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Population Crises and Population Cycles

4. The Northern Mediterranean: Greece

Claire Russell and W.M.S. Russell

In China and the dry belt, the food surplus was ample for developing high civilisation, but high population density and the demands of water control (hydraulic) engineering produced what Karl Wittfogel (1956) called hydraulic societies - arbitrary autocracy, bureaucratic elite, and mass labour, with no one really free. The peoples of the ancient Northern Mediterranean lacked sufficient food surplus to build high civilisation. They did so only by exploiting the surplus of the neighbouring dry belt, through piracy, trade and conquest (Table 1). At first they were not forced into the hydraulic pattern, and they could develop the rule of law, and real freedom for many people, even democracy, with leisure for fundamental scientific inquiry. But their dependence on imported food meant two factors for population crisis: their own population increase, and a failure of food imports. Overpopulation was enhanced when slavery diffused into their societies from the dry belt (Table 2). They could not possibly afford slaves from their own meagre surplus, and the slaves reached grotesquely high proportions: Athens, in 431 BC, probably had some 80,000 slaves, nearly one quarter of the total population of some 340,000. So high civilisation in this region was a conditional and precarious affair.

Table 1: Grain Imports Into The Northern Mediterranean

This table shows how utterly the ancient civilisations of the Northern Mediterranean depended on food imports from outside the region, chiefly from North Africa and Western Asia.

The imports to Rome and Constantinople were collected as taxes from provinces of the Empire.

Unless otherwise specified, each table or figure is based on a number of sources.

Importing City

Period or (in one case) Year

Amount of Grain in Tonnes per Year

Region of Origin (modern names)


mid-4th century BC


Ukraine, Egypt, Syria, Sicily, Cyprus

41 Greek Cities

328/7 BC




1st century BC -

1st century AD


Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt


early 3rd century AD


Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt


late 4th century AD


Tunisia, Algeria


mid-6th century AD



In the second millennium BC, immigrants from all over the Aegean formed the brilliant literate civilisation of Minoan Crete, based on a trading network from Sicily to Egypt and the Levant. It suddenly collapsed in 1460-50 BC (dated from Egyptian records), and the island was taken over by Mycenaean Greeks from the Greek mainland. This collapse was hastened by a colossal volcanic eruption on the nearby island of Thera, probably in 1520 BC. But there were anyway signs of serious population crisis: a settlement density only matched in Roman and modern times, exhaustion of timber (before the eruption), famine, epidemics, war between the Minoan cities, human sacrifice and cannibalism.

Table 2: The Westward Diffusion of Slavery from Western Asia

(Data from Beloch, 1886)

This table shows how slavery diffused into the Northern Mediterranean from Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The centuries are those in which slavery became well established in the regions mentioned, with substantial numbers of slaves.

Centuries BC

Regions with Slavery Established


Cities and islands on coast of Asia Minor, especially Chios


Central Greece, especially Corinth, Aegina, Megara, Athens


Remainder of Greece


Rome and Roman Italy

The Mycenaeans took over the trade network, but their populations grew and trade was disturbed by population crisis in the dry belt. The combined result was a catastrophic population crisis in the Aegean, leading to a Dark Age from about 1100 to 800 BC. Literacy was lost, and towns disappeared. The important Mycenaean town of Athens shrank to a tiny hamlet of a dozen people.

In the 8th century BC, thanks to improved arable farming, population increased dramatically (Figure 1), and Greek civilisation reappeared, with literacy (using a new script), towns, sophisticated art and architecture (Table 3). The islands and the plains isolated by mountains gave rise to some 200 city-states, each a city with surrounding farmland territory, such as Athens and its territory of Attica. But population soon outstripped resources, leading to land disputes, rural unrest, food shortages and epidemics. The problem was eased in the 7th and 6th centuries by the planting of colonies all over the Black Sea and Mediterranean, until the emigration was blocked by the rival colonising movement of the Phoenicians (which had started earlier) and the Empire of their greatest colony, Carthage, in (modern) Tunisia. Meanwhile some city-states, notably Aegina, Chios, Corinth and Athens, began to export manufactures to and import food from Egypt.

Table 3: The Growth of Greek Civilisation, 700-500 BC

(Data from Starr, 1977)

This table shows the dramatic increase during the period in the production of works of art and architecture. Some of the 7th century temples were very small, and some of the 6th century temples among the largest ever built by the Greeks: the figure of 88 is a minimum.

Centuries BC

Stone Temples Built

Large Statues Made







In the early 5th century BC, a monopoly of silver enabled Athens to control grain imports from the Ukraine and Egypt, so becoming the entropôt of Greece. The temporary large surplus of resources over population produced the greatest concentration of creative activity in world history. But increase in the free population and mass import of slaves led to a desperate food supply problem (Figure 2). Competition for grain import sources with Corinth (in a similar position) resulted in 431 BC in the first and worst of the major wars between the overpopulated Greek city-states that occupied 53 out of the following 85 years, with recurrent inflation, unemployment, food shortages and epidemics. In the late 4th century, thanks to the development of alluvial gold, the Macedonians dominated Greece, weakened by overpopulation, and suppressed democracy.

Alexander the Great used a combined Macedonian-Greek army to conquer Egypt and Western Asia as far as India. On his death, his dry belt Empire broke up into a number of typically hydraulic states, the Hellenistic monarchies, with bureaucracies staffed by Greeks. The Aegean mainland and islands lost their monopoly of manufactures, as industry developed elsewhere, and their populations shrank back to the reduced carrying capacity of their own lands, with deforestation and exhausted mines. A survey of Aegean Greek settlement in the 1970s, covering 14.4% of the country, showed ancient population, at its peak in 431 BC, was higher than the modern figure of six millions (excluding the swollen modern city of Athens). By the 1st century BC it had probably shrunk to less than two millions, and (except for areas of Roman settlement, Figure 3) it probably shrank still further in Roman and Byzantine times (cf. Figure 2). When visited by Chateaubriand in 1806, Greece was still a desolate land, and as late as 1826 its population may have been below one million.

In the 3rd century BC, the Hellenistic monarchies in the dry belt enjoyed some relief from population pressure, with scientific advances, brilliant art, and more humane and less destructive warfare. But Carthage suffered from severe stress culture, the heritage of chronic overpopulation in its Phoenician homeland; it was culturally backward, with a frequency of human sacrifice unparalleled in the Old World. In the 2nd-1st centuries BC, rising populations produced devastating crisis in the Hellenistic kingdoms. Hence Carthage was conquered in the 3rd century, and the Hellenistic kingdoms in the 2nd and 1st centuries, by the new power of Rome.