Does documentary and other evidence allow us to estimate the total population of Attica accurately at any specific time within the Classical period?

by rocco1

Does documentary and other evidence allow us to estimate the total population of Attica accurately at any specific time within the Classical period?

The population of Attica is a topic that has interested scholars for many years and as shall be seen in this essay we are still unclear as to the exact number of people that lived in Attica during the Classical period, although we are able to estimate the possible numbers. The reason for this problem is that there are numerous factors that hinder us. Firstly we do not know how many children women had in the Classical period which was from 480B.C.-323 B.C. as there are no records for childbirth, as well as the fact that we do not know how many people died in this period. We also have to try and calculate the number of metics and slaves in Attica at this time, as well as the number of people emigrating which in itself is very difficult to do. Although there is evidence of graves in Attica due to the acidic soil it has meant that no bones have been preserved meaning that we have no bones to do forensic tests on in order to find out people’s ages. Another fact that does not help us is that unlike the Romans who put people’s ages on their tombstones the Greeks did not, meaning that we cannot use this as a method of trying to find out peoples ages, which would be useful when trying to figure out what the average life expectancy of these people were. Another problem in trying to calculate the population is that the Greeks did not have population censuses so there is no way of knowing how many people lived in Attica at any time, again making it very difficult for us to estimate the population. This has meant that we have to use ancient sources in order to try and estimate the population but this in itself is by no means satisfactory as when authors like Thucydides and Herodotus were writing their accounts about the number of men in Attica it was purely for the purpose of showing how many men they had available for war, and was in no way meant to be used as a tool to calculate the total population. This has meant that although as shall be seen we do have numbers at certain dates for adult male citizens and also slaves, women were not mentioned as they were not included in the accounts meaning that we have no idea about their numbers which in turn means we have no idea about the number of children they raised or the number of children that died. This has meant that as we do not know how many women were in Attica, scholars have had to guess at the multiple in order to try and work out the possible numbers of women and children from the figures we have for adult male citizens, in order to try and find the average household size. This has led to much debate and has also led to conflicting theories about the size of the average household. Rapsaet says that from the speeches of Demosthenes, Lysias and Isaios had 2.14 children each and this would indicate that the average household was 4.14. However, other scholars like Gallant have argued that the average family size was 62.5% of households having between 0-2 children, 32.3% having 3-4 children and 5.3% having more than 4 children. Angel has tried to use skeletal evidence from datable burials in order to try and work out the average household size. From it he has argued from the marks made on the surface of the pubic symphysis by the babies passage through the birth channel, that in the Classical period out of the 10 cases he looked at on average the women had 4.3 children. However, this has been disputed by Gallant who argues that this birth rate seems implausible, when compared to other pre-industrial cultures whose birth rate was much lower. Further evidence to dismiss Angel’s claim comes from Demand who says that evidence of marks on the pubic symphsis have also appeared on women who are known not to have given birth. As is evident there is much confusion about the possible household size between scholars meaning that it is very difficult to try and get an accurate estimate of the average household size. As well as this we also have the problem of not knowing how many children died from disease or how many died from infanticide or from other causes meaning that we cannot deduce how many survived until adulthood. Having discussed the problems we have when trying to calculate the number of citizens in Attica during this period, we should now look at the figures we do have and see if these can help us in trying to estimate the population. In 480 B.C. when the Classical period began Herodotus tells us when describing the Athenians fighting the Persians, that Dikaios who was an Athenian living in exile in Persia told Demaratos who was an ex-king of Sparta that in part of a deserted Attica he saw the dust of 30,000 men. These men would be the adult male citizens whose ages ranged from between 18-59 and who would have made up the core of the Athenian fighting force against the Persians. From this evidence we know that in Attica there were roughly 30,000 men in 480B.C. and so in an attempt to try and work out the population we have to multiply this number in order to try and get a figure for the average household size which would help us in trying to work out the total population. What is noticeable is that Gomme has decided to increase this figure by Herodotus to 35,000, as he thinks that in Attica there were 15,000 Hoplites and 20,000 Thetes, however at his own admission he believes that he may have overestimated the population. Gomme then multiplies the 35,000 by 4 to try and work out the citizen population of Attica of men, women and children excluding metics and slaves, which give the figure 140,000, but if we did that with Herodotus’s figure of 30,000 we would get 120,000. This gives a difference of 20,000 people, which is quite significant and proves that it is very difficult to try and calculate the population accurately at any specific time. Gomme it should be noted when working out the metic population to incorporate metic women and children is multiplying by 3 as he believed that more metics would have settled on their own rather than with women and children which he believes justifies their smaller multiple. However, as I mentioned before there has been much discussion by scholars on what multiple to use to try and work out the average household size. Many scholars have argued that to find out the average size of the citizen households we should multiple by 3.5 or even 3 as they see these as more realistic figures although there is no actual proof for this. If we were to multiply by 3.5, we would get 122,500 for Gomme’s figures, while