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Cities: The First 6,000 Years

Cities: The First 6,000 Years

By Monica L. Smith. Pp. 283. Viking, New York 2019. $30. ISBN 978-0-7352-2367-7 (paper).

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Cities: The First 6,000 Years is a lively romp that takes the reader through a rich landscape of urban scenarios and across an inclusive cross-section of city dwellers. Written for the general public (and not published by an academic press), it is undoubtedly a valuable resource for any scholar interested in how and why such complex entities came together, functioned, and, in some cases, declined. The author is a well-known figure in the anthropological and archaeological study of cities, and the book represents a summation of decades of scholarly reflection as well as of fieldwork at a dizzying variety of sites across different continents. It is highly commendable that a specialist of her caliber took the time to bring the fruits of the intense debate on cities to a broader audience. Besides presenting the author’s own work, the book builds on important comparative work that a number of scholars have been undertaking in recent years. The fervor of the debate is attested by the recent collection put together by Emberling (Social Theory in Archaeology and Ancient History: The Present and Future of Counternarratives [Cambridge 2016]), and especially by Yoffee’s edited volume in the Cambridge History of the World series (Early Cities in Comparative Perspective, 4000 BCE–1200 CE [Cambridge 2015]), which marks an important step toward explicit comparisons across contexts around specific issues.

In terms of structure, Cities is organized around a series of key themes, such as infrastructure, consumption, religion, and class. These are not as self-evident as, say, politics, economy, or demography, but they allow the author to focus on issues that she sees as central to the very essence of the urban experience. While not committing explicitly to any established, overarching theoretical framework, Smith definitely identifies cultural, informational, and productive interactions between inhabitants as essential to her core understanding of what a premodern city is. It is telling that the analogy she uses repeatedly for the urban revolution is the growth of the Internet, a tool that redefines how people deal with each other rather than changing the people themselves. In the service of this kind of narrative, she recruits an extremely wide array of data, elements, contexts, and anecdotes showing the transformative power that cities have on human communities. Occasionally the choice of examples feels a little opaque, even random, but for the most part the book makes many insightful (and sometimes unexpected) connections, somewhat as cities and the Internet have also historically done.

The book is evidently written by an archaeologist who—like many of us—loves fieldwork. There is a welcome materiality to most of its pages, and instructive anecdotes from excavations abound. A whole chapter is devoted to the approaches and techniques that are currently deployed to investigate urban centers the world over, reminding us how much our arsenal has grown in the last few decades. Indeed, the explicit focus on buried cities automatically involves a welcome disciplinary choice in favor of archaeology over historical anthropology or ethnography, in contrast with some earlier work on urbanism and state formation. Occasionally, comparisons are drawn with modern and contemporary cities, from the inevitable New York and Los Angeles, to Kinshasa or the fish market of Tokyo, thus mostly leapfrogging over medieval and early modern cases that would perhaps offer closer parallels.

The wide-ranging approach propounded by Smith’s book is particularly useful for classical scholars, given the long-standing reluctance of the latter to engage in any extra-Mediterranean comparisons. The study of Greek and Roman cities has tended be circumscribed to its own discourse and data set, and this is only slowly beginning to change (e.g., C. Ando, “Empire as State: The Roman Case,” in J. Brooke, J. Strauss, and G. Anderson, eds., State Formations: Global Histories and Cultures of Statehood [Cambridge 2018] 160–74). In fairness, it must be said that the reluctance to compare across a divide that is just an artifact of disciplinary structure has worked both ways, with anthropologists traditionally eschewing the inclusion of classical case studies in their global theoretical syntheses on urbanism or on state formation. Cities makes significant room for Greece and especially for Roman cities, primarily for Rome itself but also for Pompeii (a city that tended to occur in the anthropological debate mostly in connection with L. Binford's "Pompeii Premise," which stipulates that preservation is never as good as it is in Pompeii). Here, as in other, similar cases, it is regrettable that sometimes recourse is made to stock images that do not reflect the more recent advances, for instance on the walls of Rome, for which the only reference dates to the 1970s. More generally, the author fully subscribes to the old-fashioned view of Roman cities as carbon copies of each other, all following a design imposed by an omnipotent central government. Arguably, Romanists share a responsibility in this because we do not make enough of an effort to present our innovative views and deconstructions in formats and in venues that are easily accessible beyond our immediate disciplinary circle. Comparatists, however, could meet us halfway by leaving behind altogether the Greeks and Romans as they are still taught in high school to make room for the new paradigms and ideas that we have been developing.

Overall, Cities: The First 6,000 Years is an excellent read for anyone interested in cities, no matter their level of study or expertise. In easily accessible form, it presents the views of an accomplished urban archaeologist who has spent decades reflecting on the broader issues and the inner workings of these highly complex human artifacts. It institutes thought-provoking comparisons and connections with contemporary metropoleis that will advance the scholarly debate, while at the same time informing a much broader audience. Classical archaeologists can definitely find inspiration in its approach and its readability. Ideally suited for a first-year undergraduate seminar on ancient cities, it is a versatile book that will no doubt find a variety of uses. Its appearance should be saluted as a step in the direction of greater disciplinary integration.

Nicola Terrenato
University of Michigan

Book Review of Cities: The First 6,000 Years, by Monica L. Smith
Reviewed by Nicola Terrenato
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 1 (January 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1241.Terrenato

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