The Population of Ancient Rome

Article excerpt

What was the population of imperial Rome? City blocks in Pompeii and Ostia are sufficiently well explored that a fair estimate of population density can now be arrived at. That peoples the city of ancient Rome with roughly 450,000 inhabitants, within the known population and density range of pre-industrial and modern urban centres.


What was the population of ancient Rome? Many have believed there were as many as one million inhabitants - the figure in recent standard accounts (Brunt 1971: 376-88; Hopkins 1978: 96-8; Hodges & Whitehouse 1983: 4852; Stambaugh 1988: 90; Bairoch 1989: 259; Robinson 1992: 8) and commensurate with the city's grandeur as capital of a great empire [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. But one million inhabitants in the 13.86 sq. km of the ancient city (Homo 1951: 98-9) is the astonishingly high density of 72,150 persons per sq. km, roughly equal to the density of sections of modern Hong Kong (Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department 1971).(1)

A population estimate can be made by combining lines of evidence (in a manner similar to recent research by, e.g., Blakely & Mathews 1990; Crown 1991; Kardulias 1992), including the ethnohistoric record of Rome, the archaeological evidence of well-preserved Roman urban sites and the densities of pre-industrial and modern cities. A house-by-house population count for Pompeii and Ostia (including reconstructions of unexcavated areas) produces a population density statistic applicable to Rome and leads to a population estimate of the order of half a million.

Background to demographic estimates for Rome

Previous estimators of Rome's population have fallen into two opposite camps: the ones we can call the 'Great Rome' theorists argue for a million or more inhabitants, while 'Little Rome' theorists (so characterized by Carcopino 1940: 10) estimate at or below half a million; the history of demographic estimates reveals a pendulum swing between the extremes (G. Storey 1992: 17-62; Maier 1954). Many estimates in the favoured range of 750,000-1,000,000 inhabitants start with the founder of the principate, Augustus, whose posthumous testament to the Roman people, the Res Gestae divi Augusti ('Achievements of the Divine Augustus') says (section 15):

Never did my largesse reach less than 250,000 people. In . . . [5 BC], I gave 240 sesterces to each one of 320,000 of the Roman people ... In ... [11 BC], I gave to Romans then on the grain dole 240 sesterces each. Their number stood at a little more than 200,000.

If these numbers are accurate, and if the 200,000 or 320,000 refer to a subset of the total population (probably male household heads), and if the remaining elements of the population - women and children, slaves, resident aliens, police forces, transients etc. - are added, then the population is at least 750,000, possibly one million people or more (the earliest version of this argument is in Lipsius 1605: 113-20).

The citing of the figures 200,000-300,000 may have been chiefly political in intent, to glorify the accomplishments of Augustus (Finley 1985: 11, 32). The two relevant enumerations of the Roman census, 900,000 in 69 BC and 4 million in 28 BC are so disparate that some scholars believe that the Augustan census of 28 BC must have included women and children, not just the usual male citizen family heads (Beloch 1968 [1886]: 370-78; Brunt 1971: 120; Nicolet 1991: 131); the counter-opinion in Frank 1924; Wiseman 1969; Lo Cascio 1994.

Ancient Rome and statistics

'Census' is a Latin word, and the modern notion of a state counting the population is a direct legacy from the Roman system of counting its citizens. The complex Roman census process involved a sworn declaration of age, family and property, allowing the administration to record the city's human and property resources and to rank them (Nicolet 1991: 126). The procedure, originally confined to Romans in and near Rome, later expanded to subjects in the provinces for the purposes of taxation, as the Gospel according to Luke (2: 1) says: 'And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. …