Ancient Rome as a death pit

By Razib Khan | October 5, 2010 2:13 pm

One of the assumptions that I’ve made on this weblog repeatedly based on ancient literary references is the idea that before 1900 urban areas were population sinks. In Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America the historian Eric Rauchway asserts that ~1900 in the USA urban health and life expectancy surpassed that of rural areas, arguably a first in the history of the world (the reason for this was a public health revolution prompted by fear of the diseases which Southern and Eastern European immigrants were presumably bringing to American cities). It’s not that difficult to find data on early modern urban areas, which does confirm the lower fertility vis-a-vis rural areas, and often an excess of deaths over births (some scholars have argued that this second is an artifact of the transient nature of urban residency for a large segment of the population). Most of the older research seems based on extrapolation from archaeology and physical anthropology. But I did find one paper from 1913 which looked at inscriptions on tombstones in the Roman Empire to calculate curves of life expectancy at a given time from three locations: Rome, the Iberian provinces, and Roman North Africa. The first was an urban location, and the latter two less urban ones.


Some caveats:

– The author notes than underrepresentation of lower status individuals in marked graves. This is expected. But, one presumes that life expectancy curves calculated from slaves and urban proletarian would probably be very different from what you see below. Days of birth and death listed on a tombstones indicates a level of functional literacy in the class from which the individual is derived (even if the individual was an illiterate, their family and friends are likely to have included literates).

– Some of the ages at death recorded are almost certainly fictitious exaggerations. I don’t think the author expresses proper skepticism of recorded ages in ancient Rome.

– All that being said, the key is to focus on differences between locations. Unless there are systematic biases which vary by location (e.g., more marked graves among lower status individuals in urban Rome) we’re getting a sense of differences of mortality. As a reference the author naturally uses the English of circa 1900.

The charts are in order those of Rome, the two Iberian provinces, and Africa.




What you see on the x-axis are ages of individuals, and on the y-axis the expected years of life at that age. The lower life expectancy for women at all ages in the ancient world except for among the very old is in line with our intuitions. In a pre-modern environment there was no necessary expectation of “women and children first” in times of want, and women had to bear offspring which would be a net drain on their resources. Older women do not bear as many of these costs. At least the one of having to bear offspring. The author explains the higher life expectancy of older individuals in the Rome Empire as being due to a process of selection; the healthiest made it to more advanced ages. This sounds plausible, but I suspect part of it also has to do with inflation of ages for those who make it do an advanced age. Finally, you see the noticeable difference between Rome and the provinces. The author sees this as confirmation of the contemporary literary sources which point to the lack of healthfulness of ancient urban life. He also adds an addendum that after the paper was drafted a correspondent pointed him to another analysis which included a Gallic sample, which confirmed again that provincials seemed to have a higher life expectancy.

I don’t think that our argument can hinge on this one analysis, and I’ll be digging further. To get a better sense though of ancient Roman urban areas soon I’ll look to see what there is on Alexandria, since Egypt is one area because of climate that ancient documents have been preserved. It’s interesting that this idea that cities are demographic sinks seems widely accepted in the literature, but there’s been little cliometric exploration of the ancient data…though who can blame them given the nature of the ancient textual records.

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  • livius

    While researching the discovery of early Imperial mass graves on the Esquiline hill in 1876, I came across a couple of papers by Stanford Classics and Humanities professor Walter Scheidel that cover mortality rates in Rome and Roman Egypt. It’s far more recent scholarship than 1913 — the paper on Rome was published in 2009, the one on Egypt in 2010 — so you might find them useful in your investigation of urban vs. rural life expectancy.

    If you allow urls in comments, here are the papers in question:

    Age and health in Roman Egypt
    Demography, disease, and death in the ancient city of Rome (pdf)

    If they get filtered out, feel free to email me and I’ll send you the links.

    Best of luck to you. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of your digging. — liv

  • Razib Khan

    thanks! i have the second paper, but appreciate ungrated links for my readers.

  • Steve Sailer

    I visited the ruins of Ephesus in Turkey last year, and the place looked less like a city for doing business than like an urban theme park for adults, kind of like the Las Vegas Strip. No wonder people put up with dropping dead to live in cities back then.

  • Razib Khan

    after rome lost its centrality as an administrative center in the 4th century that’s pretty much what it became too, at least up until the gothic wars emptied out the hinterlands and left the city a husk of itself. the vast majority of pre-modern cities were about consumption of rents from what i can tell, not production or economic transaction. in The Pursuit of Glory: The Five Revolutions that Made Modern Europe the author argues that the emergence of genuine full-service entrepots such as antwerp, amsterdamn, and london distinguished western europe from central and eastern europe where the older model of large cities being centers of administration and aristocracy remained paramount.

  • pconroy

    Razib, Steve,

    Yeah that sounds about right.

    It’s funny that Dublin was known as the “Second City of the British Empire” between roughly the 1750 and the early 20th Century, and indeed it was the home of a rentier elite, and boasted fine mansions, the world’s first maternity hospital, the world’s second zoo and so on.

    Though it manufactured almost nothing and only produced great writers, poets and dramatists – to satisfy the many theatres and performance spaces.

  • bioIgnoramus

    1) “Dublin was known as the “Second City of the British Empire” between roughly the 1750 and the early 20th Century”: mind you, so was Glasgow for a fair time. Was Birmingham or Manchester too?

    2) “Unless there are systematic biases which vary by location “: why would there not be?

  • AG

    Modern life style with over-supply of food might give higher survival rate at younger age, yet poor longevity for advanced age due to diabetes like disease. As animal studies indicated, animals on uncontrolled diet with buffet like eating actually have shorten life compared to animals with limited food access. Ancient Rome might not have enough to eat which cause higher young death. But in the long run, survivors might have healthier bodies for advanced age.

  • pconroy


    After Irish independence in 1922, the moniker of Second City of the Empire passed to Glasgow.

    Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool vied for “Second City of England”.

    Even stranger is the fact that in the early 1800’s Dublin was the second most populous city in the British Empire. In fact I’ve been told – though I can’t track down a reference – that it was the 5th most populous city in the world at the time.

  • albatross

    How does this overlap with groups like Jews, who I think have tended to be more urban than the surrounding population for a very long time? More broadly, is it possible that cities were a population sink for some ethnic or religious or other identifiable groups, but not for others?

  • onur

    Late 18th and 19th centuries saw the urbanization of the non-Muslims of Asia Minor (due to their increasing contact with the West and Western ideas), and during the same period non-Muslim population of Asia Minor significantly increased (from ~10%, maybe even less, of the total population of Asia Minor to ~20% of it, if I remember correctly). So urbanization was probably beneficial already before 1900.

  • Dead Roman

    Hard to believe we are back to 1913… for why Roman tombstones definitely cannot be used to reconstruct actual mortality patterns see the literature in notes 46 and 47 of . Btw records from Alexandria are very rare and the same problems apply.

  • Joe Zias

    Recently I have been looking at data here in Israel and the West Bank on the Jewish population from the first century BC-Second AD and comparing the data.

    Jews at that time from the urban areas appeared to live well into their 40 and 50’s until one comes to the population which wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls (Essenes) This group went into the mikva twice daily at Qumran which appears rather healthy until one realizes that there is to rainfall there from spring until late fall. Thus the mikva became a toxic pool of water and as a result the chance of making it to 40 compared to the Jewish population up the road at Jericho with a yearly water supply of spring water, were 1/7th. Here one clearly sees how certain extreme religious practices are detrimental to one health.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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