Historians believe they’re settled a long-running debate over ancient Rome’s population at the turn of the 1st century B.C.E. thanks to stashes of ancient Roman coins. This was the period marked by Julius Caesar’s assassination and the Roman empire’s collapse, but surprisingly, historical records during the war-torn era show a population explosion in Rome. Census data, thought to only account for males, gives a population increase from 400,000 in 2nd century B.C.E. to between 4 and 5 million at the 1st century B.C.E.
But some historians argue that the population didn’t really increase, and that in fact it declined during this period because of the wars. To back up their idea they are turning to buried treasure. In times of instability in the ancient world, people stashed their cash and if they got killed or displaced, they didn’t come back for their Geld. Thus, large numbers of coin hoards are a good quantitative indicator of population decline, two researchers argue in in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Monday [Wired.com].
Over the years, archaeologists armed with metal detectors have found hundreds of clay pots filled with Roman coins. So a research team combined numbers of coin hoards from 250 B.C.E. to 100 B.C.E. with data from the Roman Republic censuses to understand how spikes in stashes reflected population changes. For example, population dropped by about 50,000 during the Second Punic War from 218 B.C.E. to 201 B.C.E., and that coincides with a jump in coin hoards dated to that time. Then, from data on coins hoarded from 100 B.C.E. to 50 C.E., the researchers inferred population during that era. The range predicted by the coin hoard model…[indicate] that civil wars culled about 100,000 people from the Roman populace [ScienceNOW Daily News].
So the data supports the idea that Rome’s population actually declined during the second century B.C.E. The researchers suggest that the large census numbers can be explained if the census was expanded to include women and children during this time, thus accounting for the large population increase in Rome during times of war. By these estimates the entire population of the Roman Empire—and not just its male population—was somewhere around 4 million to 5 million people by the end of the first century B.C. [LiveScience].
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