Extinction of a nation due to low birth rate? What Sparta and the Roman Empire Teach Us
A New York Times column that said Korea’s low birth rate (birth rate of 0.7 people) could lead to a population decline more serious than the Black Death in Europe in the 14th century was a hot topic recently. On the 2nd, columnist Ross Douset wrote ‘Is South Korea Disappearing?’ It’s a column. As I read this, I am reminded of the famous words left by Auguste Comte, a 19th century French sociologist. ‘Demography is destiny’ . Will Korea really be doomed to extinction?
Instead of falling into pessimism, I try to look for clues in stories from the distant past. The sentence in the New York Times column – ‘It is highly likely that North Korea (current birth rate 1.8) will invade at some point’ – stimulated my imagination. We look into the low birth rate of Sparta, an ancient nation that lost a war and eventually collapsed due to population decline .
What comes to mind when you think of Sparta? I think it’s probably the movie ‘300’, which depicts the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, where brave warriors fought against hundreds of thousands of Persian troops.
The ruthless military training process called ‘Spartan style’ is famous. It was rife with human rights violations and child abuse. Babies deemed unfit to become warriors due to their small physique or disabilities were abandoned. Boys belonging to the free citizens, the ruling class of Sparta, were required to leave home at the age of seven, live in a community, and receive the mandatory education program ‘Agoge’ until the age of 20 .
The training was extremely harsh. They had to sleep on thorny nettles and were not allowed to scream even when hit, and they were deliberately given small amounts of food so that they would steal and eat. There is no separate hell training. It is also surprising that all costs for this training (community food expenses, education expenses, armor and shield costs, etc.) had to be borne by individuals. Is there something similar about these days when parents are strained by the cost of private education?
Sparta took the lead in Greece and enjoyed a boom period after winning the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). But the good times are short-lived. In 371 BC, he suffered a crushing defeat and downfall at the Battle of Leuctra against the emerging nation of Thebes.
Why did Sparta, which once had the strongest army, collapse? The biggest reason cited by scholars is population decline. To put it mildly, Aristotle pointed out the problem of Sparta’s population decline in his book ‘Politics’.
According to Herodotus, who wrote ‘History of the Persian Wars,’ the adult male population among the free citizens of Sparta in 479 BC was about 8,000. There is a record by contemporary historian Xenophon that during the Battle of Leuctra about 100 years later, there were about 1,000 people. Originally, Sparta considered surrendering in battle shameful and had a law punishing fugitives with the death penalty. It is said that during the Battle of Leuctra, the number of citizens was so small that the fugitives could not be executed.
Is it because of the catastrophe that the population has decreased by one-eighth in just 100 years? A major earthquake occurred in 464 BC. However, it is difficult to simply blame the earthquake for the steady and steep decline in population over the next 100 years, which was not a temporary shock. There are many different theories, but they all have something in common. The very thing that made Sparta’s army the world’s strongest also led to its demographic collapse . It can be explained as follows.
①Purebloodism pursuing perfection
Timothy Doran, a professor of history at UCLA, believes that Sparta’s unique reproductive mechanism led to a demographic disaster. He was overly obsessed with pure-bloodism .
Sparta had a caste structure in which free citizens, about 10-15% of the total population, dominated the vast majority of the rest (middle class and slaves). To join this elite class, both parents had to be free citizens. They also had to undergo the rigorous training (agoge) mentioned above. If you do not meet either of these requirements, you cannot become a free citizen of Sparta.
The standards for entering the ruling class were quite high. This may have been effective in raising powerful warriors, but it made it difficult to make up for the loss of power from battle. In particular, the blow was severe due to the rapid increase in deaths following the great earthquake and the long-term Peloponnesian War. However, because they failed to give up these strict standards, the population of the ruling class shrank badly. Professor Doran points out that “ Sparta’s spirit of extreme competition was intended to produce the best warriors, but this system did not produce the best imperialists.”
②Increasing wealth and deepening inequality
It was egalitarianism that supported Sparta, a totalitarian society. All Spartan citizens owned lands of approximately the same size, so there was almost no difference between the rich and the poor. Male citizens were legally prohibited from choosing a career other than the military. So everyone was living a happy life.
Something happens that shakes up the stable Spartan economy. The victory in the Peloponnesian War brought a wind of money. A large amount of loot, gold coins, and taxes from allies flowed into Sparta.
What happened when citizens opened their eyes to money? Even in Sparta, there is a gap between the rich and the poor. While some people sell their land that has been passed down for generations to make money and become poor forever, there are also rich people who expand their land. In the end, about 100 families took over the entire territory, leading to a few monopolizing the wealth .
The citizens of Sparta became so poor that they were unable to pay for communal meals and weapons. Ultimately, they lose their citizenship. Many left Sparta altogether. This is why, even though Sparta was at its peak thanks to its victory in the Peloponnesian War, its population declined sharply. “Sparta failed to redistribute rent in a more productive way,” said Josiah Ober, an American historian and professor at Stanford University. “ The least successful Spartans in the ruling class were regularly demoted, leading to demographic and military collapse. ” Explain.
