And I shall not mention here the excellence of antiquity, and just as Homer lamented that bodies in his time were too small, say that modern minds cannot compare with ancient minds.Thus Du Bellay, in the Deffence et illustration de la langue françoyse. Neither shall I mention the fact that several times in the Iliad, Homer had his heroes perform feats of strength that would be beyond the capabilities of even two men in his time. Nor that it was believed, throughout most of history, that the ancient world had been more populous, more prosperous, culturally superior, and better in pretty much every way than the modern world.
Montesquieu, writing about 160 years after Du Bellay, was particularly anxious about population decline. In the Lettres Persanes, the Persian tourists Rhedi and Usbek investigated the reasons for the perceived drop in world population.
Usbek put it down to sociological causes. The Islamic practice of polygamy, and the Christian prohibition on divorce and obsession with chastity, had both, for different reasons, resulted in declining birth rates. The law of primogeniture, too, had ravaged the population, since it focused all parental attention on the first born son, and what is more, destroyed ‘equality among citizens, which constitutes all their wealth’. Along with this went a pre-Malthusian conviction that rapid population growth would be the remedy for most of society’s ills. Would that this were the case.
Of course, today no educated person could believe for one minute that the population of the ancient world (or indeed that of any period of history) was greater than ours. Estimated at 6,753,339,100 at the time of writing, but chances are it’s gone up a bit since then. And indeed, nobody today would assume that the world population at any time in antiquity exceeded the world population at any time in modernity.
The Plague of Justinian probably did mean that the transition from antiquity to modernity saw a decline in the world population. And the fourteenth century put another bump in the curve. So did the seventeenth. And at the time Montesquieu was writing there was a very real concern that the latest epidemic, syphilis, might spell the end of the human race. But it is manifestly not the case that there were more people in the world at any point in antiquity than at any point in the modern era.
Rhedi and Usbek observed that the cities of Italy were thinly peopled, and drew from this the conclusion that world population was in decline. If Rome, the eternal city, the fount and well-spring of Western culture, was in decline, then what fate awaited the lesser nations that were at one time under her dominion?
I read somewhere recently that in the late fifteenth century, the population of Rome was around fifty thousand. (I also recall the additional interesting fact that prostitutes made up about fifteen percent of this number.) Fifty thousand! This is unquestionably a mere fraction of the population at the time of the Late Republic and the early Empire. How could any sensitive soul look upon the ruins of that once great city and not conclude that it represented the final stage in the decline of man’s mastery over the world? Certainly Du Bellay, after Janus Vitalis, could find nothing of Rome in Rome, for Rome now of Rome was the sole monument, and Rome alone Rome had subdued.
Usbek wrote: ‘In Catholic countries, not only is agriculture abandoned, but even industry is pernicious: it consists in nothing other than learning five or six words of a dead language.’
So the decline in population must have something to do with a decline in learning. The more civilized men become, the greater their numbers: as learning declines, so do prosperity and population.
How great our civilization must be today! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties! In form and moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!