This is the second part of a series on the demography of Middle-Earth. The first part concerned Gondor.
After Gondor, Rohan was the greatest of the Realms of Men, and the first to strike a decisive blow against Sauron’s plans in the War of the Ring. However, despite its outsize role in the Lord of the Rings, calculating Rohan’s population with any degree of accuracy is a difficult task.
In the time scale of Tolkien’s legendarium, Rohan was a recent invention. The Rohirrim were once known as the Eotheod, a nomadic people who wandered the North of Middle Earth. They were not learned like the Dunedain of Gondor and Rohan, but they were no friends of Sauron either.
Rohan’s story begins with an invasion of Orcs and Easterlings in Year 2510 of the Third Age (roughly 500 years before the events in the Lord of the Rings). By this time, Gondor’s strength had waned and its line of kings had failed. The invaders overran the eastern province of Calenardhon and threatened Gondor proper. Desperate for help, Cirion, Steward of Gondor, sent messengers north to the Eotheod asking for aid.
Gondor’s armies were on the brink of destruction when, unexpectedly, Eorl’s host appeared from the North. The combined armies of Gondor and the Eotheod routed the invaders, and in gratitude, Cirion gave the depopulated province of Calenardhon to Eorl and his people. The two rulers also exchanged eternal vows of friendship, the first such oaths since those that bound Gil-Galad and Elendil’s Last Alliance at the beginning of the Third Age.
Calculating Rohan’s population is less of a quantitative exercise than calculating Gondor’s population, as it is highly dependent on the assumptions you make about Rohan’s culture and society. Tolkien left precious few clues about the exact makeup of Rohan’s society, so my final estimate of its population will likely be more controversial than my estimate for Gondor’s.
Tolkien clearly had the Anglo-Saxons in mind while imagining Rohan: the names Eomer and Hama were taken directly from the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. Similarly, in one of his letters, he mentions the armor of Anglo-Saxon horsemen from the Bayeux tapestry, a depiction of the Norman invasion of England, as an inspiration for the armor of the Rohirrim. However, to go ahead and equate the Rohirrim with the Anglo-Saxons would be too hasty. The Angles and Saxons were not horse-riders; their preferred means of transport was by sea, on boats. Imagining the Rohirrim (Sindarin for People of the Horse-Lords) without their horses would be unthinkable.
The truth is that the Rohirrim were a composite people: Tolkien borrowed the language and many of the customs of the Anglo-Saxons, and the history of another Germanic people – the Goths.
As Tolkien scholar Michael Martinez points out, there are important parallels between the history of the Goths and the story of the Rohirrim. Historians theorize that the Goths came from Scandinavia, to the far north of Rome; similarly, the Rohirrim once roamed the lands north of Gondor, and claimed ties of kinship to Middle-Earth’s Northmen. The Goths were invited to settle within the fertile lands of the Roman Empire, just as the Rohirrim were invited by Gondor to live in Calenardhon. Finally, the Goths moved into the Western Roman Empire due to the onset of eastern invaders, the Huns, while the Rohirrim moved west into Gondor due to an invasion of Easterlings.
As always, there remain some key differences. The relationship between the Goths and the Romans was considerably more acrimonious – to put it mildly – than the Gondor-Rohan alliance. Moreover, the Goths fought primarily as infantry – they had some horsemen, but nothing like the massed cavalry formations of Rohan. We will have to accept these as fictional additions on Tolkien’s part (after all, it’s an imaginary universe we’re discussing here), and continue with the Goths as our point of comparison.
We know little of England during the Dark Ages, or of Constantinople around its fall. We know even less of the Goths, a once-nomadic people who only invented an alphabet around 350 AD. They kept few records, and what few they may have kept are lost. We must thus rely on the inaccurate (and probably exaggerated) estimates of outsiders to inform our sketch of Rohan.
Herwig Wolfram’s the History of the Goths estimates that “one hundred to two hundred thousand” Goths settled in Aquitaine (a western region of France) around 429. Wolfram supports this figure with an anecdote from Gaiseric, king of a competing “barbarian”* group, the Vandals, who claimed that his people numbered 80,000. History tells us that the Vandals fled from the Goths, and logic tells us that a larger force rarely flees from a smaller one. Thus several hundred thousand seems to be the ballpark figure for migrant “barbarian” groups.
In her Atlas of Middle-Earth, the indispensable Karen Wynn Fonstad estimates that Rohan’s land area was 52,763 square miles. The modern-day province of Aquitaine is roughly 16,000 square miles; the Roman province of Aquitania (for lack of more precise measurements) appears to be over three times the size of its modern namesake. Taking advantage of this similarity in land area**, we arrive at a figure of a hundred thousand to two hundred thousand for Rohan’s population – an reasonable guess, in my estimation.
We can also turn to military statistics, which we possess in abundance for both of these warlike peoples, to support this guess. Theoden rode to Minas Tirith with 6000 men, but claimed that he had the ability to send “ten thousand spears” had Denethor’s summons given him more time. At the climactic battle of Adrianople, the Goths fielded anywhere from 12,000 to 20,000 men. Although the Battle of Adrianople was separated from Aquitaine in both time (fifty years before the Goths settled in Aquitaine) and place (Adrianople is in modern Turkey), it still informs us that our figure is in the ballpark – an army of ten thousand men is a force proportional to a population of several hundred thousand men, women, and children.
Admittedly, the result of “several hundred thousand, give or take a hundred thousand” is less exciting than my estimate of 3 to 4 million for Gondor. Unfortunately, that is the reality of analyzing Rohan – Tolkien simply didn’t elaborate very much on the society of the mysterious Horse-Lords. I will admit a certain bias in this study: my initial goal was to refute the image of Peter Jackson’s Rohan – a land of endless plains largely devoid of people. A population of 100,000 (admittedly, on the lower bound of expectations) gives Rohan a population density less than half that of modern-day Mongolia. The contrarian in me must admit defeat – Jackson’s depiction of a sparse, largely underpopulated Rohan is mostly accurate.
* Barbarian being the term the Romans used for pretty much anyone who didn’t meet their urbane standards of cultural sophistication
** Aside from their similarities in area, landlocked Rohan is generally quite unlike coastal Aquitaine, save for one crucial similarity: they both border a large mountain range (the Pyrenees for Aquitaine, and the White Mountains for Rohan) which separate them from their southerly neighbors.