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People’s life courses are shaped by the complex interactions of contextual factors, of individual behavior, and of opportunities and constraints operating at the macro level. Demography studies these processes with a focus on particular transitions in the life course: birth, leaving home, marriage, and other transitions in civil status (divorce, remarriage, and transitions into widowhood), the birth and survival of offspring, migration, and finally the end of the life cycle—death.

Initial work on the ancient world focussed primarily on macro-level data, trying to establish overall trends in population development on the basis of census figures and other population estimates. This approach has received further impetus with the advent of survey demography (see Population Trends). More recently, attention has turned to single events in the life course. Core demographic studies have attempted to establish patterns and rates of marriage, fertility, migration, and mortality. Others have taken a complementary approach with a stronger focus on qualitative data. These support investigation of sociological, cultural, and economic aspects of demographic phenomena. The remainder of this article focusses on a concise evaluation of current understanding of marriage, fertility, migration, mortality, and population trends in the ancient Greco-Roman world.


Average ages at first marriage form an important aspect of the demography of marriage. As a result of divergences in epigraphic habit, they are better attested for the Roman than for the Greek world. Two types of inscriptions have been used to derive marriage ages. Inscriptions that directly attest the length of marriage of individuals and their age at death (“LOM/ADD” inscriptions, N=231) suggest that first marriage ages were low for both men and women.1 How representative these cases are for the population at large, however, has been questioned. The small body of inscriptions might reflect special cases of people who had been married for an exceptionally long period, thanks to an early start. In response to these doubts, scholars have subsequently studied a much larger set of 2,886 inscriptions.2 The information these contain on the identity of the commemorator(s) of the deceased has been used as a proxy for marital status by age. When a gravestone for a deceased person had been set up by a parent, this person was taken to have been unmarried at the time of death. Around age twenty for women, and around age thirty for men, the balance in the type of commemorator shifts abruptly from parents to husbands and wives. This could be taken to suggest that on average, the timing of marriage hovered around this age. Since urban and rural marriage patterns may vary substantially, and the inscriptional data overwhelmingly stem from urban settings, we cannot draw inferences about marriage patterns in the Roman countryside from these data. It must also be emphasised that fine-grained analyses that would allow distinguishing temporal trends and variations in ages at first marriage are lacking. The idea that the legal position of Roman women in a marriage changed during the late Republican period, however, finds widespread support. That women gained juridical independence from their husband as sine manu marriages became the norm3 may well have had an impact on marriage market dynamics, but this has thus far not been confirmed empirically. The idea that the transition to Christianity led to changes in attitudes toward and practices of marriage has been dismissed for lack of evidence.4

Marriage was nearly universal in the Greco-Roman context, as both qualitative sources and census records from Roman Egypt underline.5 Norms prescribed that marriage was monogamous—a feature of Greco-Roman marriage that was unique at the time but went hand in hand with illegitimate procreation by upper-class men, often involving slave women.6 The season for marriage was in accordance with the agricultural calendar: wedding ceremonies peaked from December to February, when farming required less work. Midsummer, which required manpower in the fields, was the least popular wedding season.7

For women, the social implications of Greek and Roman marriage patterns were deep. The wide age gap between partners implied, first, that widows were more common than widowers, and that it was not uncommon for women to lose their husbands when they and their children were still relatively young. Second, theories on gender equality connect early marriages of women with substantially older men (age hypergamy) with a lack of female empowerment and uneven power relations in the household.8


Marriage, in the Greco-Roman context, marked the onset of childbearing. Greco-Roman populations were characterised by a “natural fertility” regime. A term somewhat unhappily chosen, this signifies that there was no preconceived “ideal number” of children that people sought to achieve and after which women stopped childbearing. Rather, for women in a fecund union, last children were born toward menopause. Given their overall early marriage, women thus had, at least in theory, a long childbearing career and a high fertility potential. In reality, the total number of offspring surviving to adulthood was not much beyond replacement level, and it could likely drop below it during mortality crises. Census evidence from Roman Egypt suggests that women who lived to age fifty—that is, to the end of their reproductive career—on average had close to six children.9 This number would be just enough to ensure that on average, for each cohort of women (including those who did not survive to age fifty), two children per woman survived to have children of their own and renew the demographic cycle.

