Demographics

The incoming Greek tribes were relatively poor. They had come south to colonize a fertile peninsula and archipelago of volcanic islands on the north-eastern Mediterranean coast that had suffered a cataclysmic decline of population from c.1200 to 1051 bce at the end of the Mycenaean era. This was not a centralized imperial courtly society like those of Babylonia, Persia, or Egypt, but one ruled by loose oligarchies of merchant and farming families. We have no evidence of a wealthy theocracy; instead there was a lively cultic revival of deities who lived in various wild holy places scattered patriotically throughout Greater Greece. As early as c.1200 bce the Greeks had adopted and adapted the alphabet of their Phoenician trading rivals, in order to write down, preserve, and extend their own language. Greek wealth lay not in land, but solely in their people and their ability to trade. Hence their development of trade-friendly hinterland and port towns;200,000 people (twice the size of the present town) are believed to have inhabited the Sicilian port city of Akragas (founded 581 bce), built in the fertile crater of an extinct volcano; and there were other trading towns with populations of over a quarter of a million.

They were hugely successful colonists. Between c.1000 and 400 bce the Greek population around the Aegean Sea tripled to 3 million inhabitants (with a particularly steep rise between c.800 and c.600 bce). Steadily rising incomes, rudimentary sanitary and health services, and some educational provision, all supported an ancient standard of living that would have scored highly on the modern World Health Organization Human Development Index. By c.400 bce such evidence as we have suggests that the health of the Greeks had been in a 'rarely attained state of equilibrium' for about 200 years, and that longevity was an average 38.1 years at death—or more precisely, 42.6 years for men, 33.7 years for women—from an average Neolithic figure of 32.1 years. Their towns contained a wide range of communal public institutions that were totally new to Eurasia;and arguably these ambitious and lavish civic policies started to exert a benign influence on the growth and physical health of the population from around the eighth century onwards.1 The Greek demographic boom was also sustained by strong bonding and social discipline—discipline meaning knowledge, as well as regulation. The Greeks enjoyed exercising their brains, as well as their bodies. Four mental and physical disciplines in particular—balneology, religion, sport, and medicine—formed the social milieu of early Greek hygiene.

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