January 23, 2009

Rome and Demographics

Regarding my previous post on empire undermining tradition, Razib Khan takes issue with my statement that there were substantial demographic changes from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. 

He mentions Peter Heather?s book, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, the thesis of which would largely support my claim at least as it concerns the Late Empire.  Heather argues that in order for Romans to cope with the rise of the Sassanid Persian Empire, which pushed back Roman legions, Romans had to pull soldiers and taxation income from its European provinces to fight in the Middle East, resulting in a demographic shift in the military and massive immigration across the northern border of the empire. (Sound familiar?)

Regarding earlier times, Khan writes:

?Matthew is obviously correct that Caesar recruited foreigners such as Germans? In fact, from what I can tell most people do not focus on Caesar as much as Gaius Marius? opening of the army to the unlettered and unpropertied two generations before Caesar?s Gallic Wars?.?

I never said that Caesar recruited Germans.  Because Caesar conquered Gaul, he primarily recruited Gauls (although he did recruit Germans and others).  Marius expanded military recruitment to a broader class of people, but it was primarily to other Italic peoples.  Caesar?s Fifth Alaudae was Gallic and it was the first Roman legion composed of provincial soldiers.

Regarding demographic replacement, Khan writes:

?I doubt that there was much demographic replacement.  Genetics doesn?t suggest this (nor does detailed analysis of the purported numbers of the barbarian hordes after the fall of the Western Empire), and remember that ancient cities were population sinks.?

What genetic studies do not suggest this?  The only way one could conduct a conclusive study would be to take a large sample of DNA from the remains of republican Romans and compare it to the DNA from imperial remains (a difficult task because of cremation).  As far as I know, this has not been done.  And even if it has, depending upon the ethnic composition of the mined areas the results could be skewed.  The DNA of contemporary Italians may not be revealing, especially considering the V?lkerwanderung at the end of the empire.  For example, many people from Northern Italy today are of Germanic or Celtic descent.

Anecdotal evidence by satirists and Tacitus suggests that the native stock had dwindled, and that the new elite was composed of non-Italic peoples.  Who were these non-Italic new people?  Seneca wrote:

Of this crowd the greater part have no country; from their own free towns and colonies, in a word, from the whole globe, they are congregated. Some are brought by ambition, some by the call of public duty, or by reason of some mission, others by luxury which seeks a harbor rich and commodious for vices, others by the eager pursuit of liberal studies, others by shows, etc.

And Juvenal avers:

While every land?daily pours
Its starving myriads forth. Hither they come
To batten on the genial soil of Rome,
Minions, then lords of every princely dome,
Grammarian, painter, augur, rhetorician,
Rope-dancer, conjurer, ?ddler, and physician.

One comprehensive study on demographics was by Tenney Frank in the American Historical Review (vol. 21, no. 4: 689?708).  He investigated 13,900 sepulchral inscriptions from the empire.  Looking at whether the names were Latin or foreign, he concluded that of those apparently born at Rome 83% were of foreign extraction. Furthermore, although many of these inscriptions have Greek cognomina, the people probably were often not of Greek extraction but from Hellenized lands (e.g. Egypt, Syria, etc.) where it would have been advantageous to take a Greek name.


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