The Ancient City is a thoughtful study of cities in the ancient world, specifically focusing on ancient Greece and Rome. The author argues that the similarities between the cities of these two cultures outweighs the differences and thus makes them a good pair to juxtapose. This book provides a survey of the main scholarly debates on the ancient city.
The Ancient City by Arjan Zuiderhoek is a thoughtful study of cities in the ancient world, specifically focusing on ancient Greece and Rome. He argues that the similarities between the cities of these two cultures outweighs the differences and thus makes them a good pair to juxtapose.
Zuiderhoek’s main point is arguing against Moses Finley who characterized cities primarily as consumers of agricultural surplus from their outlying farms. Zuiderhoek argues that ancient cities were more complex than that. Cities also included monumental buildings or temples, housing as well as some type of infrastructure, centers of economic trade, rituals, as well as industry and specialized skills. These cities were also the center of politics. They were places for decision making and gatherings of people and political groups. Thus the idea of what a city is, is hard to generalize Zuiderhoek argues.
This book provides a survey of the main scholarly debates on the ancient city. Much of the book is set up in a way that portrays the various viewpoints on aspects of the ancient city and then analyzes their plausibility. It provides an overview of the main characteristics of Greek and Roman cities and it argues for a more specified definition of the ancient city when compared to other “cities” in different areas of the world. In this way, he contributes to the ongoing discussion and debate surrounding the ancient city. Although the book mainly focuses on the similarities between Greek and Roman cities it also notes important differences between them. Two of the main differences were the cities’ views on slaves and on what it meant to be a citizen of the city and empire.
Perhaps one of the best things that the book offers is a biographical essay at the end that gives a brief summary of the main arguments regarding ancient cities and where to find sources that argue for or against that view. Overall the book itself is very well written and very well researched. The debate he provides between differing viewpoints is easy to follow and informative. Zuiderhoek does a good job presenting the views and then providing his own arguments after the reader gets a sense of the main points of each specified argument, whether it be about the urban economies, societies, civic identity, etc.
Nearly all of the information presented in this book can be found elsewhere, but this is definitely a short, concise introduction to the field of study of the ancient city. His audience seems to be focused towards a more general reader, but the book could still be a useful reference, and contains a few nuggets of gold, for the scholar. The topic, “ancient cities” is foundational for the study of the ancient world. This book may be exceptionally dry and boring to someone who is not committed to studying the classics and understanding that world, but to a reader trying to get a better grasp of what life was like in and the context of the ancient world, this definitely would be a good introduction to the field.