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The City: Urban Legacies

Updated Saturday, 1st January 2005

What continuity is there between the city in the ancient world and its modern counterparts?

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The relationship between the modern and the ancient world is not a matter of direct continuity. However, the development of our society has been influenced by an enduring attachment to institutions that infiltrated Northern Europe through the foundation of Roman cities. Just as the modern school child struggles to grasp the complexities of Latin grammar, even though many words in our own language have Latin roots, so it is hard for us to grasp the importance of the ancient city to the modern world. However, it is possible to identify significant examples where the survival of ancient patterns of urbanism has left an enduring legacy in European society. This discussion closes with one such example, one that has had the profoundest impact on the character of modern cities and on the shape of European societies – the Christian church.

The relationship between Christians and Romans is commonly seen as an antagonistic one, exemplified by periods of persecution. However, persecution reflects the fact that Christianity was a phenomenon that grew within Roman society and it is important to remember that the Roman Empire became a Christian empire and remained so, in the east at least, for many centuries. What is more, Roman society was ultimately instrumental in its own conversion, for an empire of roads, sea-lanes and cities provided ideal conditions for the spread of ideas. It is no coincidence that the first Christian communities were found in cities, like Lyon, where commercial activities supported close contacts with the East. Were it not for Rome, one would be forced to concede, at the very least, that the history of the Christian church would have been very different.

Though heralded as a victory by contemporaries, this rise to predominance was not an entirely comfortable development for the church. Christian congregations were long accustomed to seeing themselves as a community within a community, not a model for a society that their religion had rejected. At the same time, the empire needed a religion that could guide a state in its worldly as well as its spiritual aspirations. However, as it grew in size and power the church adapted and imperial society changed in order to accommodate it. Bishops were elevated to positions of great power and the church became the defining institution in urban life. Perhaps most importantly the ecclesiastical structure of cathedrals and Episcopal sees was grafted onto the network of cities, giving us what we now comprehend as the notion of the metropolitan church.

An empire of cities, united by a Roman calendar of religious and civic festivities, by respect for Roman institutions and an attachment to Latin cultural standards was subsumed by a network of urban communities who realised their common identity in one of a network of Christian congregations. Even after the collapse of the empire the church was preserved as the focus of communities who styled themselves as ’Romans’ in the face of their new Germanic overlords. Bishops were acceptable leaders to the new Kings, who would broach no secular rival. Many of the features we associate with the medieval city, in particular the central position of the church in everyday life, and the patterns of life associated with that position were established in this period. As the Roman Empire declined, the Church became more and more established as the heart of town living.

 

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