Why did women not seem to have had more children when they first married at such early ages? The answer must be sought in an interplay of factors. The accepted practices of infanticide and exposure meant that not all children born were actually raised, or raised as free children. The estimate of close to six children per woman who lived to age fifty may well underestimate the actual number of children who were, on average, born to such women. But this assumes that women who survived to age fifty were fecund throughout this period, and were married and sexually active throughout their fecund lives. In actuality, women who were more or less constantly at risk of getting pregnant between menarche and menopause were not the typical woman in antiquity. First of all, the fertility of a substantial number of women would be depressed by the absence or death of their partners. The fact that husbands were often substantially older than their wives meant that women regularly lost their husbands while they were still young and fertile. As not all of these women would remarry, or remarry soon, this implied a fertility loss. Second, low ages at first marriage and at first sexual intercourse and pregnancy would themselves have contributed to lowering fertility: the bodies of young women may physiologically not be fully ready for childbirth, thus increasing the risk of subsequent infertility. Moreover, childbirth (as well as abortions) under non-sterile conditions can lead to subsequent infertility. Finally, the documentary evidence suggests that the intervals between successive births were relatively long. This is a phenomenon that has as well been observed in historic East Asia, where women also married young. It may have been part of a conscious strategy to support continued childbearing in a way that was sustainable over a longer period. Long birth intervals might have been promoted by taboos on sexual intercourse during breastfeeding, which, some sources suggest, could continue until age three.10


Conquest, colonisation, urbanisation, and political and economic integration brought along migration in varying degrees across the ancient world. Quantification of these migration flows has been attempted for a number of places and times, either with the help of model assumptions or on the basis of identification of migrants in documentary evidence. Arguments resting on proportional representation of migrants recorded in inscriptions are evidently hazardous, given the biases in epigraphic habit that these might represent. For that reason, “modeling” has come to be a more popular method to determine the limits of the plausible. Well aware that this method rests heavily on assumptions regarding the age and sex composition of migrant flows, scholars have devoted increasing attention to the demographic characteristics of migrants. Early studies tended to defend the viewpoint that migrants to urban areas were overwhelmingly young single men, while those to colonies tended to be a more balanced mixture of men, women, and children. Recently, however, this notion has been undermined by new bio-archaeological work that finds evidence for heterogeneity, with considerable shares of women and children among migrants to Rome, and by an analysis of inscriptional evidence from Athens.11 Moreover, the notion that migrants tend to have higher mortality than native urbanites, owing to lower resistance against epidemic diseases, is questioned in demographic studies on later time periods.12 These find, by contrast, that migrants, at least in the initial years after their arrival, were actually healthier than their locally born counterparts, and enjoyed lower mortality risks than natives. While future work is expected to shed further light on these phenomena, the current revisions have begun to raise doubt about the previously held notion that migrants would have made major contributions to natural population decline in large ancient cities such as imperial Rome (the so-called urban graveyard effect) because of their relatively low fertility and relatively high mortality. From a demographic viewpoint, the lives of urban migrants may thus have been less grim than hitherto thought.13


There is no doubt that life expectancy across the ancient world was dramatically low by current standards. According to the most recent WHO estimates (2013), Sierra Leone is the only present-day country with a measured life expectancy at birth below age fifty. Roman life expectancy at birth, according to the few data we have, hovered somewhere between twenty and thirty. In that respect, however, it did not differ much from Italy in 1872, when life expectancy (based on period data) was 29.7 years.14 Among the few data we have, those on Roman Egypt—the census figures—are the best in quality: Whipple’s tests performed to establish the extent of age rounding in these data suggest that they are relatively accurate, although other biases, such as the relative under-registration of certain age groups, have been shown to affect the data.15 Other datasets are much smaller, and biased toward members of the elite, but point in similar direction.16 Owing to a lack of data from non-urban contexts (apart from those pertaining to Roman Egypt, which was plagued by life expectancy-undermining malaria), ancient historians are unable to measure heterogeneity in life expectancy by location of residence. Potential socio-economic differences also remain poorly understood. Bio-archaeological studies, however, increasingly investigate patterns of heterogeneity in health and diet by looking at skeletal indicators.17 They find clear indications for severely compromised health among inhabitants of the ancient world, with individual burial sites yielding evidence for lack of dietary variation, growth interruptions owing to lack of vitamins and minerals and/or infections, and exposure to various diseases. Unfortunately, however, we still lack a comprehensive empirical view of the health conditions of ancient populations and the underlying causes of heterogeneity. The use of divergent methods, as well as the fact that publications do not consistently include detailed descriptions of these methods, means that we are unable to tell whether the observed differences between sites are historical facts, or artefacts of methodologies that are not comparable. The lack of consensus on the health of inhabitants of the Greco-Roman world converges with wildly diverging analyses of living conditions in the ancient world (including sanitary conditions, water quality, and other aspects of public health) which currently coexist.18

