The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History 
by Greg Woolf.
Oxford, 499 pp., £25, July 2020, 978 0 19 966473 3
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‘Aculture, we all know, is made by its cities,’ Derek Walcott said in his Nobel lecture. Greeks and Romans would have agreed. Although 90 per cent of the ancient population, perhaps more, lived on and worked the land, the thought-world of Mediterranean antiquity was based on the city. It was where all the life that mattered – public life, that is to say, the life of the adult male citizen – took place. Theocritus could people his Idylls with bosky vistas and lovesick shepherds, but he was writing from the teeming boulevards of Alexandria. Virgil Latinised this bucolic genre, but in the Aeneid hymned the foundation of Rome, the greatest city the world would ever know. Under Roman emperors, the Hellenistic bourgeoisie played at living in a world in which the best bits of the autonomous classical city had come back to life. Meanwhile, Roman senators sought their otium – leisure, private repose – on country estates, in between bouts of public business, negotium, which necessarily took place in the temples and colonnades of the city. The ideology of urbanism survived until the very last vestiges of antiquity were gone: in the seventh century, only a couple of decades before the Arab conquest of Spain, the ascetic Valerius of Bierzo was bullied by his bishop into returning from his hermitage to the city: he was a man of influence, and influence must not be exercised outside its legitimate urban home.

We all have a mental picture of the ancient city, shaped by swords-and-sandals epics and the chocolate-box frippery of Alma-Tadema and Lord Leighton – and, even more, by the architecture of our own cities. The cities of 19th-century France are lined with the columns, architraves and pediments of classical temples. The architectural vocabulary of British industrial capitalism was Roman, in marble, granite and brick. Britain, France and their imperial rivals imposed their reverence for antiquity on distant countries, and so from Birmingham to Philadelphia and Sydney, it’s the weather and the flowers that tell you where you are and not the town hall, the art gallery or the courthouse. More than a century on, there is something touching about the way our forebears measured a city’s success by its classicising architecture. Visitors to Chicago should make the 25-mile pilgrimage to Gary, Indiana. Once a steeltown to rival Pittsburgh or Sheffield, its Fifth Avenue and Broadway sheathed in neoclassical grandeur, it is now a giant mausoleum, mile after mile of derelict banks and department stores, spookier and more evocative of human transience than the ruins of Ephesus or Leptis Magna.

Walcott imagined Port au Spain as ‘how Athens may have been before it became a cultural echo’, but in Trinidad too, the neoclassical echo of imperialism obtrudes on the green lawns and pink blossoms of Queen’s Park Savannah. Architraves in the tropics are no more inauthentic as evocations of antiquity than the triumphal arches of Paris or New York. The real ancient city was nothing like the way we imagine it, not even Rome after three hundred years of megalomaniac generals and emperors had stuffed it full of ever more grandiose monuments. Most ancient cities were tiny. None of them boasted block after block of monumental stone façades. Sometimes they had defensive walls, sometimes not; usually they had a marketplace and a temple or three, perhaps a palace or a handful of public buildings. We don’t see the reality, but something confected with a little help from ancient authors’ attempts to serve up an urban paradigm. Pausanias, a second-century Pevsner in Roman Greece, was on the lookout for any place without a townscape to match its civic status. He scoffed at the polis that didn’t possess an agora, let alone a gymnasium or civic hall. Modern nation-builders can be forgiven for taking Pausanias at face value, but there is nowadays no reason to endorse this kind of prejudice. Some twenty years ago, Greg Woolf forced scholars to rethink entirely the phenomenon we still, for want of a better term, call Romanisation. Now, he wants to do the same thing for ancient urbanism in The Life and Death of Ancient Cities, a general history that manages to escape both the superficiality and the cretinous populism to which the genre is prone.

Beginning with a whistlestop tour of pre- and early historic urbanisms (Australia and Antarctica are the only continents not to have spawned cities independently), Woolf settles in the Fertile Crescent a hundred thousand years ago, when our species shared the planet with other early humans and had just begun to co-evolve with dogs. Next, less than fifteen thousand years ago, there are the earliest domestications: being exceptionally social creatures ourselves, we were able to exploit the sociability of goats and sheep, pigs and cattle, and eventually even equids, to create ‘multi-species societies’. After that, farming, just ten or twelve thousand years ago. Farming, Woolf contends, is a necessary precondition for cities, but it is certainly not a sufficient one. Very large agglomerations of people can still live in villages if everyone’s a farmer. Cities cannot come into existence without the food that farmers supply, but they only do so when somebody has something as well as food that someone else wants. And so we come to the first cities of Sumer, and then to Ur.

It would have been fatally easy for Woolf to make this book just another Rise of the West, trot out potted histories of some Mesopotamian and Egyptian cities, then hasten to the glory that was Greece. His emphasis on our biological past is just the sort of minor variation that could have been made to feel significant without shifting the paradigm. Plus, as anyone who’s tried it – even for the purposes of an undergraduate lecture – can attest, writing dynamically about the ancient Near East is hard. The legacy of Orientalism has frozen a thousand years of history into a changeless alterity. Woolf injects some energy into the story with a handful of historical figures (Sargon of Akkad, Hammurabi, the ones you’d expect). But he spends more time on the travellers, traders and warriors who transported the resources and technologies of urban living from east to west and back again, without the climatological constraints of north-south transfers. Copper and tin, even more than gold and silver, were vectors carrying the possibility of urbanism. Once bronze became the favoured medium of violence and power, access to its raw materials was worth any sort of risk. And so new horizons beckoned. From cabotage, to island hopping, to tiny ships cleaving the unpredictable Mediterranean waves, whispers about life in the city ranged outwards from Cyprus to the Cyclades to Sicily, and then on to the mouth of the Guadalquivir beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. But not inevitably. Woolf’s Bronze Age cities are not a model for imitation, but possible outcomes from which to pick and choose. More important, some might reject urban living in favour of pastoral or village life. Nothing guaranteed the rise of the city, still less the rise of the West, which was a latecomer and not because the best was being saved for last. Again and again, Woolf reminds us that early Mediterranean urbanism was bitty, impoverished and a little sad by comparison with that of the Levant, let alone the Nile or Euphrates.

