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.
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.
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.