Book Review: The Ancient City

In our most recent issue of Ancient History Magazine, we focused on ancient cities. In preparation, I looked for books that would help shed some light on the differences between modern, medieval, early modern, and ancient cities.

When we think of cities, we think of a modern metropolis filled with tall buildings and a smattering of historic landmarks. When we think of cities of the past, a bustling medieval market, a burgeoning merchant class, and abysmal sanitation often comes to mind. Does anything from a modern or medieval model apply to the ancient city?

In his latest book The Ancient City, Arjan Zuiderhoek attempts to provide an answer to that very question for newcomers to urban and ancient studies. It is important to note, while Zuiderhoek does make references to the Near East, North Africa, and the New World, the book is predominantly focused on the urbanism prevalent in ancient Greek and Roman cities.

From the outset, Zuiderhoek make it clear that this is an overview sketch and not a definitive in-depth investigation of ancient cities. The book is primarily geared to those new to the topic and looking to understand specifically how ancient Roman and Greek cities functioned over time, with some comparative analysis and presentation of variant academic viewpoints.

The book covers city and country, and the relationship between the two in relation to the prosperity and day-to-day functions of the ancient city. It also looks at urban landscapes, politics, and the economy – with its heated debate over the “middle class”, i.e., was there such a thing in an ancient city? (you will have to read the book to get his answer!) Finally, Zuiderhoek wades into the tricky territory of city-states (yet another area of controversy among urban scholars), and asks if this term still applies to ancient Roman and Greek cities.

The book ends with a discussion of the decline of ancient cities, and where exactly that boundary lies between ancient, late antiquity, and medieval periods. He examines the various theories of what caused the demise of the ancient city, and how rapid this retreat was alongside the meteoric rise of Christianity and the Barbarian invasions.

Zuiderhoek does his best to give as much information as possible without inundating the reader. He offers new viewpoints and insightful arguments for the debates surrounding ancient Greek and Roman cities. The Ancient City offers students a good starting point, however, there is one caveat: the book is heavily invested in presenting various scholarly debates on the subject; if you have never encountered any of these arguments or theories, it may be difficult to follow in some sections. So while it is technically an “introduction”, it is an introduction to those with a least a basic working knowledge and understanding of ancient/medieval urbanism.

Arjan Zuiderhoek was featured in the most recent issue of Ancient History Magazine

Living the Urban Dream: Cities in the Ancient World

Get your copy here!

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