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Ancient Cities with Greg Woolf
Episode 1830th November 2020 • Charter Cities Podcast • Kurtis Lockhart
00:00:00 01:02:46

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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, who is 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!

Key Points From This Episode:

•   Greg shares the premise of his latest book and explains why it’s no accident we live in cities.

•   Why Greg chose to study classical history – a fascination with the ancient world and an interest in digging came together.

•   The ancient city, Göbekli Tepe, and how it influences the way we think about city creation.

•   There are two traditions to a city – agricultural intensification and collective activity.

•   The essential precursor for urbanism is agriculture – Greg explains how it impacts behavior.

•   How Greg believes we’re getting better at discovering and understanding new sites.

•   As archeological technology evolves, Greg thinks there are indefinite discoveries to be made.

•   Thinking about the Bronze Age in a broader context, how language and resources spread.

•   The collapse of the Bronze Age – how long it took, and why Greg suspects it happened.

•   The Bronze Age collapsing versus the collapse of the Roman Empire, for example.

•   Preserving literacy and Roman tax systems while the churches went on undisturbed.

•   What happens with urbanization in the Mediterranean following the Bronze Age collapse.

•   Greg says key factors for the locations of ancient cities were connect-ability and fertility.

•   What comparative advantage did cities that asserted themselves have over their neighbors? Greg says it could be luck, location, or strategy.

•   How the governance of ancient Mediterranean cities played or didn’t play into their evolution.

•   Greg asserts why he believes that governance makes no difference to the rise and fall of individual cities.

•   What was different about Rome that led it to the Mediterranean empire, like its geopolitics.

•   It’s tempting to look back at history like a straight line, but it’s a curve with many possibilities.

•   Core lessons from what led to a successful versus an unsuccessful ancient city.


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