Tenochtitlan in 1500

Did you know that the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan was larger than all of the Spanish cities in A.D. 1500, right before Hernando Cortés’s invasion of Mexico?

Indeed, in A.D. 1500, Tenochtitlan was ranked as 24-28th in the world in terms of population. It was larger than all the cities of New World’s colonial powers with an exception of Paris. Madrid’s population reached 75,000 by the end of 16th century, and it was still lower than Tenochtitlan’s population in 1500.

What does this mean?… 

Well, the world was mainly Malthusian until 19th century, which means economic development did not lead to a significant rise in per capita incomes. However, in the Malthusian world, the economic development was reflected in rising population. It’s not a coincidence that Rome was the most populated city in A.D. 100.

Hence, a large population in Tenochtitlan is an important sign of socioeconomic development in the Malthusian world. Indeed, we know that Aztecs had a developed economy, a strong system of laws and a well-organised taxation system. As Jared Diamond claims; horses, guns, immunity to germs and steel might have helped Hernando Cortés to invade Aztecs. However, this does not necessarily mean that Spanish were significantly more ‘civilised’ or ‘developed’ than Aztecs at the time of invasion.

Here is the list of cities ranked by population in A.D. 1500.

City Other Name Country Population in A.D.1500 Rank
Beijing Peking China 672000 1
Vijayanagar India 500000 2
Cairo Fostat, Fustat Egypt 400000 3
Hangzhou Hangchow China 250000 4
Tabriz Iran 250000 4
Gauda Lakhnauti, Gaur India 200000 6
Istanbul Constantinople, Byzantium Turkey 200000 6
Paris France 185000 8
Guangzhou Canton China 150000 9
Nanjing Nanking China 147000 10
Cuttack India 140000 11
Fez Fes Morocco 130000 12
Edirne Adrianople Turkey 127000 13
Xian Sian, Changan, Xi’an China 127000 14
Ayutthaya Ayutia Thailand 125000 15
Seoul Hanyang Republic of Korea 125000 15
Suzhou Soochow China 122000 17
Venice Italy 115000 18
Naples Italy 114000 19
Ahmedabad Asawal India 100000 20
Milan Italy 89000 21
Chengdu China 85000 22
Fuzhou Fuchow, Hokchiu, Fujian province China 83000 23
Delhi India 80000 24
Gent Ghent Belgium 80000 24
Kaifeng Bienliang, Pienliang China 80000 24
Mexico City Tenochtitlan Mexico 80000 24
Moscow Russian Federation 80000 24
Chanderi India 70000 29
Florence Firenze Italy 70000 29
Granada Spain 70000 29
Mandu Mandavgad India 70000 29
Prague Austria 70000 29
Aleppo Syria 67000 34
Cambay India 65000 35
Tunis Tunisia 65000 35

Source: Reba, M., Reitsma, F. and Seto, K.C., 2016. Spatializing 6,000 years of global urbanization from 3700 BC to AD 2000. Scientific data3, p.160034.

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