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Charter Cities Podcast Episode 18: Ancient Cities with Greg Woolf

Cities may have seemed more fragile during the global COVID-19 lockdowns but, as Greg Woolf’s impressive studies of early urbanism show, cities have been re-invented many times. In today’s episode, listeners hear from Greg, an historian and archaeologist specializing in the late Iron Age and the Roman Empire. Greg is currently the Director of the Institute of Classical Studies and a Professor of Classics at the University of London. His research concerns the history and archaeology of the ancient world at a very large scale, and he has published on literacy, on cultural change in the provinces, on identities in the ancient world, and also on libraries and knowledge cultures. He is currently researching urban resilience, mobility, and migration in the ancient world, and his latest book, The Life and Death of Ancient Cities, was published in 2020. In this episode, Greg talks about the ancient city of Göbekli Tepe and how it has influenced the way we think about city creation. He explains the common traditions that create a city, how those essential precursors have influenced human behavior, and how language and resources have travelled across the globe since ancient times. Greg also covers the collapse of the Bronze Age, the following urbanization in the Mediterranean, and some key factors that influenced the locations of ancient cities, and he ponders on the comparative advantage that Rome had over its neighbors. Finally, Greg shares his opinions on governance and the role it plays in the evolution of cities, and he offers some core lessons from what led to a successful versus an unsuccessful ancient city. Tune in today!

Transcript (edited for clarity):

Mark: Hello, and welcome to the Charter Cities Podcast. I’m your host, Mark Lutter, the founder and executive director of the Charter Cities Institute. On the Charter Cities Podcast, we illuminate the various aspects of building a charter city. From governance to urban planning, politics to finance, we hope listeners to the charter cities podcast will come away with a deep understanding of charter cities, as well as the steps necessary to build them.

You can subscribe and learn more about charter cities at Follow us on social media, CCIdotCity on Twitter, and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook.

Thank you for listening.

My guest today is Greg Woolf. He is an historian and archaeologist, specializing in the late Iron Age and the Roman Empire. He is currently the Director of the Institute of Classical Studies and a professor of classics at the University of London. His most recent book is The Life and Death of Ancient Cities.

Welcome to the show, Greg.

Greg: Thanks for having me.

Mark: To start, your recent book, The Life and Death of Ancient Cities, tell us a little bit about what the thesis of that book is and what you are hoping to communicate?

Greg: Well, there’s sort of two parts to it, and the first part is to argue that, rather than cities being something strange, and weird, and unnatural, that they’re actually completely natural to our species. Our species is very well-suited to live in cities. Obviously, there was no plan to make us city dwellers, but the fact that cities have grown up all over the world in the last 6,000 years shows that humans are pretty good at living in cities.

I think I’m probably with the mainstream in thinking that there’s no one big reason for this. It’s simply that cities turn out to be really good solutions to all sorts of other problems. A good solution for control, good solution for managing population. Sometimes it’s about defense. Sometimes it’s about concentrating producers close together. Cities pop up in little clusters all around the world over the last 6,000 years. To begin with, some of those clusters failed spectacularly in the Bronze Age. Then my specialty is in the Roman Empire, so the second half of the book is really looking at what happens to the cities around the Mediterranean? There’s a few unusual things about them in terms of other cities, they arrive quite late compared to the cities of what are now Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, even China and India.

Cities come quite late to the Mediterranean. I spent a bit of time asking why that is, and they’re very, very small, ancient cities in the Mediterranean. Most of them are just a few thousand people. I spent a bit of time trying to work out why that is. If there’s a big theme answer to that, it’s that the ancient Mediterranean is a very poor place to concentrate populations, because it is so difficult to get people and food around. It’s an area that’s constantly struck by famines and other kinds of crises. So, the most suitable kind of urbanism is micro-urbanism, it’s urbanism that’s close to the soil, and deeply integrated with local agricultures, farming, livestock raising, and so on. The connections between cities are important, but no city could ever really survive, just on the basis of those connections, unless it’s an imperial city.

The exceptions to the rule, the cities that get big, up to a million, in the case of Rome. Not big today, but pretty big in the ancient world. These are all capitals of empires, so they use their political muscle to either provision themselves or to guarantee themselves support from a huge area around. That’s the book in a nutshell.

Mark: Cool, there’s a lot to unpack there. Let’s start—why study classical history? What’s so interesting about that?

Greg: Oh, I find all periods of the ancient world very, very interesting. I like the big questions. But I suppose it’s an interest that’s grown. I started in a fairly traditional way. As an English school kid. I studied Latin at school and some Greek and, in my holidays, I went and dug holes on The Downs because it was something else outdoors and good fun, hanging out with other young people, and gradually those interests came together.

The way I see it now is it’s an accident that I work on the classical past, the Greek and Roman past. I’m equally interested in all sorts of other late prehistoric societies and some early prehistoric things. I think more and more I want to know the answer to the big question. We’ve been around as a species for about probably 300,000 years. That’s homosapiens, not the other hominids. That’s an enormous amount of time, and we’ve farmed for maybe 12,000 years, and we’ve, in some form or other of farming, and we’ve lived in cities for 6,000 years. So, this is a pretty big question.

If I could, I’d study all these other areas in the same way, but I don’t have Indian languages. I don’t read Mandarin. I’m not close enough to Mesoamerica to study that side. I rely on the works of likeminded others and try to try to put something together from all of that.

Mark: Cool. Your book is a reference to Jane Jacobs. Why?

Greg: Jane Jacobs is sort of one of those figures who saw the big questions. Most of us started on little bits and pieces. Around the 70s, a group of archaeologists, anthropologists, who began to say, “Well, this stuff happening in the valley of Mexico is totally different from what’s happening over there in Mesopotamia.” For a while, it was just one-on-one, calculate comparisons, but Jane Jacobs was one of the first to make it systematic, to do an urban sociology that had depth.

I mean, urban sociology, most of the time, it’s a great discipline, but it’s mostly about what’s happening today. But she was an urban historical sociologist, and her work inspires lots of us.

