Greg Wolf’s approach is astounding, as is the fact that the German publisher has changed the subtitle of the book. In the original, this is “Natural History” and it’s pretty programmatic: because the ancient historian is mostly based on archeology, geography, and environmental science – and sees himself as an evolutionist.
Woolf argues very strictly and clearly: urbanism is the socio-evolutionary path of humanity, which is why cities were created at different times, but on all continents, he writes. City life offers people benefits thanks to their high level of adaptability, for example to spaces and food options.
Eridu and Uruk were first
The first cities were probably Sumerian Eridu and Uruk, followed by others in the so-called Fertile Crescent, a region that stretches in port from Mesopotamia through southern Anatolia to Egypt. However, its focus has been on the development of cities in the Mediterranean since the first millennium BC.
Woolf dispels false expectations: because most ancient cities were quite small. Which offered advantages, they were more resilient because they could take care of themselves from the environment. The author clearly and on good examples describes the first megacities, the centers of great empires that emerged from city-states. Rome, Constantinople or London show that the geographical position in question, with its fertile hinterland and navigable waters, was important.
On the other hand, however, the imperial will: Only strong rulers had the necessary materials, food, and labor to enable cities to grow in this way. If this imperial background was absent, megacities quickly returned to normal: Rome’s population fell by 330 from over a million to 20,000 people within 300 years.
Megacities have problems
Because megacities naturally had problems: they could no longer feed themselves. And perhaps – Woolf is not sure and that is one of the advantages of the book he calls research gaps – the so-called climate optimum of the Roman era with rich harvests encouraged the development of Rome into a megacity, while worse weather conditions later led to food shortages.
In addition, ancient cities were often unhealthy places: narrow and poor hygienic conditions ensured the rapid spread of pathogens, which often came from afar. Which, according to Woolf, could also have had an impact (and it sounds familiar to us today).
Urban development as natural history. Greg Woolf wrote an exciting and detailed study of the early founding and development of cities, so taught – only 47 pages of references – as befits a university lecturer, and yet well and really exciting to read as expected from a popular non-fiction book.