Economics / History / Psychology

The Instinct for Cities, and How Rome Got (Way) Ahead of Itself

I am a city girl: I love observing the pace of life in crowded places. It’s interesting to see how a massive crowd of people in a small space manages itself collectively. Do they rush and keep to themselves, as in the case of New Yorkers? Do they stroll and take advantage of spaces to linger, as in the case of Parisians? The people of each space influence how it feels and how it looks, as each city has to accommodate the lifestyle of its residents.

The funny thing about cities is that in the beginning, they made little sense. Rome was the first huge metropolitan area. By some estimates, its population reached one million by the first century BC (this was staggering as the next time a city grew so large was London in the nineteenth century AD). This worked politically: the Roman Empire at its height (around second century AD) had Rome at its heart, spanned 3.5 million square kilometres, and covered an area that would encompass 30 countries counting by today’s borders. It radiated power in military, economic, and political arenas.

However, taking the position of an economist, collecting one million people in an urban place in the first century BC was full of repercussions relating to sustainability and the ability to self-manage. In fact, it was written that “the ultimate success of the Roman economy was that the state did not have to bleed the provinces dry” (in Mattingly’s A Companion to the Roman Empire, see below for reference). One million people had to be fed, clothed, protected, kept in order; provided means for trade, occupations, methods of entertainment; kept clean, supplied with water, provided buildings of public and private nature. Think of the costs involved! And the effort of creating new processes – supply chain of food production from nearby lands, sanitation measures and aqueducts, coinage systems (must be easy to make and track, hard to imitate), progress in architecture.  Then after this was all set up, there were the implicit hazards of a city to deal with. Fires spread easily in areas so close together; the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD destroyed a good part of the city. The Antonine Plague was a disease that carried easily among the population and wiped out a third of it between 165 and 180 AD. Clearly it was also difficult to keep areas clean and well ordered. All these increased costs, and all these increased risks. I find it amazing that Rome existed at all.

But yet it did. I don’t think it existed for economic reasons, which were the reasons for the creation of North American cities (trade). Many (or at least a good portion of ) scholars agree that today’s notion of “profit motive” and the wish to get rich from transactions with others was more or less absent from the psyche of the residents of Antiquity. And Rome certainly didn’t grow so large due to technologies that enabled  people to live in industrious production, as in the case of London from 1750 onwards (the industrial revolution and the subsequent demand for factory labour).   Ancient Romans invented surprisingly few progressive tools, and when they did, they failed to employ them on a truly large scale. So why create the city? Political influence is a factor, but maybe they were onto something ahead of their time. I think Romans felt that people can live together en masse even if their era couldn’t accommodate that instinct – at least for the long term. Still, despite the eventual downfall, Rome is truly great for managing to sustain itself at all.

While walking through the Foro Romano this past summer – seeing the ruins, and imagining how massive the Forum was in its day – I wondered if the reason for building a great city was pure vision. The succession of creators all subconsciously imagined that this huge structure could one day accommodate the pace of life for a million souls, and decided to keep building, and they were so right in their direction – cities are beautiful in their function, as we see now, two thousand years later.

D. Mattingly, ‘The Imperial Economy,’ in A Companion to the Roman Empire ed. Potter D.  (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), pp. 283-297.


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