Mark: That’s interesting. What was the book, Economy of Cities, or Survival of Systems, not Life and Death. Life and Death was much more America-focused. What is a city and how do they first come into existence?

Greg: Okay, cities are – they’re not necessarily big. A lot of cities have just a few thousand people, but where they differ from villages of the same size is that, in a village, virtually everybody is the same, virtually everybody’s a farmer, they live in the same kind of houses. You excavate an ancient village, it might be very impressive in lots of ways, but it doesn’t have monuments, it probably doesn’t have great tombs around it. So, it a represents people living closely together, but the people are all alike.

What the difference with a city is, you have farmers, you have craftsmen, you have kings, you have priests, you have soldiers, you have – and then the same thing looks like in space. You have a public area, you have squares, avenues, boulevards, temples, and you have other things. Cities are more complicated.

Now, I think probably you couldn’t have a very, very large village, although there’s a few weird prehistoric structures that maybe had 30,000 people in them. But organizing a village of that size is really difficult. So, cities, most of them are bigger than villages, but the key thing is they’re more complicated.

Mark: So cities are basically defined by division of labor, in the sense that, with villages, everybody has the same occupation, whether it’s farmers and presumably if they get invaded, everybody picks up a spear and uses a spear. But then in a city, you actually have people who are dedicated guardsmen, and dedicated priests, and dedicated craftsmen, whatever.

If I’m looking at the history of urbanization, whether recent—and by recent I mean the last 10 years of discoveries—is a village that is named Göbekli Tepe, the village or city in Turkey, where the previous narrative was largely that, for cities to emerge, you basically needed some surplus producing crop, which is typically a grain, wheat, or rice, and that surplus producing crop, one it produces the surplus and then, two, it is also legible.

“Legible” from James C. Scott means just like kind of easy to see, measure, take quantities of, and then store. If it’s a tuber, you can just plant the tuber, and then if the bad guys come and chase you off your farm, they don’t know where to dig up, and you can come back six months later and pick up the tuber and still eat it versus, if it’s a grain, if you leave, then the bad guys can take all the grain, and then put it in their silos, and then keep it, or they can come and just tax you 20% every year and take the grain.

The traditional story of cities has basically been you need this surplus producing grain, and that leads to the ability for, typically, like that the extractive elite, to come, take some of that surplus, and then use it to live better lives themselves, then typically set up these social structures, like priests to kind of develop a civic religion. Soldiers to ensure that their boundaries are protected. What Göbekli Tepe is kind of a counterpoint to is that – my understanding is that it has all of the city structures, but it is only a temporary, part of the year. It doesn’t have all of the surrounding what might be called extractive infrastructure that was traditionally associated with cities, which basically means that people are coming to this to engage in city-like functions without the extractive technologies that have traditionally accompanied cities.

One, is that interpretation correct? And if so, too, how does that influence how we think about the creation of cities?

Greg: I mean, it’s an extraordinary site, and it’s always quite difficult to build something on the basis of just one site, but I tell the story slightly differently. I would say there are almost two traditions to a city. There’s the agricultural intensification you talked about, Scott, but I mean not just with grains also with maize in the Americas, with rice in China, and so on. These kinds of strategies of agricultural accumulation, building surpluses, just getting by to small scale, but producing more, and that ‘more’ allows you to pay for other stuff.

That’s, if you like, one route of the city. The other route of the city is collective activities, which you could call ritual, or social, or communal ones. Göbekli Tepe, I think, what it looks like, it looks like it’s one of these great sanctuaries. You get them elsewhere. Maybe Cahokia is one. Maybe Stonehenge is another. Sites which are built over generations, take huge amounts of investments of manpower. It is usually constructed entirely by human labor. Scattered populations come together and do things there, but then they go back again.

The city kind of brings these together. It’s like you’ve got a one line going down through enormous ritual sites, another going down through productive agriculture, the city brings those two together. One of the things that’s really unusual Göbekli Tepe is that most of these big ritual sites we know about are built by agriculturalists. Stonehenge is built by agriculturalists. The very first farmers perhaps, but they’re the ones doing it.

What’s unusual about Göbekli Tepe is it appears to be built by people who didn’t yet farm. I say appears because it’s a lighthouse in a landscape that isn’t fantastically well understood. So it wouldn’t totally surprise me if we think about that site in a different way in 20 years time.

Mark: The extractive part versus the ritual part, they’re both obviously part of cities. But they seem to tell very different stories of humanity. Where, one, there is this natural instinct, and it’s obviously exists to a certain extent, to form communal rituals, to build bonds.

But if this is the instinct that is the primary driver of urbanization, or the primary driver of these first groups of large people getting together, versus the domestication of grains, it seems to have a very different implications for how we understand humanity and behavior.

Greg: We’ve pretty clearly been doing ritual as long as we’ve been humans. You can find this in Australian rock art, you find this in the caves in Spain, and France, and so on. So, ritual goes back much longer, and the difference with these big ritual sites is the scale at which it’s being done. In most cases, it looks like what’s underlying that is, once you move to agriculture, once you sort of step down the food chain, stop eating things that eat grass, and eat grass yourself, populations rise dramatically.

The move to agriculture leads to big population growth, and then everything people used to do, they do in a different way. You still do ritual, but now your ritual involves lugging vast chunks of stone across the landscape and organizing them. You always used to do ritual, but it used to be 20 people around the guttering candle in a cavern. Now it’s thousands working together on these sites.

I would say the essential precursor for urbanism is agriculture. Not just grains, all kinds of agriculture, but we don’t know any society, that has built cities, that haven’t already been farmers for a few thousand years. That slow burn of farming, you become sedentary, you stay where you are, you have larger populations because, until you’ve got traction animals, one of the big constraints on productivity is input, energy input. Energy input is human power. Bigger populations produce more and there’s now an incentive to have larger populations. Perhaps for some hunter gatherers, it’s more of an incentive to have just enough people. Too many people in a hunter gatherer territory is a problem. But for agriculturalists, for quite a long time, the more the merrier.