Population Trends

The complex interactions between the marriage behavior, fertility, household dynamics, migration patterns, and mortality of individuals shaped population trends at the macro level. They set the boundaries for the limits of the plausible, excluding very rapid population growth over prolonged periods of time. But these boundaries surely allowed for growth in the shorter run, while the impact of warfare and infectious diseases made Greco-Roman populations vulnerable to spikes in mortality rates and concurrent short- or medium-term population decline.

Actual demographic trends in the ancient world have been derived both from archaeological evidence, in particular the development of settlement sizes and trends in survey finds, and from the historical records. A very modest positive long-term annual growth rate is thought to have characterised the Greco-Roman world at large between about 1500 bce and the first centuries ce.19 Where population trends among the free citizenry of Roman Italy are concerned, hefty debate has characterised scholarship ever since the subject was first studied. One camp, known as the “low counters,” defends the view that the population size of Roman Italy was relatively limited at about 6 million at the time of Augustus, and that the number of freeborn Roman citizens among them had declined since the Second Punic War.20 By contrast, “high counters” hold the opposing view that Rome’s free citizen population had grown substantially over that same period, and they argue that Italy’s population size during the Augustan period was above 12 million or so.21 A reconciling “middle count” hypothesis has been proposed which suggests an intermediate scenario between these two extremes.22 While early work relied mostly on the literary record of census taking, the establishment of the field of survey archaeology has given a boost to the debate and adds fresh perspective to it.

This is a most welcome development, as improved insights in demographic trends, structures, and processes are of greater value to our general understanding of classical antiquity than is often thought. How can we understand globalisation in the ancient world without a demographic perspective on migration? How are we to evaluate the performance of ancient economies so long as per capita calculations may differ wildly depending on which population estimate is used, and we cannot tell whether increased economic activity coincided with population growth or decline? These are merely two examples of trending topics in ancient history where demography matters.


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      Bresson, Alain. “Les hommes dans leur milieu.” In L’économie de la Grèce des cités (fin VIe-Ier siècle a. C.) I: Les structures et la population, by Alain Bresson, 37–76. Paris: Armand Colin, 2007.Find this resource:

        Clarysse, Willy, and Dorothy Thompson. Counting the People in Hellenistic Egypt, Vol. II: Historical Studies. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

          Frier, Bruce W. “Natural Fertility and Family Limitation in Roman Marriage.” Classical Philology 89 (1994): 318–333.Find this resource:

            Garnsey, Peter. Food and Society in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

              Hin, Saskia. The Demography of Roman Italy: Population Dynamics in an Ancient Conquest Society, 201 bcece 14. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                Parkin, Tim G. Demography and Roman Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

                  Rawson, Beryl, ed. A Companion to Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.Find this resource:

                    Sallares, Robert. “Demography.” In The Ecology of the Ancient Greek World, by Robert Sallares, 42–293. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.Find this resource:

                      Saller, Richard P. Patriarchy, Property and Death in the Roman Family. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

                        Scheidel, Walter. Death on the Nile: Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2001.Find this resource:

                          Woods, Bob. “Ancient and Early Modern Mortality: Experience and Understanding.” Economic History Review 60.2 (2007): 373–399.Find this resource:


                            (1.) Walter Scheidel, “Roman Funerary Commemoration and the Age at First Marriage,” Classical Philology 102.4 (2007): 389–402.

                            (2.) Richard P. Saller, “Men’s Age at Marriage and its Consequences in the Roman Family,” Classical Philology 82.1 (1987): 21–34; Brent D. Shaw, “The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage: Some Reconsiderations,” Journal of Roman Studies 77 (1987): 30–46. See also Scheidel, Roman Funerary Commemoration.

                            (3.) On the transition of cum manu to sine manu marriages, see among others the reference bible on Roman marriage: Susan Treggiari, Roman Marriage: Iusti coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).

                            (4.) Judith Evans Grubbs, “‘Pagan’ and ‘Christian’ Marriage: The State of the Question,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 2 (1994): 361–412.

