74

In terms of repeated wars and other violent encounters, where have the most people died throughout history (cumulatively over time) within one square mile?

This will include deaths at the hands of others, or themselves, using any conventional weapons (as described here)

Most things I've read have been about one day, or one battle, that is claims the most killed. I'm asking about at any time between the birth of homo-sapiens to now.

  • 2
    Adrianople is where the highest number of major battles have been throughout known history (iirc), but then the higher populations in modern times will skew it. – Tomas By Jun 8 '18 at 7:14
  • @Paul this is for a story, so I won't include genocide unless it was committed with conventional weapons. You can certainly ask your own question though. I would read it. Thanks for the comment! – user32121 Jun 8 '18 at 14:33
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    Does it have to be an actual square? Or could it be a narrow but long area, like a trench line in WWI? – jamesqf Jun 8 '18 at 18:11
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    @jamesqf fantastic question! Let's say a square mile of area, with any dimensions (allowing trenches). That thought actually gives me a cool spin for my story, thanks! – user32121 Jun 8 '18 at 19:32
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97

The square mile around the Colosseum in Rome seems a likely candidate for most deaths using conventional weapons. Within a mile of the Colosseum were the Circus Maximus and the Roman Forum where there were also thousands of deaths. As most of these deaths occurred during the Roman Republic and Empire, the most commonly used weapons would have been knives/daggers, swords and spears, but many were also strangled or killed by animals.


The Roman Forum was where thousands of captives, criminals and even Roman soldiers were executed, especially before the Colosseum was built. In 206 BC, for example, 4000 or 4500 soldiers of a rebellious legion were executed there. Nearby were the Mamertine Prison where prisoners were either strangled or left to starve to death, and the Tarpeian Rock where people were executed by being thrown off the edge (though I'm not sure if the latter is within a square mile of the other locations).

The Circus Maximus, dating back to at least the 6th century BC was also the scene of thousands of deaths and executions, especially before the Colosseum became the main arena for gladiator fights. Julius Caesar upped the scale of gladiator fights long before the Colosseum was built and, according to Pliny the Elder, Caligula (died 41 AD) had 20,000 gladiators (but perhaps we should make this 10,000 as Pliny was known to exaggerate). It was most famous for the thousands of chariot races held there over the centuries until the 6th century AD: one chariot racer, Gaius Appuleius Diocles, took part in 4,257 races over 24 years, but he was an exception as most racers had very short careers due the high death rate.

For the Colosseum, coming up with a definite number is impossible, but we can at least begin to make an estimate based on the pieces of evidence we have. For gladiators, Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard in The Colosseum estimate 2,000 per year (with big fluctuations) for Rome and base this on one in six gladiators dying in combat in the arena. The estimate of one in six is in turn based on evidence from Pompeii; as there is also evidence from Campania that sometimes half were killed, one in six seems fairly conservative. This gives 710,000 gladiator deaths in Rome over the 355 year period the Colosseum was used for such fights. Many of these deaths would have been criminals forced to fight as gladiators (often in large groups) rather than highly trained professionals going one on one. As the Colosseum was by some distance the biggest, most important and most used venue in Rome, it is highly likely that most of these deaths occurred there (Wiki lists only two other arenas in Rome during the time of the Colosseum, one of which was for training).

These deaths occurred both in major events and ones which have not been recorded in any detail by history. For an example of the former,

the Emperor Trajan, to celebrate his conquest of Dacia (roughly modern Roumania), gave games in AD 108-9 lasting 123 days in which 9,138 gladiators fought

To the above we must add executions and spectacles using slaves and criminals. The latter did not always involve deaths, but reenactments were a popular way of dispatching hundreds of condemned men at a time. For executions, it is impossible to give a definite number but sometimes several thousand captives, runaway slaves and criminals were executed during an event. Thus, the estimates given by various sites of a total (gladiators + executions/spectacles) of 400,000 to 700,000 people killed in the Colosseum do not seem unreasonable. The large majority of these would have been criminals, captives and condemned slaves rather than trained gladiators.

enter image description here

Source:The Colosseum in Rome

To the above must be added the numerous deaths in ancient Rome from the city being sacked several times, and that political upheavals/purges (e.g. Sulla's proscriptions) and riots also led to large numbers of deaths. Unfortunately, establishing how many of these were in a specific area is, of course, impossible. Finally, we need to consider the number of homicides in an area (within one square mile of the Colosseum) that has been populated for at least 2,200 years but, again, it is impossible to give a number (though the homicide rate in ancient times in nearby, densely populated Suburra was reckoned to be very high).

