OUP (2020) h/b 528pp £25 (ISBN 9780199664733)

Who built the Mediterranean cities? How did they manage to appropriate the very meaning of civilisation? What made them tick? And why in the end did each of them wither away? 

In this sprawling review of their rise and fall Greg Woolf pulls together what we know—of factors such as climate, farming, disease, wars and trade—to build a picture of what those great cities—Athens, Syracuse, Marseilles, Carthage, Alexandria, Antioch, Rome—were really like.

For a start they weren’t great or most of them weren’t. By 400 BC only a handful of nearly a thousand cities had over 10,000 residents; most were what we would call small towns. Even at the Roman Empire’s peak, between AD 100-200, barely half a dozen had more than 100,000; most were well below 30,000. In fact, three quarters of the population didn’t live in them at all.

The study of cities, even in ancient times, was enveloped in foundation myths and a determinist view of urban destiny as the idea of progress. By focusing on the ecology as much on archaeology, W. offers a more nuanced view. Location was critical, which is why the first cities were further east, in Anatolia and Mesopotamia. The Mediterranean was far less suitable for city-building than the great plains and river deltas of the Middle East: it lacked the fertile agriculture that mutated nomadic tribes into farming communities. So the early Mediterranean city states were tiny: when the Persian Empire was 4,000 kms across, Attica was barely 100 kms. 

There was no single route to urban growth: early cities on Malta, Cyprus and Crete had separate starts. Technology mattered, as more widespread metals like iron were discovered and sails improved. But there were dark periods too before the rise of the city-states familiar in ancient literature. 

Again, the colonies the Greeks founded as they sailed west, in search of grain, timber and metals, were very small. Town planning, drainage and temple building were followed by the rudiments of political organisation. But the drivers were trade rather than some grand design or conquest for the sake of it. And the bigger mother cities—Syracuse, Corinth, Athens—competed by emulation, their citizens fiercely patriotic and proud, hence their monuments and benefactors. 

Rome, Virgil’s ‘cypress towering above the willows’, was the exception in scale and ambition, its population probably exceeding a million. It had timber, salt and a navigable river in a rich agricultural micro-region, and first grew by acquiring the other Latin towns. One huge factor in its subsequent expansion was its openness to immigration: the constant replenishment of labour that encouraged social mobility.

Whilst the Athenian and other early city-states ran their colonies by sea, Rome’s power was maintained by land: by roads and marching camps that bridged the distance between Rome and its satellites. Veterans were settled and governors imposed, but Rome’s success lay in prioritising external security and its skill in tolerating local customs. Rebellions—in Alexandria, Thessalonica and Jerusalem—were rare enough for historians to single out.

Why did cities decline? Woolf turns this round: we should ask why many cities were so stable for so long. A warmer and more settled climate at the start of the millennium may have helped the early Roman Empire; so did its imperial construct—the military, the garrisons, bridges, granaries, communications—that held it all together for the best part of three hundred years. The self-confidence was astounding: Colchester’s temple boasted an arx aeternae dominationis.

But W.’s key point is that nonetheless these cities were sensitive eco-systems, vulnerable to different challenges. When imperial rule wavered, security weakened or grain supplies ran short, immigration faltered and populations declined. Throughout ancient times cities waxed and waned. Almost all of them were sacked, burnt, or plagued at some point, and then rebuilt. Even after the fall of Rome, most of those same cities—in France, Spain and North Africa—started all over again. Rather than searching for sudden cataclysmic events, we need to look at flora, sea levels, crop yields, the agricultural changes that mattered to these precarious ecosystems.

This is an important study which should stand alongside the tours de force of Fernand Braudel and David Abulafia. As the author recognises, more work remains to be done on cities, as much on climate and the actual impact of disease as on the surviving monuments and walls. But for W. the lone and level sands stretch even further away: after enriching our scholarship in Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews and London, he migrates this winter to a very different city, LA. 

Sir Michael Fallon was Defence secretary 2014-17