This week, a lot of media outlets covered anthropologist Scott Ortman’s recently published paper, Settlement Scaling and Increasing Returns in an Ancient Society, which analyzes the growth of cities in ancient Mexico to argue that the efficiency incentives that are driving urbanization today were also intrinsic to the growth of cities in ancient times.
I’m not sure I buy the authors’ basic assumption that the scale of monument construction can be used as a reliable metric for the incentives of urbanism. (This strikes me as a classic social scientist’s attempt to quantify something that should have been analyzed more liberally.) But, apart from that, the paper highlights something urbanists intuitively understand: cities become more productive, and dynamic, with growth. And Ortman’s work adds to the evidence that urbanists crave, namely, that people have long been drawn to urban settings by their opportunities, as well as by their mystique.
The urbanism of the Classical world offered lots of (non-numerical) ancient examples of large cities as better engines for economic and cultural output. Athens, in the fifth century B.C., was the largest city in the Greek world — and also the center of learning, artisanship, and trade, within that universe. Likewise, Alexandria was the economic and cultural capital of the Near East, during Hellenistic times; and Rome, for the entire Mediterranean basin in the first and second centuries, A.D. Modern examples might include London in the 19th century, and New York in the first half of the 20th.