Did Rome really have a million people: evidences and criticisms

#1
As far as I know, most respected media sources (BBC, National Gegraphic, Discovery Channel) all quote the ~1 million figure of Roman population at its height. However, it is less clear that why there seems to be a consensus among most historians that the 1 million population is feasible and how they arrive at this conclusion. Now I would like to briefly summarize the evidences for and against it.

Positive evidence:
water supply, which can be accurately estimated
Large scale public buildings (multiple amphitheaters, hippodromes) support the city has a large population at least more than those buildings can hold
Definition of a city: modern definition of a city's population include commuters (ie. senators living in Rome's suburbs)
Huge infrastructures in Ostia: concrete port, huge warehouse, as many as 10-50k people working just for maintaining constant supply of goods to the capital
Reference: Ian Morris


Criticisms:
grain supply: assuming a lot of unknown variables, adding numbers hundreds of years apart, assume constant grain consumption per capita
number of people who get free bread: unreliable
Size of the city too small, modern cities with similar size (Copenhagen core, Stockholm core) do not hold as many as 1 million people
1 million population in capital will translate to unrealistically high urbanization rate in Italian peninsula
40k-50k insulae figure: definition of insulae unknown
population density approach suffer from unknown average living area and development plot ratio
Only vague statistics on citizens, not a slightest clue about no. of slaves and freedmen
Reference: JE Pecker, W Scheidel

So there seems to be a lot of disagreements among scholars. Estimation range from 400k to above a million. However I really don't know why the academic consensus is somewhere ~1 million. Let's start a thread and discuss about this.
 
Dec 2009
19,933
#2
Welcome to Historum, h6wq9rjk; a exceptional first post indeed.

A million thanks for sharing with us such a valuable material; it's literally pure gold.

I was already aware of the research of Scheidel but not of Pecker.

It's naturally an extremely complex issue and it deserves some truly careful review.

A priori, it seems prudent to assume that the larger the figure the more cautious one should be.
 
Last edited:
#3
An interesting comparison

By using the same reason, I am not sure whether the case for "Southern Song capital Lian'an had over a million people" has more ground than the Roman one
to be fair we just compare the walled area, the two cities one in East and one in West, remarkably similar.


Both cities have similar walled area. Note that in Song China apartment buildings with 4-5+ floors is NOT common. Best evidence: the remarkably well preserved and hugely popular "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" picture. Although it realistically depicts the Northern Song's capital Kaifeng, but due to the cultural similarity and similar technology of building, we can reasonably assume the development density in Lian'an resembles that of Kaifeng.



We can see most buildings within the city wall are 1-2 floors tall, with one exception called "Main Shop(正店)" which is 3 floors tall. However "Main Shop" is a large restaurant and cannot represent normal dwellings and apartments in the city. If we take into account the fact that 4-5/f buildings are common in imperial Rome and most Lian'an buildings are 1-3/f tall, and consider density constraint, Lian'an like Rome cannot support 1 million people within its city wall as well.
 
Last edited:

tomar

Ad Honoris
Jan 2011
13,475
#4
An important question is also WHEN is Rome supposed to have held that high a number of inhabitants,,, as well as within which area....obviously the bigger the area, the larger the potential number of inhabitants
 
#5
I never really found a big criticism to the 1 million number in Rome. Pretty much every book or article I read agree with this number. In the minimum say that there were 800.000 people.
.
So I never see any reason to question those numbers.
 

tomar

Ad Honoris
Jan 2011
13,475
#6
I never really found a big criticism to the 1 million number in Rome. Pretty much every book or article I read agree with this number. In the minimum say that there were 800.000 people.
.
So I never see any reason to question those numbers.
Well, 1 million is a big round number that sounds nice (why not 1.1 mio or 0.9 mio ?)....

But London reached that number only by 1810 (at that point total pop in the UK was estimated at 12 mio) and Paris in 1850 (total French population 36 mio)

19th century technology was significantly ahead of Roman tech (agriculture was more productive, trade had vastly increased with ocean going ships, by 1850 there were railroads in France, there were steam engines etc...).....

So it is at the very least questionnable that Romans were able to support such a large city population without even 19th century tech, whilst advanced European countries had to wait until the 19th century to be able to support such highly populated cities.
 

Lors

Ad Honorem
May 2011
2,704
#8
1 million is clearly out of then sanitation capabilities. Rome had to be wiped out by many diseases considering the status of the capital and how many outlanders were there on daily basis.
 

Frank81

Ad Honorem
Feb 2010
5,048
Canary Islands-Spain
#9
Well, 1 million is a big round number that sounds nice (why not 1.1 mio or 0.9 mio ?)....

But London reached that number only by 1810 (at that point total pop in the UK was estimated at 12 mio) and Paris in 1850 (total French population 36 mio)

19th century technology was significantly ahead of Roman tech (agriculture was more productive, trade had vastly increased with ocean going ships, by 1850 there were railroads in France, there were steam engines etc...).....

So it is at the very least questionnable that Romans were able to support such a large city population without even 19th century tech, whilst advanced European countries had to wait until the 19th century to be able to support such highly populated cities.
This analysis is not correct. Human evolution isn't linear, but in the past economic, social and technological factors could be present to get different results. According to your line of argumentation, an Empire of the size of Rome was impossible, because it was not surpassed in Europe until Napoleonic age.

And that's wrong. Because the Empire worked in a different way than modern states. Consider that the capital, and most of the cities on the western half of the empire, were heavilly dependant of the countryside, and also of the richness of the eastern half of the Roman world. In many ways, were parasites, and this is the reason that they fell so low after the imperial collapse. The Empire was a form of resources redistribution, inequal and irrational distribution in fact. The Urbs got these resources from elsewhere, without providing nothing in change. It could be sustained with different parameters than modern cities.

And this is true for many ancient megacities in China and the Middle East.



1 million is clearly out of then sanitation capabilities. Rome had to be wiped out by many diseases considering the status of the capital and how many outlanders were there on daily basis.

Rome was so unhealthy, that was considered by its contemporaries the most dangerous place on Earth. Estimations on death rate in Rome points clearly toward a deadly place, a city that had to attract people from the country in order to not decrease.
 

Gudenrath

Ad Honorem
May 2012
2,626
Denmark
#10
The Roman Empire was in essence a city state that gained an empire, and even long after it had gained it it still behaved liked a city state in many aspects, giving Rome a much more crucial role than London had in the 18th century.

Also by comparison with Copenhagen or Stockholm, Rome by all accounts had a far larger concentration of 4+ story buildings than even these cities and probably had more residents per home than these (and Copenhagen had Europes highest population density in the early 19th century due to the city walls).

That being said, it doesn't necessarily amount to 1 million. This figure cannot be more than an estimate, and we simply won't know the exact figure, but I do think it was extraordinarily high even for Hellenistic period standards exactly because the City had a special place and function in the Roman empire that cannot really be matched by later empires that had a more even spread of large populated towns and cities.