By the first millennium (1000-1 BC) some cities had turned into megacities. Some even had one million inhabitants! To accommodate so many people, these ancient cities had magnificent public buildings, roads, gardens, entertainment arenas, and some even had shopping malls, law enforcement, and running water.
These were the 6 biggest -and most splendorous- cities during the first millennium BC.
(To find out which were the biggest cities during the second millennium BC (2000 and 1001 BC) go here.)
6. Xiadu, China
320.000 inhabitants in 400 BC
China was divided into small kingdoms that waged war to one another during the 5th century BC. One of those kingdoms was Yan, which had Xiadu, our contestant city, as its capital.
Strong defenses for troubled times
Thanks to its location Xiadu was easy to defend. For it rose on the Taihang Mountains and was flanked by two rivers: Beiyi and Zhonghyi. Since times were tough, it also had two defensive walls and a moat. Archaeologists found one of the walls. At its thickest it is 40 m wide (131 ft) and at its highest it is 6.8 m high (22 ft).
Inside the city there were two more walls. One crossed the square city dividing it in two halves (eastern and western). And another protected the royal palace, separating the royals from their subjects.
Xiadu had specialized neighborhoods. The eastern side housed the large workshops used to cast iron and bronze, to mint coins, and create pottery, porcelain, and weapons.
Xiadu had a market that, like in most Chinese cities at the time, was probably controlled by the state. Although most of the objects crafted in the workshops appear to have been destined for the markets of northern China, to trade with the nomads.
In the same eastern side which had the workshops, where the palace, the government offices with all their records, and two royal cemeteries.
Xiadu, also called Yanxiadu, had a network of roads that connected it to the smaller cities of the region.
5. Pataliputra, India
350,000 inhabitants in 206 BC
Back in the day, a Greek ambassador described Pataliputra as the greatest city of India which, according to him, had royal residences that outshined the luxurious palaces of Persia.
Pataliputra’s temples, palaces, and parks
Pataliputra’s palaces rose next to luscious gardens graced with ponds, trees, birds, and fishes. The city had large halls, temples, and parks.
It had a huge defensive wall around it, which had 570 towers and 64 gates. As an extra protection, there was a huge ditch next to the wall.
Pataliputra was ruled by a king, who was assisted by five-men commissions. The commissions were in charge of public works, commerce, tax collection, and trade.
The visiting Greek ambassador, Megasthenes, estimated the city had 400,000 inhabitants in 304 BC. Modern scholars have been more conservative, calculating it reached 350,000 only a century later.
From fort to capital
Pataliputra started out as a fort, founded by King Ajatashatru of Magadha in 490 BC. The fort was flanked by two rivers. Due to its location Pataliputra grew rapidly, so much so that by the next generation the king’s son made it the capital of the country.
At the time, though, India was divided in several kingdoms. In the 300’s BC Alexander the Great conquered some of the western territories and incorporated them to his empire.
As soon as Alexander died, a man named Chandragupta expelled the Greeks from India. He may not have wanted Alexander’s men in his territory, but he was inspired by inspired by Alexander’s dream of a unified land. So Chandragupta set off to conquer and unite all of India, successfully establishing the Mauryan Empire.
Pataliputra remained the capital of the empire for 300 more years, until 73 BC. The city has been continuously inhabited and it is called Patna nowadays.
4. Chang’an, China
400,000 inhabitants in 200 BC
The site has been inhabited for millennia. Even rests of Homo Erectus have been found there. But Chang’an’s fame begins in more recent times.
It was a prominent city during the Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1046 BC). And the next rulers, the Western Zhou (1046 -771 BC), named it their capital.
The blessings of the Silk Road
In 206 BC Chang’an became the capital again, under the Han dynasty, and it reached its peak. For the Han decided to trade with the West and opened the Silk Road -the trading route that connected Asia, Africa, and Europe.
At one of the ends of the Silk Road was Chang’an. So the city was the most outward looking place of the Han Empire.
