The best books on ancient cities

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

Who am I?

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.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

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.

Cities: The First 6,000 Years

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…


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.

The Ancient City

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…


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.

Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present

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…


Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide

By Amanda Claridge,

Book cover of Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide

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.

Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide

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…


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.

Invisible Cities

By Italo Calvino,

Why should I read it?

3 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.'


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Rome, cities, and ancient Rome?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Rome, cities, and ancient Rome.

Rome Explore 236 books about Rome
Cities Explore 29 books about cities
Ancient Rome Explore 141 books about ancient Rome

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Dans la Rome des Césars, How to Survive in Ancient Rome, and S.P.Q.R if you like this list.