988), 95–6, 102–4; the estimated yields are at the lower end of the scale of possibilities he cites for Attica, while the figure for consumption is on the generous side. On evidence for yields in Roman Italy, cf. M. S. Spurr, Arable Cultivation in Roman Italy (1986), 82–8.

43 The extent to which fallow was suppressed in Roman Italy is a subject of some contention; see esp. Spurr, op. cit. (n. 42), 118–22.

44 The figure of about 2–3 million slaves is, of course, taken from historians who argue for the lower population estimate for Italy — Beloch, op. cit. (n. 3), 418; Brunt, op. cit. (n. I), 124; Hopkins, op. cit. (n. 2), 8 n. 14 — but for additional ‘supply-side’ reasons why the slave population cannot have been excessively large see Scheidel, W., ‘Quantifying the sources of slaves in the early Roman Empire’, JRS 87 (1997), 156–99.

45 Total yield p.a.: 3,750,000 ha (n.b. biennial fallow) x 400 kg/ha = 1,500 million kg.

46 Morley, op. cit. (n. 15), 49.

47 contra Morley, op. cit. (n. 15), where it is suggested that only wheat was grown, hence that the figure of 7.5 million represents the carrying capacity of Italy. See Garnsey, op. cit. (n. 42), 102–4, on the importance of barley in Attica; he suggests (51) that barley was much less popular in Italy, except as animal feed or famine food, but the evidence for this seems to be drawn entirely from the works of The agronomists, writing for an elite audience. See Spurr, op. cit. (n. 42), 13–15 and 89–102, on the range of cereals (millet as well as barley) grown in Roman Italy.

48 (i) 1,875,000 ha × 400 kg/ha + 1,875,000 ha × 750 kg/ha = 2,156.25 million kg.

(ii) 937,500 ha × 400 kg/ha + 2,812,500 ha × 750 kg/ha = 2,484.375 million kg.

49 Spurr, op. cit. (n. 42), 117–22; K. D. White, Roman Farming (1970), 110–45.

50 Jongman, W., ‘Adding it up’, in C. R. Whittaker (ed.), Pastoral Economies in Classical Antiquity (1988), 210–12.

51 See for example Barker, G., Lloyd, J. and Webley, D., ‘A classical landscape in Molise’, PBSR 46 (1978), 3551, and the papers collected in G. Barker and J. Lloyd (eds), Roman Landscapes: Archaeological Survey in the Mediterranean Region (1991), especially that by P. L. dall'Aglio and G. Marchetti on the Piacenza region. On the Roman suburbium, see T. W. Potter, The Changing Landscape of South Etruria (1979), 93–137.

52 Incidentally, although these figures for urbanization are far less dramatic than those which would apply if the population of Italy was only 5–6 million (well over 25 per cent, if not as much as 40 per cent: see Morley, op. cit. (n. 15), 182–3), they still compare favourably with many areas of early modern Europe. See J. de Vries, European Urbanization 1300–1800 (1984) and G. Rozman, Urban Networks in Russia, 1750–1800, and Premodern Periodization (1976).

53 On the relative importance of the market and other distribution systems in urban supplies, see e.g. C. R. Whittaker, ‘Late Roman trade and traders’, in P. Garnsey, K. Hopkins and C. R. Whittaker (eds), Trade in the Ancient Economy (1983), 163–80; K. Hopkins, ‘Models, ships and staples’, in P. Garnsey and C. R. Whittaker (eds), Trade and Famine in Classical Antiquity (1983), 84–109; Garnsey and Saller, op. cit. (n. 41), 83–103.

54 On the importance of storage as a response to risk and uncertainty, see Garnsey, op. cit. (n. 42), 53–5.

55 On intensive horticulture in the Roman suburbium, see Morley, op. cit. (n. 15), 86–90. On peasant agriculture in Italy, see J. M. Frayn, Subsistence Farming in Roman Italy (1979) and Evans, J. K., ‘Plebs rustica: the peasantry of classical Italy’, AJAH 5 (1980), 9–47 and 134–73. Specifically on the question of peasant involvement in the market, see de Ligt, L., ‘Demand, supply, distribution: the Roman peasantry between town and countryside’, MBAH 9.2 (1990), 2456 and 10.1 (1991), 33–77, and ‘The nundinae of L. Bellicus Sollers’, in Sancisi-Weerdenburg et al., op. cit. (n. 41), 238–62.

56 Productivity of slavery: Rathbone, op. cit. (n. 2); A. Carandini, ‘Quando la dimora dello strumento è l'uomo’, in Carandini, op. cit. (n. 2), 287–326; Morley, op. cit. (n. 15), 122–9.

57 Motives for adopting slavery: Hopkins, op. cit. (n. 2), 99–132; Finley, M. I., Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (1980), 6792; de Ste Croix, G. E. M., The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (1981), 133–74; Rathbone, op. cit. (n. 2). On non-slave labour generally, see Garnsey, P. (ed.), Non-Slave Labour in the Greco-Roman World (1980), esp. P. Garnsey, ‘Non-slave labour in the Roman world’, 34–47.

