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Fachbereich Alte Geschichte, Sabine Huebner
The plebs frumentaria and the size of Rome’s Population in the 4th century CE, some new Economic and Demographic Considerations
It has long been espoused that beginning in the mid-third century and extending into the fourth CE, Rome's population began a gradual but inexorable decline. Rome, we are told by this most pessimistic of observers, "saw a further diminution in numbers of residents" every year of the fourth century so that the population was a "dwindling" and "etiolated" body (Purcell 1999). Scholars that advance a similar position maintain that conditions of the late Empire were such that Rome could not have sustained its earlier population size, because new cities, the army, and an expanding clergy all competed for the limited human resources, while economic pressures and foreign hostilities challenged the very structures of the Empire and two earlier exogenous shocks caused large-scale demographic disruptions from which the City never recovered. I argue, to the contrary, that the evidence we do possess is more consistent with a high population count in the fourth century. More importantly, the same evidence also suggests an increase in the size of certain sections of the population, particularly the so-called plebs frumentaria or those entitled to free food distributions. One important consequence of this argument is that a larger portion of population now possessed the opportunity to acquire wealth well above the level of subsistence. This lecture then will offer a critical reassessment of prevailing scholarly opinion and argue that, far from a "dwindling" and "etiolated" body, a larger section of Rome’s population became well-placed in the fourth century to experience a certain level of economic vitality. In so doing, I aim also to demonstrate how by studying institutional change alongside disease regimes, food supply, and fiscal structures, we can illuminate socio-economic and demographic aspects of Rome’s non-elite population.
Meeting-ID: 916 3418 8287
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