For Ancient Rome, Buried Treasure Means an Empire in Crisis

By Brett Israel | October 6, 2009 11:31 am

roman_coins_webHistorians 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 [].

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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Image: iStockPhoto

  • YouRang

    What about refugees? What about people getting counted as citizens who before had not been citizens because the war caused documentation problems? What about people claiming their servants/slaves or illegitimate children as family so if someone gets drafted they can send their slave to die? What about claiming servants as family to get more of the equivalent of “the standard deduction”? Or claiming servants as family because they were pissed at the autocrats running the country? Even claiming women and children wouldn’t account for such a large jump. especially if the size had actually declined.

  • Scicurious

    So…I don’t want to pick, but…well…the first century BCE did see the death of Caesar, but it was by no means the death of the empire. If anything, Caesar’s death signaled the final death throes of the Roman republic and the BIRTH of empire, which would see it’s first “Princeps” in his adopted son Augustus. But yes, definitely a time of serious upheaval and unrest, characterized by a lot of civil war.

  • guavaflower1

    Interesting comment Scicurious. You are obviously an ancient history fan

  • Cory

    Do we really find enough coin hoards for this data to really be statistically significant? If so, wow.

  • nick

    I’d like to also point out that the Roman Empire was expanding – perhaps when they conquered new territory those citizens were added to the rolls?

    A quick trip to Wikipedia states that a plague is 165 C.E. killed and estimated five million people in the empire.

    The real start of the fall was the splitting of the empire by Constantine. The actual collapse of the Western Empire was precipitated by the ‘barbarian’ invasions.

    “On September 4, 476 [C.E.], the Germanic chief Odoacer forced the last Roman emperor in the west, Romulus Augustus, to abdicate.[60] Having lasted for approximately 1200 years, the rule of Rome in the West came to an end.[61]”

    So uh, I dunno where ya’ll got your info, or if this is a matter of semantics (the fall of the Republic, rise of the Empire as Scicurious states), but Rome was by no means over at the turn of the Common Era.

    The Eastern Empire that Constantine split off ended thusly: “The Eastern Empire came to an end when Mehmed II conquered Constantinople on May 29, 1453.[68]”

  • jaba

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