Greg Woolf didn’t know his book would come out during an urban crisis. Thanks to coronavirus, Venice’s population, for example, is now somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000 — the lowest for centuries.
Horrific pandemics were nothing new for ancient cities, which, as this scholarly book shows, have gone through heady rises and catastrophic falls. Rome had a population of nearly a million under the Emperor Augustus. By the sixth century AD it was down to 10,000. Troy, one of the great Bronze Age cities, was buried by the time Byron visited: ‘Where I sought for Ilion’s walls, the quiet sheep feeds and the tortoise crawls.’
Still, plenty of cities have staying power. Athens has been continuously inhabited for nearly 4,000 years, and Rome, Naples, Marseilles and Alexandria are all well over 2,000 years old.