That amping up of the raw energy, I think that explains why people do ritual differently, why they do farming differently and, eventually, why they view society differently, why they create the urban world, and the world of states, empires, kingdoms, all the rest of it.

Mark: Cool. I think, in your previous answer, you actually touched on this interesting point, saying you thought that Göbekli Tepe, our understanding of it might change in the next 20 years because of future discoveries. I’ve always kind of joked: the best way to be remembered is to build very large structures in arid environments, which is basically just the pyramids. Everybody remembers Ancient Egypt, but nobody remembers the Mesoamerican people, because all the Mesoamerican pyramids are covered in dirt and in forests.

There’s still probably like, Mayan ruins in Honduras where, every few years, you see a new Mayan ruin has been discovered, because it’s in a bunch of jungle that nobody goes to. They’ve made some recent discoveries. In addition to that, you have this, to certain extent, human tendency to sometimes want to erase the past, where recently we’ve seen ISIS and the Taliban destroying ancient sites.

The third tendency is maybe not to erase the past per se, but to a certain extent “control the past.” If you are a new emergent state, and you want to establish long roots, maybe you allow for a lot more architectural discovery, so you can say, “My people have been here forever.” Or maybe if you’re a recent conquerer, you don’t want to do that, because then you’re undermining the legitimacy because the other people have been there forever. And then, three, you just have this general what might be called archaeological technology, where, as a society gets more advanced, they have more extra income to spend, and they get better archaeology technology to discover and uncover our past history.

With that, how do you think about advances in our understanding of the past coming over the next 20, 30 years with all of these changes and factors going on?

Greg: I totally agree with what you say about the way in which people who want to reconstitute the present reconstitute the past. You can do it by demolition, you can do it by defacing things, you can do it by claiming things. You can go into the Toltec ruins and get artifacts to make yourself look good, you can bring back Greek statues and put them all over the city of Rome, all of those things are possible. Or you can ostentatiously go back to year zero, which is what a few societies have done.

North Africa after the Arab invasions of the seventh century, the Roman cities weren’t important to them. The materials were, they ‘d raid them to build amazing mosques, whereas, on the other side in the north, the Mediterranean, Franks and Byzantines and so on are busy establishing their credentials. I think it’s true that we see the remains of those big city building things. But we’re getting better at looking in unusual places. One of the big discoveries of the last 20 years or so has been the early archeology of humans in Australia. That’s meant exploring more environments.

One of the other things that has happened is that the early Australian sites were by the coast, and because people crossed into Australia, at a time when there was an ice age and sea levels were much lower, because so much water is tied up in the in the glaciers and the ice caps. Australia was bigger, it’s easier to get from New Zealand or what was now New Guinea, to Australia, but what that means is the whole ring of lost sites around Australia, that’s only just now being discovered. Or, near where I am, and the huge area of the North Sea between Eastern Scotland and Northern Germany and Scandinavia. Much of that was inhabited in the Mesolithic period by people and when the sea levels rose, but that Doggerland disappeared.

I think you asked what what we’re getting better at doing? We’re getting better at looking in weird places. So, that might mean LIDAR, laser scanning of ruins from the sky, which can map those structures that you were talking about earlier, even if the forests cover over them. Better excavation of underwater sites, and much, much better understanding of ancient biofact, even down to identifying plagues and so on, from the DNA of your long-dead populations.

I think we’ve got a lot of new tools to use, and I think we don’t find more of the same. We don’t say, “Yes, what we thought already turned out to be true.” We keep finding new additional things, that the Amazonia was populated by farmers in prehistory. In the past few years, people thought it was just a wild place until the Spaniards arrived and Portuguese But no, LIDAR can pick out cultivation sites and routes and so on underneath the forest. It’s just amazing. Really.

Mark: There’s also a report, I forget where, a year or two ago that seemed reasonably credible, that had humans in the in the Americas, I think at 20,000 BC instead of 10,000 BC. I think it was small fractured rocks that said there was evidence that they were using them to break bones for bone marrow or something. So, it’s not like knockdown evidence, but it’s not something that you can just dismiss out of hand.

Greg: No, I think that’s right. For a long time, there was a sort of – before Clovis almost seemed like a conspiracy theory, but now there’s enough sites which are definitely there. People came into the Americas multiple times and some of them hopped down the coast and got quite long way far down the coast before inland sites were settled. Then you also get tracking vegetables and chickens and things like that across the Pacific and, you know, they don’t all arrive with Columbus and Pizarro and so on. The world has been connected up a lot longer than we used to think, you know.

When I went to school, the world was completely fragmented until Christopher Columbus, and it’s not like that anymore.

Mark: Because over the last decade or two, our kind of understanding of humanity, of human nature, has changed with the DNA revolution, now that it’s very easy to sequence DNA. With the new technology for archaeology, is there anything that you would think will change our understanding of humanity, as these new technologies get more rolled out, and are able to kind of get a better sense of our past?

Greg: Yeah, I’m sure there will. There are several frontiers at the moment that are interesting. I mean, one of them is pushing the age of our species back a lot further. Another is discovering how many different versions of humans were around in the recent past. The discovery of Flores, the Denis Ovens, the apparent gene flow from Denis Ovens into some people living on the Tibetan Plateau and others colonized in the Pacific. 

At the moment we’ve got four or five populations living when people used to say, “Well, there’s just us humans and homosapiens and the Neanderthals. There’s not much more than that.” We’ve hardly scratched the surface. Most of the genetic diversity in the human race at the moment is within the continent of Africa. Because everybody else has descended from people who left Africa, probably several times in the last few hundred thousand years, but there hasn’t been as much research. Partly, it’s because it’s less easy to recover the material, the human material, from the tropics, but people are getting better and better at doing that. They’re getting better and better at recovering DNA from very small samples or particular bones, and then there’s also an entire science of investigating the prehistory of the great apes, so trying to fill in the gaps on the chimpanzee, and gorilla, orangutan family trees.

