Tearing Down Misconceptions — A Review of “The Life and Death of Ancient Cities”

Woolf, Greg. The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Reviewed by Kathryn Grossman

On December 21, 2020, then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order titled “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture.” Stipulating that “classical architecture shall be the preferred and default architecture for Federal public buildings” in Washington, DC, the order drew heavily on romanticized misunderstandings of the monumental architecture of ancient cities like Rome and Athens. 

For many Americans, the idea of “the ancient city,” an urban form modeled on Athens and Rome in their heyday, looms large. Greg Woolf’s new book, The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History, puts to rest the idea that there is any such category as “the ancient city” and disabuses us of the notion that the monumental, gleaming-white, marble architecture of our imaginings was somehow the norm in classical cities. In so doing, Woolf introduces us to the messy, colorful, local, diverse, and often short-lived reality of urban experimentation across the ancient Mediterranean world. Composed as a series of interwoven urban biographies full of gritty detail, the picture that he paints for us feels far more real and recognizable than the monochrome, idealized antiquity of our collective dreams. 

Woolf’s book offers a “natural history” of ancient urbanism, that is, an account grounded in careful observation, thick description, and “an explicitly evolutionary agenda.” Woolf explores the ecological niches occupied by ancient cities, the feeding habits of their inhabitants, the webs of interconnection that linked them with other settlements and regions, and the architectural skeletons on which the urban fabric hung. Wherever possible, he relies on metaphors drawn from the natural world; for example, we are urban apes, living in urban jungles that we have constructed to serve as nests. Archaeologists have long been conflicted about the application of biological models and metaphors to social phenomena, and debates over the utility of evolution as an interpretive framework within archaeology have been especially vociferous. That being said, Woolf eschews a traditional, unilinear, evolutionary model that draws a single, upward trajectory leading from small villages to grand cities and from the swamps of southern Mesopotamia to the banks of the Tiber. Instead, he highlights the instability and fragility of urban systems across the ancient Mediterranean and Near East, with all but the largest megalopolis subject to cycles of growth and decline. Woolf’s model of urban evolution is more a series of intersecting and overlapping sine waves than a linear progression. 

The archaeological site of Tell Brak (ancient Nagar), Syria. Liberally dotting the landscape of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Turkey, and the Levant, mounds like this are the remains of some of the earliest experiments in urbanism. Image by author.

The book is organized into four sections: An Urban Animal, An Urban Mediterranean, Imperial Urbanisms, and De-urbanization. These sections proceed in roughly chronological fashion from the Bronze Age, through the Iron Age, into the Classical Era, and ending roughly with the end of the western Roman Empire. This is not, however, the natural history of any one site, or even of a collection of particular cities across time and space. Woolf discusses cities (both big and small) to determine whether there is any such thing as “the ancient city” or even such a thing as a uniquely Mediterranean urbanism. Uruk and Ur, Constantinople and Carthage, Rome and Athens — they all make appearances. So too do lesser-known cities: Tell Brak, Kourion, Huelva, Cerveteri.  But the book isn’t really about these places per se. These cities make their appearances as brief illustrative vignettes, nodes that blink on and off in a vast, interconnected, but heterogeneous network. Woolf also delves into topics of broad chronological scope, addressing, for example, the workings of empire or the impacts of Mediterranean topography. While these occasional, big-picture digressions allow the author to build out important details and avoid a purely chronological narrative, they also result in a certain degree of repetition that could probably have been avoided with some judicious reorganization. 

Any project of this scope is vulnerable to the criticism of specialists familiar with the details of the case studies. As a Mesopotamian archaeologist, I found myself disagreeing with some of the details of Woolf’s argument in the sections devoted to Mesopotamia (or, perhaps more often, saying “Ok, yes, but…”). Still, I seldom took issue with his broader points. Written for both the interested public and academia, the book is rather lightly referenced. I often found myself wondering, “Well, where did he get that?” For a book immersed in the Classical and Near Eastern worlds, however, the references are refreshingly anthropological and highlight the interesting work being done by anthropologists in a region of the globe often overlooked by the wider discipline of anthropological archaeology. As such, Woolf’s presentation of the ebb and flow of urbanism over time and space moves well beyond the territory of a regional history, proposing new directions for anthropological engagement with urbanism.

A section of the Great Colonnade at the Hellenistic and Roman city of Apamea in western Syria. Originally a military encampment, the city grew to become a major trading hub for the Romans. Image by author.

The breadth and depth of Woolf’s study is impressive; he writes in clear, accessible language that is intended to appeal both to the interested public and to archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, geographers, urban studies specialists, and especially those with an interest in ancient and/or comparative urbanism. The text does include a surprising number of typos, but these do not detract from the overall readability. 

As an archaeologist and historian, Woolf draws heavily on the excavated remains of ancient cities, using the archaeological record as a corrective to both received wisdom and contemporary historical narratives. Unlike a traditional archaeological monograph, however, Woolf’s book is only lightly illustrated: just 36 images and eight maps in over 400 pages of text. And, unfortunately, the majority of these graphics are washed out, grayscale reproductions of stock images that function more to break up the text than to illustrate any particular points. Again, this does not detract from the overall readability, but it does seem like something of a missed opportunity. 

In sum, Woolf’s The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History is an engaging and richly detailed account that effectively tears down misconceptions about the ancient city and replaces them with a more diverse, more believable, and, ultimately, more interesting tale of kaleidoscopic urban experimentation across the ancient Mediterranean world. 

Dr. Kathryn Grossman is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at North Carolina State University. She is an archaeologist with expertise in the early urban societies of Southwest Asia and the eastern Mediterranean. She has been a senior staff member on archaeological projects in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Cyprus and currently directs the Makounta-Voules Archaeological Project in western Cyprus. 

Featured image (at top): Giovanni Paolo Panini’s Ancient Rome (1757, Metropolitan Museum of Art) depicts an imaginary collection of real works of art and architecture from Rome. The image perfectly encapsulates an Early Modern view of ancient cities that persists to this day in the American psyche – decontextualized, sanitized, static, and commoditized. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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