Demographic Impact of Roman Slavery Revised

December 22, 2006

Excerpt from:

Rome at War: Farms, Families, and Death in the Middle Republic

by Nathan Rosenstein

Copyright (c) 2004 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

Recent studies of Italian demography have further increased doubts about a rapid expansion of the peninsula's servile population in this era. No direct evidence exists for the number of slaves in Italy at any time.[39] Brunt has little trouble showing that Beloch's estimate of 2 million during the reign of Augustus is without foundation.[40] Brunt himself suggests that there were about 3 million slaves out of a total population in Italy of about 7.5 million at this date, but he readily concedes that this is no more than a guess.[41] As Lo Cascio has cogently noted, that guess in effect is a product of Brunt's low estimate of the free population in Italy in A.D. 14.[42] That is, Brunt must assume that the slave population had come to comprise nearly 40 percent of the population of Italy by the time of Augustus because he believes that the nonservile population of Italy had only managed to stay even between 225 B.C. and A.D. 14.[43] At the same time, however, the number of residents of cities and towns throughout the peninsula and especially of Rome itself was skyrocketing. Consequently, without the supposition that slaves made up a very high percentage of the total population, not enough people would have been left in the countryside to produce the food needed to feed those in the towns. The basis for the supposition that slaves in Italy numbered as many as 3 million by the reign of Augustus in other words really consists of nothing more than a kind of elaborate circular argument in which the low free population "explains" the high number of slaves, which in turn "explains" how there could be so few free men and women in Italy.[44]

Brunt also advances the claim that the Romans owned about 500,000 slaves circa 212, which suggests that, in his opinion, the slave population of Italy might have seen an average annual net gain between then and the end of the first century B.C. of perhaps 12,500 individuals. But the starting point for postulating such a rapid rate of increase is also based on a similar piece of guesswork. After noting that, by his reckoning, the Romans had mobilized about 11 percent of their free population in that year and mentioning the comparisons that other scholars had made to the 10 percent of their populations that some Balkan states in 1913 and Germany in 1914 had mobilized, Brunt continues, "We have only to suppose that the Romans owned not far short of half a million slaves to reduce the proportion of men in the armies and fleets far below 10 percent, even after allowing that 20,000-30,000 slaves may have been used after 214 as rowers."[45] In other words, a slave population of 500,000 is necessary to bring the ratio of men under arms to the civilian population down into a range that Brunt finds acceptable. He makes no attempt to discover what might constitute a maximum rate of mobilization for a society such as Rome's in this period except to state that productivity per person was lower than in Germany and the war lasted longer than the modern conflicts. Of course, the cost of equipping and maintaining an army was much lower for the Romans as were the economic requirements of the civilian population. And one might suppose that more men could be spared from a simple agrarian economy like ancient Rome's than from a complex industrial one like early twentieth-century Germany's.

Consequently, Brunt's figures offer no basis for assuming that a dramatic rise in the number of Roman slaves—and hence in the number of the plantations that employed them—was getting under way during the early second century. To be sure, Livy records a depressing litany of enslavements by Roman armies in the course of their conquests in this period.[46] But it does not necessarily follow that these would have helped bring about the sixfold increase in the Roman slave population by the reign of Augustus that Brunt postulates. Given the usual assumption in modern scholarship that male slaves significantly outnumbered females, the slave population would have been incapable of reproducing itself at full replacement level.[47] As a result, the Romans regularly had to import substantial numbers of new slaves just to keep the slave population from shrinking. Scheidel has shown that on the assumption that slaves in 225 numbered 500,000 and were declining by only 1 or 2 percent per year, far more new slaves would have been required simply to replace current slaves who died than to generate a net increase of 2.5 million in the total slave population by 25 B.C.[48] As large as the enslavements of this period were, therefore, they cannot in and of themselves demonstrate a rapid rise in Italy's slave population along the lines Brunt supposes. It is also worth bearing in mind that not all of those whom Rome's armies captured will have wound up in Italy, for this by no means constituted the only market for slaves in the early second century. Agriculture and manufacture in Carthage, Sicily, and elsewhere in the Hellenistic world made extensive use of slave labor, and the same factors of imbalanced sex-ratios and low birthrates that created a very high demand for replacement slaves in Italy may well have been operating in these areas also.[49]