Herodotus’s would give us a citizen population of 105,000. As is evident regardless of whether one multiplies by Gomme’s 4 or by the other scholars 3.5 it still creates major discrepancies in the figures making it very hard to accurately estimate the population at any given time. From now on I shall be using Gomme’s figures for the population. As is evident although we can not give accurate figures for the citizen population we are able to give a band range of what the likely population was, which although not ideal is at least better than nothing. If we look at the figures for 431B.C. (just before the start of the Peloponnesian War) Gomme says that there were roughly 25,000 hoplites and roughly 18,000 Thetes, which would give an adult male population of 43,000. If this were then multiplied it would give us a total of 172,000 including women and children. We also have figures for metics and slaves for this date that enables to actually see what the possible population number for Attica could be. There were 5,500 metic hoplites as well as 4,000 Thetic hoplites. This is then multiplied by 3 and not 4 as discussed before to give an estimated figure of 28,500. The number of male slaves in domestic houses was 30,000, while in industry was 50,000, in addition to the women slaves in domestic duty, which was 35,000, this gives a total slave population as 115,000. Therefore the population at this time was roughly 315,500 people living in Attica, although we can be by no means sure on exactly how accurate this figure would be. What is evident is that if we consider the citizen population from 480B.C. and 431B.C. we can see that the population from the figures we have by Gomme has risen by 30,000. There are a number of explanations for this. In 480B.C. Athens had been fighting the Persians and after defeating them they came into a period of prosperity and wealth and it was within this period that we saw Athens begin to form herself an Empire with her allies paying her tribute. This would have more than likely led to increased food supplies stopping any chances of malnutrition and the building of better sanitation would have stopped diseases being spread such as malaria, which would therefore explain the increase of 30,000 citizens in Attica as death rates would have fallen. It is also likely that during this prosperous time for Athens the number of slaves in Athens would have increased as people became richer and wanted to show off their wealth by having slaves as well as more slaves being used in industry like the mines. Another set of figures we have comes from 425B.C. this was six years into the war. From Gomme’s figures we see that the citizen hoplites totaled roughly 16,500 with thetes totalling 12,500,giving a population of 29,000 meaning that the entire citizen population in Attica amounted to 116,000. Meanwhile the Metic hoplites amounted to 4,000 with the Metic thetes totaling 3,000 equalling 7,000 giving a total of 21,000. The male domestic slaves number was 22,000 with the industrial slaves being 37,000 and women slaves being 22,000. This gives a total for the entire population of 218,000. Now from these estimated figures we can see that there has been a dramatic decrease in population from 431B.C., which was only six years before. However, the reasons for the population decrease are quite obvious, as Athens had been suffering heavy losses on the battlefields. In addition to this Athens had suffered from the plague in 429B.C., although no one is really sure what exactly the plague was. From Thucydides account of the siege of Potidaea , he tells us that out of the 4,000 hoplites, 1050 died, this is one quarter of the men. This would well explain why in Attica in 425B.C. the population had decreased, as it is believed that the plague affected those who were young or old rather than those who were in their prime similar to diseases today. This shows us how quickly population figures can change because of wars or diseases showing just how difficult it is to try and accurately estimate the population as there are always changing factors causing an increase or a decrease in population meaning that populations such as Attica’s were never stable but were always fluctuating. The next figures we have from Gomme comes from 400B.C. and from it we can see how low Attica’s population had become. As Gomme tells us that there were 11,000 citizen Hoplites and 11,000 Thetes giving a total of 22,000 meaning that this time Attica’s entire citizen population excluding metics and slaves was just 90,000. Unfortunately we do not have figures for the numbers of metics and slaves for this time but they would also have been very low as there were a number of factors, which had caused this dramatic downfall. Firstly between 415-413B.C. Athens had fought a very costly war in Sicily, which had seen Athens being defeated with the expense of losing thousands of men. Kagan estimated that during this time in Sicily Athens lost 3,000 citizen hoplites, 9,000 Thetes in addition to thousands of metics . Munn also says that a great number of Athenians died at Sicily, which he estimates to be two-thirds from the poorest backgrounds . In addition to this huge disaster for Athens, we must also remember the affects of the plague on the population of Attica, as it was seen how it had killed one quarter of the population back in 429B.C. But the affects are also apparent here as there is evidently a loss of adult male citizens because of the fact that many would have died from it as babies as well as the fact that the women who would have bore these children also died from it. This is a very good example of the effects diseases can have on population as not only does it affect them at that present time of having the disease. But there is also a knock on effect whereby the population of the next twenty or thirty years is also affected as there is a marked decrease in the birth rate. Despite the fact that Athens population had become so severely depleted there is however evidence which perhaps shows that the adult male citizen population never reached fewer than 30,000 people. For this proposal we have to look at the law courts, which needed at least 6,000 votes before a motion could be passed. The men who sat in the law courts were adult male citizens of 30 years and above. The kind of motions, which would be put forward, would be ostracism and in order for the person who was putting the motion forward not to be fined for wasting the courts time would have to get at least one fifth of the votes. Now it is evident that 6,000 is one fifth of 30,000, so this could well prove that the adult male citizen did not fall below 30,000.Further evidence that perhaps there were enough adult male citizens to fill the institutions of Athenian political