Disease and death in the ancient city of Rome

Disease and death in the ancient city of Rome

Walter Scheidel (Stanford University)

Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics, April (2009)


This paper surveys textual and physical evidence of disease and mortality in the city of Rome in the late republican and imperial periods. It emphasizes the significance of seasonal mortality data and the weaknesses of age at death records and paleodemographic analysis, considers the complex role of environmental features and public infrastructure, and highlights the very considerable promise of scientific study of skeletal evidence of stress and disease.

Despite the city’s prominence in our sources, its demographic conditions are remarkably poorly known. The size of Rome’s population is never properly reported and modern estimates rely on inferences from the scale of public grain distribution schemes (see Chapter 2). The geographical and social provenance of its inhabitants is likewise largely a matter of conjecture (see Chapter 5). Marriage practice and household structure may well have been peculiar to the city’s exceptional environment but are difficult to derive from epigraphic documents (see Chapter 6). Overall fertility rates necessarily remain unknown. Metropolitan patterns of morbidity and mortality, however, are more amenable to empirical and even quantitative inquiry, and will therefore be the main concern of this chapter.

As always in demography, a field that is built on counting and measuring, pride of place belongs to large bodies of quantifiable data. Provided by funerary inscriptions, they record two vital features, the monthly distribution of deaths and age at death. Though very similar in character, these two datasets nevertheless lead us in opposite directions: whereas evidence of seasonal mortality has greatly improved our understanding of the impact of infectious disease on life in the city of Rome, demographic analysis of reported ages at death has remained a dead end.

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