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  • The Half Million Club: Biggest Ancient and Medieval Cities November 11, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback

    biggest cities

    The half million club is a select group of nine human settlements that managed to break the half million population mark in Antiquity or in the Middle Ages: the biggest cities around before the discovery of the New World. To give some sorts of limit to this exercise six chronological moments have been chosen at five-hundred year intervals: 1000 BC, 500 BC, 0 AD, 500 AD, 1000 AD, 1500 AD. Of the nine cities, four were in the eastern Mediterranean, one in the Middle East and five were in China.

    1000 BC No-one

    500 BC No-one

    0 AD Rome, Alexandria, Chang’an

    500 AD Constantinople, Chang’an, Baghdad (Ctesiphon)

    1000 AD Kaifeng, Baghdad

    1500 AD Beijing, Cairo, Hangzhou, Nanjing

    A couple of thoughts here.

    First, Sub-Saharan Africa, India (surprisingly?) and the Americas seem to have no real contenders: Europe, with the exception of Rome is absent. Just to try and give some scale to these failures: Tenochtitlan had managed perhaps 100,000 when Cortés showed up; mighty Cahokia had not more than 40,000 inhabitants. The biggest sub-Saharan cities in this period seem not to have jumped over the 50,000 figure mark. Delhi perhaps got to quarter of a million in the high Middle Ages. Florence, the city where the modern world began, reached 100,000 pre the Black Death and bumped around there to the 1800s.

    Second, two bodies of water are at the centre of the half million club. The Yellow Sea and the Mediterranean. Baghdad is an outlier, but it cannot be dismissed as just the accidental centre of an Islamic empire: as Ctesiphon it figured before Allah had even been dreamed of. Perhaps Martians looking at the patterns of human history would note simply that it was the best strategic staging point between the Yellow Sea and the Mediterranean?

    Third, how reliable are these figures? This blogger has sometimes visited the sheer insanity of population estimates for Antiquity and the Middle Ages (e.g. Roman Britain). There are all kinds of ambiguities here. Are we, for example, talking about city or city and satellite rural populations: Athens or Athens and Attica; Florentia or Florentia and the contado? Then, even if we have definite limits just how good are they? For example, did Chang’an have 100,000 or 800,000 inhabitants c. 1000 AD. These are the limits of estimates. Gulp. Given this would anyone counsel getting rid of any ‘biggest cities’ from this list or adding others: drbeachcombing AT gmail DOT com. Or is the exercise just futile? BTW used Ian Morris, The Measure of Civilisation as a starting point for the figures above. Some cities were added removed on the basis of personal knowledge and extra research.

    Fourth, cities matter. A fascinating ‘rule’: the largest city in a given civilization offers, in Morris’ words, ‘a rough proxy measure of organizational capacity’ for said civilisation. This may or may not be true. But collections of people and collections of cities do seem to have a magical effect on innovation and culture, acting like yeast in bread.

    Fifth, does size really matter? In the period covered here perhaps the most significant group of cities were well below the half million limit: the relatively small Italian city states in northern half of Italy in the 1200s and 1300s. These gave Europe the economic kick start to begin the Renaissance. Perhaps the best way to measure real urban clout would be to count overall urban population across a country and multiply it by the number of centres over a hundred thousand?

    Southern Man, 30 Nov 2017: ‘Find this really interesting. A couple of obvious points. First, the population figures are really extraordinarily unreliable. My impression is that the only reliable way to get some sense is to see what contemporary writers are saying about the size of cities: not population figures but comparison of size between cities in different areas: e.g. Marco Polo in China. Second, some of these cities are perhaps the same. In the same way that Ctesiphon = Baghdad: surely Alexandria = Cairo. Yes they are not quite in the same place but they fulfill, let’s say, the same function. Third, Baghdad/Ctesiphon is not, I would suggest a half way place – look at the map – it is an annex of the Mediterranean. If you look at China, ‘Persia’ and Rome, Persia was the weakest member. ‘