However, one piece of negative evidence, to which Scheidel has also drawn attention, provides an intriguing hint that conventional estimates of slaves making up as much as 40 percent of Italy's population by the late first century B.C. may be far too high.[50] An analysis of the genetic makeup of Italy's modern population argues that the various distinctive genetic combinations currently found in different regions within the peninsula by and large track the linguistic distribution that resulted from the migrations of the Iron Age.[51] No data indicate the subsequent large-scale infusion of new genetic material into the populations of these regions except in the case of southern Italy and eastern Sicily, which is explained by the well-documented Greek migrations there. If this finding is correct, then the slave population of Italy even at its greatest extent must have been far smaller than Brunt imagined, perhaps no more than a million. Otherwise, one must suppose that a very large number of slaves existed but made no contribution to the peninsula's genetic composition because they simply failed to reproduce themselves. Yet a very large number of slaves, on the order of 3 million, presupposes that this population was fairly successful at reproducing itself because it could never have reached that size in the first place and then maintained those numbers for centuries through imports alone. As already noted, the majority of new slaves brought into a servile population that was not reproducing itself completely would only have replaced old slaves who had died. But if a population of 3 million slaves, representing as much as 40 percent of Italy's inhabitants in the first century B.C., was successfully reproducing itself, it would surely have left its mark on the genetic makeup of contemporary Italians. That it did not argues strongly for a very low rate of natural reproduction among Italy's slaves, which in turn is difficult to reconcile with the hypothesis that the number of slaves ever grew large enough to comprise 40 percent of the Italian population.

If a dramatic rise in Italy's servile population during the second and first centuries is beginning to appear increasingly questionable, the decline in the numbers of free men and women that is supposed to have been its corollary is also being viewed with a growing skepticism. The census returns of 70 and 28 B.C. represent the linchpin for this pessimistic assessment of the condition of Italy's smallholders. For many years Brunt's powerful defense in Italian Manpower of Beloch's view that these totals demonstrate a drop in the free population of Italy remained unchallenged, even though the numbers themselves, around 900,000 in 70 and over 4 million in 28, would seem to reflect precisely the reverse. But Beloch and Brunt argue that the latter figure represents free men, women, and children, whereas the censors in 70 had counted only adult male citizens. When the totals are adjusted and allowances made for enfranchisements between 70 and 28 and citizens overseas, the result is a net decline in the free population.[52] When these figures are in turn compared with the census returns of 225, the general regression in Italy's free population becomes patent, a regression that Brunt traces to the damage that Rome's wars and the importation of slaves inflicted on Italy's farmers.[53]

In a provocative article, Lo Cascio has asked how it is possible to make demographic sense out of the Beloch-Brunt thesis.[54] The argument they advance must assume that the population between 70 and 28 was declining annually by .5 percent, and the implications of such a decline, Lo Cascio believes, are unacceptable. Beyond question, the urban population of Italy increased dramatically during the middle of the first century, and any rise in urban numbers, with the possible exception of Rome itself, had to come from the rural population. In the preindustrial world, however, an urban population does not grow without a sustained growth in the rural free population whose economic products support it. Thus Lo Cascio argues that unless we are prepared to suppose that the ratio of urban to rural dwellers in Italy between 70 and 28 was far in excess of preindustrial norms—and there is no good reason to do so—the Beloch-Brunt interpretation of the census total for 28 cannot be made plausible. For it must assume that a dramatic and unparalleled drop in Italy's nonurban population was occurring at a time of unprecedented urban growth. Consequently, the figure of 4 million must represent only adult, male citizens just as had been the case in earlier republican censuses. If that is so, then as Tenny Frank long ago argued, the free population of Italy must have been growing vigorously during the second and first centuries.[55]

Lo Cascio's article certainly will not be the final word on the controversy surrounding Beloch's and Brunt's thesis, but the mere fact that this critical prop is now being challenged renders claims about a crisis among Italy's small farmers due to war and the introduction of plantation agriculture all the more open to question.[56] From a different perspective, Morley, too, has raised additional doubts about the conventional view. He notes that the populations of early modern cities generally could not reproduce themselves; they depended instead upon a large, steady influx of immigrants from the countryside to reach and then to maintain their size. Rome, he believes, would have been no different. Therefore the swelling of the city's inhabitants to nearly a million over the course of the second and first centuries B.C. and the stability of their numbers at roughly that level over the ensuing centuries cannot be attributed to a single, discrete event like the displacement of smallholders after the Hannibalic War. Such an episode would create a temporary increase, but then the process would slow, perhaps even reverse course, and the city would shrink as its population gradually died off.[57]


Italian Facial Composites

October 6, 2006

Here's a comparison of young male, female and older male phenotypes from Northern and Southern Italy. For the latter two, where there were a lot of image series to choose from, Sicily was selected to represent the south because it's the southernmost region as well as the most maligned, and Veneto was used for the north because it's a populous region that's much less likely than Lombardy or Piedmont to have recent southern influences. Of course, once that decision was made, all applicable photos were included.

