Population, Censuses and Birth Control in Ancient Rome

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20120225-Rome Campus_Martius_-_Theatre_of_Pompeius.jpg
densely populated Rome
Rome was the first city to have a million people (by A.D. 1).

The world population was around 170 million at the time of the birth of Jesus. In A.D. 100 it had risen to around 180 million. By 190 it rose to 190 million. Four fifths of the world's population lived under the Roman, Chinese, Han and Indian Gupta empires.

Rome regularly took a census. This was used to figure out the status of citizens and figure out taxes, budgets and troop strength.

Rome had a very low birth rate. This was partly the result of birth control, infanticide and perhaps the result of miscarriages and sterility caused by lead poisoning.

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; Lacus Curtius penelope.uchicago.edu; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com

Ancient Roman Census

The Romans conducted censuses every five years, calling upon every man and his family to return to his place of birth to be counted in order to keep track of the population. Historians believe that it was started by the Roman king Servius Tullius in the 6th century BC, when the number of arms-bearing citizens was counted at 80,000. The census played a crucial role in the administration of the peoples of an expanding Roman Empire, and was used to determine taxes. It provided a register of citizens and their property from which their duties and privileges could be listed. [Source: UK government]

Who were counted in the Roman census? How important was the identity of those looking at the census for the interpretation of the census process? Those are the two related central questions of the project The Roman census: counting and identity. A correct interpretation of the census figures is important for anyone who wants to learn more about the population development of the Roman Empire and of pre-industrial societies in general. Since the 19th century, it has usually been assumed that at least all adult male citizens were counted. But this interpretation is controversial. The model from which it derives seems to force us to choose between a Roman population which is either smaller or larger than can reasonably be expected. Furthermore, it is not consistent with the information we have about the census ceremony from ancient Roman sources. [Source: Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research]

According to the Data Administration Newsletter: “The Romans decided that they wanted to tax everyone in the Roman empire. But in order to tax the citizens of the Roman empire the Romans first had to have a census. The Romans quickly figured out that trying to get every person in the Roman empire to march through the gates of Rome in order to be counted was an impossibility. There were people in North Africa, in Spain, in Germany, in Greece, in Persia, in Israel, and so forth. Not only were there a lot of people in far away places, trying to transport everyone on ships and carts and donkeys to and from the city of Rome was simply an impossibility. [Source:Data Administration Newsletter]

dates were consumed to avoid pregnancy

“So the Romans realized that creating a census where the processing (i.e., the counting, the taking of the census) was done centrally was an impossibility. The Romans solved the problem by creating a body of “census takers”. The census takers were organized in Rome and then were sent all over the Roman empire and on the appointed day a census was taken. Then, after taking the census, the census takers headed back to Rome where the results were tabulated centrally.

“In such a fashion the work being done was sent to the data, rather than trying to send the data to a central location and doing the work in one place. By distributing the processing, the Romans solved the problem of creating a census over a large diverse population. Many people don’t realize that they are very familiar with the Roman census method and don’t know it. You see there once was a story about two people – Mary and Joseph – who had to travel to a small city – Bethlehem – for the taking of a Roman census. On the way there Mary had a little baby boy – named Jesus – in a manger. And the shepherds flocked to see this baby boy. And Magi came and delivered gifts. Thus born was the religion many people are familiar with – Christianity. The Roman census approach is intimately entwined with the birth of Christianity.”

Birth Control and Contraceptives in the Greco-Roman World

There is some evidence that the Romans used oiled animal bladders as condom-like sheaths. Roman women were told sperm be could expelled by coughing, jumping and sneezing after intercourse, and repeated abortions produced sterility.

According to historians, demographic studies suggest the ancients attempted to limit family size. Greek historians wrote that urban families in the first and second centuries B.C. tried to have only one or two children. Between A.D. 1 and 500, it was estimated the population within the bounds of the Roman Empire declined from 32.8 million to 27.5 million (but there can be all sorts of reason for this excluding birth control).

Birth control methods in ancient Greece included avoiding deep penetration when menstruation was "ending and abating" (the time Greeks thought a woman was most fertile); sneezing and drinking something cold after having sex; and wiping the cervix with a lock of fine wool or smearing it with salves and oils made from aged olive oil, honey, cedar resin, white lead and balsam tree oil. Before intercourse women tried applying a perceived spermicidal oil made from juniper trees or blocking their cervix with a block of wood. Women also ate dates and pomegranates to avoid pregnancy (modern studies have shown that the fertility of rats decreases when they ingest these foods).

Women in Greece and the Mediterranean were told that scooped out pomegranates halves could be used as cervical caps and sea sponges rinsed in acidic lemon juice could serve as contraceptives. The Greek physician Soranus wrote in the 2nd century A.D. : "the woman ought, in the moment during coitus when the man ejaculates his sperm, to hold her breath, draw her body back a little so the semen cannot penetrate into the uteri, then immediately get up and sit down with bent knees, and this position provoke sneezes."

