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The Life and Death of Ancient Cities Reviews

The Life and Death of Ancient Cities by Greg Woolf

The Life and Death of Ancient Cities

A Natural History

Greg Woolf

3.83 out of 5

4 reviews

Category: History, Non-fiction
Imprint: Oxford University Press
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication date: 16 Jul 2020
ISBN: 9780199664733

The story of ancient cities from the end of the Bronze Age to the beginning of the Middle Ages: a tale of war and politics, pestilence and famine, triumph and tragedy, by turns both fabulous and squalid.

4 stars out of 5
Michael Kulikowski
15 Feb 2021

"This is all about as far from a traditional rise and fall plot as one can get"

Large cities, not just the megalopoleis but regional powerhouses like Lyon or Ephesus, were always a bet against the ecological odds. Staying small could be a survival strategy – when things failed, they did so less spectacularly, and large, concentrated populations are particularly vulnerable to such shocks as earthquakes and plagues. The hypertrophied cityscapes of the early Roman Empire aren’t the measure of urban success, but freakish outliers. This is all about as far from a traditional rise and fall plot as one can get, and with twenty relatively short chapters, the book doesn’t outstay its welcome.


4 stars out of 5
Charlotte Higgins
11 Sep 2020

"The Life and Death of Ancient Cities is an impressive sweep of a book"

The key to this book’s approach is in the subtitle – this is not just history, but “natural history”. Woolf draws not just on the written record but on archaeology, demographics, human geography and most intriguingly perhaps, environmental science. He takes the long view, and asks what is it about humans that has caused our species to invent – and constantly reinvent – the city? Why have we done it so relatively recently? What failures might there have been along the way? Why did we do it when we did it? He fights the deeply embedded notion that city-building represents the attainment of some superior phase of human development. 

3 stars out of 5
1 Aug 2020

"Greg Woolf is a lively and learned guide to ancient cities."

Woolf’s book contains many brilliant insights and is a major contribution to the history of the Mediterranean. But he repeats his arguments and examples far too often. He easily goes off at a tangent, appearing to forget about cities or ignoring important questions. This could be a much shorter and tighter book with no loss to the power of its argument.

4 stars out of 5
11 Jul 2020

"The famous cities of the ancient world were surprisingly small and fragile"

Woolf, the director of the Institute of Classical Studies, convincingly argues that, although the Mediterranean basin was the cradle of Egypt, Greece and Rome, its ecology was so shaky that it made urbanism risky. That’s why ancient European cities tended to be so small. Troy covered only 20 hectares, with a population of 10,000 at most. Mycenae, Agamemnon’s heart-stopping hilltop base, was the size of a modest Cotswold village. Exceptions to the rule such as Rome needed vast empires to sustain their hectic growth. But it wasn’t just the Mediterranean that produced ancient cities. They sprouted independently in northern China, the High Andes, the forests of the Yucatan peninsula and Thailand, inter alia.