Family matters, Economy, culture and biology: fertility and its constraints in Roman Italy

2013.09.05 20:50

Saskia Hin (Leiden University and Stanford University)


This article approaches the phenomenon of fertility in Roman Italy from a range of perspectives. Building on anthropological and economic theory, sociology and human evolutionary ecology various processes that affect fertility patterns by influencing human behaviour are set out. The insights provided by these disciplines offer valuable tools for our understanding of fertility in the ancient world, and enable assessment of the likelihood of historical demographic scenarios proffered. On their basis, I argue that there is little force in the argument that attributes a perceived demographic decline during the Late Roman Republic to a drop in fertility levels amongst the mass of the Roman population.

Expansion was characteristic of Italy during the Late Roman Republic. In Brunt’s view, as expressed in his still influential Italian Manpower, this expansion coincided with absence of natural demographic growth among Roman citizens. According to him, it was not just (excess) mortality that curbed growth, but also a deliberate limitation of fertility by all Romans that was induced by economic motivations. As he put it: ‘If the rich sought to limit the number of their children in order to keep together their wealth, smaller proprietors will have acted in the same way, in order to protect their natural heirs against penury. (…) Thus the rich and the peasant proprietors (or tenants) must have desired to restrict the number of their children. The proletarii simply could not afford them. For this reason, as contended earlier, many must have remained celibate; if they chose to marry, or if they already had wives before they fell into destitution, they had every motive to avoid procreation in the first place, and if they failed in this, to abstain from rearing the children born’.

For the entire article click to: Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics, October (2007)

© 2013 Minden jog fenntartva.

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