POPULATION AND ECONOMY IN CLASSICAL ATHENS

Ben Akrigg

CUP (2019) 282pp £75 (ISBN 9781107027091)

How many people lived in classical Athens? How many of them were male and female citizens? How many were slaves, and how many were metics (resident foreigners)? The answers to these questions have wide-ranging implications for how we understand the classical Greek world. The workings of Athens’ democracy, the structure of its society, and the nature of Greek inter-state relations—all were fundamentally shaped by the size and makeup of the population. Yet for all its vital import, the issue of classical Greek demography is poorly understood.

A.’s rich and scholarly book tackles the issue of classical Athenian demography with aplomb. Rich in detail, and engaging closely with both previous scholarship and wider discussions of historical and modern populations, the book offers the reader an accessible way in to a complex and often difficult topic.

After a brief introduction locating the present work in relation to previous scholarship, A. explores a range of population models, drawn from historical and modern ‘model populations’ and examining parallels ranging from formal UN estimates to the Roman world. The likely composition of the Athenian population in terms of age and gender is discussed, and the implications for reproduction discussed. 

The next three chapters contain the main bulk of the demographic analysis, covering the citizen and non-citizen population of fifth-century Athens in turn, followed by a consideration of change over time. These chapters use a range of evidence, including ephebic inscriptions and information about democratic institutions, but rely heavily on the numbers given by ancient authors for the size of the various military detachments and the Athenian fleet. Much of the detail is a close re-evaluation of previous and often-outdated scholarship, adopting a more rigorous approach to the critique and analysis of sources. A. concludes that there were roughly 30,000 citizens and 110,000 non-citizens resident in Attica around 470 BC at the end of the Persian Wars, but that the population roughly doubled over the next 50 or so years until the start of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC to about 60,000 citizens and 190,000 non-citizens. He then argues that the population declined sharply during the Peloponnesian Wars, so that by the end of the century the population had once more returned to early fifth century levels. 

In the second half of the book, A. lays out some of the wider implications of his results, focusing on the implications of demographic change for the Athenian economy. Not only would this have a major impact on the food supply, but also on the amounts of fuel needed to sustain the cooking, lighting, and industrial needs of this changing population. Classical Athens, A. suggests, may have had a ‘voracious hunger’ for fuel (p. 204). From here, A. deftly shifts the analysis to the wider Athenian economy, from landholding to liturgies, and from income inequality to agricultural intensification. It seems that Athenian democracy and the city’s egalitarian principles did not prevent dramatic wealth inequalities from building up over the course of the classical period.

These latter chapters with their broader perspective demonstrate why this book matters, and why it should be read by all serious students of the classical Greek world. In Akrigg’s words, ‘demography is too important to ignore’ (p. 247).

Naoise Mac Sweeney

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