Thursday, January 14, 2010

Are empires bad for your health?

Do empires provide a higher standard of living? In theory, this might seem so. Empires allow goods, capital, and labor to circulate within a much larger land area, thus creating economies of scale and matching supply and demand more efficiently. Empires can also build public works—roads, canals, aqueducts, etc.—that are beyond the reach of smaller territorial entities.

This is still the view in much scholarly writing on the Roman Empire. Yet it is inconsistent with what physical anthropologists are discovering through analysis of skeletal remains. The latest of these studies concerns child burials from 3rd to 5th century Roman Dorchester, in southern England. The children show high levels of malnutrition and trauma: 38.5% had cribra orbitalia—a sign of iron or vitamin B12 deficiency; 12.5% had rickets—a sign of vitamin D deficiency; 4.8% had scurvy—a sign of vitamin C deficiency; and 5.4% had broken ribs (Lewis, 2010).

These rates are much higher than those for medieval England and point to a very poor diet. The incidence of rickets is interesting, since we see a similar high prevalence in industrial England (18th – early 20th centuries). The latter rickets epidemic is usually attributed to industrial smog that blocked UVB radiation and thus impaired vitamin-D synthesis in the skin. A likelier culprit is a diet made up almost wholly of bread, whose high content of phytic acid increases vitamin-D requirements by binding to calcium and phosphorus in the body, thus making these elements unusable (Lindeberg, 1997). This is also probably the cause of Roman-era rickets.

Lewis (2010) cites similar findings from other Roman sites:

Many questions remain about what impact the introduction of urban centers and the gradual economic decline at the end of the Roman Empire had on the local population. Some Roman scholars argue that “Romanization” brought about improvements to the health of the people (Mattingly, 2006, p. 323), with the writing of Roman architects such as Vitruvius conjuring up images of planned Roman cities, with marbled surfaces and flowing water, providing extensive facilities for the comfort and health of the inhabitants (Morley, 2005). Diametrically opposed is the argument that urbanization widened the divide between the rich and the poor, with many suffering hardships of poverty, social unrest, and subservience to the conquering population. The city of Rome itself is seen as overcrowded and filthy, with dogs and muggers prowling the streets, whereas the archaeological evidence calls into question the organization of the water supply and levels of sanitation, with latrines discovered near kitchen areas (Laurence, 1997; Morley, 2005). Garnsey (1999) has hypothesized that undernutrition was endemic in the urban communities of the Greco-Roman world …

Although the Roman Empire brought about an increase in economic wealth, much of this increase seems to have been either siphoned off by the elite or consumed by the large standing army. There is very little evidence that the average citizens were better off under imperial rule, and much suggests that they were worse off.

Why? One reason may be ‘diseconomies of scale.’ Empires tend to liquidate smaller communal entities that more efficiently deliver collective goods, such as community policing, high-trust social networks (for exchange of services and sharing of scarce goods), and support for family formation and child care. This is particularly evident in the Roman Empire’s high infantile mortality rate and low birth rate, with the result that natural increase became negative in late imperial times.

These smaller communal entities were liquidated by the tendency of individuals to migrate from one part of the Empire to another, either on their own or through resettlement of legionnaire veterans. This process of liquidation was also assisted by the State itself, which saw private collectivities as sources of conspiracy or rebellion. In fact, only a limited number of non-State associations were allowed, such as guilds, burial clubs, and officially recognized religions. The persecution of Christians was part of this tendency to see smaller collectivities as threats to the Empire.

Many of us, living in countries where for several centuries we have had fair liberty of association, may not realize just how recent such freedom is but realize that a civilization in which states fear their own citizens is one that recognizes its own inhumanity. Thus it cannot surprise us that in Antiquity most noncommercial associations were forbidden: the authorities realized that any social club might be a center for opposition to the régime. (source)

Empires also make life worse for the average person by fostering dependence on long-distance economic relationships that may collapse if one link in the supply chain disappears. When barbarian invasion disrupted grain shipments between North Africa and Italy in the 5th century, urban populations were suddenly without food. In general, empires create relationships between people who have no commitment to each other beyond short-term economic interest. When a crisis happens, these same people will give priority to their kinfolk … thus leaving in the cold any atomized individuals with no kinship networks to fall back on. When the Roman Empire collapsed, the latter were the ones who suffered the most.


Lewis, M.E. (2010). Life and death in a civitas capital: metabolic disease and trauma in the children from late Roman Dorchester, Dorset, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, early view.

Lindeberg, S. (1997), Cereal grains, Paleolithic Diet Symposium List,


Tod said...

A diet made up almost wholly of phytic acid rich bread would be all the worse for not containing meat, this seems to be important in preventing rickets. Confusingly the anti rickets effect is not because of the vitamin D in the meat.

Vitamin D and UV fluctuations . (Hyperlipid post):-

"Dunnigan feels the evidence from Glasgow suggests that an animal based diet largely protects against bone based effects of gross 1,25(OH)2D deficiency in the plasma. Supplementary vitamin D does also work, but was only transiently taken up by the Asian community.

[...]the primary determinant of gross clinical expression of deficiency of vitamin D is vegetarianism. There is a protective effect of meat consumption. McDonalds will do. So might reindeeer meat in the Magdalenian Basin 18,000 years ago."

Wouldn't the descendants of the elite or better off artisans have become a majority of the population if the lower classes had low fertility and higher mortality over many generations?

coldequation said...

Does a Malthusian explanation play a part? In a country where people actually choose to reproduce, peace and law = less death due to strife = more population = resources divided into smaller increments. This reminds me of how the Japanese were poorer than Africans during the stable Tokugawa period, according to Greg Clark.

I don't know what happened to Britain's population from the beginning of the Roman period to the end, so I'm not sure if this is reasonable.

Peter Frost said...


As I understand it, below-replacement fertility was a problem in all classes of Roman society. The problem was not simply high infant mortality. It was also a high rate of bachelorhood and a low birth rate within marriage.

In atomized imperial societies, the burden of procreation and child care rests entirely on the couple, and there is no guarantee that they will stay together for the time it takes to raise a family.

Peter Frost said...


The Pax Romana reduced the death rate due to war and intercommunal strife. Unfortunately, this was more than offset by a rise in infant mortality and a fall in the birth rate. By late imperial times, the Empire was actually losing population, despite immigration of slaves, mercenaries and, increasingly, barbarian settlers.

For this reason, I don't believe that the Romano-British were ethnically cleansed by the Anglo-Saxons. They largely withered away on their own through the effects of below-replacement fertility (as well as the plagues that struck in the 6th century).

Dave R. said...

At the height of the most recent English rickets epidemic bakers were adding talc to bread as a whitener. There's a claim that that increases vitamin D deficiency (besides being a bad idea generally). Which would exaggerate the negative economic effects of the British empire.