In that area, I think everything’s to play for. But of course, you never know, do you? You never know what the next one’s gonna be. Because in the nature of these things, discoveries are unpredictable. In the 70s, the big deal was radiocarbon dating, which is now so standard that everybody uses it all the time. But there’s a famous paper written called “Wessex without Mycenae.” Wessex is the area of England which has Stonehenge in it, and people had always assumed that it was built by Greeks traveling out into the Atlantic, because how would the poor, stupid Brits manage to do any of this? We knew civilization was generally east and south.

Once they began to date things with radiocarbon, they discovered that all of this is wrong. Just like now they’re beginning to see how species are related with DNA, discovered that the traditional family tree, some of them are completely fictitious, based on similarities in appearance, typical seen similarities, but the genes tell a different story.

It’s all going to be different, the future. It’s great. That’s why I love it, because it’s, it’s just changing all the time.

Mark: Let’s get back to urbanization. So how should we think about urbanization in the Bronze Age? Generally thinking about the Bronze Age, in reading your book, I realized my understanding of it was perhaps much weaker than I really thought. It was the Bronze Age, like, people talk about the Bronze Age, and you had all of these relatively advanced trading networks. Were these similar cultures? Were they speaking similar languages? If we think about the the Iron Age, if we think about the Greeks, Phoenicians, the Romans, how do we think about the Bronze Age within that broader context?

Greg: There’s a lot of Bronze Age societies that do have things in common. Bronze Age societies from China through India, and what is now Iran, Iraq, Egypt, all of them use writing, but they’re not all the same kinds of writing. So, they invent writing multiple times. They don’t use the same alphabets in Mesopotamia that the Egyptians do, even quite close ones. They all use some basic forms of weights and measures and some math, which suggests that one of the key uses is to manage surpluses and trades and so on.

But, again, it does vary, and probably they don’t – well, we know there are many different languages, and probably the language groups are more different in the Bronze Age than they are later. Later you get the big spreads or the Indo-European family of languages that does appear in the in the late Bronze Age, and that connects up north Indian languages with Celtic, Germanic, Greek, Latin, but also less common ones like Hittite, and so on.

Language flow does happen later but, to begin with, it’s more like, all the way around the world, some farming societies have made the jump to urbanism. Perhaps there were others that tried and failed, we just wouldn’t know, because if you don’t last more than a couple of generations, you’re invisible. Somehow or other, these societies popped up, and then one of the first things they do is they start reaching out, like huge tendrils, to try and get stuff from somewhere else. The first cities in what’s now central, southern Iraq, they needed timber. Well, this isn’t a great place for timber, and they needed metals.

Eventually, you get caravans of donkeys going up onto the Anatolian plateau, carrying textiles and other goodies, and trading them for metals. Meanwhile, there’s people out in Afghanistan, as it is today, mining red rare stones and making objects out of those. So, these societies, to begin with, they’re trading with distant people, hardly any of them know what’s at the other end of the trade route. Often things go through several middlemen, like with a famous Silk Road that you don’t get traders that set out from China, and end up in Italy, and then back again, except for Marco Polo.

No one really knows where this stuff comes from, and there are stupid legends. You know, the Greek Herodotus thinks that gold comes from India, where gold dust is mined by giant ants. The Romans knew nothing about China apart from that’s where silk comes from. Their name for them is the ‘seres’, the silk people. The Chinese eventually get a bit of information about the Romans, but it’s so on the edge that they think the Roman capital is in Antioch, which is near modern Damascus. They don’t even know the Mediterranean Sea exists.

So, no, these people are information starved, but they are desperate to get materials, and some materials are rare. If you want to build great palaces in Egypt, you want to cedar wood, but cedar wood, you need to go to Lebanon. And so the first maritime sailing, is when the Egyptians elaborate the sail they’ve been using on the Nile and go on up to Lebanon. Then there’s some unexpected consequences. Once you go up – you know, what starts as an expedition to go and get some wood, you then discover you can get to Cyprus, and it turns out there’s copper there, and then you can go to Greece.

These things ramify, they shoot out branches, they connect. Like I say, probably a lot of these expeditions fail, lots of boats sink. Plenty people go somewhere and can’t trade or get killed by the locals, but enough succeeds that you get this thinly connected world of little hotspots.

Mark: And then the Bronze Age collapses by, maybe the sea people. So, who are the sea people? And what was that general collapse like?

Greg: There’s no real agreement about what explains the late Bronze Age collapse, and it’s local. It’s only the eastern Mediterranean and Greece. I mean, some people want there to be some great volcanic event. Some people think it’s peasants overthrowing their masters and then fleeing. There’s clearly crises all over, the Hittite Empire disappears, Mycenaean palaces crumble, Egypt is sort of okay –

Mark: What’s the timeline for all of these collapses? Are we talking about years, decades, hundreds of years. If we look at what might be described as the first fall in Bronze Age civilization to what might be thought of as the last or close to the last, how does that all fit together?

Greg: For the East Mediterranean late Bronze Age collapse, you’re talking decades. Something happens very rapidly. We don’t really know where it starts, because our chronology is not fine enough. We don’t know if there’s a kind of chain reaction, something happens and then it knocks on. We can see, it looks sort of systemic, lots of things falling over but – and it isn’t impossible that there’ll be a climatic or some other explanation that would –

These societies, they’re less resilient than later ones. They’re much less resilient than us. They’re less resilient than the Iron Age. We’ve just been going through nearly a year of global crisis. It’s a global crisis, which we appear to be coming out of just 12 months later. That’s extraordinary. Our power to withstand these sorts of things. We will lose millions and millions of people but there are 7 billion on the planet.

Mark: My intuition is actually that Bronze Age society should be a little bit less fragile, because it’s much less interconnected. I mean, it is part of the broader trading networks, but a peasant in a Bronze Age society is probably only dependent on 10 or 20 miles around them. Occasionally, once or twice a year, maybe they get spices or they attend a big feast. Obviously the elites are dependent on these broader trade networks versus the average middle or lower income person in the US today is dependent on goods from China, they get their coffee from Ethiopia or from Colombia.

