Books Reviews

Life and Death of Ancient Cities by Greg Woolf

Greg Woolf wants us to look again at the long history of cities and to explore the complicated mechanics of urban development across the world.

The City has come under greater scrutiny in the last few years. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, attacks from extreme Right Wingers against world cities increased. In 2016, the recently crowned British Prime Minister Theresa May told the nation:

Today, too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass on the street … but if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.

Theresa May

The message was clear, and chilling. Some urban dwellers had become detached from the people or from what many members of May’s party would call ‘blood and soil’. Cosmopolitan and open communities were no longer to be tolerated. It was perhaps less the cities themselves, than the people who lived in them: the “North London cosmopolitans”. (The roads and streets are also used by May’s citizens).

These kinds of attacks have been repeated throughout history, just like the plagues and pandemics which have also cast their shadows over cities. 

Cities have always been places of mobility and connection. The Ancient City par excellence Alexandria (formerly Rhakotis) was a cosmopolitan entrepot for millennia. One of their most obvious strengths was, and is, that they bring together a critical mass of people in close proximity.

Yet it is also important to note that cities have also been places of inequality and exploitation. One of the abiding images of 2020 will be the toppling of the statue to a slave trader in Bristol. The slave trade was an urban and modern phenomenon; a vast evil made possible by the developments within and between cities and their elites. Yet within cities, there is also hope. Just as the statue fell, so might some other evils.  

The evolution of cities

Greg Woolf in his profound new work wants us to look again at the long history of cities and to explore the complicated mechanics of urban development across the world. 

One of his most startling arguments is that the city – country divide is in many ways a false dichotomy. Instead the countryside is as much a part of urbanism as cities themselves. 

Cities developed across millenia in many different locations, often independently of each other. They required agricultural surpluses, and in return offered specialised goods.

And not just the countryside, humans themselves were made by cities. Cities were built as spaces to fit human bodies. They supported the consumption models of human. Yet living in cities has changed us. The diets of many early city dwellers become carb-heavy and have remained like that in most places and times.

A Whig Field of study? 

For Woolf, urban development is a process of human evolution. Although evolution is not reversible, this does not mean it is inevitable. Evolution happens as a result of mutations and changes. When a mutation provides an advantage it tends to survive.

Woolf persuasively argues that our evidence for urbanism is skewed towards those sites in which it succeeded. What we can not be so certain about is the long history of failed cities and the impact this had on early urbanism. He asks:

How many times around the world did groups of farmers begin to create a city only to have it fail? Was Uruk beginners’ luck, or the fruits of long perseverance?

He is too good a historian to fall for the trap of Whig History: the idea that development is unavoidable and history is a continuous progress.

Most cities did not increase in size during this period remaining little more than larger villages. Spaces of urban development also remained in close connection with spaces and cultures that did not live in cities. These were often border zones which provided necessary goods.

But some cities did grow. Woolf provides some reasons for the growth of individual city sites: ecological advantage or physical geography, but perhaps luck plays a strong role in this. The maximum sizes also increased over time. Nineveh capital of the Assyrian Empire had perhaps 100-150,000 inhabitants, Seleucia had about 500,000 and Rome in the reign of August has one million.


The city is not just the collection of buildings and the community which develops within that space. It is also the systems and connections between different cities. Woolf explores the networks between different urban hubs, identifying different types of network (commercial, administrative and religious).

It is this set of networks which is one of the most important aspects of urbanism. They do not make the whole world one big city, but rather made the world urbanised in the sense that it became a system in which cities acted as central hubs and the countryside and smaller settlements acted as spokes. The city never lost its reliance on agriculture and at many times non-urban cultures dominated. Nevertheless cities have largely been the centres of power (economical, administrative, religious).

These connections were not universal. In some areas cities of a similar size grew whereas in other areas and at other periods hierarchies developed leading to inequalities between cities. 

One aspect of this interconnected world was the development of empires: the Neo-Babylonian, Assyrian, Persians and Greek empires are just four examples. Another aspect was the spread of cultures across trade routes between cities. 

The urban international elite is old. Objects in Greece often show Egyptian and near Eastern artistic styles. This says a lot for our taste in luxury, which has been a longstanding part of urban life. Recent finds also show that foodstuffs were transported much earlier than recently thought; for example, Philistines were eating soy and tumeric 3,000 years ago.

Traders travelled annually between the Roman Empire and India, using the monsoon winds. The Emperor Trajan is reported to have seen the ships sailing to India and saying that he wished he was also going. The silk trade also developed during this period between China and Rome, via many intermediaries. There was not a direct link between the two states but they knew about each, although perhaps not profoundly. A Roman trader may even have met the Emperor of China, claiming to be an envoy of the Roman Emperor.

Septimus Severus and Julia Domna on gold finger ring from Ancient India

The ancient ‘trade’ which has had the greatest impact on world history was that of religions. Christianity developed within cosmopolitan cities such as Jerusalem and Antioch (as described in the New Testament) and later in Rome and Alexandria and other major cities. The spread of this movement is hard to unpick, but we see a similar trend in the cult of the goddess Isis


Reading this book in early 2021 is a completely different experience than it would have been to read it in early 2020. We currently live in a time of isolation when the very reason we, as humans, get together in cities is a danger to us.

Perhaps with time, we will begin to see the impact of the pandemic in how communities and cities are organised. The Covid-19 pandemic which was spread between cities and then shut them down also uniquely showed the value of the urban system, especially its transport routes and hubs. Most importantly in the spread of vaccines. Whilst urban centres have been emptied, online shopping and services have developed, many of which depend on urbanism to create profitable models. It is also likely that as a result of their experiences, city dwellers will understand more clearly than before the value of living so closely together.

The Life and Death of Ancient Cities is an excellent book and an important addition to studies of ancient cities. Analysing the development of urbanism as a natural process, feels at once both strange but also exhilarating. This is deep history. Beginning even earlier than pre-history. The combination of humanities and science opens up whole new avenues of research and discovery.

I personally would like to have read more about human and animal cohabitation. We are told dogs and apes were a winning combination. Dogs have remained with us within the mechanised cities, whereas other animals, horses for example, haven’t. Why is this?

This question becomes even more pertinent when we think about the impact that zoonotic viruses like Covid-19 can have. On a more positive note, the pandemic has also highlighted the comfort that pets can bring. I for one, am hoping the next evolution of the city will be more dog friendly.

Photo references

Septimus Severus and Julia Domna on gold finger ring from Ancient India by Classical Numismatic Group CC BY-SA 3.0

Book cover used under Fair Use as part of review.

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics

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