Small is beautiful: exploring the drawbacks of megacities

Rubina Raja & Søren M Sindbæk on Urban Archaeology.

If you have never heard about Panticapaeum, you are probably not alone. This small but thriving Greek colony was founded in the 7th century BC in a fertile and sumptuous landscape on the eastern shore of Crimea. Commanding a key position for trade at the Cimmerian Bosporus, a maritime strangle point, it prospered by linking the Black Sea with the Azov and the Don river regions. By 480 BC, it had become the capital of its own kingdom, and managed for centuries to navigate independence between strong Persian and later Roman interests. Haunted by Ostrogothic and Hunnic raids, it still survived as a Byzantine citadel. It lived through a succession of Khazar and Slavic lordships to become the modern city of Kerch, now once more trying to persist through a precarious situation in the current war in Ukraine.

Panticapaeum was never a large settlement. At its greatest extent, the ancient site occupied about 100ha, a common size for cities in the Roman Mediterranean. Yet the combination of a fertile hinterland and strong networks kept its population enduring and often thriving for over 2,600 years of continuous settlement. This is quite a feat. As Aztec expert Michael E Smith and colleagues have recently shown in a thought-provoking paper on ‘The persistence of ancient settlements and urban sustainability’, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the lifespan of many substantial cities in the old and new world was less than 250 years. Panticapaeum has lived ten times as long, so far.

Are megacities efficient?

The small but tenacious city on the Cimmerian Bosporus has seen excavations for over 150 years. Nonetheless, few non-Black Sea specialists delve into the results. Research in urban archaeology tends to focus on the few iconic and very large sites – illustrious metropolises such as Yinxu or Chang’an, Babylon or Rome, Alexandria or Antioch, Tikal or Teotihuacan. Such ancient megacities were never typical of the urban past, but their spectacular physical remains easily capture our imagination. However, there is much to suggest that they were not only exceptionally big, but based on a different ecology to other cities.

In a recent paper entitled ‘What can developing cities today learn from the urban past?’, economist Edward Glaeser notes that many societies, past and present, have been focused on a single primate or capital city. Such a megacity was useful to a political leader, as its large, semi-dependent population could buttress the power of their lords. Indeed, politically sponsored urbanism, Glaeser writes, has been the norm for much of history. ‘The first lesson is that politics shapes space,’ he concludes, taking this inspiration from, among other things, Classical archaeology and the history of the ancient Mediterranean world, where this was most certainly the case.

Coming from this author, it is a remarkable statement. Only ten years ago, in what now seems another era, Glaeser brought out the bestselling book Triumph of the City, tellingly subtitled: How our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier. Despite the concerns regarding what was then a recent global financial crisis, he argued that cities had always worked to mankind’s benefit by creating tighter communication between lots of people. Almost by default, such concentration brought opportunities for learning, sharing, and networking, and thus led to increased innovation, competition, and smarter solutions. That was the simple societal X-factor of cities. If political structures were part of the process, Glaeser found no reason to comment on it back then.

ABOVE The remains of Panticapaeum. It was founded in the 7th century BC as a Greek colony, and has survived as an urban site down to the present. Despite its modest size, the longevity of the city reflects a highly successful and sustainable society.
The remains of Panticapaeum. It was founded in the 7th century BC as a Greek colony, and has survived as an urban site down to the present. Despite its modest size, the longevity of the city reflects a highly successful and sustainable society. IMAGE: Dreamstime

For many years, beginning in the 1990s, globalisation and urbanisation seemed to many historical and archaeological researchers to be two sides of the same coin. Commerce and interaction made societies richer, and cities were the chief market hubs that allowed them to do so – in both the past and present. The more people brought together by cities, the more interaction would happen, and the more learning, innovation, and wealth would result.

But this was decidedly not the process that turned places like Rome, Chang’an, or Teotihuacan into megalopolises. In the Mediterranean, for example, researchers have long noted that the flourishing of cities correlates closely with power concentration and the control and exploitation of populations. Learning and sharing might come from this condensed control, expressed through monumental urban landscapes. But, in fact, these landscapes were first and foremost expressions of power, and the peace that was instituted through this made it possible and attractive to invest in expensive public adornment and stone buildings, such as the ones still standing after almost two millennia in cities such as Aphrodisias and Sagalassos in modern Turkey or Gerasa and Palmyra in the Middle East.

More than anything, this political economy dominated the hubs of government – the primate or capital megacities. Yet it is these places that continue to provide textbook examples of ancient urbanism.

Balancing scales

Interaction, learning, and innovation are key parts of human history. Up to a point, places where lots of people lived together would certainly have provided better venues for these activities than thinly spread, sparsely connected societies. But did the opportunities simply grow with the numbers of people who gathered? If many of the largest ancient cities were in fact created and sustained by economies of political power, rather than by opportunities for exchange, how far does size matter? Imperial Rome, as enclosed by the Aurelian Walls, comprised an area more than ten times the size of Panticapaeum. Were its inhabitants also ten times more interactive and innovative?

In recent papers, Scott Ortman and colleagues seek to compare how the population size of ancient cities compares with other measurable properties. Their ‘scaling theory’ approach shows that some factors tend to tally, while others do not. Although there are no simple archaeological ways to detect things like rate of innovation or learning, we may borrow their approach to question some common assumptions. As cities continue to attract people, there may indeed be more opportunities to meet and learn. But negative factors are also increasing. These include the potential for conflicts, the challenges that flow from dense cohabitation and fragile supply chains, and even the simple problem of navigating a huge social network to find the right people to contact. How far do opportunities for interaction matter to individuals if their society becomes too large to search? At what point do growing numbers of people stop leading to more productive encounters?

If there is an ideal size for cities to do their work, there are hints that some ancient megacities went well beyond that point. The evidence for policing and control, the effort invested in creating separate neighbourhoods, and perhaps more than anything the relatively short lifespan of some capital cities point in that direction. Many ancient cities were also afflicted by the negative flipside of encounters in terms of endemic diseases and pandemics – something that is only too familiar from our recent past.

To understand what part cities have played in our human story, we need to pay attention to the unglamorous small and medium-sized places, which, unlike in our present, offered the bulk of urban experience to people in the past. Such settlements offered connected, adaptable, but also resilient habitats, which were sometimes remarkably robust to the perils of conflict, environment, and health. In so far as the urban past offers templates or inspirations for our contemporary social worlds, these sites may also have something to offer. Could it be the cities that do make us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier are not giant metropolises, but small, suitable, and evidently sustainable cities like Panticapaeum?