Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.10.77 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.10.77

Arjan Zuiderhoek, The Ancient City. Key themes in ancient history.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2017.  Pp. xiii, 225.  ISBN 9780521166010.  $29.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Gareth Sears, University of Birmingham (


In his book The Ancient City Arjan Zuiderhoek seeks to explore the character of the Graeco-Roman city from the Archaic period to Late Antiquity. Specifically he aims to examine what he believes are the key features of the Graeco-Roman city that together make them distinct from other forms of urbanism at other periods. This is no small task given the complexities of the theories that he engages with and the potential scope of the subject. That Zuiderhoek is successful in providing a sense of the character of the classical city that could allow for comparison with other city types from other societies, in a relatively short book, is testament to great economy of writing and impressive planning. It is also rather more sophisticated than other brief assessments of the ancient city, although it is also more restricted than some works that examine non-classical urbanism as well. One could potentially argue that the title of Zuiderhoek’s book is slightly misleading with the Graeco-Roman city being one particular type of ancient city. Egyptian, Babylonian and other civilisations provide different models of ancient cities and the conflation of ‘ancient’ with Graeco-Roman could be seen as an example of classical civilisation being perceived as normative for western academic traditions. However, Zuiderhoek’s work actually does much to challenge that historic, and indeed current, approach to the ancient world in several of his chapters.

Despite one aim of the book being to provide a framework that would allow for comparison between the classical city and other forms of urbanism in other time periods, Zuiderhoek sensibly eschews much in the way of comparisons to other cultures in time and space except where the models he discusses intrude such comparisons (p. 1, 3). He is, however, clearly alive to literature discussing other urban cultures and to the recent scholarship that has attempted to compare Rome to China for instance (p. 14). The focus is then, squarely, on the classical city, its origins, structure and society, and economy.

The book is organised into ten chapters. Chapter 1 is an excellent introduction to what cities are and the alleged peculiarities of the Graeco-Roman city. Fustel de Coulanges, Weber and Finley are all examined and there is a particularly persuasive response to the Horden and Purcell challenge to the study of the city as an entity in its own right. For Zuiderhoek the city cannot just be an epiphenomenon because of the ecological and demographic impact on its hinterland (16-17).

Chapter 2 examines the origins of the Graeco-Roman city. Key elements in the structure’s success were: population growth from the 10th century BC, causing border disputes and militarisation as part of which élites ceded some power in order to create larger forces; the formalisation and codification of law to prevent catastrophic internal disputes and the importance of relatively wide political participation; and, later, the fact that cities were integral to large empires—the Hellenistic kingdoms and the Roman empire—which promoted them outside of their traditional heartlands of the Aegean and Italy.

Chapter 3 ‘City and Country’ provides a compelling analysis of the relationship between the city and its rural territory, dealing with some of the key theses about city networks: Von Thünen’s theory, Central Place theory, Rank Size theory and Lo Cascio’s arguments that see the Roman empire’s high rate of urbanisation as a proxy for agricultural productivity are all addressed. Zuiderhoek’s examination of the consumer city model of Finley and others is a robust defence of the concept as a whole, if not of all Finley’s arguments. He also notes the differences between the ancient world and the urban networks of the early modern period, pointing to the impact of empire and imperial courts creating a few huge centres to the detriment of middle ranking cities. Perhaps one area that is missing from the analysis is an examination of the relationship that different types of ancient cities might have had with their territories. It is hard to believe that Classical Athens had the same relationship with Attica that the Roman citizens of Carthage had with some of the more distant elements of their territory; organic evolution and colonial implantation could create very different urban-rural relationships—was there a normative relationship?

Zuiderhoek has avoided much physical description or analysis of urban topographies or building types. Given that there are many books that go into detail about different structures and the cultural practices that went on in them this is a generally welcome decision. Chapter 4 ‘Urban Landscape and Environment’ does, however, examine how the city was structured and how it might have been experienced by its inhabitants (see also pp. 29-30). Key debates are again to the fore particularly the debates over disease and population reproduction (including the Urban Graveyard model) and debates over what the structure of the city might mean (here Zuiderhoek is commendably cautious when it comes to Fustel de Coulanges and Rykwert’s theories on the city).

‘Political Institutions’, and particularly debates over where power lay in classical Greek cities and Republican Rome, form the basis of Chapter 5. Oligarchy and democracy, councils and assemblies, popular participation (particularly Millar’s thesis) and magistracies are all debated. In general Zuiderhoek’s Graeco-Roman city is one characterised (whether they were democracies or oligarchies) by repeated interactions between the elite—those who ran for office—and the rest of the population who either voted for those office holders directly or whose tacit consent was needed to make society work. Zuiderhoek makes a valuable point that the democracy/oligarchy division was not the crucial one and notes that whereas at classical Argos there was a property qualification for the assembly in Sparta the qualification was solely citizenship (p. 89). However, whilst this is strictly speaking true, Sparta had already winnowed out poor Spartans from citizenship because they could not pay their way in the syssition system.

