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The City: The Roman and Greek Cities

Updated Saturday 1st January 2005

The concept of the city was central to both the Roman and the Greek sense of identity.

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Virgil’s story of the Roman people started with the fall of a Greek city, Troy, and reaches its narrative climax with the foundation of another city, Rome. This was only one of a number of quasi-mythical explanations of Rome’s foundation, but when Romans considered their past they viewed it as the history of a city rather than the tale of a people.

This may seem strange, but Romans didn’t see themselves as a people who had at some point acquired a city through commercial or industrial growth. As Virgil tells it, the foundation of Rome was the first and most significant event in the people’s history. Although Roman society was always fundamentally agricultural, a city played a central role in the lives of its people.

Romans were not unique in viewing the city in this way. The Greek word polis referred to a territory that contained agricultural land and a city. Often translated as ’city-state’, the polis was a political as well as territorial entity and, like the Romans, the Greeks imbued the idea of the city with tremendous significance. Aristotle’s claim that man is "by nature a political animal" expresses the idea that it is natural and inevitable that people will group together and form a state. Just as the family was seen to be a natural institution, so larger groups of people create states in which laws and institutions of government promote the general good. More than this, however, Aristotle saw the polis, in essence the city, as the ideal model for the state and therefore as a natural entity with its roots in the mysterious world of human nature.

When Greeks explored beyond the Aegean they did so as colonists, building new cities on the model of their homelands. Several centuries later, as her empire started to expand Rome adopted a similar approach, using cities to provide protection and a Roman lifestyle for residents, to extract resources from the provinces and ultimately to establish Roman institutions in native society. If it was commerce that drove urbanisation in Greece, it was the political needs of an empire that drove the urbanisation of northern Europe.

Eventually, provincial aristocrats like Ausonius, a resident of Bordeaux in the fourth century AD, came to see the political and cultural institutions of the Roman Empire as part of their own native identity. In one of his most celebrated works, a Eulogy to the greatest cities of the empire, Ausonius expresses his own place in this vast and wonderful tableau: "Bordeaux I love," he writes, "Rome I venerate, in one is my cradle in the other my curule chair" - the curule chair being a symbol of Ausonius’ status.

If cities conveyed Roman culture into Europe then we might expect this event to have left an enduring legacy in European culture. Given the coincidence between the sites of ancient and modern urbanism, might continuity of occupation not reflect continuity in other areas as well? Resolving these questions is made difficult because the world that cities function in today has been transformed by significant events. These have fundamentally changed the role of cities and the way they are perceived by the people that live in them. However, there are certain areas of urban life that clearly owe their origins to the ancient world.


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