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The Life and Death of Ancient Cities

A Natural History

Greg Woolf



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Oxford University Press
09 October 2020
The human race is on a 10,000 year urban adventure. Our ancestors wandered the planet or lived scattered in villages, yet by the end of this century almost all of us will live in cities. But that journey has not been a smooth one and urban civilizations have risen and fallen many times in history. The ruins of many of them still enchant us. This book tells the story of the rise and fall of ancient cities from the end of the Bronze Age to the beginning of the Middle Ages. It is a tale of war and politics, pestilence and famine, triumph and tragedy, by turns both fabulous and squalid. Its focus is on the ancient Mediterranean: Greeks and Romans at the centre, but Phoenicians and Etruscans, Persians, Gauls, and Egyptians all play a part. The story begins with the Greek discovery of much more ancient urban civilizations in Egypt and the Near East, and charts the gradual spread of urbanism to the Atlantic and then the North Sea in the centuries that followed. The ancient Mediterranean, where our story begins, was a harsh environment for urbanism. So how were cities first created, and then sustained for so long, in these apparently unpromising surroundings? How did they feed themselves, where did they find water and building materials, and what did they do with their waste and their dead? Why, in the end, did their rulers give up on them? And what it was like to inhabit urban worlds so unlike our own - cities plunged into darkness every night, cities dominated by the temples of the gods, cities of farmers, cities of slaves, cities of soldiers. Ultimately, the chief characters in the story are the cities themselves. Athens and Sparta, Persepolis and Carthage, Rome and Alexandria: cities that formed great families. Their story encompasses the history of the generations of people who built and inhabited them, whose short lives left behind monuments that have inspired city builders ever since - and whose ruins stand as stark reminders to the 21st century of the perils as well as the potential rewards of an urban existence.
Imprint:   Oxford University Press
Country of Publication:   United Kingdom
Dimensions:   Height: 240mm,  Width: 162mm,  Spine: 45mm
Weight:   782g
ISBN:   9780199664733
ISBN 10:   0199664730
Pages:   512
Publication Date:  
Audience:   General/trade ,  ELT Advanced
Format:   Hardback
Publisher's Status:   Active

Greg Woolf has been Professor of Classics and Director of the Institute of Classical Studies since January 2015 before which he was Professor of Ancient History at the University of St Andrews (since 1998) and held fellowships at various Cambridge and Oxford Colleges. He has degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge, is a Fellow of the British Academy, of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, of the Society of Antiquaries of London and of the Max Weber College, Erfurt and he is a member of the Academia Europaea. He has held visiting appointments in Brasil, France, Germany, Italy and Spain and lectured around the world. He has published on Roman imperialism, on ancient literacy, on libraries, encyclopaedias and ancient ethnography and more recently on religious history and the archaeology of the Roman world.

Reviews for The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History

If you have any interest in its subject, you won't regret the investment of time and money. * John Wilson, The American Conservative * The Life and Death of Ancient Cities joins a shelf full of enlightening new fun reads on understanding our beginnings in the ancient world. * Robert S. Davis, New York Journal of Books * This is an important study which should stand alongside the tours de force of Fernand Braudel and David Abulafia. * Sir Michael Fallon, Classics for All * This is a first-class publication that threads its way seamlessly through a complex topic across vast regions and time-spans. It is also accessibly written and highly recommended. * Mark Merrony, Antiqvvs * This worthy book contains multitudes, and as interesting and certainly as instructive as Professor Woolf's studies of urbanization are the not-few cases of deurbanization that he is able to explore, most conspicuously the (possible causes of the) decline or rather transformation of the late Roman antique world. * Paul Cartledge, The New Criterion * An engaging and comprehensive read... Woolf provides an interesting discussion on how humans are suited to city life, and also offers some thought-provoking considerations on the current rate of globalisation that we're experiencing today This book should appeal to those who want to discover another perspective on the history of the Mediterranean or, indeed, the ancient world. * All About History * A deeply researched and ambitious natural history of the origins and growth of urbanism. * Andrew Robinson, Nature * 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. * David Abulafia, Literary Review * If you have any interest in its subject, you won't regret the investment of time and money. * John Wilson, The American Conservative * As I hope will be obvious, this is ever such a good book. Woolf has an enviable knack for getting across complex ideas in a deft and stylish way, without any sacrifice of precision... Whatever one thinks of the evolutionary underpinning of life and death, no one has ever made a more compelling case for seeing cities as part of the natural history of our species. * Peter Thonemann, Times Literary Supplement * Greg Woolf reminds us of how vulnerable urban life has often been to plague, invasion and economic collapse. * Harry Mount, The Spectator * Fascinating and challenging... an impressive sweep of a book. * Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian * A magisterial survey of ancient cities... The Life and Death of Ancient Cities is a big history that leaves aside some of those big comparative questions, preferring to draw out the contingent and the particular in its vivid portraits. Mr. Woolf makes for an authoritative, readable and thought-provoking guide through a few thousand years of our life as urban animals. * Kyle Harper, The Wall Street Journal * Selected as a 2020 Book of the Year in The Times Literary Supplement

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