My intuition is just that, thinking about the Bronze Age, each individual kind city state or town or small Empire, whatever you want to call it, because it isn’t nearly as interconnected, I would just think that systemic collapse across multiple societies is a little bit more rare. Where, in the US, there’s a few breaking points. If there’s a few breaking points in the US, then that will affect the entire world. We’re already kind of seeing that with the withdrawal of US hegemony, we’re seeing basically what looks like a civil war in Ethiopia, we’re seeing Armenia and Azerbaijan go to war with each other, and all of these, in my mind, are at least somewhat a function of the withdrawal of our umbrella

If something goes wrong in the US, it has all of these like global consequences versus the Bronze Age, right? There wasn’t a singular, there wasn’t a pox. I don’t know a pox, like whatever city was there, that that was creating this broad degree of stability. I don’t know, why is my intuition wrong?

Greg: I don’t think your intuition is wrong, but I think collapse means different things. In the two contexts that, in the ancient world, you’re right that most people, let’s call them peasants, they produce most of what they eat, they eat most of what they produce, they touch the outside world in a much slighter degree than we do.

When we talk about collapse of the Hittite kingdom, or of the Mycenaean palaces, what we mean, is the top bit goes down. Probably the little bits underneath, to some extent, carry on. Yeah, a bit of a shot. But yeah, we can actually occasionally find people living in the suburbs of Mycenaean cities after the palaces have gone. They’re building these fragile houses of cards, on top of a society that produces very, very little surplus. This really – they’re not dug in. Some societies may collapse simply because they can no longer show their connection to the outside world enough. But when I say a society collapse, what I mean is that top level of the social order collapses. The five great cities of the Indus Valley. when they’re gone, what’s left behind looks very much like what was there before. So, that that kind of collapse.

 Mark: Let’s get a bit more granular than because, for example, when we talk about like the collapse of the Roman Empire, I mean, Rome, for example, goes from a city of a million people to like, tens of thousands in 700 AD.There, that does seem to be – obviously, you do have the collapse of the elite segment of society, but you do see general deurbanization and depopulation . Also, if you look at average living standards, in terms of the average person having plates, having materials that they would use relatively frequently, coming from areas that were much further removed, meaning basically they had access to much broader trade networks.

At least with Rome, there does seem to be a collapse intuition, where it’s not just an elite collapse, but it is kind of a broad collapse of what we would consider general living standards. Is that also applicable to Bronze Age or was Bronze Age much more kind of concentrated within certain subpopulations?

Greg: I think Bronze Age is much smaller scale, and much more fragile, and much more concentrated. Yeah. I mean, you’re right about Rome. Things survive, cities survive. Christianity survives, literature survives, but the Roman thing is much more interconnected in the way that we are. But in terms of Bronze Age, you’re seeing sort of paramount chieftains collapsing really, in the way that they have over the world often, and maybe not doing too much damage to others when they fall.

Obviously, you have to sift through a million people, if it’s sustained by political supremacy, and then the political supremacy goes, well, that’s like Detroit losing General Motors, you know, nothing, nothing is sustained it beyond the basic level of carrying capacity to land. But yeah, Bronze Age things, they seem, maybe they’re just dependent on fewer relationships? Maybe they’re just a bit closer to the wire, who knows? It does seem to be the case around the world, that these early stage societies are much more – I wouldn’t say accident prone, that that sounds terrible, but they do fall down quite quickly, and then people rebuild them.

I mean, sometimes it happens in the same space, so we don’t see it. But you know, Egyptian politics collapses several times and is then rebuilt. Now we look at it from our time distance, we say,”Hey, this is a society that the pharaohs ruled for 4000 years.” Yeah, but what happens is you will always rebuild in the same places because you’re geographically pushed into where there’s a good place for city. A lot of the material you’re gonna reuse is there. If you’re lucky, you’ve got traditions you can mobilize. So, this is back to your point about reusing the past.

Then the same issue in China. China, we traditionally date back the Chinese Empire to the first emperor, so, what, 221 BC? But there’ll be many periods between then and now, in which the area of China has been fragmented, warring states divided northern/southern dynasties, chaotic periods and then reunification. I think ancient societies, at the very top level, they do collapse. But what they don’t do is they rarely use the technology that they had. What’s unusual about, say the Bronze Age collapses, in the Indus Valley and in the Aegean, is that people forget how to use writing, and they develop new writing at a later point, hundreds of years later. You think, fall of Rome, what important things do you lose? Well, none of it really. Some stuff you can’t afford any more. Can’t afford pepper, because it was being brought across the Indian Ocean. You have to make local pottery, because they are imported, but this isn’t equivalent to not knowing how to write anymore.

Mark: Sure, I guess they keep literacy. But my intuition is that, in Rome at the height of Empire, literacy rates were probably much higher than in the collapse , where writing was basically kept alive by the clergy at that point. But it was kind of these like, I don’t know, pockets that that we were somewhat lucky for. I mean, maybe you can imagine alternate history, where it’s mostly pagan traditions that aren’t as centralized as Christianity, that are much less able to keep writing alive

Greg: After the Western Empire fell, the people who ruled that, barbarian kings as they had been, carried on using Roman tax systems, Roman records, the churches went on undisturbed. You read some of the earliest Christian writers, and they don’t even mention the fall of the Roman Empire. It’s not very significant for them. Key points are, Christ being born, and then the extermination of all of the pagans, and driving out heretics.

I know there’s still Italian cities where you can walk through the center of the city, and you’re walking on the lines of Roman road. So there’s, there’s never a moment – that’s not true everywhere. In Britain, the cities became depopulated, and sometimes rebuilt on the same site, but with completely different routes put in. If you go to Lucca, or Parma, places like that North Italy, you’re walking up and down Roman streets. Quite a lot gets through.

Mark: So, Bronze Age collapse happens. And then what happens next, with urbanization in the Mediterranean?

