According to two RPG (role-playing game) systems, Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder, a metropolis is the largest category for a medieval city. The population of a metropolis starts at 25,000 people. I remember that they also say a Metropolis is a city for a large kingdom and that you should not have many cities that large.

But this rule seems inconsistent with our past history. Many cities had more than 25,000 people. Some like Rome, Baghdad, Xi'An, Edo (Tokyo) and possibly others had over 1 million people at their peak. Many other cities were well over 25,000 people.

Can anyone tell me what is a big pre-industrial city and how common these cities are ?

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    $\begingroup$ Keep in mind that those games are (by way of Tolkien) based heavily on medieval England, not ancient Rome, Golden Age Arabia, or the much more populous civilizations of Asia. London was the only large city in that time and place, with a population somewhere in the middle five digits. $\endgroup$
    – user243
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 20:41
  • $\begingroup$ Comment for late readers: Rome & Baghdad were the centers of Empires. Their population was reflected in that. Xi'An is in China, who had massive populations, in part due to the terrain and fertility of the region (One part of China, much of China was no where as populous). Edo was not a medieval city, I think you are thinking of Kyoto. So None of the cities you described are TYPICAL medieval cities. The actual population of a city would be highly dependent on location, trade, agricultural tech, and whether the country in question uses currency or barter. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 15:19

2 Answers 2


Here is a site where they go over some of this quickly.

the relevant parts you are specifically asking for are

Town and City Population: How Many In Those Walls?

For purposes of this article, settlements will be divided into Villages, Towns, Cities and Big Cities (known as "supercities" in the parlance of urban historians).

Villages range from 20 to 1,000 people, with typical villages ranging from 50-300. Most kingdoms will have thousands of them. Villages are agrarian communities within the safe folds of civilization. They provide the basic source of food and land-stability in a feudal system. Usually, a village that supports orchards (instead of grainfields) is called a "hamlet." Occasionally, game writers use the term to apply to a very small village, regardless of what food it produces. Towns range in population from 1,000-8,000 people, with typical values somewhere around 2,500. Culturally, these are the equivalent to the smaller American cities that line the interstates. Cities and towns tend to have walls only if they are frequently threatened. Cities tend to be from 8,000-12,000 people, with an average in the middle of that range. A typical large kingdom will have only a few cities in this population range. Centers of scholarly pursuits (the Universities) tend to be in cities of this size, with only the rare exception thriving in a Big City. Big Cities range from 12,000-100,000 people, with some exceptional cities exceeding this scale. Some historical examples include London (25,000-40,000), Paris (50,000-80,000), Genoa (75,000-100,000), and Venice (100,000+). Moscow in the 15th century had a population in excess of 200,000!

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    $\begingroup$ The Moscow's population is doubtful. Even 40.000 in 1400 listed in Wikipedia seem quite high, and I suspect nearby villagers are counted as well. Otherwise the linked site is good, thanks for reminding it! $\endgroup$
    – Pavel V.
    Commented Oct 23, 2014 at 11:11

Let's start with highest possible number - using the ancient Roman Empire. During the times of Roman empire, Rome peaked at 1-1.2 million at around 1st-3rd century.

Following that we had Constantinopole at 500 000 in 6th century, and Changan and Baghdad around 1 million pop in 8th, 9th and 10th century. 1 million remained cap until the 19th century.

Thus, I think we can conclude: 500 000 to 1 200 000 - maximum, imperial capital with extreme cultural significance to the empire (that is, empire needs to be capital-city centric). The empire needs to be large.

100 000 - 500 000 A capital city of a very prosperous kingdom. It is important to realize that number of people in a city can change depending. As an example, somewhat small Kingdom of Bohemia's capital city, during its golden era in 14th century reached 80 000-100 000. Larger kingdoms or smaller empire who are currently in their prosperous period will have around this amount of citizens, and so will large empires who're currently falling apart. Cities within 100 000 -300 000 range might also be secondary cities of an extremely prosperous empire, cities which hold sway over large region within such Empire.

Things like war, plague, etc. can massively decrease population of cities. In case of plague, cities tend to suffer a lot, and not only do you need to count victims, but also people fleeing the cities due to fear. When economy/food production is weak because of war, cities are also unable to feed their current population and people again leave.

50 000 - 100 000 population This size would be a capital city of a kingdom that is currently in less prosperous phase. We're either talking about a small kingdom in quite prosperous phase, to a big kingdom in their bad times. For non-capital city, this could be a secondary city of a prospering kingdom, or a somewhat regular city of a very prosperous powerful empire.

20 000 - 50 000 population These would be capitals of not too large kingdoms that are not too properous. If your kingdom is not the dominant power, and you're currently not in your gold era, this is the expected size of your capital. Example would be Vienna of 15th and 16th century(before Austrian and AH empires becaem a thing). As for non-capital cities, again, raise the bar of the country somewhat to at least a large kingdom during somewhat properous time.

Here, have a source for the largest cities of their time period and another one for large ones.


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