Valuable Contraceptive Plant

In the seventh century B.C., Greek colonists in Libya discovered a plant called silphion , a member of the fennel family which also includes asafoetida , one of the important flavorings in Worcester sauce. The pungent sap from silphion, the ancient Greeks found, helped relieve coughs and tasted good on food, but more importantly it proved to be an effective after-intercourse contraceptive. A substance from a similar plant called ferujol has been shown in modern clinical studies to be 100 percent successful in preventing pregnancy in female rats up to three days after coitus. [Source: John Riddle, J. Worth Estes and Josiah Russell, Archaeology magazine, March/April 1994]


Known to the Greeks as silphion and to the Romans as silphium, the plant brought prosperity to the Greek city-state of Cyrene. Worth more than is weight on silver, it was described by Hippocrates, Diosorides and a play by Aristophanes. Sixth century B.C. coins depicted women touching the silphion plant with one hand and pointing at their genitals with the other. The plant was so much in demand in ancient Greece it eventually became scarce, and attempts to grow it outside of the 125-mile-long mountainous region it grew in Libya failed. By the 5th century B.C., Aristophanes wrote in his play The Knights , "Do you remember when a stalk of silphion sold so cheap?" By the third or forth century A.D., the contraceptive plant was extinct.

Abortions in the Greco-Roman World

Abortions were performed in ancient times, says North Carolina State history professor John Riddle, and discussions about featured many of the same arguments we hear today. The Greeks and Romans made a distinction between a fetus with features and one without features. The latter could be aborted without having to worry about legal or religious reprisals. Plato advocated population control in the ideal city state and Aristotle suggested that "if conception occurs in excess...have abortion induced before sense and life have begun in the embryo."

The Stoics believed the human soul appeared when first exposed to cool air, and the potential for a soul existed at conception. Hippocrates warned physicians in his oath not to use one kind of abortive suppository, but the statement was misinterpreted as a blanket condemnation of all of abortion. John Chrystom, the Byzantine bishop of Constantinople compared abortion to murder in A.D. 390, but a few years earlier Bishop Gregory of Nyssa said the unformed embryo could not be considered a human being. [Riddle has written a book called “Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance”]

silphion symbol

Claudine Dauphin of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris wrote: According to Plautus (died 185 B.C.) , abortion was a likely action for a pregnant prostitute to take, either -Ovid (born 43 B.C.) suggested - by drinking poisons or by puncturing with a sharp instrument called the foeticide, the amniotic membrane which surrounds the foetus. Procopius of Caesarea (A.D. 500-554) states emphatically that when she was a prostitute, Empress Theodora knew all the methods which would immediately provoke an abortion (Anecd. 9.20). [Source: “Prostitution in the Byzantine Holy Land” by Claudine Dauphin, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, Classics Ireland ,University College Dublin, Ireland, 1996 Volume 3]

“Didascalia Apostolorum (around A.D. 230) condemned both abortion and infanticide: 'You will not kill the child by abortion and you will not murder it once it is born'. In 374, a decree of Emperors Valentinian I and Valens forbade infanticide on pain of death (Cod. Theod. 9.14.1). Nevertheless, the practice which had been common in the Roman period, continued. That is why the Tosephta (Oholoth 18.8) repeated in the fourth century the warning made by the Mishna in the second century: 'The dwelling places of Gentiles are unclean... What do they [the rabbis] examine? The deep drains and the foul water'. This implied that the Gentiles disposed of their aborted foetuses in the drains of their own houses.” ~

Infanticide in Ancient Rome

Infanticide and abortion were common practice in the Roman Empire that produced a disproportionally large male population as the victims were often girls. One husband wrote his pregnant wife: "If, as could well happen, you give birth, if it’s a male, let it be — if it's a female, cast it out."

"Exposing" newborns was a decision often made by the father. Under Roman law a father could commit infanticide as long as he invited five neighbors to examine the body before it was left to die. Infants were left to die of exposure or flung on garbage heaps simply for being sickly or female or an extra mouth to feed. In one study of 600 upper class families only six had more than one daughter. Women sometimes made arrangements to have exposed children rescued and brought up in secret. Other times poor families grabbed infanticide victims and raised them as slaves.

Excavations of an ancient sewer under a Roman bathhouse in Ashkleon in present-day Israel revealed the remains of more than 100 infants thought be unwanted children from the brothel. They infants had been thrown into a gutter along with animal bones, pottery shards and a few coins and are thought to have been unwanted because of the way they were disposed. DNA tests revealed that 74 percent of the victims were male. Usually unwanted children were girls.

Pat Smith, a physical archaeologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told National Geographic, “We know that infanticide was widely practiced by the Greeks and Romans. It was regarded as the parents’ right if they didn’t want a child. Usually they killed girls. Boys were considered more valuable — as heirs for support in old age. Girls were sometimes viewed as burdens, especially if they needed a dowry to marry.”

Augustus's Marriage Reforms

In attempt to boost the declining birth rate Augustus, in the A.D. first century, offered tax breaks for large families and cracked down on abortion. He imposed strict marriage laws and changed adultery from an act of indecency to an act of sedition, decreeing that a man who discovered his wife’s infidelity must turn her in or face charges himself. Adulterous couples could have their property confiscated, be exiled to different parts of the empire and be prohibited from marrying one another. Augustus passed the reforms because he believed that too many men spent their energy with prostitutes and concubines and had nothing for their wives, causing population declines.

Under Augustus, women had the right to divorce. Husbands could see prostitutes but not keep mistresses, widows were obligated to remarry within two years, divorcees within 18 months. Parents with three or more children were given rewards, property, job promotions, and childless couples and single men were looked down upon and penalized . The end result of the reforms was a skyrocketing divorce rate.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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