Greg: There is a period of 200 or 300 years where there are no cities west of Cyprus to speak of, and then it regrows, and it regrows in a different way. You’ve got some maritime connections, Phoenicians, then some Greeks, some Etruscans, beginning to weave a web of connections between places. There’s not really yet cities, but their concentrations of power and populations are growing a little bit. Then you do get growth of more of these cities, and often they’re sort of clusters of villages, which share a common temple or a common defensive place. Early Athens or the early Etruscans, it’s like that.

It grows up much more organically, sort of pooling of resources, and forges between between farming communities, and then, when they’ve built up a big enough surplus, some of these pushing through into urbanism and cities appear. But again, this is something relatively new, we used to say, “Well, it’s the Greeks in the Etruscans,” but now we know about cities in North Sicily, we know about cities in North Africa. They’ve been claims of cities north of the Alps. Across this huge area, and part of it, I think, is demographic growth. The population is growing slowly but steadily. Then there’s agricultural growth. Iron is much more significant than bronze in terms of agriculture. The advance of a bronze axe over a stone axe isn’t anything like the difference between iron tools, particularly when you’ve got steels and they’re also making much more use of animal traction. You can plow heavy soils with oxen pulling.

There’s a sort of a steady background growth of people, of power, and then ever so often in someone organizes and the city keeps popping up like that, but not mega cities, not like the great cities of Bronze Age Mesopotamia. Sort of small, focused cities. This kind of urbanism turns out to be very successful. There’s clearly a period of experimentation with city foundations that don’t work. But it’s more or less true that all the cities, all the 2000 odd cities that we know from 500 BC, are still there 1000 years later. That’s because their roots are deep. If occasionally a city is destroyed, pretty soon someone re-founds it or re-founds the city with a different name, but on the same place. This network of cities is very resilient, and it’s much more natural economy than those Bronze Age palaces were.

Mark: Okay, so then why were the cities chosen to be built in the locations that they were built in? What were the key factors? If you think, “I’m going to build the city here,” what leads you to do that?

Greg: Well, most of the early ones are coastal, or easy to get to from a short trip up from the coast. So, connectability. Usually, cities are based on the edge of or in the middle of plains with relatively good soil. So, areas of above average agricultural productivity. A few benefit from unusual things, like their iron deposits, or controlling an isthmus , which means they can control trade routes up and down, but by and large by the sea with good agricultural resources, not too arid.

Now, those are the success stories and you can either think, “These guys are amazing natural geographers and they instantly spot the best niches.” Or you can say, “I expect people to try to everywhere, but we just don’t know about the failures.” I go with the second, I think there’s enough indications of botched attempts, clearly the originating societies are strong enough to cope with it with a failure rate.

They’re entrepreneurs in other words, and they know they’ll make some losses, but they still prepared run the risks in return for the gains.

Mark: So, then there’s this first generation of cities, and still a little bit more grounded, a little bit more local, and kind of the beginning of the Iron Age. Then some of these systems start being relatively successful. So, you have the Greek city states and the Etruscans.

What is that process like, as some of the cities begin to assert themselves and and really develop these more regional trading networks?

Greg: Yeah, I mean, this is quite mysterious, but some cities have a comparative advantage over their neighbors. In some cases, we can say what it is, like Athens, happens to be on a peninsula where you can unite much more territory than you can in most locations, and it discovers it’s got silver mines. From that point of view, you can see what they’ve got going for them. In other cases, it might be a sort of almost good fortune. For some reason or other the people who lived around ancient Sparta, got over the mountains and conquer the people on the other side, the Mycenaeans.

Now, is that because there’s something special about Sparta? Or could it have been the other way around, but once you get unevenness, there’s a kind of path dependency. So, once Athens has unified Attica, there is not going to be anywhere else that runs Attica. There’s no advantage in getting anywhere else. Some of these I suspect are tiny, marginal differences, sometimes maybe good strategy, or good luck, determining which cities get bigger. But once you get that unevenness, by and large, there’s a lot of positive feedback. Once Athens is a major naval power, it can then provision itself from a great distance. It can get grain from Egypt and the Black Sea, and it can intimidate smaller powers.

I think stories like that probably happened all around the Mediterranean. We only know some of them, and we can’t tell in detail why Tarquinia is such a successful Etruscan city out of the dozen or so that existed. But I think those dynamics are happening everywhere,

Mark: How should we think about the different governance systems? Athens had a different governance structure than Sparta. I forget the Greek guy, the Greek captured slave who described the Romans, and claimed that the Roman institutions were responsible for Rome’s success.

We have this emerging city where there’s a little bit of luck, little bit of path dependence, a little bit of good location, how does governance play into that with the subsequent evolution of the region?

Greg: I’m a bit of an outlier here, Mark, but I didn’t think it does much, really. I think that things would look pretty much the same if Athens had been an oligarchy and Sparta a democracy, but most of my colleagues who are Greek historians would be horrified to hear me say that. They’re heavily invested in the importance of democracy, which is important in other respects, but as far as these things go, I don’t think it makes much difference.

I don’t see democratic cities behaving very differently from oligarchical ones. Yeah, you’re right. There’s a Greek Polybius, who attributes Rome’s success to its perfect blend of oligarchy, democracy, and monarchy, but this is a classic case of the researcher arrives with his conclusions in his back pocket, and Polybius has been raised in Greek political science. Those three categories, monarchy, democracy, and oligarchy, they’re there in Herodotus, they’re brought up a lot in Aristotle. So, of course, he goes out and he looks for that in the same way that, if you arrive in a society, and you’re absolutely certain that primitive societies are run by kinship, the first thing you find are the kinship networks.

If you come there and you’re a Marxist, and you believe that everything really depends on production, that’s what you see. So, I think ancient sources are not particularly informed. I don’t expect ancient writers to be good comparative sociologists, how could they be, any more than I expect them to be epidemiologists?

Mark: With that perspective, you must also be pretty pessimistic on modern sociologists.

