Into the Intro – The Ancient City

Olympieion - Cirinthian capitals
An introduction from Commisioning Editor Michael Sharp

The ancient Greek and Roman worlds were defined by their cities. Ancient Greece actually comprised a large collection of cities, some of which founded offshoots across the Eastern and Western Mediterranean and into the Black Sea region, and it was in these cities that the foundations of Western civilisation in such areas as politics, philosophy, literature, theatre and science were established (indeed, ‘politics’ is derived from ‘polis’, the Greek word for ‘city’). The conquests of Alexander the Great led to the foundation of Greek cities across the Near East as far as India and Afghanistan, and these enabled Greek culture and ideas to spread with them. Rome began as a city which went on to build one of the largest empires the world has ever known, and it too relied on cities to maintain its rule and established many new ones in Western Europe in particular, including Britain. Anyone who explores the physical remains of ancient Greece and Rome will find themselves visiting the sites of cities with their often impressive architectural legacy, and some of these like Pompeii have become the stuff of legend.

How did these cities function? Who lived in them and what were they like to live in? What relations did they have with their surrounding regions and with other cities or with larger political entities such as the kingdoms and empires of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East? How did they change over the millennium and more during which ancient Greek and Roman civilisation flourished? And how do they compare with the cities of other regions of the world and other periods of history? These were the questions Arjan Zuiderhoek was asked to address when he was commissioned to contribute a book on the topic of the ancient city to the well-established and successful series Key Themes in Ancient History. The result is a concise but masterly introduction suitable not just for all those interested in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds but also for anyone interested in the history of urbanism anywhere in the world.


The Ancient City

What is an (Ancient) City?

What, then, is a city? Given that, through application of a few very strict criteria to define urbanism, we often lose more, in cross-cultural terms, than we gain, and since a clear scientific definition of urbanism as a type of human nucleation behaviour still lies in the future (if indeed it will ever be forthcoming), it is probably best to work with concepts of urbanism, whether general or culture-specific (e.g. Greco-Roman urbanism), that are a bit fuzzy around the edges. One relatively useful strategy has already been mentioned, which was also successfully employed by Mogens Herman Hansen and his colleagues at the Copenhagen Polis Centre in their massive research project on the Archaic and Classical Greek polis, namely to focus on those settlements that the Greeks (and, for this book, Romans) themselves considered to be poleis (or civitates, municipia, or coloniae…). Another, compatible approach is suggested by Glenn R. Storey in his introduction to a recent collection of papers on Urbanism in the Preindustrial World, namely to regard as cities those places which are considered to be cities by the majority of specialist scholars who study them, even if such sites ‘may not look like a city according to our modern standards’.  Though not ideal, these two strategies, when combined, in practice mostly suffice for the purpose of comparative research, and they also underlie my approach in this book

What, though, was ‘the ancient city’? Can we actually, with any intellectual justification, speak of ‘Greco-Roman urbanism’, as I have done so far? My argument, in this book, is that we can, and the book itself is an attempt to provide a sketch of this particular type of urbanism. There were some essential differences between Greek and Roman cities, of course, and to some extent these will become apparent in subsequent chapters. Concepts of citizenship differed somewhat, for instance, with the Romans developing a far more legalistic notion (citizenship as a clear, legally defined set of duties and privileges), making it much easier for them to admit foreigners and even freed slaves to the citizen body. To mention some other differences, Roman centuriation practices arguably imply a far greater desire to control and administer the shape and division of civic territory than we can find among the Greeks, and Roman cities from the earliest days of imperialist expansion in Italy had been part of a hierarchy of strictly defined civic statuses, with each status implying a specific legal relationship with the city of Rome itself. On the whole, however, the similarities outweighed the differences, as I hope this book will make clear. Since this argument is essentially contained in the chapters that follow, I shall limit myself here to discussing briefly several famous earlier attempts to formulate a general ‘model’ of the ancient Greco-Roman city.

‘Roman cities were just like Greek cities’, Nicholas Purcell has recently written, referring to strong similarities in the manner of exploitation of territories, social structure, expressions of communal identity and urban landscapes. Purcell’s essay is mildly polemical, for, as he notes, ‘the idea that ancient urbanism should be taken as a single phenomenon has not been popular among ancient historians’ even though ‘[i]t is familiar to archaeologists’. He justifiably singles out Frank Kolb’s major study of Die Stadt im Altertum as one important exception among more recent scholarship. However, for several important nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers, ‘the ancient city’, comprising both the Greek polis and the Roman civitas, was an analytical category of crucial significance. Here I refer primarily to Fustel de Coulanges, Max Weber and Moses Finley. For all three, delineating the contours of ‘the ancient city’ as an ideal type served to stress the essential differences between antiquity and modernity, and for each of them, emphasising these differences served a broader political and intellectual agenda.

The French historian Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges was provoked to write his La Cité antique, published in 1864, by the use Jacobin revolutionaries had made of ancient Greco-Roman examples to justify radically egalitarian policies. In this he was a late representative of the Idéologues, a group of liberal intellectuals who in the decades around 1800 had already sharply criticised the Jacobin use of antiquity as inspiration for the (violent) reform of French society. Greek and Roman mentality and institutions, Fustel argued, were irremediably different from those of later Europe. The ancient polis or civitas, according to Fustel, found its origin in a primordial, Indo-European notion of private property (which at a stroke also ruled out ‘primitive communism’ as mankind’s pristine state, another revolutionary favourite). Early Greeks and Romans worshipped their ancestors, who were spiritually located in the hearth of the household. Ancestor worship was therefore closely linked with the cult of Hestia or Vesta, the hearth-goddess. Given that this religion was centred on the family house and the family tomb, possession by the family of the house and its tomb and the land on which these stood was sacred and inalienable. Over time, the unification of families (gentes) into phratries, tribes and, ultimately, cities transferred these notions to the level of the community, exemplified by the cult of the civic hearth. Ancient cities, Fustel aimed to show, thus came into being in a way fundamentally alien to the medieval and early modern European urban experience.

Read the full extract here

Enjoyed reading this article? Share it today:

Latest Comments

Have your say!