The Colosseum itself occupies just 6 acres out of the 640 acres in a square mile. Even if there have been square miles with more deaths by conventional weapons, it is unlikely that these 6 acres can be surpassed anywhere in the world. The scale of the carnage was such that disposing of the bodies (human and animal) was a major logistical problem.


If the scale of these deaths is hard to believe, never mind comprehend, consider the following from Keith Hopkins, formerly Professor of Ancient History at the University of Cambridge:

Rome was a cruel society. Brutality was built into its culture in private life, as well as in public shows. The tone was set by military discipline and by slavery. The state had no legal monopoly of capital punishment until the second century AD. Before then, a master could crucify his slaves publicly if he wished. Seneca recorded from his own observations the various ways in which crucifixions were carried out, in order to increase pain. At private dinner-parties, rich Romans regularly presented two or three pairs of gladiators: 'when they have finished dining and are filled with drink', wrote a critic in the time of Augustus, 'they call in the gladiators. As soon as one has his throat cut, the diners applaud with delight'. It is worth stressing that we are dealing here not with individual sadistic psycho-pathology, but with a deep cultural difference. Roman commitment to cruelty presents us with a cultural gap which it is difficult to cross.


Although animals are definitely not within the scope of the question, it seems appropriate to at least mention that the killing of beasts was on a scale most likely unprecedented in history. Such was the Roman thirst for animals to kill in the arena that numerous species disappeared from North Africa.


Note: one answer on Quora gives 3,120,000 people killed in the Colosseum, but this is based on a misinterpretation of Hopkins & Beard's calculations.


Other sources:

Gregory S. Aldrete, Daily life in the Roman city : Rome, Pompeii, and Ostia

6 Infamous Sacks of Rome

The dangerous streets of ancient Rome

10 Fascinating Facts About the Roman Colosseum

Facts about the Colosseum

R. Laurence, Roman Passions: A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome (2009)

Roman Executions

The Roman Theater of Cruelty

Body Count of the Roman Empire

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    Or Baghdad. Up to 2m killed by the Mongols. – Tomas By Jun 8 '18 at 9:50
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    WP: "While Roman mythology dates the founding of Rome at around 753 BC, the site has been inhabited for much longer, making it one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in Europe." -> 2018+753+much longer. "Area around that" or that exact "square-mile"? – LangLangC Jun 8 '18 at 11:00
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    Can you provide a source for 400-700,000 dead in the Colosseum? This corresponds to roughly 1,000-2,000 per year, which sounds like quite a lot to me. For instance, my gut feeling is that gladiatorial fights would usually not be to the death, since each gladiator represented a significant investment. And there probably weren't all that many Christians that could be fed to lions... – Stephan Kolassa Jun 8 '18 at 16:36
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    @TomasBy Are you seriously writing a completely different answer in the comment section of another answer? What do you expect from that? – pipe Jun 9 '18 at 8:52
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    What @StephanKolassa said. If you take the 1 death for every 6 gladiators fighting as correct, then 2000 deaths per year implies 12,000 gladiators fighting each year, or ~33 per day if they were to run battles every day of the year. That seems quite high, particularly on a sustained/long-term basis. – aroth Jun 9 '18 at 13:53
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Strong contenders would likely include the deadlier major WW1 battlefields (Passchendaele, Verdun, Somme, etc.) - they were more spread out than a single square mile, but the amount of casualties in them was record setting.

Auschwitz-Birkenau (~1.1M deaths) and Treblinka (~700-900k deaths) are also worth a reference, with the latter "beating" the former in terms of deaths per month. These aren't technically deaths by conventional weapons (not all of them anyway) but I feel no answer would be complete without mentioning how the nazis industrialized death.


Edit: Seeing your comment about gas chambers not counting and this being for a story, another genocide you might want to dig into is that of Rwanda, a tiny country (smaller than the New York metropolitan area) in Central Africa. It was an utter bloodbath that led to an estimated 500k-1M deaths using machetes, clubs, blunt objects, and other weapons over a 100-day period. (For perspective, that rate of death is faster than that seen in Treblinka.) If memory serves me well most victims were massacred in their own homes so there might be a few areas in the capital that score very high on the list of most blood soaked square miles in history.


If you remove the violent death requirement, major cities would become candidates too: given enough time, any densely populated area will eventually clock a large number of deaths. (More so even when they're bombed as raised in Loong's answer.)