society can be seen from the fact that there were always enough adult male citizens to fill the council of 500 (Boule) every year as well as the fact that there were enough magistrates to fill the 2,000 positions. Further evidence that the adult male citizen population was consistently around 30,000 comes from Aristophanes who says in his speech “The women in assembly” “Do you realize you are the only citizen out of 30,000 or more” . Although it is useful for us to know these figures that were required in the politics of Athens, they are not particularly useful to find out the entire population as the only people who could sit in these offices were adult male citizens which excluded metics and slaves of which there were significant numbers in Attica during this time. The last figures we have for the estimated population of Attica come from 323B.C.just before Alexander the Greats conquest. From the figures supplied by Gomme we know that there were roughly 14,500 adult male hoplites and 13,500 thetes equaling 28,000 meaning that the estimated figure for citizens including women and children is roughly 112,000. There were roughly 12,000 metics meaning that in total there were 42,000, also domestic male slaves numbered 20,000, industrial 60,000 and domestic women slaves 24,000, giving a total of 104,000 slaves. This meant that in Attica at this time there was a population of 258,000. If this figure is compared with that from 400 B.C. although we cannot compare figures for metics and slaves we can see that the adult male population had increased which surely indicates that the entire citizen population had too. One reason for this could well be the fact that Athens had finished fighting and so consequently had had time to rebuild her population as it would not be affected by the losses of war. Another reason could well be that during war time women gave birth less as all the men of adult age were fighting and perhaps they did not want to have children during what would have been a very uncertain time in Athens future. This would have also meant that the birth rate would have decreased while the death rate due to famine and disease and war would have increased explaining why between the years of 431B.C-400B.C. Athens population was always decreasing and that it was not until after the war had finished and some stability had returned that the population was staring to increase again. As is evident it is very difficult to try and accurately determine Attica’s total population at any specific time. As has been shown there are always factors such as war and diseases which mean that the population is always changing. This does not help us, as the ancient authors were not intending their books to be used as a method of trying to calculate the population so invariably it is difficult to ascertain how accurate they are, as although they would have tried to give accurate figures to back up their argument they would not have gone out of their way to count every adult male citizen. This also brings us to the problem of trying to work out which multiple to use in order to get the average household size. As I have said I have used Gomme’s multiple of 4 for citizens and 3 for metics as he considered that many metics coming into Attica would be single and would not come with families. Another problem we have is that although I have quoted possible slave figures, it does not include slave children, as we are not sure how many children slaves had. This would also affect the size of the population as it would lead to an increase but as we are unsure of the number of slave children they have not been included meaning that the actual population figure could be higher than what is being quoted. Some scholars have said that Gomme’s multiple of 4 for citizens is too high and should in fact be lower as they do not see the average household size as being that big. Although in actual fact they may be correct and Gomme’s figures may be too high we will never be absolutely certain which again highlights the difficulty of trying to work out the total population as we do not have a lot of evidence to go on and so a lot of it is purely guess work estimating from what little evidence we do have what the possible population figures could be. Therefore the figures that we have and that I have quoted could in actual fact be too high or too low but it is unlikely that we will ever know for definite what the actual population of Attica was so it is generally asserted that the population was somewhere around the figures that I have mentioned. Another problem that we have is that we do not know how many people emigrated especially between the period of 480-431B.C. as Athenians left to found colonies abroad. Presumably the figure would have been quite substantial as Athens would have needed significant figures there to make sure that the colonies would be successful and not wiped out by the natives of those countries. What would seem likely however is that during the years 480-431B.C. and 400-320B.C. the population did increase either because of higher birth rates or lower death rates. The reason that this is quite likely is because as Gomme suggests Attica’s population just like Europe’s from the end of the 8th Century increased due to an improved economy and better medical facilities . Another factor that would suggest that the population especially of adult males never reached under 30,000 is from the law courts as discussed above as presumably ancient authors would have noted if the courts were unable to function due to lack of numbers which they do not, evidence that there were significant males in Attica throughout this time. Although the actual total population will never be precisely known because of factors outside our control it is fair to say that we can estimate within 15-20,000 either side what the likely population total of Attica was in the classical period.


Ancient Sources:

Aristophanes “The Women in Assembly”

Herodotus, “The Histories”

Thucydides, “The Peloponnesian War”, tr.R.Crawley. (London 1974)

Bibliographical Reference List:

Angel.J.L. “Paleoecolgy, paleodemography and health” in Steven Polgar(ed.) “Population ecology and social evolution in ancient Greece (London, 1995)

Demand.N “Birth, death and motherhood in Classical Greece” (Baltimore 1994)

Gallant.T.W. “Risk and survival in ancient Greece. Reconstructing the rural domestic economy” (U.P.Stanford, 1991)

A.W.Gomme “The population of Athens” (Oxford 1933)

Kagan.D “The fall of the Athenian Empire” (New York 1987)

Munn, “The school of History” (Berkeley, Los Angeles 2000)

Rapsaet.G. “Les motivations de las natalite a Athenes aux Ve et Ive siecles avant n.e” L’Antiquite Clasique 40 (1971), 80-110

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