According to Michel Foucault's influential model, ancient states should have had a rather circumscribed, ‘essentially negative’ notion of their human resources. In this view, ‘population’ was understood as simply ‘the contrary of depopulation’ until a new, positive and general version of the concept appeared in the eighteenth century. Old-style sovereigns wanted large, obedient and industrious populations as signs of their power; but ideas about how such an outcome might be achieved, and the efforts which could be invested, were limited.
Peter Biller's magisterial book on the positive complexities of what he calls ‘demographic thought’ in medieval Europe presents a different picture of pre-modern possibilities. The point is emphasized by Philip Kreager's work on the ‘population thinking’ of the classical Greek philosopher, Aristotle, particularly as articulated in his Politics, also a key text in Biller's account. The crucial contrast between ancient and modern here is one of approach, not invention, as the Politics expounds an essentially ‘open’ form of population thinking, which emerged from a world comprising a multiplicity of autonomous city-states (poleis, in Greek) of varying size and constitution, unlike the ‘closed’ model of the nineteenth-century European nation-state. Fertility and mortality, the two cornerstones of modern demography, play a minor role in Aristotle's considerations because, for him, mobility and shifting patterns of membership were the main shapers of any community. Without stable boundaries there can be no meaningful data-sets from censuses and surveys, no ‘birth-rate’, ‘death-rate’ or any of the other statistical requirements of Foucault's modern population.
This last point might be considered problematic in a volume dedicated to the history of reproduction. There may have been much more going on around population before the eighteenth century than Foucault alleges, even in the ancient world, but if it did not involve state interest in fertility and mortality then it should presumably be discussed elsewhere. What matter here are the efforts of polities to regulate and intervene in births in order to affect their human resources, actions which depended on, and contributed to, ideas about the role of the state and the wider physical, social, legal and cultural workings of procreation.
This chapter will show that, although the classical world is characterized, broadly speaking, by ‘open population thinking’, and, indeed, ‘open population practice’, this was compatible with an interest in fertility, and even in enumeration and censuses.