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    Unsure that starving and gasing meets the OP's requirements for 'conventional weapons' – b.Lorenz Jun 8 '18 at 6:06
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    @b.Lorenz: nor I but I don't think an answer about the deadliest square miles in history would be complete without referencing nazi death camps. – Denis de Bernardy Jun 8 '18 at 6:57
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    @TomasBy: I kind of wanted to add that as a third contender (any city with high enough population density will eventually clock a large number of deaths per square mile over time), but since OP wanted man inflicted deaths it didn't seem to fit the description that well. – Denis de Bernardy Jun 8 '18 at 7:48
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    @DenisdeBernardy I was thinking about a similar answer. Think of Rome. It is a great city since 2500 years. Even if there was on avarage 100 murders commited yearly, that is a lot. Add then gladiators and the numerous sieges, sackings and civil strifes... Stambul or Jerusalem would also stand as a good candidate. – b.Lorenz Jun 8 '18 at 8:06
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    With 2M deaths, the battle of Stalingrad is a rather strong contender too. I'm unsure about the area, but it was a siege so it was rather concentrated. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Stalingrad – Nemo Jun 8 '18 at 21:53
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We can't be sure

The much lower population and population density of antiquity means that the least documented parts of history probably aren't in the running. There have been (Fermi estimate) about 100 billion humans all told. Pace the nonsense taught to mid-20th century anthropologists, hunter–gatherer societies live in states of constant war with more than a ¼ of the men eventually dying by homicide. You could imagine an African watering hole, the Nile Valley, or an oasis in the Sinai as earning pride of place by millennia upon millennia of raids and assaults. However, out of the roughly 100 billion humans to be born on Earth, only 1 billion is thought to have preceded the onset of agriculture and the vast majority of them would have died as infants. You're probably looking at less than 60 million homicides spread out over the entire surface of Afroeurasia.

On the other hand, the prejudice towards 20th century death tolls in most of these answers probably isn't completely warranted, either. Once agriculture started, numbers surged. More than 40% of humanity had come and gone before the year 1; more than 60% by the year 1200; ~85% before 1900. All of this while homicide rates were far higher. Almost any large city continuously inhabited through all of this could rack up large numbers just from crime, endurance, and the fairly high density within walled compounds.

Since no one has mentioned them, I'll just toss some Chinese cities into the mix, although the present-day Sinosphere seems to have lower than average homicide rates with the PRC well below where its per capita income would usually place things and industrialized Japan as the lowest in the world.

Xi'an

Has moved around a bit but has been settled since the Neolithic. It's usually been among the world's largest cities (100k–1m) for the past three thousand years and seen plenty of violence beyond the standard, as possibly the most sacked city in the world (58+ times). Those sacks repeatedly involved massacres, as with Huang Chao's in the later Tang that killed so many people that when the city was refounded afterwards it covered 1/16 its former area. It was relatively sedate in the 20th century, though, apart from the genocide of ~20k Manchus during the Xinhai Revolution.

Nanjing

Nanjing is a relative newcomer in China, with Yuecheng having been settled about 2500 years ago but served as a regional or national capital since then. It fell less often and was less inhabited than Xi'an through most of its history, but it's suffered more more recently. The Taiping capture of the city involved about 40k deaths, with another 40k during each of the two failed Qing assaults, followed by around 200k combatant deaths and the slaughter of most of the city during the successful Qing recapture in 1864. The size of the Nanjing Massacre in WWII is a political football but involved the death of most of the city and was likely multiple hundreds of thousands.

Yangzhou

Nanjing had been spared during the Qing conquest of China because it promptly surrendered. It did so after the Qing had utterly butchered the population of the nearby metropolis of Yangzhou, traditionally held to have been 800k. (300k is a modern estimate.) A separate massacre had butchered the city's foreign merchants during the An Shi Rebellion against the Tang.

Guangzhou

was in place by about 3000 years ago and remained the regional capital after its conquest by Shi Huangdi's general Zhao Tuo 800 years later. Sacked by Muslims in 758, followed by Huang Chao's massacre of 100–200k in the foreign ghettos during the later Tang.

25

Some square mile of The Somme, probably around some WWI strongpoint.

While it's impossible to determine how many casualties happened at any particular square mile of the Somme, the concentration of so many military casualties in such a small area is something the world had never seen, and never saw again.

Note: "causalities" includes all "rendered unfit for duty" and dead.

The first Battle of the Somme in 1916 had some 1.1 million military casualties concentrated along a 20 mile line.

