In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ancient Demography

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Fertility, Reproduction, and Fertility Limitation
  • Marriage and Family Studies
  • Population and Economy
  • Demography of Slavery

Classics Ancient Demography
Saskia Hin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0208


Demography, or population studies, tackles questions surrounding the structure and dynamics of populations. It is concerned with life events of individuals: births, marriages, migration, and death. At a meso-level, demography studies household composition and family ties and changes in these over the life course or across time and space. At the macro-level, population growth dynamics and the question of what drives these dynamics are concerned. As a strongly interdisciplinary field, demography draws on a range of divergent sources that provide complementary perspectives. For the ancient world, main sources to reconstruct the composition of populations (by age, by sex, by marital status, and by household composition) and to track their development over time are provided by (1) the census papyri from Roman Egypt; (2) census figures preserved in various literary sources; (3) gravestones or epitaphs that yield insights in marriage patterns and family ties (but not household composition directly); (4) archaeological survey evidence that sheds light on population trends; (5) bioarchaeological or paleodemographic evidence that increasingly starts to inform us about health conditions and migration. The limited and fragmentary nature of all of these sources means that quantitative approaches to ancient demography have their limitations. Qualitative approaches, however, are fruitfully applied to complement quantitative perspectives—here demography intertwines especially with the areas of family studies and social and economic history. The sources exploited to provide these perspectives likewise encompass documentary (epigraphic, papyrological and [bio]archaeological), as well as literary evidence. This bibliography collects some of the work published in the field of ancient demography. Its aim is not to be comprehensive, but rather to provide the reader with tools to start his or her own journey into the area with an informed perspective on key works, and to provide references to publications that will offer further guidance into the literature and debates on subjects related to the core of demography (such as family studies). Given the purpose of offering guidance to nonspecialists first engaging with the sub-discipline, this critical bibliography occasionally includes works that do not represent the most recent viewpoints on an issue, but those that readers are likely to encounter, and for which it is particularly helpful to have a critical annotation.

General Overviews

General introductions are obviously the best point at which to start. For the Greek world, the chapters on demography in French in Bresson 2007 and Sallares 1991 provide good entries that cover most relevant themes. Bresson’s chapter emphasizes that Greek marriage patterns created a much larger potential for population growth than was the case in pre-transitional Northern Europe, and that factors relating to hygiene were at least no worse, possibly better. The empirical evidence about Roman Egypt as collected in Bagnall and Frier 2006, however, shows that this theoretical potential need not have materialized: in Roman Egypt, where similar marriage patterns prevailed, no rapid population growth was apparent. For the Roman context, an up-to-date account of issues relating to population size, population dynamics, fertility, mortality and migration up to the early Empire can be found in Hin 2013. A very concise coverage of most relevant themes in demography, but to be used with some caution, is offered in French in Corvisier and Suder 2000. Stangeland’s classic (Stangeland 2012) provides insight into the history of population thought, showing how societies perceived of demographic issues. Some of Stangeland’s interpretations surely need to be read in the light of his book’s original publication date of 1904. But Stangeland’s broad coverage—philosophical, political, and religious, as well as legal perspectives—, clear presentation style and links to population thought at later times still make it the best introduction to the subject. The most comprehensive treatment of the ancient source evidence (through 1992) in a single publication is found in Parkin 1992. Some of Parkin’s criticism on these sources is tackled by newer model life tables referred to in Woods 2007 (cited under Mortality) and Hin 2013, which are drawn from low-life-expectancy populations. Even more importantly, both Bagnall and Frier 2006 (first published in 1994) and Clarysse and Thompson 2006 have subsequently provided important new collections of papyrological evidence. Inferences on mortality and life expectancy in Bagnall and Frier 2006 have subsequently been criticized in Scheidel 2001b (cited under Mortality). In recent years, bioarchaeology has started to provide increasingly important contributions to the study of aspects of ancient demography. In the absence of a general overview drawing on this type of evidence, the evidence is referred to under relevant subsections.

