The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: a natural history
Greg Woolf
Oxford University Press, £25
ISBN 978-0199664733
Review by: Andrew Selkirk

Is it possible to write history without people? Of course, archaeology is all about history without people, but we invent the people. Is it possible to have a more ecological approach? The latest champion of this ecological approach is Greg Woolf, the Director of the Institute of Classical Studies in London, in a new book, The Life and Death of Ancient Cities, which he meaningfully subtitles A Natural History.

The founder of the ecological school was the French historian Fernand Braudel in his book The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949). He was a leader of the Annalesschool, preaching the virtues of history in the longue durée. After a long pause, the cause was taken up by Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell (now the Camden Professor at Oxford) in The Corrupting Sea. This was followed by The Making of the Middle Sea, by Cyprian Broodbank, who gives a sparkling account from a prehistorian’s point of view: Cambridge was so excited by it that they made him the Disney Professor. And now we have the same ecological approach from a classicist, Greg Woolf, who applies it to classical cities.

Woolf begins by asking the question: why live in cities? How did humans become ‘urban animals’? Woolf starts in Mesopotamia and the first very early cities, of which the most important was Uruk. Eventually, in the late Bronze Age, urbanism spread to the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean is different because it is more fragmented. In the Middle East, it is possible to travel direct from city to city, but in the Mediterranean area, the sea is always intervening. But in the late Bronze Age Mediterranean there were two big changes: first, the advent of bronze, which meant that two metals – tin and copper – had to be sourced separately and brought together. And then there was the advent of sailing vessels. This made a huge difference as ships became much bigger and faster. The Uluburun shipwreck discovered off Turkey in 1984 contained 80 ingots of copper, enough to produce 11 tons of bronze. This is the beginning of serious trade, and the Minoans and the Mycenaeans mark the emergence of cities into the Mediterranean.

Around 1200 BC, however, there is a Bronze Age collapse for which there is no satisfactory ecological explanation. A couple of centuries later, cities once again emerged, but this time they were very different. Instead of great empires as in the Middle East, they are city-states scattered around the Mediterranean. The spread went almost everywhere: to Italy, to Spain, and along the north coast of Africa, spread by the Phoenicians. Woolf argues that among the liveliest of these early cities were those in north-central Italy, in Etruria. These early settlements were organised not by kings but on a family basis, by kinship, with ever more elaborate family tombs providing much of the evidence.

However, by the 6th century BC, the Greeks were becoming ever more prominent and could be found almost everywhere. The Greek language spread and so did the newfangled alphabet, which they had adapted from the Phoenicians and which other peoples such as the Etruscans took over too. Coinage, which the Greeks had adopted from the Lydians in south-west Anatolia, began spreading. And Greek gods began spreading too, and many cities came to Delphi to make offerings, to obtain prophecies, and generally to pick up news and gossip – for what are prophecies if not a form of gossip? And the Greeks themselves began sending out settlements or colonies all around the eastern Mediterranean, up into southern France, and along the shores of the Black Sea. Woolf is a bit suspicious of these colonies and wonders if in practice they may have been joint ventures, where the Greeks settled with the connivance of the locals, offering them trading benefits if they were allowed to settle.

Greek ideas found favour too. Greek ideas of entertainment spread with the concept of drinking parties known as the symposium, which can be traced by the use of drinking vessels. A new type of temple was widely adopted too, where the central building for keeping the gods was surrounded by columns, with space for statues at either end. We tend to think that such temples are the norm but in fact they were a Greek invention. Then the Greeks invented a new way of fighting with heavier armour and in a solid mass of foot soldiers known as hoplites. This has interesting political implications, for the hoplites were citizen-soldiers who relied on cooperation, and the spread of hoplite fighting is often associated with the spread of democracy. The new form was very successful and Greek hoplites were much in demand as mercenaries – Greek soldiers were the best of all.

There was a different form of organisation in the Middle East, where the Persians had established a tributary empire. Previous empires were based on constant raiding and transporting your enemies to be under your control. But the tributary empire left local kings in control, providing they paid tribute. In Greece, the democratic city-states were unstable, and in 330 BC Alexander, having conquered Greece, destroyed the Persian Empire and took it over. Alexander died before he could really establish his empire, which was split among his successors, and a hybrid form of city-state within a tributary empire arose. Rome then took this over and repurposed the instruments of government as city-states. No taxes or tribute were levied from the cities, but they were obliged to provide troops, and it was this adaptation that was the secret of Rome’s success.

The city-state went through a number of stages. In the 6th and 5th centuries BC, the temples were the main object of the city’s endeavours. Then civic buildings began to be erected:council buildings or theatres, which were often interchangeable. Town planning was invented and processional ways with spectacular views were laid out. There was a monumental centre known as the forum, and covered marketplaces or macella were built. Under the Romans, entertainment became more prominent, with amphitheatres, circuses, and, above all, baths being erected. These were all funded and built by private individuals: in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, the magic formula was introduced whereby the leading citizens competed with each other to see who could build the most lavish structures.

The concept of the city-state reached its apogee at different times. North of the Alps, cities stopped growing by around AD 200. In North Africa, they still flourished in the 3rd century, and in Asia Minor, spectacular building works continued into the 4th century, while great churches were being built in the 5th century.

Most cities remained small, at around 5,000 inhabitants, though there were a few mega-cities or megalopoleis: Syracuse early on, and then Alexandria, Constantinople, and above all Rome, which reached a population of at least 500,000, if not a million. These last two grew with imperial support, by importing grain. The trouble was that when the sources of grain were cut off, these great cities declined and then collapsed. They were sustained by imperial power.

Most cities in the ancient world were small by today’s standards, with around 5,000 inhabitants. There were a few exceptions, including Constantinople and Rome (shown here), both sustained by imperial power. [Image: L Marchini]

But how do we explain the de-urbanisation of the post-Classical Era? Woolf tried to avoid what he calls the ‘classic and moral undertones’ of decline and fall, and looks for ecological reasons. He sniffs around two interesting causes: climate and disease. Climate studies suggest a Roman climatic optimum between the 1st century BC and the 2nd century AD, while a number of plagues are recorded, particularly the Antonine plague in the 2nd century and the Justinianic plague of the 540s onwards. He weighs both of them, but feels that there is not sufficient evidence at present. He talks of the gradual collapse of imperial status and the changes in taxation, and notes the erosion of resilience in this later period. In the earlier period, when cities suffered a disaster they recovered rapidly, but in the later period they contracted in size and a smaller inner city was constructed, often using material from demolishing earlier monuments.

Overall, this is a splendid book. The concept of a city-state, forming a larger entity made up from lots of individual cities, most of them small by our standards but different from the eastern cities, is a concept I make great use of, and it is very interesting to see how Woolf emphasises the ubiquity of the concept in the Mediterranean. I feel there is a certain weakness in his treatments of the declines, both the decline of 1200 BC and the decline of the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Certainly, a generation ago Jared Diamond in his book Collapse showed how ecological explanations can be applied in certain specific cases, but it is difficult to use ecology on a larger scale. Perhaps, as Woolf says, we need more evidence and it will be the task of the next generation to provide it. But this is an excellent book to read: there is no jargon, no use of private language, and I must make certain that I do not neglect the environmental aspects. I have enjoyed reading it and I find there is much to ponder over.


This review appeared in issue 103 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.