When one thinks of Rome, one thinks of an ancient people living an alien life-style in the dim-distant past. This article will try to make Rome seem less remote, their life-style more accessible, and the past more alive. However, this article will not conform to a scholarly article but will be more of a collection of thoughts, facts, and figures. In the future, I will from time to time publish additional articles in this series.
The population of Rome and of the Empire have often been the subject of debate. While most authorities agree that the population of the Roman Empire was greater than the population of same land area in the fifteenth century, authorities do not agree on a specific number. Having said that between 70 and 80 million is a good estimate during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. The Roman Empire probably had at least 1/5 of the then world’s population. Interestingly, authorities agree that the growth of population was stable at about 0.15 percent per year for about 150 years (between Augustus and Aurelius). Of the total population, about 10% were slaves, meaning 7,000,000 or more at the time of Aurelius.
About 1/3 of the population of the Italian peninsula lived in cities. There were some 450 cities on the Italian peninsula. Rome itself had about a population of 750,000 in 14 AD. This grew to over a million ( and maybe 1,250,000) by the year 100 AD.
Other cities in the Empire, while large in size, did not approach Rome’s population. Alexandria, next largest after Rome, had about 300,000 inhabitants, with Carthage and Antioch having about the same number. Ephesus and Pargamum, the next largest cities, were not in this class having only about 180,000 inhabitants.
The other 2/3 of the population lived outside of cities. Farming was the main occupation. It is instrumental that a legionary, after having served his term, was usually granted land to farm. This inducement was a powerful one-land was the main form of wealth. The area around the Mediterranean is not suited to pastoralism, as only goats and sheep can withstand the lack of water during the summer. Thus agriculture was the main economic endeavor. The Mediterranean climate and soil is suited to olives, grapes, figs, and some cereals. Pigs and poultry were raised but usually only near a city here they cold be easily sold at market.
Trade was very important during the Roman Empire. This trade not only moved by sea, but also throughout the large river net work. For example, the Nile River and its basin were exceedingly important. Grains, particularly wheat and corn were grown along the banks of the Nile, and then were transported up river to a port, such as Alexandria, thence from there by sea to Rome.
Roman sea-trade ships were large and were only rivaled in size by European vessels in the 1750’s. Some authorities believe that the cost ratio of sea transport to river transport to land transport is 1:6:55. Meaning that land transport cost about ten time river transport and 55 times sea transport.
Besides agriculture, mining, and trade, the Roman Empire had some industrial base. Obviously, bricks were made in vast quantities. The vast ruins of buildings of Leptis Magna in modern day Libya, for example, are made of thousands upon thousands of bricks, which was the main building material of the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, there were other industries, including, but not limited to glass making, pottery, textile mills, and lumber mills.
How much did these industries contribute to the GDP of the Empire? Although no one can know for sure, it appears that industry contributed about 5% to GDP. Commerce, may have contributed another few percent to GDP; agriculture, again was the bulk of the Roman GDP. As a corollary to this, it would appear that the average Roman was living a subsistence life-style, with three-quarters of the population engaged in farming.
From this it would appear that the Roman Empire was much like a developing third world economy today.