58 On élite hostility to the market, see the brief but stimulating discussion in Habinek, T. N., The Politics of Latin Literature: Writing, Identity, and Empire in Ancient Rome (1998), 103–21.

59 op. cit. (n. 2), esp. 12 (fig. I.I).

60 de Neeve, op. cit. (n. 2), 31–4. Cf. Grigg, op. cit. (n. 24), 64–82.

61 e.g. Sallust, BJ 41.2; Appian, BC 1.7–8.

62 On the problem of defining and identifying ‘over-population’, see Grigg, op. cit. (n. 24), 11–28.

63 Lo Cascio, op. cit. (n. 6, ‘La dinamica’), 116.

64 2.5 million hectares cropped annually, 5 million on biennial fallow; 20 per cent wheat, 80 per cent barley:

1,000,000 ha × 400 kg/ha + 4,000,000 ha × 750 kg/ha = 3,400 million kg.

At 200 kg per head p.a., this would support a total population of 17 million, not including the City of Rome.

65 See e.g. M. I. Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (1957), 192–206; Carandini, A., ‘L'economia italica fra tarda repubblica e medio impero considerata dal punto di vista di una merce: il vino’, in Amphores romaines et histoire économique: dix ans de recherche (= CEFR 114) (1989), 505–21; cf. Patterson, J. R., ‘Crisis: what crisis? Rural change and urban development in imperial Apennine Italy’, PBSR 55 (1987), 115–46.

66 A. Tchernia, Le Vin de l'ltalie romaine (1986), 221–33 on Domitian's edict. Italy continued to supply grain to Rome even after Africa and Egypt were added to the Empire: Spurr, op. cit. (n. 42), 133–46; Morley, op. cit. (n. 15), 114.

67 Columella I preface 1–3; e.g. I pr. 2: ‘For it is not permissible (fas) to suppose that Nature, endowed with perennial fertility by the creator of the universe, is affected with barrenness as though with some disease.’

68 Millar, F., ‘Italy and the Roman Empire: Augustus to Constantine’, Phoenix 40 (1986), 295.

69 For example, in Plutarch's account (Tib. Grace. 8) the rich gain control of ager publicus by offering higher rents; this surely implies that land was both scarce and valuable, or rather valuable because of the level of competition for it. Cf. Hopkins, op. cit. (n. 2), 36, on the problems of veteran settlement: ‘Most of Italy was too densely populated to allow the easy assimilation of a sudden influx of large numbers of new settlers.’

70 The literary tradition is summarized and criticized in Rich, J. W., ‘The supposed Roman manpower shortage of the later second century B.C.’, Historia 32 (1983), 299305. See the works listed in n. 2, along with H. H. Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero (5th edn, 1982); D. Stockton, The Gracchi (1979); M. Crawford, The Roman Republic (2nd edn, 1992); D. Shotter, The Fall of the Roman Republic (1994).

71 For Scullard, op. cit. (n. 70), 25, he was a ‘generous-hearted man’ who risked his own political future to help the poor; Stockton, op. cit. (n. 70), 84, notes his ambition but accepts that he set out to tackle a serious social ill. Brunt, , in The Fall of the Roman Republic and Other Essays (1988), 91, notes simply that the evidence allows a multitude of different opinions about the motives of the Gracchi, but clearly he has no doubts about the magnitude or the nature of the economic ‘crisis’ in Italy.

72 The exception is Shotter, op. cit. (n. 70), 19–22, who not only talks dismissively of Gracchan ‘propaganda’ but sees in Gracchus’ actions the attempt of a faction to seize control of power in Rome from the Senate.

73 Rich, op. cit. (n. 70), 304, 316.

74 Potter, op. cit. (n. 51), 125.

75 Cicero, Brutus 103, 125.

76 See Keppie, L., Colonisation and Veteran Settlement (1997)in Italy, 47–14 B.C. (1983).

77 On ‘imaginary history’, see Ferguson, N. (ed.), Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (1997) and Hawthorn, G., Plausible Worlds: Possibility and Understanding in History and the Social Sciences (1991); for an example in ancient history, Morley, N., ‘Trajan's enginesG & R 47 (2000), 197210.

78 Although Elio Lo Cascio has in recent years argued energetically for the adoption of a high population figure, he has not yet, so far as I am aware, explored the implications of his arguments for traditional interpretations of Roman history. I should like to offer this piece in recognition of the enthusiasm, generosity, and good humour with which he has pursued the debate. I also wish to thank Professor Martin Goodman and Editorial Committee for their extensive comments and suggestions.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Journal of Roman Studies
  • ISSN: 0075-4358
  • EISSN: 1753-528X
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-roman-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *

Related content

Powered by UNSILO


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed