The Magazine

Demography Is Destiny

The perils of population loss.

Apr 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 30 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Yet for all the forward-looking concerns, the most bracing essay here is James R. Holmes’s examination of the demographic crises in classical Greece. In 464 b.c., a terrible earthquake shook Sparta. Much of the city was destroyed, along with some 20,000 Spartan warriors. The devastation was particularly bad from a demographic point of view because the gymnasium where young Spartiates were trained collapsed, wiping out an entire rising generation of warriors—and their potential progeny.

As a result of this cataclysm, Sparta’s leaders decided to retrench and abandon their traditional role as the principal counterweight to Athenian might. They became so docile that, when faced with a slave rebellion, the city begged Athens for help. (After some deliberation, Athens sent 4,000 hoplites to their aid.) Forty years later, Athens and Sparta were antagonists again, but Sparta was still chastened by its demographic decline: In 425 b.c. the Athenian Army captured 292 Spartan warriors—and the mighty Spartans sued for peace rather than lose the precious manpower. This frailty prompted the nearby subjugated region of Messenia to challenge Spartan rule. Demographic weakness, too, is a provocation.

Athens’ demographic troubles came not from a single shock but from a long-running plague that began in 431 b.c. and lasted five full years. The sickness killed between a quarter and a third of all Athenians, moving like a scythe through the city-state. Slaves and warriors alike were claimed—even Pericles, the First Citizen, succumbed. But unlike Sparta, which responded to demographic decline by turning dangerously cautious, the Athenians became reckless and impetuous. They made the rash decision to invade Sicily—a disaster that cost them nearly the whole of their navy. Terrified of losing allies (because they were so short of manpower themselves), the Athenians resorted to brutality. When the island state of Melos suggested it might leave the Athenian sphere of influence, Athens put to death the entire male population of the island and enslaved its women and children. Such brutality marked the beginning of the end of Athens’ empire.

The divergent reactions of Athens and Sparta show the strategic uncertainty inherent in demographic change. Over the next 40 years we will witness the most drastic demographic upheaval the world has seen since (at least) the Black Death. And one way, or another, the world will be remade. As Yoshihara and Sylva make clear, you may not be interested in demography, but demography is interested in you.


Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.