Greg: No, not at all. I mean, sociology, keep asking questions. Yes, but it’s a known syndrome, that sort of – an even better example, actually, is how the Americas were understood by the first Europeans. They arrived there with a bunch of ideas they’d already assembled. Some of them religious, some of them scientific, and many people still believe that North America is inhabited entirely by wild savages, thin on the ground hunters, virtually no civilizational trace when people arrive. Actually, the Mound Builders, Mississippi shows that there were North American urban traditions, there were enormously extensive trade networks linking almost all the area from the Canadian shield down to Mexico.

Mark: But when the first settlers came, I mean, there were no trade networks because so many had died from smallpox.

Greg: Sure. There must have been, but they went through the cities of the Mississippi area, and they didn’t see them because they didn’t think they were there to see. I think, you know, Greeks come into the Roman world and they discover that when the Greek Romans are strong, and they discover either that the Romans are really Greeks, despite all the evidence to the contrary, or that the Romans hace somehow perfected the perfect Aristotelian constitution or something like that.

I’m not at all convinced that governance makes a big difference to this rise or fall of individual cities.

Mark: This is interesting, because most economists would say that governance tends to be one of the most important determinants of long term economic outcomes,. If you look at the difference between like East and West Germany, or North and South Korea. These tend to be very substantial differences that the standard economic rationale is this is attributed to governance.

One possibility is we’re using the same words to mean different things. Another possibility is there’s a degree of codetermination, where once you have the culture set, culture that influences governance. If Athens is an oligarchy instead of a democracy, then because they’re still Athenian, because they’re still Greek, because they still have that underlying culture, the outcomes are somewhat similar. How do you respond to that?

Greg: I think that’s an astute comment about using the same words for different meanings, but what I mean, I suppose, is that the main variation to many ancient cities are things like how many people could vote, and how powerful the wealthy were relative to people who still have property but are less wealthy, and that’s the sort of spectrum along which democracy, oligarchy, and so on is measured.

I don’t think that variation makes a big difference, although we’re only looking at Greek history, the last couple of centuries in this sense of Greek history, so there’s not a lot of chance to see it working out. I do think that other institutions that are really important. I mean, I think things like coinage, conventions about trade, which are more or less international. Coinage isn’t international, but everybody uses coins, and pretty soon, most of them, if they can use Athenian coins, the Athenian standardized weights and measures in their zone. Those sorts of institutions, I think, are enormously important for economics. Most ancient cities fluctuate in their political things, constitutions. Syracuse has periods which run by an oligarchy, periods where it’s very democratic, periods where it is run by tyrants, and these often go backwards and forwards within the sort of triangular motion.

Athens, you know, at some point is ruled by hereditary families, then it’s a bit democratic, then it’s very democratic, then after Alexander the Great, it’s a bit less democratic. By the time the Romans get there, the rich are running it, and that makes a huge difference in lots of other ways, but I don’t think it affects economic growth enormously.

There’s so many more differences with East and West Germany than that. I mean, I think it’s very difficult to imagine. There you look at the entire social change, aren’t you? Control economy, which attempts to maximize employment, rather than profitability, in the DDR. And of course, that’s going to be different than an economy in the Federal Republic of Germany, which is much more geared into the same sort of capitalist enterprises and business-orientated rebuilding and recovery that we’re all used to.

Mark: Sure, so I guess you can differentiate between what might be described as governance, which is like, how are the decisions made? And who chooses the decision makers? What kind of policies, which are what are the specific taxes, what is the level of support for infrastructure, for private versus public employment, etc, things like that. While policies are, to a certain extent, downstream from like governance, there is obviously a degree of interplay there, where presumably, if you have a monarchy in early Mediterranean history, and you have a bad king, and the king is like, I don’t know, “Some merchant was mean to me once when I was a kid, so I’m going to raise taxes on all merchants,” presumably, that will affect the economic health of the city. That probably happened on at least one occasion.

Greg: Yeah, but these are superbly weak states. The tax levels are tiny, the interest rates on investments are under 4%. 80% of the Roman imperial budget goes on the army. By modern standards, they’re unbelievably feeble. The power of culture, I think, is much more important than policy and ancient states rarely made decisions about these sort of things. They made decisions about going to war, or not going to war, and that’s that. Then they try people, and they may treaty if they are into diplomacy, but their capacity to run –

The biggest economic decision Athens makes says when they find the silver mines, one person proposes to divide the money up and giving it to all the citizens, and another person says, “No, let’s invest in a Navy.” So, that’s a major decision, but that’s the level of decision making. It’s so much less sophisticated than – they have no idea how to use tax to change the economy. They had no idea that was the money supply in any sense, other than the fact that they minted money when they had bullion, there’s relatively little credit. States couldn’t borrow. I mean, they’re puny actors in the economy compared to our states, which are, most of them enormously powerful.

My government, here in the UK, is making some more money this week. It’s just like, “Do quantitive easing,” and it’s borrowing silly amounts of money for the future. They will pay it back one day, who knows when 10, 20, 30 years. HSH couldn’t do any of that stuff. Maybe it’s just as well, maybe they were a bit more secure, because they had less power.

Mark: Sure. But one of tradeoffs, one of the economic stories, is that a lot of early states end up becoming impoverished, in part because their power base is so weak, that they’re afraid to empower merchants. If you look at, for example, the aristocracy throughout most of the Middle Ages in Europe, they would often be relatively antagonistic to trade, to merchant interests, with the fear that if there is then this other group that becomes wealthy via trade, then they’re able to challenge the aristocracy for power.

Maybe because most of the cities in the Mediterranean already had trade in their DNA, that never really became part of the calculus in what government should do and how it should act.

Greg: You know, I think that I think it’s right that – people have attempted but very unconvincingly to argue there are sort of mercantile middle classes, but as far as we can see the people who invest in shipping and in building and, you know, building for rental and so on, these are the wealthy and they do it as a sideline.

I mean, the modern version of this is not as simple as those schemas represent, is it? I mean quite a lot of investment in the industrialization, the early industrialization in Britain, was made by aristocrats who are trying to find a way to use the revenue, to in some way to invest their revenues in the absence of banks, and shares, and so on. In the ancient world, there’s all sorts of levels of trade. Some of them are small fry, but there’s some big stuff. The East India, the Indian Ocean trade, the moving luxury, spices, things like that around the Mediterranean. There’s lots of money invested in building and by and large, there seems to be, people are quite happy. They build harbors to help merchants, they offer you a tax break, if you bring your grain to Rome.

