3400 years of macroeconomic performance in one graph
Modern economic growth does not look as impressive as in other such graphs
While the urbanization rate is a good proxy of income levels, the total urban population is perhaps a good proxy for the size of the population that is living lives with more economic sophistication than simple hand-to-mouth subsistence. Using the sources from my post, The Malthusian Trap Never Existed, I made the graph above of the population living in towns and cities with over 5,000 inhabitants from 1400 BC to 1980 AD in Europe and its offshoots (which represents the urban population of the “West,” which in antiquity included the Greek cities in North Africa and Western Asia, regions that become provinces of the Roman Empire, and in modern centuries include North America, New Zealand, and Australia, regions defined as “western offshoots” by Angus Maddison).
Since this figure only shows the urban population, it does not depend on estimates of the rural population, which are of lower quality than the estimates of the urban population, as the remains of cities tend to be better surveyed and so depend less on projections/estimates of unsurveyed areas. For example, we have direct archeological survey data on the build-up areas of 885 out of 1,400 documented cities in the Roman Empire. At the same time, we certainly lack surveys regarding the near totality of the rural areas across the two million square miles of the Roman Empire.
As modern economic growth began around 1800, the speed at which the urban population increased also increased radically compared to the thousand years before, reflecting much faster economic growth, but the graph also shows that this increase in speed of urban growth was a continuation of a much longer trajectory of economic development in the West.
Also, the last couple of centuries were not the first time the urban population grew at a very fast rate: following the collapse of the Bronze Age Aegean civilization, the European urban population collapsed to zero around 1000 BC, but after rising to a level above zero around 800 BC, it started growing at a very fast pace over the following centuries: there was only one city with over 30,000 inhabitants in Europe around 650 BC, but just 300 years later we can estimate there were about 20 to 25 such cities (with one being Rome).
Growth continued but at a much-reduced speed after the time of Aristotle and Alexander the Great and reached a peak when there were around 65 cities with more than 30,000 inhabitants during the Early Roman Empire from the time of Augustus to Marcus Aurelius. After the 2nd century, the Roman cities began to collapse so that by the late 7th century, Constantinople and Rome were perhaps the only cities in Europe with over 30,000 inhabitants: Europe’s total urban population at the early Middle Ages reached a level as low as perhaps it was reached during the Bronze Age (although the quality of the data for my estimate of the Bronze Age urban population is very poor, so I suspect my estimate of half-a-million urbanites for Bronze Age Greece to be an upper bound). During the Early Middle Ages, there were around 30 to 40 cities with over 5,000 inhabitants across the continent. Over the next thousand years, the urban population grew at a relatively constant but moderate pace, and by 1800 the number of such cities increased to around 1,500, 110 of which had grown to be over 30,000 inhabitants. While today, there are a few thousand cities across Europe and North America with more than 30,000 inhabitants.
Modern Europe’s total urban population only surpassed the total urban population of the Roman Empire around the time of Isaac Newton, a whole 16 centuries after the ancient peak (which implies that the rate of urbanization was lower, as 17th century Europe had over 100 million inhabitants, a substantially larger population than estimated for the Early Roman Empire, whose population has estimates ranging from 50 to 75 million). From this perspective, one can jokingly conclude that the Industrial Revolution was just the modern world catching up to a super-long-run trend of urban growth.