Academic publications are much like buses in that they are easier to use if you already know where they are going. But they also have a tendency to arrive all at once, and that is something that has just happened with me, with several articles/chapters coming out in the space of the first three months of this year. This represents a sizeable chunk of what I’ve been working on for the past five years with the ERC-funded Impact of the Ancient City project. I thought I’d give a quick overview of what they’re about, partly because they connect some of my research themes that I haven’t talked about much on this blog, and partly because they are all some flavour of Open Access so I can point you to them directly. But mostly because this was an important part of my life, and beyond the lessons I learned and the friends I made, the most tangible expression of what I did in that period. Writing this post gave me a chance to reflect over those years, and try to pull some thoughts together about them.
At the culmination of the Impact project are three volumes addressing the impact of the ancient city from different angles, now out with Oxbow Press. I contributed to all three and edited the second, Remembering and Forgetting the Ancient City, with the wonderful Javier Martínez Jiménez (now of Granada). My specific brief with the project was to think about the influence of Greco-Roman ideas of the city on subsequent urban thinking in the Latin Western Mediterranean. This is of course a pretty expansive topic, and I was accorded considerable independence in how I carried it out. Looking at the publications as they came out however, I think they can be broken down into two themes.
This is the gorgeous cover illustration the incredibly talented Sofia Greaves created for Remembering and Forgetting the Ancient City.
1. The Origins of Cities
– ‘First Cities in Late Antique Christian Thought’, Journal of Early Christian Studies, 30 (2022) (strictly speaking not yet out, but coming out this year and relevant enough that I thought I’d throw it in).
– ‘“Hunting diligently through the volumes of the Ancients”: Frechulf of Lisieux on the First City and the End of Innocence’, Remembering and Forgetting the Ancient City, edited by Javier Martínez Jiménez and Sam Ottewill-Soulsby (Oxford: Oxbow, 2022), 225-245.
– ‘Making Men and Cities: Francesc Eiximenis on the Reasons for City-Founding,’ Rome and the Colonial City, edited by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and Sofia Greaves (Oxford: Oxbow, 2022), 83-100.
These pieces are based around the intuition that there are few things more revealing about the way people understand an institution like the city than what they have to say about its beginnings. By stripping it down to its most basic elements, the story-teller reveals both the purpose of the city and what they feel its most essential elements were. Classical antiquity had a huge range of accounts of the origins of urbanism, which tended to emphasis both that it was the natural outcome of the inherent sociability of humanity and a means by which civilised life developed through the emergence of law, concepts that were very important for their understanding of the city. I became very interested in what happened to such ideas in the later Christian world.
‘First Cities’ begins this line of thinking in Late Antiquity. Although Augustine of Hippo’s (354-430) attribution of the first city to Cain based on Genesis 4:17 became the standard explanation in medieval Latin Europe, I argue that before City of God hardly anyone was talking about Cain’s city. Instead, Christian writers encountered the first city as part of complex debates with pagans. Whether they rejected the Greco-Roman first city, like Lactantius (d.c.325), or embraced it, like Eusebius (d.c.339), it is not obvious that the rise of Christianity undermined the older Roman ideas of the city. Read this article if you want to see Augustine at his most tendentious and Lactantius going full anarcho-primitivist and taking precisely zero prisoners along the way.
‘“Hunting diligently”’ pursues the above theme into the early medieval world, focussing on the underappreciated ninth-century historian, Frechulf of Lisieux, with nods to Isidore of Seville (d.636) and Alcuin of York (d.804) along the way. In it, I explore the way in which Frechulf skilfully combined Augustine’s account of Cain’s city with Roman ideas of the fall of humanity from a blessed state of nature. The result is a really powerful narrative, that makes Cain’s city the final corruption of humanity into tyranny. A must for lovers of dubious etymologies and the Tower of Babel, as well as the other members of the Frechulf fan-club (we one day hope to fill a minivan).
