Jews in the Hellenistic and Roman Cities

By John R. Bartlett | Go to book overview

6

POPULATION AND PROSELYTISM

How many Jews were there in the ancient world?

Brian McGing

Counting numbers of people in the ancient world has, to a certain extent at least, gone out of scholarly fashion. When we need a sensible estimate of the population of a city or area, the best recourse is, and has been for the last hundred years, to refer to Beloch's hugely influential study of 1886, Die Bevölkerung der griechisch-römischen Welt. In a most interesting analysis of Beloch's work Elio Lo Cascio says, 'estimating the size of an ancient population is thought of as an almost impossible exercise, given the uncertainties in the source material. It is considered much more interesting and indeed more rewarding to try to extract from our sources information on what the normal patterns of mortality or fertility were, or the age at marriage for women and men, or the extent of exposure and infanticide, or the customs of breast-feeding and their effect on fertility'. 1 This sentiment is echoed by many scholars, and, from the point of view of social and economic history, quite rightly: one need only contemplate the fascinating material and results of, for instance, Bagnall and Frier's study of the census returns from Roman Egypt to appreciate the value of modern demographic interests and techniques. 2 Taken to its extreme, this approach abandons all attempts at exact figures. 'At this point we do not have exact information regarding the population of Provincia Judaea during the Roman period'. So writes Ze'ev Safrai in his recent work on Roman Palestine; he suggests, without argumentation, that the population of Palestine was larger than the 1 million proposed by Broshi, but that is just about all we hear of exact numbers. 3 Of

1 Lo Cascio 1994:40. Lo Cascio's attempt to refute Beloch represents well the old and continuing dispute between positivist believers in big numbers (e.g. Lo Cascio himself, Frank 1940 and Beloch in his later work) and more sceptical proponents of low numbers (e.g. Beloch 1886, Brunt 1971 and Rathbone 1990).

2 Bagnall and Frier 1994. A helpful introduction to the study of ancient populations is Parkin 1992.

3 Safrai 1994:103 (he does make a passing, but unsupported reference to 2.1 million residents in Palestine - p. 131); Broshi 1979:1-10.

-88-

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