Most populous cities of the ancient world

tomar

Ad Honoris
Jan 2011
14,302
Time line : from the dawn of history till the fall of the western roman empire

Location: anywhere on this planet


What are the peak populations of the largest (population wise) cities, and what is the evidence for it ?

For a start, Rome is estimated by some to have peaked at around 1 million inhabitants, although this number is hotly debated....
 
  • Like
Reactions: arrhidaeus
Mar 2018
984
UK
In the hellenistic world and time period, Alexandria was the largest city, although I don't know of any reliable figures for it.

As for the numbers of 1,000,000 or 700,000 above, I simply don't believe them. The logistics just don't seem possible. Are there enough roads in Rome to allow enough carts to come in every day to feed this many people? Even if you manage that (probably by ship), how would you be able to distribute this grain from the harbour to the various markets? Back of the envelope calculations (I'm told) suggest these numbers might just about be possible, but that in itself means that they are not true. How could close to 100% of the traffic in the city be solely dedicated to moving food around? That would leave very little possibility for any kind of meaningful economic activity. There is no reason to live in a city which is logistically barely capable of keeping itself alive, where a single cart breaking down on a street would cause mass food shortages.

Now if anyone has a solid counter argument I'd love to hear it. The romantic in me would rather believe that Rome had a million people than 250 thousand.
 
  • Like
Reactions: tomar
Oct 2018
2,092
Sydney
I don't remember the details, but I attended a talk in Sydney that noted that, according to a German study, during the early Roman Empire the largest cities in the empire were Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. Rome was by far the largest, in part because the grain dole was an enticement, and eventually Constantinople would also become one of the most populous cities, again in part because of its food dole. Alexandria and Antioch were not nearly as large as Rome, but considerably larger than the other cities of the empire. I wish I remembered the figures and the arguments, or the study being used, but I only remember the conclusions.
 
Sep 2013
649
Ontario, Canada
Rome managed to attain and maintain a high population, not just because of its food supply (imported from Egypt in particular) but also its aqueducts and civil engineering, like baths and roads and harbors to receive and transport food to where it needed to be. They did it efficiently by the time of Caesar, who ordered that merchandise only be brought in at night, so as not to clog up the streets with carts during the day. It greatly improved the functioning of the city as a whole. Later Claudius built a harbour at Ostia which enabled the Emperors to ensure a steady flow of grain right up to the loss of Africa.

But it all came from very humble beginnings. One of the earliest records of a census comes from Livy's History, where he reports king Servius having 80,000 people in the whole city. By 123 BCE, Gaius Gracchus approved the distribution of grain to 40,000 Roman citizens; Caesar revised the number of citizens in the city receiving the free grain dole to 150,000. Finally the reforms of Augustus raised this to 200,000. It was not a small amount of money either, it cost the Emperors roughly about 40 million HS per year to maintain this, and they did not at their own peril as Commodus discovered.

If females did not receive this grain dole, and we assume a 50:50 split in general population, then that puts us at about 400,000 freedmen or freedwomen otherwise ineligible for the dole in the city. But also we cannot forget the slaves: they made up about 40% of Italy's population at the time, or about 300,000 of them within the city of Rome itself. If we include another 100,000 or so to account for travellers and merchants and businessmen and tourists then we're looking at a minimum of 800,000 people for Rome, just from the rough numbers. It was easily the biggest city on earth from the first to the fifth century CE before Constantinople increased in influence and Rome waned.
 
  • Like
Reactions: tomar

deaf tuner

Ad Honoris
Oct 2013
14,832
Europix
Now if anyone has a solid counter argument I'd love to hear it. The romantic in me would rather believe that Rome had a million people than 250 thousand.
I'll try to contradict You, so the romantic in You can be reassured and keeping believing.


Personally, I believe the real problem for a big city isn't the food supply but the water supply. But, as already very judiciously pointed by jalidi, Romans were really good as loving that problem.



A person eats approximately 2,5 kg food/day and drinks approximately 2 litters water/day.

That makes
=> 1 kg ingredients/day (most of the food is cooked, meaning in the end, water added)
=> 4-5 litters/day (drinking and cooking)

Population of one million
=> 1,000,000 kg ingredients per day
=>4-5,000,000 litters of water (without taking into account other necessities - washing, for example).

A cart's capacity => 500 kg
For 1,000,000 => 2,000 carts a day.

All that, of course doesn't take a lot of things into consideration. For example, "Ingredients" weren't only vegetables and grains. It was fish and meat too. Meat normally walked by itself into the city, for example (sheep, cows). One didn't bought/received everyday the daily ration of grains and vegetables, but every two/three/ten even more days. Not to say that a cart can make more than one delivery in a day. Thus, most probably, that theoretical number of carts is not needed.

So, IMHO, although it might have been crowded in certain places and moments, distribution was more than doable. 2,000-3,000 isn't that much, actually.

Thus, let Your romantic running unimpended!

_________
 
Last edited:
  • Like
Reactions: Olleus

fascinating

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
2,461
In the hellenistic world and time period, Alexandria was the largest city, although I don't know of any reliable figures for it.

As for the numbers of 1,000,000 or 700,000 above, I simply don't believe them. The logistics just don't seem possible. Are there enough roads in Rome to allow enough carts to come in every day to feed this many people? Even if you manage that (probably by ship), how would you be able to distribute this grain from the harbour to the various markets? Back of the envelope calculations (I'm told) suggest these numbers might just about be possible, but that in itself means that they are not true. How could close to 100% of the traffic in the city be solely dedicated to moving food around? That would leave very little possibility for any kind of meaningful economic activity. There is no reason to live in a city which is logistically barely capable of keeping itself alive, where a single cart breaking down on a street would cause mass food shortages.

Now if anyone has a solid counter argument I'd love to hear it. The romantic in me would rather believe that Rome had a million people than 250 thousand.
"As for the numbers of 1,000,000 or 700,000 above, I simply don't believe them. " How about we look at some evidence, instead of just what we want to believe?

A 4th-century document, the Curiosum Urbis Romae lists the 14 districts of Rome and shows the contents of each. While the number of private houses (possibly those given their own water pipe) is quite small (roughly 60 per district, so only around 1000 in all) the "tenement blocks" are shown as about 3000 per district on average, that's roughly 40,000 across the city. We know that the dwellings had a height limit of 70 feet I think, but I think it reasonable to say that each block would be able to hold at least 20 people, in at least 6 stories. Each district had scores of fountains and scores of baths, and also had about 15 bakeries (or "mills", where bakeries were usually located).

We can look at the estimated figures of the total water supply of Rome, about 900 million litres per day, so if we estimate a population of a million, each inhabitant had, on average, 900 litres of water available every day. Compare that to the average consumption in UK today of 150 litres per day.

One source says that about 20 million modii of grain were imported to Rome from Egypt alone. Josephus said that most of the grain came from Africa (the province). If we say total imports were 60 million modii, that is over 600 million pounds of grain or 600 pounds per person in a population of a million.

Most of the supplies were taken to Portus, and then barged up the Tiber to the city.

A population of a million seems quite feasible.
 
  • Like
Reactions: tomar