It's well-known by now that the idea of a north-south racial divide in Italy is complete nonsense, but it was still surprising just how similar the composites came out. One might expect at least a difference comparable to that observed between Germans and Swedes or Poles and Ukrainians (see the Caucasoid composites), but that didn't turn out to be the case at all. The similarities are indeed quite striking. Another nail in the coffin of Padanian Nordicism.

Related: More Italian Facial Composites

Caucasoid Phenotypic Variation

September 11, 2006

Taking a cue from Dienekes, I used morphing software and available photos of national soccer teams to assess the average phenotypes of Northern Europe, Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, the Greater Middle East, and finally Caucasoids as a whole. Here are the results:

[ Click images to enlarge ]

From these images we can confirm much of what's already known about Caucasoids:

1) Swedes and Dutch are more Nordic than Germans, who have a strong Alpine component; and Britons are distinguished from all by the Mediterranean elements in their population.

2) Likewise, Spaniards and Portuguese are more Mediterranean than Italians and Greeks, who both have Alpine and Dinaric elements in their make-up.

3) Eastern Slavs (Ukrainians) show the Baltic/Uralic "Slavic look" more prominently than western Slavs (Poles/Czechs) and southern Slavs (Serbians/Croatians), who resemble their non-Slavic neighbors.

4) Despite much crossbreeding with the spread of Islam, three Middle Eastern Mediterranean types are well-defined: Irano-Afghan of Iran, Orientalid Arabian, and Berberid Tunisian of North Africa.

5) The average Caucasoid looks, well, average — he could fit in just about anywhere; and the four constituent composites have distinctive looks that sharply delineate their respective regions.

Race and Ethnicity Gallery

July 29, 2006

Collection of photo series depicting people of different races and ethnicities from various walks of life. In each series, concerted effort has been made to exclude individuals with backgrounds other than that stated. Corrections and suggestions are welcome.

I hope to add more galleries in the future. If anyone has any ideas (and more importantly picture sources), leave a comment or drop me a line.

Study Clarification IV

January 27, 2006

Here's the latest paper being paraded around by Nordicists and Afrocentrists, who, as usual, haven't bothered to look beyond a couple of passages they find favorable.


Genetic analysis of a Sicilian population using 15 short tandem repeats

Calo et al. (2003)
Hum Biol

Link to Full Text

Misused Quotes:

Other authors, studying classical markers (Piazza et al. 1988; Cavalli-Sforza and Edwards 1969) and surnames (Guglielmino et al. 1991), have stressed the existence of genetic differentiation between the eastern and western areas of Sicily and, in general, a remarkable internal variation. In addition, the boundaries found within the Palermo district have been stressed as a sort of economic boundary in a study focusing on surnames (Zei et al. 1993). The variability that has been found could be a consequence of the various dominations that Sicily has undergone: Sycanians, Siculi, and Elymians to begin with (Piazza et al. 1988), followed by Greeks, Romans, Normans, and Arabs (Sandier et al. 1978; Beretta et al. 1986). Among these, Arab domination seems to have had a very strong genetic impact.


Further analysis shows within the same cluster a certain degree of affinity between Egypt and the populations of Sicily. The relationship between Sicilian and North African populations is controversial in population genetics (Piazza et al. 1988; Rickards et al. 1992; Rickards et al. 1998). Our data seem to confirm the hypothesis of Sandler et al. (1978) that underlines the African contribution to the Sicilian gene pool, because of the high frequencies of Hbs, cDe, and Fy (a-b-). In a paper on mtDNA, Semino et al. (1989) found support for this hypothesis, dating back to the introduction of black slaves by Phoenicians and Romans and to the later influxes of Arab immigrants.


A genetic boundary, in fact, clearly divides Sicily from north-central Italy and from northern European populations, besides the other populations from the western Mediterranean basin.


To begin with, most of the research cited in parentheses is from the 60s, 70s, 80s and early 90s, and based on antiquated methods of analyzing blood groups that are now known to be under selective pressure, like HbS, Fy(a-b-) and cDe. A problematic Semino paper is also cited, and two references are even surname analyses pertaining to "economic boundaries," which have nothing to do with genetics at all. Needless to say, none of this is reliable evidence for anything.

Despite the claims of Arab and black admixture being detected in the present data, no Middle Eastern or sub-Saharan African populations are sampled in the study — only two North African populations and other Europeans were tested. The neighbor joining tree (unfortunately not reproduced) is said to group the Sicilian samples on one side with Egyptians among them, and the western/central European samples on the other side with Moroccans among them. The best explanation for this arrangement is the known divide between the eastern and western Mediterranean in terms of Neolithic ancestry, which affects both the European and African coasts and runs vertically through Italy, dividing north from south.