In a concession to the subconscious Eurocentrism of most readers, Woolf allows that Bronze Age urbanism was imported to the Aegean and Mediterranean – not a foreign graft imposed on a Western rootstock but mimetic wishful thinking, like stuccoed mission architecture in California. It ended badly, across three or four centuries, and the Bronze Age gave way to wreckage. Woolf is honest with his readers: a universal collapse that takes four hundred years doesn’t have just one cause. There is no single ‘year that civilisation collapsed’. Instead, Woolf gives us a brief interlude, surveying life amid the Bronze Age flotsam, and then picks up again with the potentially more familiar Mediterranean urbanism of the archaic and classical eras – which he goes on to defamiliarise with palpable glee.

He begins with a provocation – the Iron Age wasn’t a world of improved technologies, but a result of a failure of scale. Without access to distant tin and copper, people had to rely on widespread but localised iron deposits. Woolf also pours cold water on attempts to write about the early Iron Age using the extant written evidence: everything before 600 bce is prehistory, and it’s only in fifth-century Greece and third-century Rome that we can have even minimal confidence in a chronology of events. What has usually been told as the story of Greek colonisation – the brave little poleis of the Aegean sending out settlers to the distant shores of Spain, France and Italy – is shown to have actually consisted of joint ventures with local chiefs and populations. Abroad in the world, speakers of the various Greek dialects became more conscious of their identity as Greeks, and caused tiny urban sites around the coastline to converge into networks joined up by sea lanes. The city-state, variously governed, proved an adaptable way of managing groups larger than the 150 people with whom any one individual can maintain actual personal relationships. Conflict management in a growing population was, in fact, one of the reasons that cities became states – Athens’s radical experiment in democracy may have been an inspired solution to rivalry among aristocratic clans. Even in Attica, though, the limits of the Mediterranean’s carrying capacity were always visible. As every viable settlement site filled up, and conflicts could not be mitigated by out-migration, urban institutions became ever more important to the promotion of social harmony.

Many city-states forged micro-empires in their own backyards, and eventually a handful of large cities – Athens, Syracuse, Carthage, Rome – won themselves empires, a contrast with the Near Eastern world in which empires often created cities. By the last couple of hundred years bce, precarious-seeming regional hegemonies – the usual suspects, but Woolf is also good on less familiar places like Marseille and the Crimea – obscure a pretty stable landscape of cities. The Romans experimented with many different ways of governing faraway places as their empire expanded, until trial and error taught them that hegemony was most easily secured through city-states. They were more efficient at collecting taxes than tax farmers, much less prone to intrigue and rebellion than client kings, and local elites were happy to collude with empire in exchange for a free hand in exploiting their social inferiors. No wonder Rome tried to create city-states north of the Alps and Pyrenees where they had never previously existed. All the same, Rome’s empire remained a loose co-ordination of regional urban systems, some old, some new. The state’s main contribution was to enable the existence of megalopoleis – Rome, Carthage, Antioch, Alexandria, eventually Constantinople. These could only be sustained, given the very high mortality rates among tightly packed urban populations, by constant immigration and by transporting food over very great distances. Rome also started the vogue for monumental urbanism, structures of the sort Pausanias was looking for in a proper polis. It really is remarkable that the vast majority of grand public buildings known to us come from just a century and half around the turn of the millennium.

Large cities, not just the megalopoleis but regional powerhouses like Lyon or Ephesus, were always a bet against the ecological odds. Staying small could be a survival strategy – when things failed, they did so less spectacularly, and large, concentrated populations are particularly vulnerable to such shocks as earthquakes and plagues. The hypertrophied cityscapes of the early Roman Empire aren’t the measure of urban success, but freakish outliers. This is all about as far from a traditional rise and fall plot as one can get, and with twenty relatively short chapters, the book doesn’t outstay its welcome.

From the interwar heyday of Spengler and Toynbee, via Guns, Germs and Steel, to Walter Scheidel’s recent Escape from Rome, the problem with most big-picture history is its reliance on a single explanatory theory to account for incommensurate phenomena over time and across space. From hydraulic despotism as the driver of urbanism to civilisation-ending vulcanism at Santorini, Woolf dismembers a lot of sacred cows. And, in a surely conscious paradox, he ventures a master hypothesis of his own: an evolutionary approach to urbanism. We are, Woolf contends, urban apes. Natural selection predisposed Homo sapiens to life in cities. We were not predestined for urbanism, but we had particular social aptitudes that made it a potential solution to population growth. The genius of this framework is to look like the kind of grand structural explanation that sells books, when it’s really a device to short-circuit teleologies and other traditional emplotments. Or rather it’s a MacGuffin, distracting from the real mission, which is to demolish our mental image of the ancient city in both its Alma-Tadema and Gary, Indiana versions. ‘Ours are not cities in the accepted sense,’ Derek Walcott said of the Antilles, but it could just as well be Woolf on the Mediterranean.

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