‘Making Men and Cities’ is something of a departure in more ways than one. I became increasingly fascinated by the fourteenth-century Catalan Franciscan, Francesc Eiximenis (d.1409). In his great work on the city, the Dotzè, he summarises thirteen reasons for the finding of cities. In this chapter I examine the implications of these reasons for his ideas of what the ancient city was for and what the modern city should be. This is not my last encounter with Eiximenis, so if you like this rest assured there is more in the pipeline. Read if you’re a fan of imprisoning academics to make sure they meet their publishing deadlines, and egging on Spanish cities in obscure and pointless feuds.
2. Remembering the Roman City
– With Javier Martínez Jiménez, ‘Zimbabwe and Rome: Remembering and Forgetting Ancient Cities’, Remembering and Forgetting the Ancient City, edited by Javier Martínez Jiménez and Sam Ottewill-Soulsby (Oxford: Oxbow, 2022), 1-20.
– ‘William of Tyre and the Cities of the Levant’, Cities as Palimpsests?, edited by Louise Blanke, Suna Çagaptay, Elizabeth Key Fowden and Edward Zychowicz-Coghill. (Oxford: Oxbow, 2022), 141-154.
– With Javier Martínez Jiménez, ‘Ancient cities in new worlds: neo-Latin views and Classical ideals in the sixteenth century’, Rome and the Colonial City, edited by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and Sofia Greaves (Oxford: Oxbow, 2022), 101-121.
‘Zimbabwe and Rome’ is a piece I co-wrote with Javi. Although it’s meant to act as an introduction to the Remembering and Forgetting volume we edited, it also gave us an opportunity to do something I’ve wanted to do for a while, which is to make the Roman city weird. Most people in the West grow up with a mental image of the Roman city that feels familiar from school and the movies that makes it feel comfortable and normal and we decided to shake that up a little bit. One of the oddest things about the Roman city is how much we know about how their inhabitants understood it. Compare that to places like Mohenjo-daro, Teotihuacán or Great Zimbabwe, where we only have the outside perspective. Javi and I think about some of the factors that led to this weirdness. We also explore some of the odder readings of the Roman city that have appeared over the last millennium and a half. Read for Monkey-People, the Hunger Games and a thirteenth-century Florentine’s best stab at coming up with a plausible name for someone from the Roman Republic (spoilers – it’s hilarious).
In 2019 the project hosted a conference in Istanbul thinking about cities in the Eastern Mediterranean. As I saw the programme come together, it occurred to me that there was a potentially interesting perspective that was missing, that of the Latin Crusader kingdoms of the Levant. ‘William of Tyre’ is the result of the thoughts I gave at that conference. I find William (d.c.1186) fascinating because he was born and died in the kingdom of Jerusalem, and self-consciously identified as a Latin. In the chapter I look at his extended descriptions of the cities of the Levant in his History and the way he carefully highlights their classical history while ignoring their Byzantine or Islamic pasts, despite good evidence that he knew an awful lot about them. The Roman past mattered to William because he saw it as his past, and part of the history of his people in the region. Will be enjoyed by fans of twelfth-century universities and misleading history writing (his, not mine, honest guv).
Finally, ‘Ancient cities in new worlds’ is another chapter I co-wrote with Javi (I cannot recommend having a writing partner sufficiently patient to check the punctuation in every footnote so you don’t have to enough. It’s wonderful ). Over the years, and for my part somewhat inspired by a trip to Mexico in 2018, we had become increasingly interested in the idea of the Roman city in the Spanish colonial empire. This is a two-parter. In the first half we think about the way the civilisations of the Americas were understood by Europeans through the lens of Greco-Roman urbanism through the chronicle of Peter Martyr d’Anghiera (d.1526). In the second, we skip forward a couple of generations and see how the inhabitants of sixteenth-century Mexico City fashioned themselves as civilised and cultured in the light of the Roman city by looking at the writings of Francisco Cervantes de Salazar (d.1575, not that Cervantes). A must for enthusiasts of Tlaxcalan politics, grid streets and dodgy prophecies.
And with that I’ve summarised some, but by no means all, of the last half decade, which is a profoundly weird feeling. But four continents and a little over twelve centuries is probably enough for one post, so I will leave it at that for the moment.