Cities of the Classical World: An Atlas and Gazetteer of 120 Centres of Ancient Civilization

Simon Goldhill warms to the charms of a wacky history tour, despite its simplified viewpoint

December 15, 2011

The frontispiece of this charmingly batty book is a picture of the author, Colin McEvedy, sitting in a Roman temple in Turkey, dressed in a formal dark suit and tie, next to a younger man, Douglas Oles, the volume's editor, attired in more usual clothing for exploring ancient sites in very hot climates. The preface recalls how the author would drag his long-suffering family around site after site on holidays, presumably in his suit and tie. This image captures the piquancy of the book. McEvedy was a controversial psychiatrist by profession - "something of a rumpus followed", as the editor delicately notes in recalling the fallout from one of McEvedy's more public diagnoses of mass hysteria among health workers in London. But he had an abiding passion for ancient history, and made something of a name for himself by producing atlases of the ancient world. Cities of the Classical World, published posthumously as a labour of love by McEvedy's daughters and friends, is a beautifully produced and completely wacky testimony to the life and scholarship of a passionate private historian.

The book is called "an atlas and gazetteer". It lists 120 sites of the ancient world from Cirencester in the West to Ctesiphon in the East. In each case, it provides a very short history of the city and a map of its layout; each description focuses on its population and size. For the very biggest cities, there are inset boxes that describe the occasional major monument. Most entries are barely a couple of pages. So for London (Londinium, provincial capital of Roman Britain), we are told that "not much is known about the topography", offered a couple of paragraphs of very general history, plus a necessarily uncertain estimate of the population at the beginning of the 2nd century AD. A map shows the bare outline of the city, with the gates and four public buildings indicated. Even less can be recorded for Avenches or Chur (both in Switzerland), where the archaeology and history are equally uninformative.

The longest entries are no more than 14 generously spaced pages - reserved for the major sites of Rome, Athens, Alexandria and Jerusalem. There are evident difficulties with such a scheme. Athens begins with a five-page history that stretches from Cleisthenes' democratic reforms in the 6th century BC to the sack by Slavs in the 6th century AD. This reads at best like a simple children's book. There are three pages on topography, with a map of the city from the 5th to the 1st century BC, and a second map from the 1st to the 3rd century AD. This means that each map has to try to capture centuries of change - they fail hopelessly, of course. What's more, there is room for only a couple of paragraphs to cover the physical development of the city over the classical period, and less than that for the equally important Roman influence on the city. Topography here, as throughout the book, does not include any relation to agriculture, rural sites or even the consequences of the city's positioning for trade. There is the barest of notice of even major monuments. There is no sign of what would be understood by geography, human or physical, in a contemporary university, and even less of history.

The closest model for this project seems to be the Michelin Guide, without the hotels and restaurants: a simple map, a few facts - enough to give an acutely oversimplified bird's-eye view of a town and its history. Unlike the Michelin Guide, however, I don't know who will find this volume useful.

Cities of the Classical World: An Atlas and Gazetteer of 120 Centres of Ancient Civilization

By Colin McEvedy

Allen Lane,

448pp, £25.00

ISBN 97818461441

Published 3 November 2011

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