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From Village to City

Urbanization in the Ancient Greek World from 1,050 to 480 BC

When did cities emerge in ancient Greece? and from what point in ancient Greek history did cities constitute the primary social and economical frame for human activity in the Greek culture?

In the period after the collapse of the Mycenaean world in the late Bronze Age (ca. 1,050 BC), and continuously down through the centuries to around 500 BC, the Greek world developed from consisting of small hamlets and villages with an economy based on local production and consumption into being an impressive city-state culture consisting of around 1,000 city-states, all with their own territory, army, laws, constitution, and sharing a highly active interstate trade. Each city-state was centred on one urban centre, a fortified town or city, with thousands of inhabitants, houses and streets, public squares, water installations, temples and other monumental public religious and political architecture. The Greek city-state culture is well described from around the time of the emergence of written sources (ca. 600 BC) by the Copenhagen Polis Centre, culminating in M.H. Hansen and T.H. Nielsen, An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Greek Poleis (Oxford 2005).

In the period before 600 BC cities of considerable size with a number of basic urban elements did exists, as did a number of smaller settlements of varying size and character, and settlement hierarchies can be observed both in the political and the economical sense. However, archaeologists and historians do not agree on a definition of what a city is (Stadt, city/town, cité/ville etc.), and do not agree on the major differences between the notions village and town. The project Village to City, funded by the Carlsberg Foundation from January 2008 to August 2010, is a study of this process of urbanization, by means of (later) ancient and modern definitions. This has never been done in a thorough manner by inclusion of the entire ancient Greek world. Previous studies have been too narrow either geographically or chronologically, or perhaps even directly against attempts at defining urbanization or the necessity of establishing an empirical base to accompany theories about urbanization.

Part of this project is a collection of data, the so-called city components. Only by analysing the prevalence of these components may we find support for definitions as to what a city was in the ancient Greek world, and further suggest in a meaningful way in which century the process of urbanization was so advanced that it may be said that cities constituted the dominant type of settlement in the ancient Greek culture.

In world history the process of urbanization in the ancient world is just the beginning of a phenomenon which is still developing: the migration from the countryside to the city. In the year 2008, according to demographers and geographers, more people live in cities than in the countryside, world wide, for the first time in the history of civilization. According to recent research the ancient Greek culture did, however, see a dominance of urban living as opposed to village-life at around the time of Alexander the Great, in the late 4th century BC. As our understanding of the Greek city state culture in the historical period expands and we see again and again how it was the city as a political and economical type of organization which was the reason for this success, it becomes increasingly interesting and important to understand its early history.

World history has seen some 40 city-state cultures, who shared a number of features. There are still a number of unanswered questions in particular about the early history of such cultures, since the early archaeology is often obscured by later activity. The city-state culture of ancient Greece consisted of as many as 1,000 individual city states, far more than any other city state culture in world history. It follows that the statistical possibility of identifying elements crucial for the understanding of the early development of ancient Greek cities is far greater than it is for any other city-state culture. Therefore, the study and analysis of ancient Greek urban centres may thus prove crucial for our understanding of urbanization as such in world history.

Please feel free to contact Rune Frederiksen for further information on the progress of the project.


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Reproduced with permission of M.C. Lentini and the Italian School of Culture at Athens