  • Bagnall, Roger S., and Bruce W. Frier. 2006. The demography of Roman Egypt. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This pioneering work collects and analyzes census papyri from Roman Egypt. Data quality tests suggest that these papyri provide the best source of demographic evidence for the Greco-Roman world (despite issues highlighted in Scheidel 2001 (cited under Anthologies). Bagnall and Frier use various demographic techniques to derive information on life expectancy, marriage, fertility, and migration from individual-level characteristics described on these records (among others age, marital status, and family composition).

  • Bresson, Alain. 2007. Les hommes dans leur milieu. In L’Économie de la Grèce des cités (fin VIe–Ier siècle a. C.). Vol. 1, Les structures et la population. By Alain Bresson, 37–76. Paris: Armand Colin.

    A fresh account of all relevant big themes in ancient demography from a Greek perspective. Bresson pays due attention to the need to consider the impact of climatic change and its interrelationship with demography and economy (especially the grain imports on which Athens depended).

  • Clarysse, Willy, and Dorothy Thompson. 2006. Counting the people in Hellenistic Egypt. Vol. 2, Historical Studies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Published together with the capitation-salt-tax papyri (volume 1), this volume focuses on the historical and demographic analysis of these documents. Issues highlighted include population sizes of towns and villages; population density; sex ratios; the demography of slavery; and socioeconomic status differentials. Lacking information on ages and children, the main contribution of these papyri to the study of demography consists in the light they shed on household structures.

  • Corvisier, Jean-Nicolas, and Wiesław Suder. 2000. La population de l’Antiquité classique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

    Introductory volume in seven chapters, respectively on sources, methods, Greek population size and development, Greek demographic structures (marriage, fertility, and mortality); Roman population size and development; Roman demographic structures; and “Depopulation—myth or reality?” Subject of migration barely touched upon. References and bibliography are limited, and the reader shall be warned that, in some cases, what Corvisier and Suder present as unambiguous fact is a subject of debate among others.

  • Hin, Saskia. 2013. The demography of Roman Italy: Population dynamics in an ancient conquest society, 201 BCE–14 CE. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511782305

    Hin sheds new light on the intensive debate on population trends in Roman Italy (see Macrodemography and Population Trends, Roman), making a case for a “middle count,” in which population size and growth trends fall between the earlier proposed “low” and “high” counts. Her discussion covers theory and a variety of evidence about mortality, fertility, and migration, and connects questions surrounding demographic processes to environmental questions and debates about economic development in Roman antiquity.

  • Parkin, Tim G. 1992. Demography and Roman society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    Sharp but fair review of the weaknesses and limitations of ancient demographic evidence and of methodological flaws in overconfident earlier studies. Explains the working of model life tables. Highlights how model life tables and indirect evidence may be used to test and evaluate hypotheses on population structures and dynamics.

  • Sallares, Robert. 1991. Demography. In The ecology of the ancient Greek world. By Robert Sallares, 42–293. New York: Cornell Univ. Press.

    Chapter (rather, a book in itself) on demography. Covers population size, mortality, fertility, age class systems, economic and social aspects of family structures, and disease. Emphasis is on the place of populations within, and their interactions with, the ecosystem in the Greek world, an ecosystem that is seen as a force that regulated population through mediating agricultural production. Argues that population in the 4th century BCE had climbed to a level that could not be sustained in the long run.

  • Stangeland, Charles E. 2012. Pre-Malthusian doctrines of population: A study in the history of economic theory. 21st ed. Charleston, SC: Bibliobooks.

    First published in 1904, this volume needs to be approached with some caution. But Stangeland’s work on Greek and Roman perspectives on population (“doctrines,” as he coins them) still forms the best overview on the subject one can get from a single publication. His diachronic perspective, which places Greek and Roman views in a wider historical context, is extremely helpful. Numerous quotations and references to primary sources, both Greek and Roman, included.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.