In other words, the closedness of the ruling class combined with the deepening gap between the rich and the poor led to a sharp decline in the Spartan citizen population. The Spartan army naturally consisted of the majority of lower classes. However, integration between classes was not achieved. The ruling class did not share agoge training and land ownership with other classes until the end. The discriminated lower-class soldiers could not be as brave and loyal as previous Spartan warriors. In the end, in the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, the Spartan army was defeated despite being numerically superior, and Sparta disappeared into history.
Fierce competition to survive as a ruling class, ever-widening gap between rich and poor, and exclusivity toward heterogeneous beings. If you look at the record of Sparta’s fall, there are many areas that overlap with the situation we are currently facing. While we’re talking about Sparta, I’d like to jump ahead a few hundred years and talk about the low birth rate of this empire. It is the Roman Empire.
Was the fall of the Roman Empire also due to low birth rates? You can look at it that way, but the causal relationship is not as clear as in Sparta. Famine and disease, Germanic invasions and repeated civil wars, inflation and increased taxes, etc. This is because the factors that led to the fall of the empire are so many and intertwined that it is difficult to pinpoint them.
What is certain is that the population of the Roman Empire decreased from 70 million at its peak (Pax Romana, 27 BC to 180 AD) to 50 million in its later years. Population decline contributed to the fall of the empire in many ways . Food shortages worsened as agricultural production decreased due to a labor shortage, and as the Roman army weakened due to a decrease in troops, Germanic mercenaries had to be recruited. As the number of taxpayers decreases, the tax burden increases. The Western Roman Empire fell in 476, when the last emperor, Romulus, was dethroned, but this can be seen as the result of a gradual decline over hundreds of years.
The Roman Empire was concerned about population size and birth rate from early on. At this time, more than 6 births per woman were needed to maintain a stable population. This is because the probability of women dying during childbirth is quite high (about 2%), and the infant mortality rate is also high (30% probability of death in the first year). However, according to analysis of female skeletons discovered in Herculaneum, which was buried in a volcanic eruption in 79 AD, the average number of children born to upper-class women was less than two . The exact reason is unknown, but the trend of low birth rates was widespread among the upper class at the time.
Rome’s policy of encouraging childbirth has a long history. There is even a record of imposing a fine on unmarried bachelors in 403 BC. The so-called ‘single tax’ was imposed. The peak of this strong policy of encouraging marriage and childbirth was during the time of Emperor Augustus, who led the Roman Empire at its peak (reigned from 27 BC to 14 AD).
Augustus, who established a monarchy, established strict moral laws. All Roman men between the ages of 25 and 60 were required to marry. A woman aged 20 to 50 was required to remarry within two years of her husband’s death (or lose her inherited property). Adultery, which neutralizes the marriage system, was strictly treated as a public crime. Additionally, financial and professional rewards were provided to those who had three or more children . For example, a woman had to give birth to a third child to be exempt from paying taxes. When hiring government officials, preference was given to those with many children. She had to endure economic disadvantages , such as restrictions on inheritance rights for those who were not married or had no children. “How can the nation be preserved if we do not marry or have children,” Augustus emphasized.
How about this. Isn’t economic discrimination against unmarried and childless people often talked about as a way to encourage childbirth these days? So, did these strong regulations cause the birth rate in the Roman Empire to rebound? no. Even in Augustus’ own household, this law had little effect. The only child he had fathered was her daughter, but that daughter committed adultery and was expelled from Rome. It is said that laws encouraging marriage and childbirth were later enacted again in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. This means that the problem was not resolved at all until then.
So what is the lesson from Augustus and the Roman Empire? The ‘carrot and stick’ policy alone cannot succeed in raising the birth rate . Richard Frank, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, said in a related paper, “Even after the Augustan Law was implemented, the upper class (in the Roman Empire) continued to avoid marriage and childbirth.” “It spread,” he explains. And he pointed out this: “The upper class was becoming increasingly urban and individualistic. The Augustan laws aimed at reform and restoration, but they only succeeded in fostering nostalgia for old values and contempt for the new reality .”
This is a case where nostalgia and contempt are knowingly or unknowingly promoted while trying to increase the birth rate. In fact, don’t you still see it often? The story of the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago may not be much different from the situation in Korea in 2023. By. Deep Dive
It is difficult to predict the future. As British sociologist John MacNicol writes in his book Neoliberal Old Age, “One thing is certain when predicting (population): Because of the inherent uncertainty, population structure predictions will turn out to be wrong.” What I meant was that being obsessed with apocalyptic demographics is irrational. The low birth rate is certainly a big problem, but let’s believe that the country will not disappear like this and find a way forward. To summarize the main content,
will Korea disappear due to a population decline similar to that of the Black Death in the 14th century? The warning sound of low birth rate is growing louder.
-When you think of a country that collapsed due to population decline, Sparta comes to mind. A ruling class was established based on exclusive pure-bloodism, but with overly stringent standards and a deepening gap between the rich and the poor, the population shrank to about one-eighth in just 100 years.
-The Roman Empire also experienced population decline before its fall. For hundreds of years, strong laws were implemented to encourage marriage and childbirth. As a result, all of these policies failed. History tells us that times have already changed, but it is no use calling for a return to the old days.