The Life and Death of Ancient Cities by Greg Woolf

The growth of cities around the world in the last two centuries is the greatest episode in our urban history, but it is not the first. Three thousand years ago most of the Mediterranean basin was a world of villages; over the centuries that followed, however, cities appeared around the Inland Sea, built by Greeks and Romans, Etruscans and Phoenicians, Tartessians and Lycians, and many others. Most were tiny by modern standards, and yet the greatest became the powerhouses of successive ancient societies, where politics, art, and literature flourished. And then, half way through the first millennium, most cities withered away.

Using the most recent historical and archaeological evidence, acclaimed historian Greg Woolf has written The Life and Death of Ancient Cities, a sweeping narrative of the world’s first great urban experiments – from their genesis in the Bronze Age to their demise in late antiquity. Yet Woolf does not simply chronicle individual histories – he weaves them together into the context of wider patterns of human evolution, and of the unforgiving environments in which these ancient cities were built. Richly illustrated, the book vividly brings to life the abandoned remains of our ancient urban ancestors and serves as a stark reminder of the fragility of cities – even modern, mighty metropolises.

Though ostensibly about the ancient world, this is not some dusty history book. Woolf’s passion breathes life into his global analysis, all the while deftly drawing lines between our own urban lives and our ancient ancestors.

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Greg Woolf speaks to us about his upcoming book:

The Ecology of the Ancient Mediterranean City

There is a famous passage of Plato’s Phaedo (109b), in which Socrates describes the inhabitants of the known world as living like frogs around a pond. It is less often quoted that he went on to conjecture that there were other ponds around the globe, with other frogs living around them too. That is not so different to the way archaeologists and historians often write of early civilizations today, as we compare the first urbanisms of Mesopotamia and the Nile Valley, the valleys of the Indus and the Yellow River, the central valley of Mexico and most recently Amazonia as well. All these ponds with all their industrious frogs building temples and cities, roads and plazas in ignorance of each other. For cities, we now know, were invented many times over the last few thousand years. Those urban inventions were independent of each other, even if most urban societies immediately started to extend their tendrils to distant parts in search of metals and timber, precious stones and food. Over time most also began to produce manufactured goods designed for trade, textiles above all else, and as their labour demands grew what they wanted more and more were slaves to power the whole system.

Compared to other early civilizations, the ancient Mediterranean was a late developer. Its cities appeared millennia after those in neighbouring regions like the Near East. They were smaller too, barely villages by modern standards. The reasons were environmental. Until recently historians saw the role of the Mediterranean as a medium of communication, allowing easy travel from one end to the other. That was true, up to a point, although the sea was dangerous in winter and even in summer ancient ships preferred not to stray too far from land. But more importantly  – in global terms – the Mediterranean world was a harsh environment. Its winters might be mild and its summers warm, but its soils were thin. Only a few great rivers drained into the middle sea, and only a few regions had anything like the rich alluvial soils that nurtured Egypt and Babylonia. Even worse the climate of the Mediterranean is unpredictable in many regions: that meant it was not really safe to create larger population centres unless they could be provisioned from a distance in time of drought. That is why the largest ancient cities were often maritime centres – like Athens, Carthage, Corinth and Syracuse and the very largest were the capitals of ancient empires – like Alexandria, Rome and Constantinople.

Most of the two thousand odd cities of the ancient Mediterranean followed a different route to sustainability. Most were very small with just a few thousand inhabitants each. There were not estranged from the countryside like urban populations today. Many urban dwellers farmed plots around the city limits. Even in Pompeii, located in one of the richer agricultural part of the Mediterranean basin, there were market gardens inside the walls. Urban resilience came not from powerful states but from self help. Farms and cities built elaborate storage facilities for food. Houses were equipped with cisterns to store rainwater. Ancient Mediterranean populations hovered on the edge of hunger. Any city that forgot this paid a terrible price. Where colonies were placed in landscapes that could not sustain them they failed, and the inhabitants simply moved elsewhere.

This style of micro-urbanism was not invented in one place and then exported around the coasts of the Mediterranean. It was created on many occasions by Etruscans and Greeks, Campanians and Phoenicians, Gauls, Africans, Spaniards. There was no master plan: it was simply that other kinds of urbanism failed. These peoples shared the same resources and technologies. They sowed the same crops, herded the same animals, farmed in the same way. There was only one tradition of ship-building, of metallurgy of weaving and so on. The broad uniformity of Mediterranean urbanism was formed by the same selective pressures operating on similar peoples, time and again. There were only two routes to success: stay small or become powerful.

Historical records tell of the success stories. But many foundations were abandoned early on in favour of better sites. Migrants kept migrating until they found somewhere safe. Sometimes kings and imperial powers assembled scattered populations into one place. But once the kings had gone, quite often those people returned to their more sustainable, smaller scale communities. And when those empires weakened, the greater cities they supported withered away too. Even the populations of Rome and Constantinople shrivelled to just a few tens of thousands. Everywhere else the human landscapes thinned out, returned to a world of villages and tiny market towns. My book explores the complexities of this cycle – played out dozens of times across the world, to varying success – to discover a more accurate account of human history.

Unanswered Questions from the Q & A event on 30th July 2020

What are some of the best places to see what physically remains of ancient Alexandria?

There’s not a great deal of ancient Alexandria to see above ground in fact. That’s partly because it has been important in so many later periods. But a small theatre or odeon from the Roman period has been excavated and beautifully restored. Actually the best place to see ancient Alexandria is underwater. A great part of the former harbour and sea front has been explored by divers, and all sorts of extraordinary material recovered.

Did lack of resources drive expansion by Phoenician then Carthaginian, Greek and finally Roman groups?

It depends what kind of resources. Metals drew the first Phoenician explorer out to the far even, even beyond the Staits of Gibraltar. Silver from Spain, Copper from Cyprus and Iron deposits in the Bay of Naples and also off the Tuscan coast were big draws. But mariners travelled for other reasons too. Once westerners got a taste for Greek ceramics and metalwork an export trade started up. Then some travelled as refugees, fleeing the pressure of Assyrians or Persians. The key think was the technology and knowledge for long term navigation. Once they had that they could use it for many thinks.

Was all metal ore valued equally by them? Or were some more highly valued than others because of some quality?

As today rarity was the key. Gold, silver, copper and tin were scarce in many regions. Tin was especially important as it is needed to make bronze. Iron ore is found in many places, but good deposits did attract some travellers. There were other precious materials too. Timber was one, fine building stone in later periods. Materials like amber from the Baltic and ivory from Africa were traded over immense differences.

Did Carthage have strong ties back to Phoenicia?

The answer changed over time. At first yes, later perhaps the stronger links were with other Punic centres in North Africa, southern Spain, Sardinia, Sicily and Malta. The best place to read about this is in a great book by Josephine Quinn called In Search of the Phoenicians.