Counting numbers of people in the ancient world has, to a certain extent at least, gone out of scholarly fashion. When we need a sensible estimate of the population of a city or area, the best recourse is, and has been for the last hundred years, to refer to Beloch’s hugely influential study of 1886, Die Bevölkerung der griechisch-römischen Welt. In a most interesting analysis of Beloch’s work Elio Lo Cascio says, ‘estimating the size of an ancient population is thought of as an almost impossible exercise, given the uncertainties in the source material. It is considered much more interesting and indeed more rewarding to try to extract from our sources information on what the normal patterns of mortality or fertility were, or the age at marriage for women and men, or the extent of exposure and infanticide, or the customs of breast-feeding and their effect on fertility’.1 This sentiment is echoed by many scholars, and, from the point of view of social and economic history, quite rightly: one need only contemplate the fascinating material and results of, for instance, Bagnall and Frier’s study of the census returns from Roman Egypt to appreciate the value of modern demographic interests and techniques.2 Taken to its extreme, this approach abandons all attempts at exact figures. ‘At this point we do not have exact information regarding the population of Provincia Judaea during the Roman period’. So writes Ze’ev Safrai in his recent work on Roman Palestine; he suggests, without argumentation, that the population of Palestine was larger than the 1 million proposed by Broshi, but that is just about all we hear of exact numbers.3 Of

course numbers play an important role in helping us to visualize a society: was Jerusalem in the first century CE a city of 30,000 or was it a city of 200,000?4 Unless we despair of an answer altogether – and there are good grounds for despair – our estimate is certainly going to have some considerable bearing on how we view Jewish society at this time. Numbers affect our views. Or rather, and unfortunately, it appears that the truth is often the other way round: how we view things has a bearing on the numbers we come up with. In a valuable study of the population of Capernaum in Galilee, Jonathan Reed points out how estimates of its population have grown from about 1,000 to as much as 25,000 in line with an increasing tendency of scholars to regard Galilee as urban and cosmopolitan, rather than ‘a rustic cluster of peasant villages’: a substantial population of Capernaum suits this picture much better than a small one.5 It is perhaps an obvious point, but none the less a crucial one: so many of the figures that we deal with – population, size of armies, casualty figures – are tendentious, not only in what the ancient sources record, but also in the estimates made by modern analysts.