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The City Of The Past: The Earliest Cities

Updated Saturday 1st January 2005

David Barber explains how the first cities began.

The city is an important subject for anyone who is interested in the ancient world.

Ancient societies constructed many of their most impressive edifices and accomplished many of their most celebrated social and cultural achievements in cities. Ancient cities are not only associated with buildings, therefore, but with legal, political and intellectual monuments as well. In some places people continue to build on these monuments, even though modern nations have origins in the social and cultural upheavals of a later era. The fact that we talk in terms of ancient and modern worlds as separate entities reflects a very real dislocation between the two. However, cities have been seen as something that unites both sides of a historical divide in a single civilising tradition.

The origins of the first cities remain murky, but the ambiguous remains of urban life in the ancient near east have traditionally been seen as evidence of a journey from a subsistence lifestyle to a higher level of social and cultural complexity. Historians have speculated that technological developments supported the creation of an agricultural surplus and that this, in turn, encouraged further stratification and more specialisation in society. The emergence of groups that were divorced from direct involvement with agriculture and the development of communal assets, like granaries or religious institutions, created a need for new defendable places to live and build.

However, it remains difficult to demonstrate virtually any aspect of this thesis on the basis of the sparse evidence available. The principle attraction of this thesis is that it accords with our own conceptions of the city.

Excavations on the sites of these early settlements reveal some attributes of a modern city: commercial activity, for example, and manufacture. We also recognize elements, like defensive walls, that we associate with early periods in our own urban history. However, we are not yet able to reconstruct urban life or establish the role cities played in a broader social or political environment.

This is important, for as we move into properly historical periods, we find that cities play a role that contradicts modern expectations. The ancient Greek city, though home to an urban population with their own private commercial and social concerns, was dominated by the civic apparatus of public life. The role of trade and commerce in driving urbanization in the Aegean regions is clear, but the city was not simply the domain of a commercially active group within society. A city - as we shall see - represented the whole nation much more closely than it does today.

This is not to deny a connection between ancient and modern cities. The rise of nation states and revolutions in industry and commerce have not entirely destroyed the remains of an ancient landscape. Here we are struck by the enduring grandeur of something that is a relic while at the same time connects us to the past. The urban life that surges around these remnants belongs to a different era, but these remains remind us of the continuity which - on a certain level - does exist.

For the societies of northern Europe, it was the Roman Empire that heralded the explosion of urbanisation, including the foundation of many centres that have grown to become major modern cities. However, an appreciation of Rome’s legacy demands we recognise difference as well as continuity.


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