Although the polis, or city-state, defined the essence of classical Greek civilization, evidence of its most basic characteristics is woefully inadequate. Now a leading scholar in the evaluation of data from the ancient world sheds new light on how those units were constituted.
In a work of cutting-edge research, Mogens Herman Hansen develops a novel method for estimating the overall size and local distribution of the Greek population throughout the ancient world—in both the Greek homeland and its colonies—and explains his reconstruction step by step. Reflecting the innovative work of the Copenhagen Polis Centre in its 2004 inventory of archaic and classical Greek city-states, Hansen’s book makes it possible for the first time to assess the total population of the ancient Greek world.
For 232 out of circa 1,000 city-states, the size of the urban center can be estimated, and for 636 city-states, we have an idea about the size of the territory. Employing a “shotgun method” Hansen derives approximate population figures and argues that, in the age of Alexander the Great, the population of all the Greek city-states must have totaled some 8-10 million people. His new estimates take into account not only adult male citizens, but all inhabitants—citizens, foreigners, and slaves of both sexes and all ages. In addressing often-conflicting views on estimating populations, their distribution in various regions, and their settlement patterns within individual states, Hansen particularly challenges the long-standing opinion that the majority of ancient Greeks lived a rural life outside of poleis, and he calls for a reconsideration of long-held assumptions about the prevalence of a subsistence economy with little long-distance trade.
Although quantifications of ancient history are never precise, they can provide us with valuable information about ancient societies. The Shotgun Method is a rigorous evaluation of data that puts antiquity in a new light and provides a new context for understanding many aspects of Greek history.