Most people understand the importance of cities, because, in our era, the city not only is the dominant form of human association but also is becoming more so every day. In 1950, the proportion of the world’s population living in cities was only 29 percent. In a larger picture of human history, however, the city is a very recent arrival on the human scene. The emergence of the first cities and civilization occurred only 10,000 years ago. Humans first appeared on the earth about 200,000 years ago. For the next 190,000 years, our ancestors lived as hunters and gatherers. Most followed animals and moved with the seasons, without permanent settlements, small groups ranging from 25 to 50 individuals. Around 10,000 years ago, near the end of the Ice Age, people began to settle down in one place and to evolve more complex social structures. Over a period of 5,000 years, villages began and multiplied. Humans created permanent settlements where they raised crops and learned to domesticate animals for use in the fields or as a food supply. This was the start of the division of labor, where people began doing many different, specialized tasks to “earn a living”. It also evolved hierarchical power structure and a productive surplus.
As this happened, villages turned into towns, and then towns became the first cities. Jericho may be the oldest city in the world. The ancient city of Caral is the oldest known city in the Americas. The first urban empire was in the Fertile Crescent region of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the southern portion of present-day Iraq. This region known as Mesopotamia or Sumner began evolving significant cities. Uruk and other Mesopotamian cities had highly complex social structures, including a power hierarchy and a pronounced division of labor. They had public buildings, extensive trade arrangements, a system of writing, mathematics, and a code of law. Early Mesopotamian urban life was centered on the temple and on religious beliefs. It included a strong military elite and an increasing capacity to wage war. To the east of Mesopotamia, Mohenjo-Daro had a physical layout similar to the same gridiron pattern common to most Western cities today.
Greek cities were more egalitarian, though few matched Athens in having most of its free citizenry (the Greeks had slaves) directly participating in legislative decisions. The early Greek polis experienced war as well as peaceful rivalry, symbolized by the Olympic Games. Greeks left behind a legacy that highlighted the positive possibilities of urban civilization, including painting, sculpture, and architecture as well as a political system and body of philosophy that influence the world to this day.
Rome was the dominant power of the Western world. By the time of Christ, the city that was the base of the Roman Empire contained a population of more than 1 million. Rome displayed the same characteristics as the earliest cities: a favorable ecological setting, the ability to produce an economic surplus, and a complex social structure. The arts and sciences flourished and public monuments and buildings were integral parts of the cityscape. Rome was exclusively based on the expression of militaristic power. Rome explored and revealed for all history the consequences of concentrating a city’s resources almost entirely on the accumulation of power and wealth.
The pattern of settlement typical of the fifth through the eleventh centuries was a mosaic of local manors, villages, and small towns that in many ways were reminiscent of the earliest urban settlements. The characteristics of Greek and Roman cities vanished and so did the arts and sciences. This was the “Dark Ages”. The low point of urban life in Europe was reached in the ninth century but, around the eleventh century an awakening began. The population in medieval cities was small. The physical dimensions of most medieval cities were modest. Cities typically occupied a few hundred acres. Major roads within the city connected its gated entrances to the center typically to the cathedral, the marketplace, or major buildings, such as the guilds or town halls. The cathedral towered the rest of the city. It was an integral element in the social life of medieval Europe. Other than the cathedral, no tall buildings existed and the streets were narrow and winding. Houses typically were built together in row house fashion, often had space for growing food.
By the mid-seventeenth century, feudalism was all but dead, and with it went the last remnants of the rural-centered life of the Middle Ages. In its place stood capitalism and an urban way of life fundamentally grounded in the possibilities for trade.
City growth can cause problems. A rising population demanded more and more goods and services and effective ways to manage the needs of the city’s inhabitants. Some cities responded to this challenge by making their social structure even more complex by creating the state.