Chang’an received traders from all over and was in contact with foreign lands. In 200 BC it had 400,000 inhabitants and probably was the largest city the world had at the time.
Chang’an means perpetual peace
Chang’an, which means “perpetual peace,” is located in a fertile valley, surrounded by high mountains, and close to the Yellow and Wei rivers. It occupied 450 hectares (1,110 acres).
Chang’an had high defending walls, avenues lined by trees, parks, temples, markets, an armory, mausoleums, and at least five palaces.
One of the parks, Shanglin, had statues, ponds, fountains, exotic plants, and animals such as rhinoceros. The city also had what was a rarity in ancient times: its own police force.
A total of 10 Chinese dynasties had Chang’an as their capital. Chang’an has been continuously inhabited. It goes by the name of Xian nowadays.
3. Carthage, Tunisia
500,000 inhabitants in 300 BC
According to legend the city was founded by Dido, a fleeing queen.
Dido was the daughter of the king of Tyre. When her father died, Elyssa ascended to the throne along with her brother Pygmalion. But Pygmalion did not want to share the throne, so he killed Elyssa’s husband. The Queen, fearing for her life, fled Tyre with a group of loyal Phoenicians. They sailed across the Mediterranean and landed in North Africa, where they founded Carthage in 814 BC.
The founding of Carthage, the facts
Perhaps the story was embellished by the ancients. Nonetheless, Carthage was indeed founded by Phoenicians from Tyre (modern Lebanon).
At the time Tyre was a powerful city-state which already had colonies in the Mediterranean -some in Spain and one in North Africa (Utica)-, so founding a new town in foreign lands was not unusual.
The earliest settlements found in Carthage date from 760 BC, quite close to the legendary founding date.
Carthage was built for commerce
Phoenicians were renowned traders. They picked the site of Carthage well: in the middle of the trading routes of the Mediterranean, where commerce was sure to bloom.
They built the city on top of a defensible hill, right next to a lake and the sea. Their harbor could dock 220 ships.
By the sixth century BC Carthage was a trading empire.
On top of that it had silver mines in North Africa and Spain and taxed everyone in their territories.
Soon they became the wealthiest city in the Mediterranean and one of the largest cities in the world.
Tyre’s downfall is Carthage’s gain
In 332 BC Alexander the Great destroyed Tyre, captured the population, and sold them into slavery.
Tyre had been the most powerful city in the Mediterranean, after its downfall the title went to Carthage.
The African city now occupied some 30 hectares, had a residential area, public spaces, and markets.
The city’s political system was complex. Carthaginians elected two leaders/kings, had a senate, an assembly, and several commissions.
Carthage vs Rome
As Carthage expanded, it established its own colonies throughout the Mediterranean. And, fatefully, intervened in a conflict in the nearby island of Sicily.
The problem was that Rome, which by then was less powerful than -and quite afraid of- Carthage, also chose to intervene in Sicily. And the Punic Wars began (264 BC). The conflict ended with Rome destroying Carthage a century later, in 146 BC.
2. Rome, Italy
800,000 inhabitants in 1 BC
According to myth, the twins Romulus and Remus founded the city in 753 BC, on the Palatine Hill. Then Romulus killed his brother and became the sole ruler of the settlement that was going to become Rome.
Archaeologists confirm that Rome’s earliest settlement dates to the 8th century, and that, indeed, it stood on the Palatine Hill.
Location, location, location
One of the reasons for Rome’s extraordinary growth is that it is in a privileged location. It stands a bit inland, next to the Tiber river, which flows to the Mediterranean. So Rome has access to the sea, but is protected from maritime attacks.
To the other side, to the east, the city is shielded from enemies by a mountain range. And on top of its defensive blessings, Rome’s land is fertile.
Politics: a Roman specialty
Rome was a monarchy until 509 BC, then it became a Republic. After their experience with tyrannical kings, Roman’s were ever after weary of one single man holding too much power. So the Republic was led by two men at a time, two consuls, which were elected, and which remained in office for only one year.
