chapter  1
The end of the ancient city
Wolfgang Liebeschuetz
Pages 49

Many sites of ancient cities are occupied by flourishing cities today. Not a few of them have continuous histories since Antiquity. So the Ancient City can be said to have come to an end only in a special sense, the disappearance of those characteristics which distinguished the Graeco-Roman city from others. Of these the most spectacular and influential have been cultural. They involve a particular style of architecture, sculpture and town planning, and a very distinctive literary and intellectual tradition. But the origin of the Ancient City was political and administrative. Its essential feature was the creation of a political, religious and cultural centre (‘the city’ in the narrow sense) for a rural territory around it. The political centre together with its territory represented the city state, or ‘city’ in a wider sense. According to Thucydides the creation of the political centre was the essential action in Theseus’ synoikismos of Athens: he suppressed the local councils of the small communities of Attica and created a common council for the whole territory at what was thereafter the city of Athens (Thucydides 2.15; cf. Cavanagh 1991). The legend expresses the historian’s view that the origin of the Athenian city state was political and administrative. The subsequent history of the city in the Graeco-Roman world, not least in the Later Empire, shows that its political and administrative rôle remained central. For Thucydides the original and essential instrument for creating and maintaining the Athenian city state was

the council or boule. In his own time this was just one of the political institutions of democratic Athens, working alongside a popular assembly, popular courts and numerous directly elected magistrates. Under Roman rule popular institutions faded away,1 and the self-government of territory and urban centre was left in the hands of the council (curia, boule), a body whose size might vary from about eighty to six hundred men according to the size of the city. Membership was lifelong and in practice hereditary. Vacancies were made up by co-option from men of property, above all landed property. The history of the cities in the Roman Empire is closely linked with the history of the city councils and the civic élite (curiales, decuriones, bouleutai) which had come to monopolize membership of the ruling council. In the Roman period possession of a council was considered the essential qualification for city status (Jones 1964, 724; Garnsey and Saller 1987, 29).