Largest Cities Throughout History

Determining population prior to census-taking was no easy task

Illustration of London, Regent street, ca 1900
ilbusca / Getty Images 

In order to understand how civilizations have evolved over time, it's useful to look at population growth and decline in different geographic areas. 

Tertius Chandler's compilation of the population of cities throughout history, Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth: An Historical Census uses a wide variety of historical sources to locate approximate populations for the world's largest cities since 3100 BCE.

It's a daunting task to try to calculate how many people lived in urban centers prior to recorded history. Even though the Romans were the first to conduct a census, requiring every Roman man to register every five years, other societies were not as diligent about tracking their populations. Widespread plagues, natural disasters with a large loss of life and wars that decimated societies (from both the aggressor and the conquered points of view) often provide unfortunate clues to historians for a given population's size. 

But with few written records, and very little uniformity among societies that may be hundreds of miles apart, trying to determine whether China's pre-modern era cities were more populous than India's, for instance, is no easy task.

Counting Pre-Census Population Growth

The challenge for Chandler and other historians is the lack of formal census-taking before the 18th century. His approach was to look at smaller pieces of data to try to create a clear picture of populations. This included examining travelers' estimates, data on the numbers of households within cities, the numbers of food wagons arriving in cities and the size of each city or state's military. He looked at church records and the loss of lives in disasters.

Many of the figures Chandler presented can only be considered rough approximations of the urban population, but most include the city and surrounding suburban or urbanized area.

What follows is a list of the largest city at each point in history since 3100 BCE. It lacks population data for many cities but does provide a list of the largest cities throughout time. By looking at the first and second lines of the table, we see that Memphis remained the largest city in the world from at least 3100 BCE to 2240 BCE when Akkad claimed the title.

City Year Became No. 1 Population
Memphis, Egypt 3100 BCE Well over 30,000
Akkad, Babylonia (Iraq) 2240
Lagash, Babylonia (Iraq) 2075
Ur, Babylonia (Iraq) 2030 BCE 65,000
Thebes, Egypt 1980
Babylon, Babylonia (Iraq) 1770
Avaris, Egypt 1670
Nineveh, Assyria (Iraq) 668
Alexandria, Egypt 320
Pataliputra, India 300
Xi'an, China 195 BCE 400,000
Rome 25 BCE 450,000
Constantinople 340 CE 400,000
Istanbul CE
Baghdad 775 CE first over 1 million
Hangzhou, China 1180 255,000
Beijing, China 1425- 1500 1.27 million
London, United Kingdom 1825-1900 first over 5 million
New York 1925-1950 first over 10 million
Tokyo 1965-1975 first over 20 million

Here are the top cities by population from the year 1900:

Name Population
London 6.48 million
New York 4.24 million
Paris 3.33 million
Berlin 2.7 million
Chicago 1.71 million
Vienna 1.7 million
Tokyo 1.5 million
St. Petersburg, Russia 1.439 million
Manchester, UK

1.435 million

Philadelphia 1.42 million

And here are the top 10 cities by population for the year 1950

Name Population
New York

12.5 million

London 8.9 million
Tokyo 7 million
Paris 5.9 million
Shanghai 5.4 million
Moscow 5.1 million
Buenos Aires 5 million
Chicago 4.9 million
Ruhr, Germany 4.9 million
Kolkata, India 4.8 million

In the modern era, it's much easier to track things like birth, death and marriage certificates, especially in countries that conduct census surveys on a regular basis. But it's fascinating to consider how large cities grew and shrunk before there were means to measure them.