When the Athenians quarrel with one of their neighbors, they ban Megerians from harbors throughout the Athenian Empire. They recognize that free access to harbors is something that everybody wants, and if you want to hurt somebody, you stop having free access. I mean, in the end, people who are stupid enough to think that at the moment are Boris Johnson and his group.

Mark: Cool. So we’ve got a few minutes left, let me round up with two additional questions. One is, we haven’t really gotten to Rome yet, so what was different in the “water of Rome,” that actually led to this Mediterranean Empire, while previous attempts have been much like smaller, more original, more fragmented?

Greg: Some is geopolitics. It’s in the middle, that helps. Rome is the only place where Romans live. It hasn’t got the sort of fissile potential of the Etruscans, who are divided into sort of, you know, a dozen polities or Greeks and all their tiny cities. There’s also perhaps a bit of luck.

Mark: Let’s unpack that point a little bit, because I think that’s interesting, and something I hadn’t thought about before, is that the larger kind of cultures, the Etruscans, the Greeks, the Phoenicians, that had multiple different political units. While they might have been more impressive on one margin, because there were all these different political units, it becomes very difficult to form a confederacy allegiance Empire.

Maybe if the Persians are invading, and you all get together to fight back the Persians, but after the Persians leave you to go back to your internal squabbles, where because the Romans started out as only in Rome, that meant that when they were expansionary, it could be expansionary for a much longer period of time, before they got to the infighting and bickering.

Greg: I think that does happen. Yeah, I mean, it’s very noticeable in Greece, that through the fifth or fourth centuries, there are a whole series of competing cities, but as soon as one of them gets really dominant, all the others gang up on it and pull it down again. You get a sort of self-regulatory mechanism, in favor of political pluralism, and that doesn’t happen in Rome, but it’s also the case that the – if you think in terms of centuries rather than decades, the size of political units is very tiny, and the number of them is very large at the beginning at the first millennium, BC, and then by the fifth century, you’ve got a bunch of cities which are pulled away from the rest.

They exercise regional hegemonies, and then you get things that are more like small empires. Would the world have been so different if the Carthaginians had won the Punic Wars? You’d have had another major city more or less where modern Tunis is. So, again, in the center of the Mediterranean, very well connected, good agricultural hinterland, other Phoenician-speaking cities around, a naval power, an ancient world unified by Carthage would be very different than one unified by Rome.

Mark: And they would have really cool elephants.

Greg: Yeah, fantastic! An ancient wonder! What would have happened if Alexander gone West instead of east, or west after east, and they spent a lot of time working out. So, yeah, yeah. Suppose Alexander had invaded Italy? Could he have conquered to the Atlantic? It’s very tempting for us to look back down history and imagine everything can be explained, that everything had to happen the way it did. But quite often in history, there are more than one possibility. It’s like the curve of decisions, which bifurcates again, and again. When you look back down the bifurcation curve, it all looks like a straight line. As you go forward, there must be many points at which things could have worked out differently.

Mark: Yeah. Let me ask, one of the chapters in your book, you talk about founding of new cities. So, this is interesting, because at the Charter Cities Institute, we think about building new cities, primarily for reasons of economic development in emerging markets, as a way to improve performance. But I’m curious, what exactly did this look like in the ancient world and what are the core lessons for what led to a successful versus unsuccessful city development?

Greg: Quite often new cities are actually found on top of old ones. So, lots of things we call Roman colonies, they just take over a site. Pompeii is a Roman colony, but it had been inhabited by Oscan speakers before that. Some new cities weren’t really as new as they looked. I think there’s a bit of a problem in the third, second centuries BC, that most of the really good sites in the Mediterranean have been taken already. They do take over old cities or destroy cities or replace them, but there are areas they built that haven’t really had a big city tradition before, like Algeria, or Romania.

There, they do take greenfield sites, and they create these enormous planned cities. It takes a lot of investment, and they supplied them with infrastructure, they built roads out to them, aqueducts, all of this sort of stuff. They supplied them with populations, quite often discharged soldiers, but not always. There’s a tradition of founding cities, so they’ve got things to go on. Of course, they also build temples and basic amenities and so on, so when the Roman soldiers and veterans are settled in Pompeii, one of the first things that goes up is amphitheater. So they’ve got something they’re familiar with.

The failures, you mentioned James C. Scott earlier, and in seeing like a state, he does talk about how quite often top down reorganization projects fail dramatically, because they’re not suited to the base on which they’re going to rest. And Rome has lots of examples of that. Colonies which are abandoned, but quite often colonies actually filled up with populations two or three times, and people will walk away from them. Romans made mistakes like everybody else in their city planning.

The really successful ones? Well, they’re in the same place the really successful first cities, on the coast, well-connected by a road, where the hinterland ideally, not just agricultural resources, but something else, marble, metals, they’re the big ones, or access to areas where you can pasture sheep and specialize in textiles. That works. But the Mediterranean, it’s been inhabited for a long time by farmers before the Romans pull it together, and a lot of the good spots are taken.

The really spectacular urbanistic projects are the ones that happen outside the Med. And there there’s a lot of failures, as well as well as some great successes.

Mark: Great. Thanks for coming on the show.

Greg: Well, thanks very much for having me. Interesting conversation, Mark. Thank you.

Mark: Thank you for listening to the Charter Cities Podcast. For more information about this episode and our guest, to subscribe to the show, or to connect with the Charter Cities Institute, please visit Follow us on social media, CCIdotCity on Twitter, and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. I’m your host, Mark Lutter, and thank you for listening to the Charter Cities Podcast.

Links mentioned in today’s episode:

Greg Woolf on Twitter

Greg Woolf at University of London

Institute of Classical Studies

The Life and Death of Ancient Cities

Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics

The Economy of Cities

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States


Wessex without Mycenae

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