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The Impact of the Ancient City

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - ImpAncCit (The Impact of the Ancient City)

Reporting period: 2019-10-01 to 2021-03-31

The aim of the project is to explore the numerous and diverse ways in which the cities of the Greco-Roman ancient world have helped to shape and reshape subsequent cities, from the middle ages to modernity, with a focus on the Mediterranean world, and with an emphasis on both east and west, both Christian and Islamic spheres. The strategy of the project is to pull together specialists in diverse fields, archaeologists, historians of ideas, and urban historians to examine the variety of impacts at different periods and in different cultural and ideological contexts and to assess how one of the greatest and most distinctive features of the ancient world, the city, has influenced societies and lifestyles up to the present. Drawing on specialists in the archaeology of the eastern and western Mediterranean, historians of ideas of medieval Europe and the Islamic world, the project has focused on a number of case studies and crucial moments of transition. What happens to cities when centralised Roman power collapses in the fourth and fifth centuries AD? While some have characterised this as a period of decline, the project has found that the theory of resilience, by which organisms constantly adpt to changes in the environment, offers a more powerful explanatory framework. From Mérida in Spain to Jerash in Amman, Christianisation and Islamic conquest produce significant shifts in emphasis yet an underlying continuity. Islam has been represented by the West as producing the antithesis of the ancient city, with its narrow winding streets; and while it may be true that Arabic literature gives no special place to Greco-Roman antiquity, closer examination shows that the contrasts have been exaggerated for ideological reasons, concealing other continuities.

Importance for society
The number and size of cities in the modern world make the city seem a distinctive feature of modernity: how do our ideas about the city relate to those of inhabitants of the Roman empire two millennia ago, how much do we owe to them, consciously or unconsciously, and how far do modern technologies make our cities different in kind? Urban planners have continuously reached back into the past. Nineteenth-century urban planners were deeply impressed by how Roman technological advantages in water supply and waste disposal could make the city a more healthy environment. Ancient grid designs have been imitated, from the bastides of Medieval France to Renaissance ideal cities to American colonial foundations to anti-urban descigns like Milton Keynes. To design a city is also to design a human society underpinned by social ideals. To understand how the ancient city has helped to form the modern city is to understand our urban environment and our own societies better.

Studying the ancient city is not merely an academic exercise. The city has perennially provided a concept around which society has structured a self-reflexive discussion. As Salvatore Settis would tell us, every city is ‘a theatre of history and memory’, which is rethought, remodelled and renewed in dialogue with the society by which it is inhabited. Our project underscores the relationship between society and the urban environment across time by focusing specifically on the impact of the ancient city. It demonstrates that the ancient city exists not as a dead monument or separate entity, but in connection with a living contemporary setting. Wars were waged before the Parthenon in the quest for Greek independence, the temple of Mars Ultor in Mérida became a porch for the basilica of St Eulalia, and Jordanian politics rendered Jerash a Roman city to promote tourism and diplomacy. In its permutations, the ancient city is shaped by the politics and exigencies of society, both elite and demotic. Our project links the transformation of society to the transformation of its city, and each contribution demonstrates the relevance of the ancient as an actor and a contested site within the modern. This naturally reflects on the conditions of our own age, Palmyra being but one example.

Just as this project aims to show that there is no one definitive model of ‘the ancient city’, but a millennium and more of experimentation, adaptation, ideological conflict and innovation, so it aims to show there there is no one formula for the impact of antiquity on subsequent urbanism, but adaptation, repurposing, and deployment of the authority of the past to generate creative solutions. The objective is to capture this diversity in a series of exchanges between different specialisms, brought together in a series of conferences around some fundamental themes (see below). It does not aim to offer a definitive model for the future of the ideal city which should be imitated, but a deeper understanding of how the past has continuously recycled in the urban environment that surrounds us.
The team assembled has been chosen to represent both chronological and geographical spread, stretching from antiquity (PI) to the archaeology of western and eastern Mediterranean in late antiquity (Martínez and Blanke), to medieval western European and Arabic thought (Ottewill-Soulsby and Zychowicz-Coghill), to Anatolia in the Byzantine and early Ottoman periods (Cagaptay), Greece in the Ottoman period, and Italy in the modern period (Greaves). Each research has pursued a common set of questions in their own special period while regularly meeting as a team to share questions and ideas. The principal outcomes are a series of workshops and conferences, involving both project members and relevant specialists, which are forthcoming as a series of volumes on the themes of: cities and citizenship, remembering and forgetting the past, the palimpsest city in which numerous layers are co-present, and the urban models of colonialism.
While there have been previous attempts to examine our set of issues with relevance to specific periods, or selected themes (notably town-planning), there has been no previous work that attempts this broad scope. We anticipate that our wide-ranging discussions will open up the field and lend it new significance.