Then the northern half of Operation Michael attacked at the Somme again to the tune of another 500,000 casualties for the whole offensive.

Finally, August 1918 saw Allied armies counter-attack at the Second Battle of the Somme with relatively light casualties, "only" about 30,000.

That's some 1.6 million casualties over a line of perhaps 20 miles.

The rigid and linear nature of WWI fighting (ie. soldiers in two trenches attacking across a narrow front), scale of soldiers involved, deadliness of weapons, and inadequacy of tactics lead to outrageous casualties along a 20 mile line.

While there are battles which have reached that scale of casualties, the Battle of Moscow at about 1.2 million for example, or the Siege of Leningrad at anywhere from 1.1 million to 4.5 million (many from non-combat reasons), none were all military casualties concentrated in such a small area. And certainly there are campaigns which have had far more casualties, these were spread over a wide area.

And while there have been patches of land that have seen death for much longer periods, the concentrations of casualties dwarf anything before the Somme. There wasn't the population to kill, and there wasn't the infrastructure to concentrate them in a square mile and keep them from running away.

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    Any reference by chance for how wide that 20 mile line is? – Mr.Mindor Jun 8 '18 at 21:58
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    @Mr.Mindor Just eyeballing a map of the First Battle of the Somme, it looks like the allies advanced in three phases over the 140 days of the battle. Each phase advanced about a mile or two. This represented an intense series of battles across a thin no-man's land (10 to hundreds of yards) leading to a German retreat to secondary trenches. A blow-by-blow examination of the battle would be necessary to determine how many died per each square mile. – Schwern Jun 8 '18 at 22:28
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    The Battle of Changping should be noted as having 700k in a small area (although unclear of how small that battlefield actually was.) as most of the casualties were captured soldiers that were buried together there. – Angelo Fuchs Jun 10 '18 at 15:00
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    I suggest changing "inadequacy of tactics" to "sheer stupidity of tactics". – jamesqf Jun 10 '18 at 17:45
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    @jamesqf While there is plenty of stupidity to go around, the more I study WWI the more I see armies and staffs generally unprepared to deal with the combination of radically more efficient weapons plus a static defense line and lacked the communication, organization, and mobile firepower to deal with it. While they should have been better prepared for the new weaponry, I don't think they could have anticipated an entire front going static; the Eastern Front was more to expectations. However, they could have adapted faster. – Schwern Jun 11 '18 at 18:19
13

Jerusalem

A source says that the so-called “City of Peace” has been

destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked an additional 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times.

  • 3
    Optimistic title – n00dles Jun 9 '18 at 20:17
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Tokyo

Simply because Tokyo hast the highest population density of any industrial city with more than 100,000 inhabitants per square mile during the Second World War, the air raids on Tokyo might have placed the bloodiest square mile caused by conventional warfare in this area.

The firebombing raid in the night of 9/10 March 1945 alone caused approximately 100,000 deaths in central Tokyo (an area of about 16 square miles).

  • 13
    The Verdun battlefield is only a few square miles (300k dead). – Tomas By Jun 8 '18 at 7:58
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    16 square miles is not 1 square mile. – Jos Jun 8 '18 at 10:29
  • I'm surprised you had Tokyo as having more deaths than Hiroshima. – AJFaraday Jun 8 '18 at 14:51
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    @AJFaraday Hiroshima was picked as a target for the bomb precisely because Tokyo had been devastated by firebombing already. – SPavel Jun 8 '18 at 14:56
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    @Jos Of course. But there were also many,many bombing raids on Tokyo, so each of those 16 square miles had a lot more deaths than just 100000/16. – David Richerby Jun 8 '18 at 15:42
2

It is impossible to answer this question beyond personal opinion, so it is a question best tackled by describing the considerations for answering it first.

The substantial problem is that the bulk of history from the birth of Homo sapiens to now is lost – if not completely (pre-history), then for the detail of the events and the veracity of the accounts (pre-modern history). Consequently, (and in step with the research of Keeley, War Before Civilization, and Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature), it is natural to want to assign too much weight to pre- and early history. This approach, great as it may be for answering questions on trends of violence and the murderous intent of human society, is out of step with the bit we know of the history of human population expansions and densities. For instance, at one time Constantinople was one of the largest concentrations of humans on the planet, and at the time, its population was well below the one-million mark – it had less people than modern Birmingham.