Chapters 6 on ‘Civic Ritual and Civic Identity’ and 7 on ‘Stratification and Mobility’ address the ways in which the ancient urban communities worked. In Chapter 7 the pervasive influence of western exceptionalism in approaches to the ancient city is addressed, and most specifically the debate over the existence of a ‘middle class’ or ‘bourgeoisie’. The chapter demonstrates effectively the ways in which different statuses interacted with occupations and wealth in both Athens and Rome. The conclusion that we should see a ‘middle group’ (p. 129) below the élite, whilst not getting locked into thinking of them as a ‘class’ in modern terms, is a sensible nuanced position.

Chapter 8 particularly deals with economic specialisation, civic taxation and expenditure and the urban political economy and makes some interesting suggestions about the way in which broad political participation might have encouraged the development of ‘human capital’ and thus have a positive effect on the economy (p. 148).

Chapter 9 examines whether the cities were city-states and the interaction between cities and larger Mediterranean powers. Zuiderhoek firmly argues against the idea that the cities were states in the modern sense of the word: many were not independent from outside authority even before the Battle of Chaeronea (although, of course, many modern states also cede some independence to other bodies—the European Union springs to mind in particular). This allows Zuiderhoek and others to argue for greater political continuity for cities between the Classical and Hellenistic/Roman periods, with the royal and imperial systems adopting relatively limited predation, partly due to their reliance on the cities for much tax collection.

The danger with a chapter on Late Antiquity at the end of a book on any theme or construct in the ancient world is that it comes across almost as an envoi—an examination of an ending rather than as part of an ongoing process—and is therefore guaranteed to annoy specialists on that part of antiquity. Chapter 10 ‘The end of the ancient city?’, however, deals with the Late Antique period in a brief but rather more sophisticated way than many approaches to the post-third century city. This chapter is not so much about the end of urban settlement that originated in the ancient period as about the end of the ‘ancient’ aspect of those cities; by the sixth century those cities that remained—and many did—were no longer ‘ancient’, as their physical environment, political structures, and élites were all now substantially different, and more ad hoc, but they were still urban.

In a book of this length covering such a broad spectrum there are inevitably elements that might have benefitted from further elucidation, and where the reader must restrain themselves from thinking about specific places that do not quite match the model proposed. As Zuiderhoek reminds us, models tell us about a norm and do not cover all variants. However, the necessity for clarification or extension can be seen in various places. One example is city populations (p. 52-4). Although one cannot expect detailed calculations to be put forward for each city, references to where calculations have been made would have been useful, or at least a clearer sense of what is being included in the calculation. For instance, does the 500,000 figure for Carthage include the population of the urban area or the territory? If the former, the figure is surely too high, but if the latter it is difficult to know how it would have been calculated given the lack of clarity on the limits of the dis-contiguous pertica Karthaginiensis.1

Another example where more detail would have been appreciated is Childe’s Urban Revolution theory. It is mentioned on several pages, but only two of the ten features of urbanism in his theory—‘truly monumental public buildings’ and ‘economic specialisation’—are actually mentioned (p. 53 and 131). Obviously the reader can go to the original paper for the list, but more comprehensive detail might have been expected to do justice to the importance of the theory.

Finally, as the book avoids describing what a city looks like through any extensive examination of building types (excepting perhaps the agora/forum model, which is given a slightly fuller treatment if not a sustained investigation), perhaps a few more images to illustrate key features would have been useful—the five plans of well-known sites in Chapter 4 are welcome but fairly limited in what they show.

The Ancient City is an impressive and concise tour of the key features of the Graeco-Roman city as Zuiderhoek perceives them to be. It deals deftly and clearly with a range of important debates regarding key aspects of the city’s character —the consumer city and human capital, for instance—and makes some interesting contributions to those debates.


1.   See Hurst, H. 1993. ‘Cartagine la nuova Alessandria’ in A. Carandini, L. Cracco Ruggini and A. Giardina (eds.) Storia di Roma III.2, Rome: 334-7 (327-37) and Gros, P. 2000. ‘Carthage romaine. Résurrection d’une capitale’ in C. Nicolet, R. Ilbert and J.-C. Depaule (eds.) Mégapoles méditerranéennes: Géographie urbaine rétrospective. École française de Rome-MMSH-Maisonneuve, Rome; Aix-en-Provence; Paris: 534-44.

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