european population, antiquity vs medieval

Daniel A. Foss (U17043@UICVM.BITNET)
Mon, 26 Sep 1994 19:56:28 CDT

Recognized State-of-the-Art single-volume Standard for the Middle Ages,
Jacques LeGoff, Medieval Civilization, 1992, which is, be it noted, avowedly
anthropological in perspective, gives two sets of figures for both Classical
Antiquity and Medieval Europe. The larger numbers, which the author favors,
give 67 million for Antiquity, ie, as of the second century just before the
smallpox epidemic of 165-180; 73 million for 1347, ie, on the eve of the
Second Bubonic Plague Pandemic, 1347-1350. The figures, admittedly this is
not clearly specified, are for Europe as a geographical expression, not for
any given state. That tells us to subtract, from the aggregate population of
the Roman Empire the whole of the admittedly dense populations of Roman Asia
and North Africa: Egypt, according to N. Lewis, 1986, based on papyrological
evidence, had seven million inhabitants at its annexation (30 BC), rising to
eight million over the three centuries of the Prinicpate. The Roman East, as
a whole, including the densely populated Asia Minor, Syria, and Africa, would
have held 60% or more of the 50 to 60 million inhabitants of the Empire. After
the Third Century Crisis and the onset of Late Antiquity with Diocletian (284-
306) and Constantine (306-337), this rises to two thirds.

The populations of the Latinized provinces represent a can of worms. One
problem with estimating population is enforced population transfer as part
and parcel of changes in the labor system in, say, Italy. Another is the
capacity of, again, Italy to feed its population was contingent upon extraction
of surplus grain as tribute from conquered dependencies transformed into
breadbaskets. The population which Italy was capable of feeding was immensely
increased by the acquisition of Sicily, 212 BC, in the Second Punic War. The
same was even more dramatically true of the annexation of the region formerly
ruled by Carthage in the Third Punic War, 146 BC. These windfalls for the
Roman landowning ruling class brought about the wholesale ruin of small
peasant proprietors, consolidation of vast estates, and importation of two
million slaves into peninsular Italy and Sicily alone. The source of slaves
was the newly-coquered Hellenistic East, the inhabitants whereof had previously
accepted, still did accept, the social and moral necessity of slavery as a
human condition; they did have some certainty as to slavery being the sort of
thing which never happened to Decent People like them.

This is important for all of you to know, just in case we have visitors who
announce themselves as Klingons.

The result of indiscriminate enslavement was the Sicilian Slave Revolt,
135-131 BC; and the Spartacus Revolt, 71 BC. Grounds for enslavement were,
quite simply, losing: *vae victis*. The treatment of indigenous populations
by Roman and other Italian land speculators lacked nothing of the despoiling
of the Native Americans but the buffalo and the railroad; hence, the outbreak
of the war of independence in the newly-created Roman province of Asia, willed
to Rome (133 BC) by the last king, Eumenes III; it was led by his illegitimate
son. Later came the crooked deprivations which set off the wars of Mithridates
of Pontus (d. 88 BC); and to the end of Roman expansion, ie, the conquest of
Britain, this was repeated: Boudicca's revolt, 60 AD. The relevance of all
this is to the profitability of the villa or latifundium system, the vast
estate worked by slaves.

The Western Provinces of the Empire had the most fertile soils; but the
Romans lacked the technical means to cultivate them: The North European plain,
extending into Southwest Britain, is thick clay; and Roman agriculture possess-
ed only the light Mediterranean scratch plow, *aratrum*.
Leslie White, in Technology and Social Change, adduced the thesis of the
Slavic tribal origin of the heavy wheeled plow, which was to evolve into
the *carrucca*. The Romans were similarly deficient in the design and
improvement of wheeled vehicles by contrast with politically independent
tribal peoples of Northern Europe; see J.G. Landels, Engineering in Antiquity,
1978. Roman failure to exploit wind and water power outside Rome itself and
a few other massive civilian or military concentrations complement the
picture: Alienated labor, in particular slave labor, is not conducive to
technical invention in basic food production; also, there is no postive
correlation, there may even be a negative correlation, between class society
and the basic well-being, ie feeding, of the mass of the population, who also
grow the food; with the exception, possibly, only of very recent times.

Bearing all these mindboggling contingencies in mind somehow, we should be
prepared to accept ballpark guesstimates, granted that "ballpark" is now obso-
lete usage, of seven or at most eight millions for the Iberian Peninsula; seven
to ten millions depending on this, depending on that, for Italy with Sicily,
seven millions maximum without; and between one and two millions for Britain.
The latter was advantageously placed, demographically: Its villae flourished
into the fourth century, when the market for estate surpluses and produce
grown or manufactured exclusively for consumption in the cities had collapsed
throughout Gaul. Britain was, till late in the fourth century, the source of
provisions for Roman armies fighting invading Germans on the Rhine frontier;
this decided the Battle of Strasbourg for Julian, in 360, for example. The
secret of success was the "unconquered" Pictish population on the wrong side
of Hadrian's wall and beyond the immediate reach of Celtic tribes which were
clients of the Empire. A shortage of labor might be rectified by slavehunting
expeditions, and more readily than anywhere else. In 383, a huge slave revolt
broke out; and instead of suppressing it, the Roman commander, Magnus Maximus,
"the great, the greatest," tried a coup instead.

Gaul, rather than boasting the twenty millions, as Kenneth Gauck claims,
would not, could not, have sustained a dense population north of the zone
of *aratrum* efficiency. When the massive and cheap slave importations ceased,
dependent-peasantlike tenures, *servi casati*, hutted slaves, would have been
substituted for the fortunate survivors of the regime of gang-labor contrived
to work slaves to death at malnutrition levels of sustenance. The Celtic
natives, their leaders learning Latin, toga-wearing, and the arts of war or
senatorship, would have become landlords under Roman Law, the former their
tenants; with servi casati and tenants less and less demarcated. If we assume
20 millions for France in 1300, at the height of Medieval demographic crisis,
10 millions for Gaul in Antiquity is wildly excessive; and I have seen guesses
of 3-4 millions, the population of Chicago. (Collapse of the urban-commercial
economy due to disease, invasion, and landlord domination of the rural areas
makes this figure highly likely for Late Antiquity, but prior to the Plague
of Justinian.) The name of the game is *agres vacantes*, vacant holdings. In
the West, the labor for these holdings was never found. In the East, it was.

The figure of one million for the City of Rome is a bit high, unless it is
specified to include Ostia, where the multistory *insulae*, apartment blocks,
were most heavily concentrated.

I'm teaching a moralistic lesson here, actually, about technical progress
and human wellbeing. If the figure for the whole of Europe given for the
period of demographic crisis, formerly called "overpopulation," on the eve
of the Black Death, is so close to the figure for the whole of Europe (within
and without the Empire) in the palmy days of the Principate, and basic food
production has been revolutionized whilst the large cities of Antiquity have
yet to be surpassed in population, something is at work in Medieval society
which is screwing the average humans into the ground. Medieval society thus
extracted a greater portion of the surplus from a hungrier population than
was true of Antiquity.

No wonder in Medieval times people were so preoccupied with Hell. As the
precondition of watching television is cretinized quotidian existence, then
the precondition for Hell in the Middle Ages was the capacity to imagine
something *even worse* than the Middle Ages.

Daniel A. Foss