October 08, 2009

Roman coin hoards and population size

This is certainly an interesting use of archaeological data, and the authors should be applauded for it, but I can't really say I buy into their conclusions.

Increase in coin hoards may be a sign of dead owners who never recovered them, but it may also be a sign of more owners, or even more criminals due to overpopulation, leading owners to hoard their wealth.

Even if internal strife was responsible for the data, there is no reason to think that population numbers declined, as the demographic decrease due to losers' deaths could be made up for by the demographic increase due to winners' taking over properties and a stream of immigration making up for loss of life.

PNAS doi:10.1073/pnas.0904576106

Coin hoards speak of population declines in Ancient Rome

Peter Turchina, Walter Scheidel


In times of violence, people tend to hide their valuables, which are later recovered unless the owners had been killed or driven away. Thus, the temporal distribution of unrecovered coin hoards is an excellent proxy for the intensity of internal warfare. We use this relationship to resolve a long-standing controversy in Roman history. Depending on who was counted in the early Imperial censuses (adult males or the entire citizenry including women and minors), the Roman citizen population of Italy either declined, or more than doubled, during the first century BCE. This period was characterized by a series of civil wars, and historical evidence indicates that high levels of sociopolitical instability are associated with demographic contractions. We fitted a simple model quantifying the effect of instability (proxied by hoard frequency) on population dynamics to the data before 100 BCE. The model predicts declining population after 100 BCE. This suggests that the vigorous growth scenario is highly implausible.



Maju said...

... but I can't really say I buy into their conclusions.

Me neither. The dynamics of hoards is interesting but their interpretation seems quite questionable. I can't even think of any event in that period after 100 BCE that should cause massive depopulation in Italy. So I'm quite sceptic in this case too.

Maju said...

However I've been digging a bit further (think before talking, Maju!) and it does seem that Appian mentions that Roman land policies had caused at the beginning of that century high inequality of wealth, causing widespread poverty and eventually the Social War.

So guess that when historians argue on that, they have some reasons.

A possibility is nevertheless that it has nothing to do with demography but with wealth distribution. If most wealth was in the hands of the super-rich, who could surely keep it safe by other means than burying it in the ground, most people would just have no savings to hide at all... but they would still be in most cases alive and kicking.

SunPhish said...

Coin Hoards can give us a fairly accurate time line and give some incite how longs some coins were in circulation