Other public officials were also elected every year. They were in charge of things such as the maintenance of public buildings, the finances, and the games.
Every patrician (the descendants of the first settlers) was expected to run for office and improve the city.
Rome’s engineering and architectural feats
The public bath houses were large, magnificent buildings where the citizens went to exercise and bathe daily.
They built large basilicas, a type of building later adopted by the Christians, that worked as court houses. The Latins erected theaters to watch plays and amphitheaters for gladiatorial games. Rome even had shopping malls.
Their city was connected with other towns in Italy via wide paved avenues. The most famous of these roads was the Via Appia, built in the 4th century BC, and which still exists today.
Romans were always keen on this kind of engineering feats, even in the distant times of the kings (8th to 6th century BC). The kings built a port and drained Rome’s marshes with a pipe called the Cloaca Maxima, which also served as a sewage system. It still works today.
On the newly drained lands, both kings and consuls built the Roman Forum. The Forum was the heart of the city, a place for public gatherings, political campaigning, elections, to celebrate triumphal processions, trials, and exchange gossip; a place to make business deals and solve legal issues.
As Rome expanded and conquered, wealth flowed into the city. So the victorious generals and the patricians commissioned temples, statues, and buildings to adorn their city.
The worst part of town, the best part of town
With all this wealth Rome was a magnet for immigrants. And by 1 BC it was overcrowded: it had 800,000 inhabitants.
Writers describe the poorer neighborhoods, like the Subura, as dark, narrow labyrinths. The apartment buildings were so tall and built so close together that the sun did not make its way down to the street.
Rome’s streets were quite dangerous at night. The wealthy moved around with bodyguards.
The most elegant part of town remained the Palatine Hill, the spot where the city began. The Palatine had walled mansions adorned with gardens and ponds.
Rome, a city of marble
Patrician Julius Caesar, who actually lived in the dangerous Subura, built a much-needed new forum (1st century BC). After his murder, his grandnephew Octavius became the king of Rome in everything by name (27 BC). And he continued Caesar’s building program.
Octavius finished Caesar’s forum and built his own. He also built a basilica, a temple to Jupiter, and expanded the harbor, among other projects. Octavius boasted that he found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble.
1. Alexandria, Egypt
1,000,000 inhabitants in 100 BC
Alexander the Great founded many cities and, without any humbleness, gave his own name to most of them. But by far the most famous city he founded is his Egyptian Alexandria.
Alexander founds Alexandria
The Macedonian king ‘liberated’ Egypt in 332 BC from its Persian rulers and became its pharaoh. The new pharaoh needed a port in the Mediterranean for his navy, so he founded a city, Alexandria, at a strategic place in the mouth of the Nile.
In 331 BC the Macedonian king was on the spot were Alexandria would rise. He drew the plan of the city on the ground with barley powder: a rational layout with parallel streets. To his dismay birds ate all the barley before he was finished. But the seers said it was a good sign, for it meant the city would feed people from all nations.
Ptolemy establishes a dynasty
After Alexander’s death one of his best friends and generals, the Macedonian Ptolemy Lagos, became the satrap of Egypt. And by 305 he had made himself king.
The Ptolemaic dynasty ruled Egypt for three hundred years, until 30 BC when famous Queen Cleopatra, Ptolemy’s direct descendant, killed herself.
Alexandria, a place for knowledge
Alexandria became the capital of Egypt soon after its founding in 331. Alexander had just destroyed Tyre the year before, so Alexandria -along with Carthage- swept in to fill the void left by that important trading port of the Mediterranean.
By 300 BC Alexandria had 300,000 inhabitants, for the Ptolemies actively promoted immigration from the Greek world. They wanted colonists to keep a possible native insurrection at bay. And they specially invited scholars, philosophers, historians, artists, and geographers.
The royal palace occupied 1/3 of the city. Splendid public monuments, squares, a beautiful harbor, and the tomb of Alexander the Great were some of the other attractions of the capital. Plus, in Egyptian fashion, there were plenty of festivals and processions throughout the year.