The best books on ancient cities

Why am I passionate about this?

I learned to dig as a teenager in the school holidays and studied the ancient world at Oxford and Cambridge before beginning my career as a university teacher. I have been lucky enough to travel all over the world for my work, and have spent time living in some amazing cities including Paris, London, Madrid, and Rome. I love exploring new urban landscapes from Moscow to Lusaka, Såo Paulo to Toronto and I am looking forward this summer to moving to another great metropolis, Los Angeles.


I wrote...

The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History

By Greg Woolf,

Book cover of The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History

What is my book about?

The growth of cities around the world in the last two centuries is the greatest episode in our urban history, but it is not the first. Three thousand years ago most of the Mediterranean basin was a world of villages; a world without money or writing, without temples for the gods or palaces for the mighty. Over the centuries that followed, however, cities appeared in many places around the Inland Sea, built by Greeks and Romans, and also by Etruscans and Phoenicians, Tartessians and Lycians, and many others. Most were tiny by modern standards, but they were the building blocks of all the states and empires of antiquity. The greatest--Athens and Corinth, Syracuse and Marseilles, Alexandria and Ephesus, Persepolis and Carthage, Rome and Byzantium--became the powerhouses of successive ancient societies, not just political centers but also the places where ancient art and literatures were created and accumulated. And then, half way through the first millennium, most withered away, leaving behind ruins that have fascinated so many who came after.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Cities: The First 6,000 Years

Greg Woolf Why did I love 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.

By Monica L. Smith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cities as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A revelation of the drive and creative flux of the metropolis over time."--Nature

A sweeping history of cities through the millennia--from Mesopotamia to Manhattan--and how they have propelled Homo sapiens to dominance.

Six thousand years ago, there were no cities on the planet. Today, more than half of the world's population lives in urban areas, and that number is growing. Weaving together archeology, history, and contemporary observations, Monica Smith explains the rise of the first urban developments and their connection to our own. She takes readers on a journey through the ancient world of Tell Brak in modern-day Syria; Teotihuacan…


Book cover of The Ancient City

Greg Woolf Why did I love 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.

By Arjan Zuiderhoek,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Ancient City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Greece and Rome were quintessentially urban societies. Ancient culture, politics and society arose and developed in the context of the polis and the civitas. In modern scholarship, the ancient city has been the subject of intense debates due to the strong association in Western thought between urbanism, capitalism and modernity. In this book, Arjan Zuiderhoek provides a survey of the main issues at stake in these debates, as well as a sketch of the chief characteristics of Greek and Roman cities. He argues that the ancient Greco-Roman city was indeed a highly specific form of urbanism, but that this does…


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

Greg Woolf Why did I love 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.

By Andrew Shryock, Daniel Lord Smail,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Deep History as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Humans have always been interested in their origins, but historians have been reluctant to write about the long stretches of time before the invention of writing. In fact, the deep past was left out of most historical writing almost as soon as it was discovered. This breakthrough book, as important for readers interested in the present as in the past, brings science into history to offer a dazzling new vision of humanity across time. Team-written by leading experts in a variety of fields, it maps events, cultures, and eras across millions of years to present a new scale for understanding…


Book cover of Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide

Greg Woolf Why did I love 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.

By Amanda Claridge,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Rome as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The city of Rome is the largest archaeological site in the world, capital and showcase of the Roman Empire and the centre of Christian Europe.

This guide provides:

* Coverage of all the important sites in the city from 800 BC to AD 600 and the start of the early middle ages, drawing on the latest discoveries and the best of recent scholarship

* Over 220 high-quality maps, site plans, diagrams and photographs

* Sites divided into fourteen main areas, with star ratings to help you plan and prioritize your visit:
Roman Forum; Upper Via Sacra; Palatine; Imperial Forums; Campus…


Book cover of Invisible Cities

Greg Woolf Why did I love 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.

By Italo Calvino,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Invisible Cities as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A subtle and beautiful meditation' Sunday Times

In Invisible Cities Marco Polo conjures up cities of magical times for his host, the Chinese ruler Kublai Khan, but gradually it becomes clear that he is actually describing one city: Venice. As Gore Vidal wrote 'Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvellous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant.'


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Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

Book cover of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

Rebecca Wellington Author Of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am adopted. For most of my life, I didn’t identify as adopted. I shoved that away because of the shame I felt about being adopted and not truly fitting into my family. But then two things happened: I had my own biological children, the only two people I know to date to whom I am biologically related, and then shortly after my second daughter was born, my older sister, also an adoptee, died of a drug overdose. These sequential births and death put my life on a new trajectory, and I started writing, out of grief, the history of adoption and motherhood in America. 

Rebecca's book list on straight up, real memoirs on motherhood and adoption

What is my book about?

I grew up thinking that being adopted didn’t matter. I was wrong. This book is my journey uncovering the significance and true history of adoption practices in America. Now, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women’s reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, I am uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption.

The history of adoption, reframed through the voices of adoptees like me, and mothers who have been forced to relinquish their babies, blows apart old narratives about adoption, exposing the fallacy that adoption is always good.

In this story, I reckon with the pain and unanswered questions of my own experience and explore broader issues surrounding adoption in the United States, including changing legal policies, sterilization, and compulsory relinquishment programs, forced assimilation of babies of color and Indigenous babies adopted into white families, and other liabilities affecting women, mothers, and children. Now is the moment we must all hear these stories.

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

What is this book about?

Nearly every person in the United States is affected by adoption. Adoption practices are woven into the fabric of American society and reflect how our nation values human beings, particularly mothers. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women's reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, Rebecca C. Wellington is uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption. Wellington's timely-and deeply researched-account amplifies previously marginalized voices and exposes the social and racial biases embedded in the United States' adoption industry.…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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