Greek population

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Thucydides (c. 455—400 bc) Greek historian

Greek colonization

Alexander the Great (356—323 bc) king of Macedon 336–323

colonization, Hellenistic

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 The demography of Greece is hard to investigate because of the shortage of statistical data. Owing to the stress on war in historiography most estimates of population size relate to the size of campaigning armies or to the manpower available for military purposes, i.e. free adult males only. Extrapolations must be attempted from such information to total population sizes because women, children, and slaves were not usually enumerated at all. The Greeks had a poor grasp of numbers and were prone to exaggeration, e.g. in relation to the size of Persian armies. Thucydides 2 was a notable exception to this rule. (Unfortunately, he does not concern himself with Athenian naval manpower or recruiting.) Even in Classical Athens it seems unlikely that there was a central register of hoplites, in addition to the deme registers. Greek states did not have taxes payable by all inhabitants that would have required the maintenance of records for financial purposes. Censuses of citizens were rare in the ancient Greek world.

Estimates of ancient population sizes inevitably involve much guesswork. It is often necessary to use estimates of carrying capacity based on land areas, soil fertility, etc. The assumptions underlying such estimates are usually controversial. Intensive archaeological field surveys are yielding information about changes in settlement patterns in ancient Greece, which are probably connected with population fluctuations. The general pattern is of a thinly populated landscape in the 11th–10th cents. bc, followed by substantial population growth in most areas from the 9th cent., suggesting that colonization from the 8th cent. bc onwards was at least partly a product of population growth. A peak was reached in the 5th to the 3rd cents. The period of colonization after Alexander 2 the Great (see colonization, hellenistic) was at least partly a result of population increase. There was a substantial decline in the last two centuries bc, which continued into the early Roman empire. There were always local variations on this broad pattern. However, the inference drawn from the field surveys, namely that Greece was more densely populated in the Classical period than at any time before or since until the late 19th cent. ad, correlates with the fact that even the lowest estimates of the size of the population of Classical Greece made by modern scholars, on the basis of the fragmentary literary sources, are substantially higher than figures derived from census data for parts of late medieval and early modern Greece. The total population in the 4th cent. bc may have been about two million people.

Demography is not just a matter of population size. It is also concerned with the age‐structure of populations, which is mainly determined by fertility rates and also by mortality rates. Fertility and mortality rates are determined by many factors, esp. average age of marriage for fertility, and disease patterns for mortality. There is as little information for vital rates in ancient Greece as for population size.

Excavations of cemeteries suggest a high level of infant and early child mortality in Classical Greece (c.30 per cent at Olynthus). Physical anthropologists attempt to determine the age of death of ancient skeletons. However, their methods suffer from various sources of uncertainty, esp. in relation to the age of death of adults. Individuals who survived infancy and early childhood may have had a reasonable chance of reaching old age. Moreover, conclusions drawn from cemeteries about populations, rather than individuals, are often controversial because it is not certain whether the individuals buried there were a representative sample of the whole population. Scholars are suspicious of ages given in literary sources because there were no birth or death certificates. (Greek men reported to have lived to a great age include Gorgias, Isocrates, Sophocles.) The Greeks in the Classical period seldom recorded ages or causes of death on tombstones.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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