However, the authors use this inconclusive Sicilian-Egyptian connection anyway, and for double duty. First they imply that it serves as evidence of Arab admixture, which is problematic in itself because Egyptians are not particularly good representatives of Arabs. Then in the very next paragraph, they say it confirms the earlier findings of Semino and Sandler alleging African admixture. But Egyptians are North African Caucasoids, while both of those studies deal with markers prevalent in Negroids from sub-Saharan Africa. So in the span of two paragraphs, the authors jump from "Arabs" to "Egyptians" to "North Africans" to "Africans" to "black slaves" and then back to "Arab immigrants," as if these were all synonymous. Very sloppy.

Finally, all of these supposed foreign influences in Sicily are only referred to vaguely using qualifiers and indefinite language like "seems" and "a certain degree." The adjective "strong" is used once, but we know from past experience how a word like that can be an exaggeration that actually amounts to very little admixture. So even if we were to accept the authors' outdated references and ludicrous interpretations, they would have to be taken with a grain of salt for that reason alone.

Skin Reflectance of Selected World Populations

January 9, 2006

All samples are composed of indigenous populations, and readings are taken on areas of the body not exposed to the sun. Higher values indicate lighter skin, and lower values darker skin.

Country and population or area

Observed reflectance at 685 nm


Germany (Mainz)
United Kingdom (Northern)
Spain (Basques)
United Kingdom (Wales)
Ireland (Rossmore)
Spain (Leon)
United Kingdom (London)

Iraq/Syria (Kurds)
Saudi Arabia

Algeria (Aures)
Libya (Tripoli)
Libya (Fezzan)

India (Northern)
India (Southern)

China (Southern)
Japan (Northern)
Philippines (Manila)
Japan (Southwest)
Nepal (Eastern)

Papua New Guinea
Australia (Darwin)

Greenland (Southern)
Peru (Nunoa)
Peru (Maranon)

South Africa (Hottentot)
Botswana (San)
Tanzania (Sandewe)
Cameroon (Fali)
Mozambique (Chopi)

Jablonski and Chaplin. "The Evolution of Human Skin Coloration". J Hum Evol, 2000.

Original Pigmentation of Hominids

January 3, 2006

What skin color was primitive for the hominid lineage?

Before questions about changes in integumentary pigmentation in modern human evolution can be addressed, consideration must be given to the probable primitive condition of the integument in the earliest members of the human lineage. It is likely that the integument of the earliest protohominids was similar to that of our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, being white or lightly pigmented and covered with dark hair (Post et al., 1975b). In the chimpanzee, exposed areas of skin vary considerably in their coloration depending on the species and subspecies under consideration, but in all groups facial pigmentation increases with age and exposure to UV radiation (Post et al., 1975b). Except for the face, eyelids, lips, pinnae, friction surfaces, and anogenital areas, the epidermis of most nonhuman primates is unpigmented due to an absence of active melanocytes (Montagna & Machida, 1966; Montagna et al., 1966a,b), suggesting that this is the primitive condition for primates in general. The hairless areas listed above are pigmented to greater or lesser extents in all primate species (Montagna & Machida, 1966; Montagna et al., 1966a,b), suggesting that the potential for induction of melanogenesis (Erickson & Montagna, 1975) in exposed skin is also primitive for the group.

Physiological models have demonstrated that the evolution of hairlessness and an essentially modern sweating mechanism were coordinated with the higher activity levels associated with the modern limb proportions and striding bipedalism (Montagna, 1981; Schwartz & Rosenblum, 1981; Wheeler, 1984, 1996; Chaplin et al., 1994). Throughout this transitional period, the critical function of the integument in thermoregulation was maintained through evolution of an increased number of sweat glands, particularly on the face (Cabanac & Caputa, 1979; Falk, 1990), that increased the maximum rate of evaporative cooling available at any one time (Wheeler, 1996; see also Mahoney, 1980). The brain is extremely heat sensitive, and its temperature closely follows arterial temperature (Nelson & Nunneley, 1998). Evolution of a whole-body cooling mechanism capable of finely regulating arterial temperature was, therefore, a prerequisite for brain expansion and increased activity levels. Naked skin itself affords a thermoregulatory advantage because it makes for a reduced total thermal load requiring evaporative dissipation (Wheeler, 1996). As the density of body hair decreased and the density of sweat glands increased, the need for protection of subepidermal tissues against the destructive effects of UV radiation, particularly UVB, also increased. This protection was accomplished by an increase in melanization of the skin.

Jablonski and Chaplin. "The Evolution of Human Skin Coloration". J Hum Evol, 2000.