From this observation, the question is not of populations, but population densities per square mile in relation to a violence factor: being not only the number of wars, but the actual duration of the waging of these wars per each of the square miles in a preferred time unit – probably day units, rather than year units. For example, Stalingrad was completely razed during the Second World War, but it did not see violence for the entire duration of the war. As an additional dimension, the traditional invasion route from Europe into Russia had witnessed many wars, but the blood effect of the Napoleonic campaign of 1812 must have been considerably less than the German invasion and occupation. This is entirely due to the industrialisation of warfare. By the same token, the efficiency in killing is not purely attributable to means. It is more appropriate to estimate these means in relation to the delta between that of the one side vis à vis the opposing side, coupled with the desire to kill. For instance, the Asiatic nomadic means of warfare was extremely efficient for its time, and an untold number of deaths followed as the result.

Where is the Terrible Square Mile? Based on the preceding, it is possible to construct an abstract function for the calculation thereof, even as only one of the primitives is quantifiable: f(D, M, W), where D = population density for each square mile of the habitable surface since the dawn of our species, M = efficiency of killing means; and W = the strength of the will. However, as stated, in the absence of a perfect knowledge of history regarding D, our inability to measure two of the primitives of this function is the least of our issues.

Therefore, and purely as a guess, I’d say it is probably located somewhere in a lozenge shaped area starting at Smolensk and reaching towards Moscow.

  • For example, Stalingrad was completely razed during the Second World War, but it did not see violence for the entire duration of the Second World War” Should one of those be “First World War”? – J F Jun 9 '18 at 20:05
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    It could be. The point I am hoping to make is that Stalingrad had, with the exception of five terrible months (Aug 1942 to Jan 1943), been mostly peaceful for the duration of modernity - which included the 52 'other' months of the Second World War in Europe. – Quintin Jun 9 '18 at 20:54
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    'and W=the strength of the will'... I feel like something is being badly mistranslated from German here... – lly Jun 10 '18 at 10:25
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    In any case, Russia's extremely low population density speaks against it having anything approaching a contender to this question. Any death it saw in WWII or under Stalin is already dwarfed (particularly if we're speaking in terms of density) by the abattoir China became during the same period... let alone the rest of its much longer history. – lly Jun 10 '18 at 10:29
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    @JF F: Strictly speaking, there was no Stalingrad during WWI. The city was called Tsaritsyn until 1925, and renamed to Volgograd in 1961: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volgograd It doesn't seem to have played a part in WWI, though there was fighting during the Communist takeover. – jamesqf Jun 10 '18 at 17:52
1

Paris: Place de la Concorde

The Place de la Concorde is one of the major public squares in Paris, France. And was through the french revolution 1 of the bloodiest places, thanks to the many executions with the guillotine. Spectators of these executions where literately standing in blood.

Paris: Hôtel de Ville

Since at least the 13th century, the Place was a site where Parisians gathered not to enjoy music or other festivities, but to witness their countrymen and women suffer slow, agonizing deaths.

Cambodia: Khmer Rouge Killing Fields

Analysis of 20,000 mass grave sites by the DC-Cam Mapping Program and Yale University indicate at least 1,386,734 victims of execution.[1][2] Estimates of the total number of deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies, including disease and starvation, range from 1.7 to 2.5 million out of a 1975 population of roughly 8 million. In 1979, Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime.

Congo: Congo Free State (1885 to 1908)

In the period from 1885 to 1908, a number of well-documented atrocities were perpetrated in the Congo Free State (today the Democratic Republic of the Congo) which, at the time, was a colony under the personal rule of King Leopold II of Belgium. These atrocities were sometimes collectively referred to by European contemporaries as the "Congo Horrors", and were particularly associated with the labour policies used to collect natural rubber for export. Together with epidemic disease, famine, and a falling birth rate caused by these disruptions, the atrocities contributed to a sharp decline in the Congolese population. The magnitude of the population fall over the period is disputed, but it is thought to be between one and 15 million people.

1

If one accepts its historicity, the Kurukshetra War, as described in the Mahabharata, which unfolded in the small fields of Kurukshetra.

According to some sources, almost all of the 7 Akshauhinis (1,530,900 soldiers) on Pandava's side and the 11 Akshauhinis (2,405,700 soldiers) on the Kaurava's side perished.

According to another source, the Stri Parva (Mbh 9.1, Mbh 11.26), Yudhishtira provides the following report on casualties and survivors to Dhritarashtra:

1 billion, 660 million, and 20 thousand men perished in the war. Only 240,165 heroes survived.

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