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Poverty and Demography: The Case of the Gracchan Land Reforms

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According to many ancient historians the second century BC witnessed a fast expansion of slave-staffed estates that pushed large numbers of free peasants off the land. The widespread rural impoverishment caused by this development is thought to have resulted in population decline and a shortage of military recruits. Against this view this paper argues that not only the number of Roman citizens but the free population of Italy as a whole continued to grow during the decades preceding the Gracchan land reforms. This means that Tiberius Gracchus was correct in assuming that the number of impoverished citizens was steadily increasing but wrong to interpret the census figures of the 140s and 130s BC as indicating that the citizen body had begun to shrink. In short, the widespread rural misery lying behind the Gracchan reforms should be seen as a consequence of continuing population growth rather than as a cause of demographic decline.


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