                            (5.) On the census records from Roman Egypt, see Roger S. Bagnall and Bruce W. Frier, The Demography of Roman Egypt (2d ed.; Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

                            (6.) Laura Betzig, “Roman Monogamy,” Ethology and Sociobiology 13 (1992): 351–383; Laura Betzig, “Roman Polygyny,” Ethology and Sociobiology 13 (1992): 309–349; Walter Scheidel, “A Peculiar Institution? Greco-Roman Monogamy in Global Context,” History of the Family 14.3 (2009): 280–291.

                            (7.) Brent Shaw, “Agrarian Economy and the Marriage Cycle of Roman Women,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 10 (1997): 57–76.

                            (8.) See e.g. Sarah Carmichael, “Marriage and Power: Age at First Marriage and Spousal Age Gap in Lesser Developed Countries,” History of the Family 16.4 (2011): 416–436.

                            (9.) Bagnall and Frier, Demography of Roman Egypt, 138–139.

                            (10.) Bagnall and Frier, Demography of Roman Egypt, 148–151; Saskia Hin, The Demography of Roman Italy: Population Dynamics in an Ancient Conquest Society, 201 BCE–CE 14, (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 195–199.

                            (11.) Kristina Killgrove, Migration and Mobility in Imperial Rome (PhD dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2010 (see; Saskia Hin, “Revisiting Urban Graveyard Theory: Migrant Flows in Hellenistic and Roman Athens,” in Migration and Mobility in the Early Roman Empire, edited by Luuk De Ligt and Laurens Tacoma (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016), 236–265.

                            (12.) See for example Lionel Kesztenbaum and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, “The Health Cost of Living in a City: The Case of France at the End of the 19th Century,” Explorations in Economic History 48 (2011): 207–225.

                            (13.) For an approach with a stronger social and cultural focus on migrant lives in the city of Rome, see David Noy, Foreigners at Rome: Citizens and Strangers (London: Duckworth, 2000).

                            (14.) Source: Human Mortality Database (HMD, coordinated by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research and University of Berkeley), based on period data for 1872. Using cohort data for the same year, life expectancy was higher at 36.1 on average. The latter reflects the gains in life expectancy made toward the end of the 19th century. Data prior to 1872 are not available in the HMD because they suffer from serious quality issues and do not include the Lazio province (see

                            (15.) Bagnall and Frier, Demography of Roman Egypt: Whipple’s Index of age rounding is 124; Walter Scheidel, Death on the Nile: Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2001).

                            (16.) Walter Scheidel, “Emperors, Aristocrats and the Grim Reaper: Towards a Demographic Profile of the Roman Élite,” Classical Quarterly 49.1 (1999): 254–281.

                            (17.) Note for example the pioneering work done by Tracy Prowse.

                            (18.) Compare for example the often-cited grim account of Alex Scobie, “Slums, Sanitation, and Mortality in the Roman World,” Klio 68.2 (1986): 399–433, on living conditions, versus the far more optimistic takes of Neville Morley, “The Salubriousness of the Roman City,” in Health in Antiquity, edited by Helen King (London: Routledge, 2005), 192–204; and of Cyril Courier, “La ville comme facteur de distinction,” in La plèbe de Rome et sa culture: Fin du IIe siècle av. J.-C.—fin du Ier siècle ap. J.-C, (Rome: École Française de Rome, 2014), 27–125.

                            (19.) Walter Scheidel, “Demography,” in The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World, edited by Walter Scheidel, Ian Morris, and Richard Saller (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 42–43.

                            (20.) As put forward by Karl J. Beloch, Die Bevölkerung der Griechisch-Römischen Welt, (Leipzig, Duncker & Humblot, 1886), 388–443; and by Peter A. Brunt, Italian Manpower (2d ed.; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987). For succinct and clear overviews, see Neville Morley, “The Transformation of Italy, 225–28 BC,” Journal of Roman Studies 91: 50–62; and Walter Scheidel, “Roman Population Size: The Logic of the Debate,” in People, Land, and Politics: Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy, 300 B.C.–A.D. 14, edited by Luuk De Ligt and Simon Northwood (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008), 17–70.

                            (21.) For the high count view, see among others Elio Lo Cascio, “The Size of the Roman Population: Beloch and the Meaning of the Augustan Census Figures,” Journal of Roman Studies 84 (1994): 24–40.

                            (22.) Saskia Hin, “Counting Romans,” in People, Land, and Politics: Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy, 300 B.C.–A.D. 14, edited by Luuk De Ligt and Simon Northwood (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008), 187–238; and Hin, Demography of Roman Italy, 261–297.

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