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CL3361: The City: Rome to the Medieval World


From ancient times, the spread of Roman culture, that process we know as Romanization, has been identified with the development and distribution of particular urban forms in the early centuries AD. Those cities are seen as the bastions of Roman civilization, spreading culture across the provinces, transforming their territories into areas of Romanity (culturally, economically, and ethnically), in the one of the most successful policies of cultural imperialism ever known. It is these cities that provided us with some of the most familiar monuments of antiquity, from Rome itself, through the great archaeological sites of the East, to the small cities of Roman Britain. In consequence, the seeming decline of those cities in the late antique period has also been as a transformation, an ending of a long of Classical urbanism that dates back to the foundations of the polis in archaic Greece. The ancient world was a world of cities, acknowledged as such by the ancients, and the rise and fall of Classical urbanism has been as marking the rise and fall the classical world: the city plays a central role in historiography, and if one was to ask most scholars when the ancient world came to an end, they would provide answers which would add up to ‘the ancient world ends, when the ancient ends’. But why is this? Why does the city have such an imaginative hold on your conceptions of antiquity? What work does the city do? How does the city change things? And how does the city itself change? 

In this course, we will look at ideas of the city from the early empire through to the end of antiquity, which for the purposes of this course will be in the eighth century. In so doing, we will look at a vast tract of time. We will start by looking at Augustan period geographical writings, concentrating on the description of Alexandria, and from there will look at the nature of cities in Roman Egypt. In so doing, we will be establishing a model of how a provincial city works, and how a city might be seen as a centre of change in the provinces of the Roman world. From Egypt, we will look North and West, to Asia Minor, and further to Britain, looking at how cities developed and responded to Roman rule.

In the second section, we will look at theories of the city, thinking about how an urban community works, considering models of urbanism drawn from modern studies: how should we understand the city, what are the different typologies of urbanism available, are cities transformative of those who lived in them, does city life, as the medieval proverb has it, make us free? There is an impressive modern literature on cities, reflecting every kind of methodological approach, from the Marxist to the post-modern, and in this section we will try and locate the dominant theories of ancient urbanism within the nexus of modern thought, and consider where, if anywhere, we can find new or better ideas which would help us understand ancient (and modern) urban life.

In the third section, we will move towards late antiquity, by looking at the Christian challenge to traditional forms of urban life. In so doing we will again be looking at material from Egypt, at the early monks and their anti-urban tendencies, assessing why and to what extent they were against the city, and locating this anti-urban thought in early Christian teaching. We will then move to Italy, looking first at the situation in late-fourth-century Rome, discussing the writings of Jerome on the city and its society. We will look at how Jerome takes on the history of the city, and how its society is disrupted by the Christianisation of its values, with particular focus on the status of women, and then to a test case, the Life of Melania, a fourth-century aristocratic woman who became a monastic leader, in spire of her marriage, and her very prominent status as an aristocrat in Rome. We will finish with Rome by looking at Augustine, one the great writers of the early Church, and how he conceived of the city, and thought of his own position within Roman tradition, looking at his Confessions and The City of God. Before leaving Italy, we will call in on Ambrose in Milan, to look at his transformation of the city, and the making of a new Christian city dominated by its self-effacing bishop, who asks nothing for himself, other than a basilica or two.

From there its back to the East, to Antioch where a fourth-century teacher of rhetoric has left us numerous letters and speeches detailing the supposed collapse of his pagan culture and the social and political infrastructure of his city, and a sorry story taken literally by generations of historians, but now undermined by the rich archaeological and documentary record from the region, before we call in on Egypt, for the last stand of the pagans, besieged in the temple of Sarapis in Alexandria. And then to Aphrodisias in Asia Minor to read the inscriptions put up by the late antique community, to assess continuities and changes, and to wonder just how important the trouser-makers of the city were.

But by this time, we are drifting into the sixth century, and we can now look back to the West, and assess the losses and survivals from the barbarian invasions. We look at the remnants of Roman Britian, search in the rubble that is the Arthur legend, and then to Gaul, to the re-use of Classical monuments, to the shifts in settlement in Merovingian cities, to the bishops, who proudly proclaimed their Romano-Gallic heritage, and to the bandits who roamed the countryside. And then to Italy again, to Cassiodorus and his learned letters on the games, and to city authorities, his recording of attempts to reorder the food supplies of Rome. We can look at the villas of the Italian countryside, and the attempts of the Gothic kings to establish themselves as properly Classical rulers of Roman Italy. Do we see an end to Rome here? A century or more after the Fall of Rome, is this a dark age? And we will push past the great chronological divides of the seventh century, looking at the rise of the towns along the Po valley in the eighth century, monastic settlements (especially the ‘medieval Pompeii’ at san Vincenzo al Volturno), and look at what kind of Europe was emerging in 800, when Charlemagne has himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor.

Then we are back in the East with Alexandria and the Life of John the Almoner who claims to have given vast fortunes in the early seventh-century city. And then Symeon the Fool from Emesa, who, according to our seventh century life, ‘accidentally’ wandered into the women’s baths in the city, causing no little consternation, before being forcibly ejected, but whose escapade suggests strongly that there was a functioning women’s baths in the seventh century. We shall try and map the fragmentary archaeology onto the literary sources. As the Islamic armies march over the hill, we shall city communities functioning and even prospering, though all the text books will tell you that the ancient city was a shadow of its former self, but, heretically, we go on, for Islam is not an end, and in the next century we see cities in the Levant, Gerasa, Pella, Aqaba, Bet Shean, developing under their new rulers, taking our story up to the convenient break-point of 750, date of a huge earthquake and a change of Caliphate.

In this course, we will not survey the End of the Roman world, but we will ask questions of what is a city, what was antiquity, how does it change, and what do the changes mean, and we will deconstruct that great historical error that is the “end of antiquity”.

Course Plan


Formative Assessment

Term 1: Source commentary

Summative Assessment

There will be two essays. Lists will be circulated at the start of the course. The first essay will ask you to examine a literary source from those being considered within the course. You will be expected to conduct a close reading of the source to extract issues of historical interest. Essay will focus on a theme, and you will be expected to demonstrate a full understand of the issues surrounding that theme. Comments will be returned on the first essay.

Term 2: Essay 1 (Source question) (up to 3,750 words)

Term 3: Essay 2 (Theme question) (up to 3,750 words)


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