Death on the Nile: Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt

Death on the Nile: Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt

Death on the Nile: Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt

Death on the Nile: Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt

Synopsis

A pioneering comparative and multidisciplinary study of the interaction between local disease environments and demographic structure, this book breaks new ground in reconstructing the population history of Egypt during the Roman period and beyond. Drawing on a wide range of sources from ancient census data and funerary commemorations to modern medical accounts, statistics and demographic models, the author explores the nature of premodern disease patterns, challenges existing assumptions about ancient age structure, and develops a new methodology for the assessment of Egyptian poplation size. Contextualising the study of Roman Egypt within the broader framework of premodern demography, ecology and medical history, this is the first attempt to interpret and explain demographic conditions in antiquity in terms of the underlying causes of disease and death.

Excerpt

Demography is one of many ways of attempting to capture the essence of life: its transmission, and its end. Historical demography, by extending this process of measurement and analysis into the past, helps situate and define the properties of the present in the context of a dynamic model of continuity and change. In all this, perhaps paradoxically, death comes first. As the demographic transition has shown, mortality is ultimately the principal determinant of reproductive performance: in the long run, fertility responds to the survival rates of progeny. Mortality, in turn, is largely a function of disease, rather than—but interacting with—nutrition or other factors. The prevalence of endemic infectious disease, the main cause of morbidity and mortality in pre-modern populations, has itself been influenced by the most fundamental subsistence choices of the human species, its break with its ancestral hunting-gathering existence, the resulting multiplication of population density and its attendant sanitary and epidemiologic consequences. As a result, life in pre-industrial societies was shaped by pervasive illness and death. Death was a common occurrence across the life cycle to an extent that has become barely imaginable to denizens of the modern West. The true nature of ‘the world we have lost’ is worth remembering.

At first sight, it might seem that students of the Greco-Roman world have begun to take proper account of the harsh environment that bore their traditional ‘classics’. Over the past few decades, the study of ancient population history, and of Roman demography in particular, at long last waking up to the concepts and methods of professional historical demography, has made considerable headway. Though still the preserve of a mere handful of practitioners, its claims and suggestions have been widely incorporated into recent research on other issues from political participation to economic institutions (Scheidel (2001)). At the same time, the medical history of antiquity has always been a well-established field, long confined to a community of specialists but now gradually opened up through its discovery by gender studies.

Even so, it soon becomes apparent that all is not well. Demography and disease are almost invariably studied separately. The leading . . .

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