Sustaining the Empire: balancing between population growth and food resources

Organisers: Wim De Clercq (Ghent University), Dimitri Van Limbergen (Ghent University), Frank Vermeulen (Ghent University), Rinse Willet (Leiden University)
This session takes place on Friday, 18 March 2016 from 09:00-13:00
This session was originally scheduled for Friday afternoon, but will now take place on Friday morning.

At a certain point in their existence, all successful pre-industrial societies became faced with a fundamental challenge inherent to peasant-based economies: feeding a growing population while coping with the limits imposed by the natural environment and the available farming techniques. Still, as medieval and later European history has repeatedly shown us, such problems did not automatically – or at least not immediately – had to lead to catastrophic Malthusian scenarios. Instead, it has rather reminded us how the hazard of population pressure stimulated agrarian communities to adopt a wide variety of strategies that enabled them to maintain the balance between population and resources. Some of these solutions might be defined as “Boserupian” responses and include the reduction of the natural fallow and changes in the type of cultivated crops. In other cases this term alone does not quite say it and societies often resorted to using a combination of demographic and agrarian adjustments, as there are birth control, migration, changes in labour organization, or the expansion of the cultivated area into marginal territory.

The link between demography and agriculture in economies preceding the industrialization era is a widely acknowledged feature of historical studies focusing on 13th-19th century Europe. But despite Bruce W. Frier’s almost desperate call for the deeper integration of population issues in Roman scholarship, a recent paper by Neville Morley could do nothing more but to address the general lack thereof in socio-economic studies on classical antiquity. However, the work of Walter Scheidel is a strong reminder that such constraints necessarily must have cast their shadow on the economic developments in many parts of the Empire. This session wishes to address this hiatus and invite speakers to reflect on the issue, either through specific case studies from within the Roman Empire, or on a more theoretical level by debating the validity of concepts such as Malthus and Boserup. We are hereby particularly interested in contributions that discuss territorial dossiers in relation to wider regional and pan-imperial developments, or in papers that offer new analytical frameworks for the understanding of Roman agro-economic history; at the same time acknowledging the individuality of local transformations.

Session Programme

This session is made up of five papers.

1. Land and population in the Roman Empire. East and West compared
2. Viticultural practices in Early Imperial central Adriatic Italy
3. Population Growth and Agricultural Resilience on the Poorest Soils of Gaul
4. The Economy & the Archaeology of Roman wine
5. Urbanism and demography in Roman Asia Minor
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