A novel theoretical study exploring the importance of pile diameter in resisting seismic actions of both the kinematic and the inertial type, is reported. With reference to a pile under a restraining cap, is shown analytically that for any given set of design parameters, a range of admissible pile diameters exists, bounded by a minimum and a maximum value above and below which the pile will yield at the top even with highest material quality and amount of reinforcement. The critical diameters depend mainly on seismicity, soil stiffness and safety factor against gravity loading, and to a lesser extent on structural strength. This scale effect is not present at interfaces separating soil layers of different stiffness, yet it may govern design at the pile head. The work at hand deals with both steel and concrete piles embedded in soils of uniform or increasing stiffness with depth. Closed-form solutions are derived for a number of cases, while others are treated numerically. Application examples and design issues are discussed.