The best books on ancient cities

Greg Woolf Author Of The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History
By Greg Woolf

The Books I Picked & Why

Cities: The First 6,000 Years

By Monica L. Smith

Book cover of Cities: The First 6,000 Years

Why this book?

An exciting overview of one of THE big themes of world history, an anthropological essay that draws on urban traditions from five continents. It is really good on the materiality of cities, everything from how they were built and where they get their food to what happens to their garbage. A great balance too between the huge variety of cities and what we today can learn from early urbanism.

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The Ancient City

By Arjan Zuiderhoek

Book cover of The Ancient City

Why this book?

Historians of Greece and Rome have been arguing about how to describe ancient cities on and off since the eighteenth century and some of their debates have got stuck deep in the mud. This little book offers the best way out of these impasses. It is super clear, really up to date and incorporates the very latest research. Especially good on economy and society.

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Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present

By Andrew Shryock, Daniel Lord Smail

Book cover of Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present

Why this book?

Most historians work on a few decades of the past, and even ancient historians rarely move beyond two or three centuries, but this amazing collection asks us to think about how themes like language and trade and kinship and residence look if we consider them over the last 40,000 years. Each chapter is written by a team of researchers from different disciplines. Often they have to start by creating a common language. But the results are truly eye-opening. So many familiar themes will never look quite the same again.

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Rome (Oxford Archaeological Guides)

By Amanda Claridge

Book cover of Rome (Oxford Archaeological Guides)

Why this book?

I am a Roman historian and spend as much time as I can in the eternal city. This is absolutely the best guidebook. Amanda lived in Rome for many years, knows every fragment of ancient architecture, and is fantastic at explaining the most complicated ruins. The book is short enough to carry with you everywhere and is full of wonderful maps and plans. Absolutely essential.

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Invisible Cities

By Italo Calvino

Book cover of Invisible Cities

Why this book?

Invisible Cities was first published in Italian in 1972 and is a classic work of fiction. The setting is a set of conversations between the Venetian merchant Marco Polo and the Mongol Emperor of China, Kublai Khan. Polo describe strange and wonderful cities he has visited on his travels (or has he? Because so many of the cities are bizarre, unreal and compelling). Each short description is like a poem, and together they raise questions of memory and perspective, of the power of our preconceptions to shape what we see, and the power of words to capture the essence of the city. Spellbinding.

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