Population Control Alert: Ancient Cities With 300,000 Inhabitants Or More

These were the 6 biggest cities during the first millennium BC

By the first millennium (1000-1 BC) some cities in the old world had turned into megacities with 300,000 inhabitants or more. To accommodate so many people, these ancient cities had magnificent buildings and roads, gardens, constant food supply, entertainment arenas, and some even had shopping malls, law enforcement, and running water. And while there were many big cities during the first millennium BC, the following 6 were the biggest -and most splendorous.

(To find out which were the biggest cities during the second millennium BC (2000 and 1001 BC) go here.)

*Estimating ancient populations is not an exact science. The estimates used here are the work of Professor Georges Modelski and historian Tertius Chandler.

Xiadu, China

400 BC: 320.000 inhabitants

Map of China showing several divisions. One of them is Yan.
During the Warring States Period China was divided into seven kingdoms. Xiadu was the capital of Yan. (Photo: Philg88/ CCBYSA3.0)

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.

City layout
Bronze object. Looks like a cup with three legs.
Metal steamer from the state of Yan. Unearthed in Beijing. Capital Museum of Beijing. (Photo: PENG Yanan/ CCBYSA3.0)

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 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.

Carthage, Tunisia

300 BC: 500,000 inhabitants

According to legend the city was founded by a fleeing queen. Queen Elyssa/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 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.

A city 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 the total destruction of Carthage a century later, in 146 BC.

Pataliputra, India

206 BC: 350,000 inhabitants

A Greek ambassador described Pataliputra as the greatest city of India, which had royal residences that outshined the luxurious palaces of Persia.

Temples, palaces, 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.

Government

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 began its life as a fort in 490 BC, founded by King Ajatashatru of Magadha. The fort was flanked by two rivers and grew rapidly. So Ajatashatru’s son made it the capital of the country.

By 321 BC the ruler of those lands was Chandragupta, a man of low birth that was inspired by the dream of his contemporary, Alexander the Great, of creating one great empire.

Capital of an empire

At the time, though, India was divided in several kingdoms. Alexander had conquered some of the western territories. But as soon as he died, Chandragupta expelled the Greeks from India. And set off to conquer and unite the rest of the subcontinent, creating the Mauryan Empire.

Pataliputra remained the capital of the empire until 73 BC. The city has been continuously inhabited and it is called Patna nowadays.

Chang’an, China

200 BC: 400,000 inhabitants

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 it 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. And 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. It received traders and was in contact with foreign lands. It had 400,000 inhabitants and probably was the largest city in the world at the time.

Perpetual peace

Chang’an, which means “perpetual peace.” The city 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.

Alexandria, Egypt

100 BC: 1,000,000 inhabitants

Alexander the Great founded many cities and gave his own name to most of them. But by far the most famous is his Egyptian Alexandria.

Alexander founds Alexandria
Reconstruction of ancient Alexandria based on the theories of French archaeologist Franck Goddio.

The Macedonian king ‘liberated’ Egypt in 332 BC from its Persian rulers. And became the 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 of 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 named himself king.

Ptolemy first tried to legitimize his power by marrying Alexander’s sister, Cleopatra. But she was killed. So he married other highborn Macedonians and established the Ptolemaic dynasty. His dynasty was to rule Egypt for three hundred years, until 30 BC when the famous Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic queen, killed herself.

Alexandria, a place for knowledge

Alexandria became the capital of Egypt. It benefited from the destruction of Tyre (332 BC), that had been an important trading port of the Mediterranean. Alexandria easily swept in to fill the void along with Carthage.

By 300 BC the city had 300,000 inhabitants, for the Ptolemies actively promoted immigration from the Greek world. They wanted colonists to keep a possible insurrection at bay. And they specially invited scholars, philosophers, historians, artists, and geographers. Soon, the city became renowned for its culture and science. It rivaled and surpassed Athens as a center of knowledge. Ptolomy I build what was to become the largest library in the world, which held 500,000 books.

Other famous buildings were the lighthouse of Pharos, named one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and the Greco-Egyptian Temple of Serapis. 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. (See also: If an ancient Egyptian saw our “modern” sports, he’d recognize a few.)

Rome, Italy

1 BC: 800,000 inhabitants

According to myth, the twins Romulus and Remus founded the city in 753 BC. Then Romulus killed his brother and became the sole ruler of the settlement that stood on the Palatine Hill. Archaeologists confirm that the earliest settlement dates to the 8th century, and that, indeed, it stood on the Palatine Hill.

The model of Ancient Rome shown in the video was made by Dr. Matthew Nicholls of the University of Reading, England.
Location, location, location

Rome has a privileged location next to the Tiber river, which flows to the Mediterranean. So Rome has access to the sea, but is protected from maritime attacks. And in the east it is shielded by a mountain range. 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 lead by two consuls. The consuls were elected each year, along with other officers in charge of things such as the maintenance of public buildings, finances, and the games. Every patrician (the descendants of the first settlers) was expected to run for office and improve the city.

Engineering and architectural feats

Romans are celebrated for their engineering and architecture. They built aqueducts that brought water into the city from far away sources. All that running water allowed the Latins to have public toilets and baths. The baths were large, magnificent buildings where the citizens went to exercise and bathe daily. The Romans built baths in all the places they conquered. And their own city had many bath houses.

They built large basilicas that functioned as court houses. And erected theaters to watch plays, and amphitheaters for gladiatorial games. Rome even had shopping malls.

Wide paved avenues connected the city with other towns in Italy. The most notorious road was the Via Appia, built in the 4th century BC.

Since the beginning the Romans were keen on this kind of engineering feats. The kings that ruled the city from the 8th to the 6th century BC drained the marshes that surrounded Rome with the Cloaca Maxima, a pipe that also served as a sewage system. It still works today. The monarchs also built a port.

Both kings and consuls built the Forum in the newly drained lands. The Forum was the heart of the city, a place for public gatherings, for political campaigning, elections, for triumphal processions, trials, and everyday gossip; a place to make business deals and solve legal issues.

As Rome expanded and conquered, wealth flowed into the city. So generals and patricians commissioned more 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. And the streets were quite dangerous at night. The wealthy moved around with bodyguards.

The most elegant part of town remained the Palatine Hill with its walled mansions adorned with gardens and ponds.

A city of marble

Patrician Julius Caesar, who actually lived in the 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. He finished Caesar’s forum with a temple to Venus and built his own forum with a temple to Mars. He also built a basilica, a temple to Jupiter, and expanded the harbor, among other projects. Octavius boasted of having found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble.

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