Book Review: Europe: Ancient and Medieval

In this slim volume Mogens Herman Hansen mounts a powerful argument to overthrow standard views on the demography of the classical Greek world. Using city-state (polis) data accumulated through his Copenhagen Polis Centre (CPC) project, including An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis, edited by Hansen and Thomas Heine Nielsen (2004), Hansen estimates that there were many more Greeks living in the fourth century B.C.—between 7.5 and 10 million—than has been recognized heretofore. Previous estimates of c. 3 million for the Greek mainland and parts of the bbbbgean (areas for which Hansen posits 3.9 million) ignore the numerous Greek settlements elsewhere in the Mediterranean, communities that Hansen fully incorporates. It is one of the great attractions of this book that Hansen undertakes a geographically comprehensive treatment.

Of course, the demography of classical Greece—an era without censuses or other surviving population records—is a hazardous business full of uncertainty. Hansen is well aware of the pitfalls. The book’s title refers to his practice of producing a range of estimates, from low to high, in order to encompass the truth with something more like a metaphorical shotgun blast than an impossibly precise rifle shot.

The concept makes sense, though it describes less about Hansen’s method than his manner of presenting results. A more informative title might have hinted at the unique basis for the calculations, which is measurement of the intramural area of 232 city-states for which we have fairly good estimates of urban size. Grouping the 232 cities into five size categories, Hansen derives the average number of hectares of urban space per category. He then estimates the total number of Greek cities in each category by using data from the 636 cities about which we have indications of overall size. From here Hansen calculates the total number of hectares of urban space in Greece for each size category, and then extrapolates these numbers over the roughly 1,000 known cities of the classical Greek world.

For this much, Hansen uses the city-state data collected in the Inventory and other CPC publications. But to turn total hectares of urban space in Greece into population numbers, many difficult (and at times almost arbitrary) assumptions have to be made. These include the percentage of intramural space actually used for habitation (as opposed to public buildings, open space, etc.); the average number of houses per hectare; the average number of people per household; the proportion of the populace that lived in the city (vs. the countryside); the variation of these averages and proportions across different city size categories; the size of the undercount his method will produce in areas of Greece like Epirus and Macedonia with few urban settlements; and, finally, how much higher the total Greek population might have been than the minimum figure (roughly 7.5 million) that Hansen’s assumptions and calculations produce.

In making judgments on all these issues Hansen shows his usual confidence, cleverness, erudition, and ready willingness to discard scholarly orthodoxies that do not match his view of the emerging evidence. For example, he uses test cases from the few cities and regions about which we have a fair idea of the ancient population (detailed in Appendix 1) to establish convincingly that the surprisingly large numbers his method produces likely underestimates the Greek population rather than the reverse. Hansen also effectively criticizes the now-common practice of using “carrying capacity” inferences derived from nineteenth-century Greek census figures to estimate ancient populations. But at least one assertion rings hollow: Hansen contends (pp. 29, 75–76) that his large urban numbers disprove the longstanding notion that the vast majority of ancient Greeks lived in the countryside, since if they did Hansen’s results would push the total population to a ludicrously high figure. But opponents might easily counter that the absurdity of such a figure shows that Hansen himself must have gone terribly wrong somewhere with his urban habitation numbers. Hansen admits (p. 28) that “the most problematic assumption is the relation between the urban and rural populations.” And one might add that Hansen’s method cannot fully control for variation in the density of habitation in different cities and regions.

Hansen’s ambitious and fascinating study will not settle all debate on the population of classical Greece since the evidence is too scanty and the necessity of piling assumption on top of assumption to produce meaningful figures, whatever one’s method, renders any comprehensive result suspect. And yet this study represents a major step forward. Its greatest strength is its basis in the CPC’s massive, painstakingly accumulated data on all the city-states of the Greek world. Hansen exploits this new resource well in producing his elevated population estimates, estimates that may require historians to reconsider fundamental aspects of the Greek economy and society.




By: Mogens Herman Hansen