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Populations in the past behaved in diverse ways in terms of fertility, mortality and migration – the key elements of demographic dynamics. There are many variables which influence these dynamics, including environment and epidemiology, economic activity, urbanisation, reproductive decision making and war. These variables are socio-economically and culturally specific, and are therefore likely to impact differently on populations across time and place. Population historians of most periods in European history have long acknowledged such specificity and diversity in population dynamics and behaviour; in fact, established models that suggest ‘regional’ patterns of demographic behaviour and fail to take diversity into account have recently been challenged with data from a range of populations. Similarly, the notion that all pre-modern populations can be grouped together and be seen to behave in the same way as one another is no longer tenable. Accordingly, ancient historians must view the populations of the Graeco-Roman world against the backdrop of their environmental, socio-economic and cultural diversity. The populations of the areas discussed in this volume – Athens, Rome, the metropolises and villages of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt, and the rural and coastal demes in Attica – all existed within specific contexts determining, at least in part, the variables shaping their population dynamics. For this reason we cannot categorise the range of populations of the Graeco-Roman world along with all pre-modern European populations, nor can we see them as making up one distinct and homogeneous category of their own. On the other hand, there are lots of commonalities between the populations of the ancient, pre-modern and more recent past. The value of comparative research on population lies in establishing what these common relationships are, and the ways in which an understanding of one population in its particular context can help to develop a fuller picture of another. For the ancient historian, for instance, a study on population in early modern England can suggest not only the differences but also the similarities in the ways in which individuals, families and populations influence and respond to social and economic change.
The history of the ancient family has focused principally on two central questions: how can we classify the structure and formation of the ancient family within a historical framework, and what were the obligations of its members towards one another within that structure? For the first of these questions the issue is one of continuity, or otherwise, from family forms in pre-modern populations through to modern, western European populations; this is an issue of precisely when and where what we now refer to as the nuclear family came into existence. The appearance of the nuclear family in European history is tied to the theory of a European demographic transition: a widespread fertility decline associated with industrialisation, which was in large part a consequence of the tendencies of married couples to delay marriage and/or to consciously limit their family size through means of birth control. This theory, though widely criticised for its inability to explain the socio-economic and cultural aspects of human reproductive behaviour, is one that remains central to many studies of family formation. Yet research has suggested that a number of historical populations for which demographic data are abundant deviated significantly from the patterns this theory predicts.
Through a series of case studies this book demonstrates the wide-ranging impact of demographic dynamics on social, economic and political structures in the Graeco-Roman world. The individual case studies focus on fertility, mortality and migration and the roles they played in various aspects of ancient life. These studies - drawn from a range of populations in Athens and Attica, Rome and Italy, and Graeco-Roman Egypt - illustrate how new insights can be gained by applying demographic methods to familiar themes in ancient history. Methodological issues are addressed in a clear, straightforward manner with no assumption of prior technical knowledge, ensuring that the book is accessible to readers with no training in demography. The book marks an important step forward in ancient historical demography, affirming both the centrality of population studies in ancient history and the contribution that antiquity can make to population history in general.