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On an Earth-like planet, with the technological and cultural level of ancient Rome: What kind of terrain would be statistically best suited for a powerful city to be located?.

The most important aspects of this city are, in order: religion, economy and military. Below are some of the things I would like to see in my city;

  • The city would be the religious center of a massive empire around the size of Russia.
  • It would need to have natural defenses while at the same time allowing for easy trade.
  • Their closest neighboring city is around 27 miles away, Their closest enemy is in the closest enemy state around 130 miles away.

All Culturally Correct Questions

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  • $\begingroup$ This depends on a variety of factors, such as where other people are settled in relation to you and the surrounding land. A good rule is stick to coasts, rivers, and large mountain passes (for trade routes). $\endgroup$ – the_OTHER_DJMethaneMan Aug 31 '15 at 19:09
  • $\begingroup$ When the top voted answer to a question contains the sentence "There are too many .... for a definitive answer", you know that the question is WAY too broad/primarily opinion based. $\endgroup$ – Aify Aug 31 '15 at 20:06
  • $\begingroup$ A continent-sized empire with an enemy just 200 km away from its (religious) capital? That’s about Rome to Naples or Pompei and Firenze is just a bit farther (and another direction), whereas Carthage and Constantinople are around 1300 km away across the sea, Athens is just around 1000 km. $\endgroup$ – Crissov Nov 9 '15 at 12:12
  • $\begingroup$ For the important religious center of the city, you should consider an acropolis on a hilltop. Probably the hill has (had) a unique shape or is made of unusual material for the area or is the only elevation in a larger plain, and it was not at all easy or cheap to build the holy structures on top of it – maybe the crater of a solitary extinct volcano. $\endgroup$ – Crissov Nov 9 '15 at 12:27
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There are too many factors in the development of a city for a definitive answer, but there are some common terrain elements to keep in mind.

One of the most important features of powerful cities is good transport - navigable water has been especially important for cities to develop. The ease of trade boosts economic growth, allows a wider range of resources to be available at a practical cost, provides a robust means of supply in case of siege (unless besieged by a superior naval power), a means of disposing of sewage (an often overlooked issue), etc. A river delta is not a wise choice due to flooding and erosion issues - some slightly elevated terrain next to a major river is probably best. Obviously these are just general trends, as everything has an exception (Venice built in otherwise unwanted marshlands on a lagoon comes to mind).

Being surrounded by fertile farmland and good fishing grounds to feed the city certainly helps (and provides a valuable export in bountiful years). Being reliant upon others to sell you basic food staples on a continuous basis is a precarious position.

Strategic resources give you a significant advantage. Once you have a wealthy enough city with good trade routes, anything can be imported, but having your own local sources gives you security in your supply and spares you the cost of importing it. These tend to be found in diverse terrains, and both availability and value very much depends on what resources your neighbors have as well.

The weather has a strong influence on a city - being buried under snow in the winter or roasting in the summer (or even both) saps a lot of productive capacity. Being prone to storms inhibits trade, flooding or mudslides destroy infrastructure, etc.

Bottom line - pick any terrain you want as examples can be found for just about any situation you can imagine. The important questions are how well do the people innovate and leverage what they do have to their advantage? How do they position themselves in regard to their neighbors and international relations? People are the true wealth and the power of a city.

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You need water to drink and food to eat, enough to support a large population. Water can come for aqueducts not too far. The food can come for the plains nearby or it can be imported form other regions of the realm or or from other countries if you can afford it.

In any case, large cities have a large flow of traffic of all sort of goods. It's vital for the city. Some of it will come by roads but it's easier to move stuff with boats. Access to an important river is significant. It can be inland but it's a plus when it's near the sea as the city will be a trading hub with far away places. Actually, the city need trade but it's trading that makes cities grow. Merchants from far away won't come to small villages, they will go in the big market.

The city does not have to be located on a plain. It just need access to food and water. During the Tang dynasty, the city of Xi'an could not support herself with her surroundings (it's too dry) and relied on imports from Southern China. The presence of the imperial court attracted many people and demanded a lot of resources that the city had no need for before that. The city was already an important trade hub between the plains of China and Central Asia. When it became an imperial city it just made it bigger but it was not created from thin air. So, even if your city can import food, it must be possible to have a city there to grow without import in the first place.

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Cross roads are always the best places, especially defensible cross roads.

On or near rivers to keep fresh water flowing through the city, and trade routes passing crossing that river.

You need water, food (so nearby plains that can produce lots of food is good, but being on a good trade route can help mitigate that quite a bit), and a reason for people to want to be/go there. Trade routes are where people will travel, usually those with goods to sell or trade. Several routes might converge in one spot, this will make it a destination vs. a stopping spot. It can reduce the traveling distance by half when the traders from opposite locations show up to exchange goods.

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If you research them, the major cities almost always are along a river. It's actually considered one of the more reliable terrain features for a large city, because large quantities of water are essential.

As for coming to power, the most important thing of coming to power is not the city, but its ability to leverage the particular weaknesses of nearby groups. Accordingly, there's no way to tell what features are needed without understanding exactly the best way to leverage nearby cities. You can become an illustrious city just by being well placed, but being powerful involves not just being well placed as a city, but being placed in a position to control that which others need.

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Although this medieval, I will put it in contemporary Urban Planning terminology, as many successful medieval cities were successful on less-than-perfect locations, but this is to define the 'sweet spot' for your story. And I'm an Urban Planner. I'd love to address what's inside your city as well (civic and community facilities distribution, etc.), but that's for a different question, isn't it?

Transportation & Communication

Critical to the growth of a successful city is a collection of meaninful connections, in this case most likely easily-traveled roadways. Which means, while you may have a mountain backdrop for protection or scenery, you should have pathways to allow transporation, trade, and commerce to access your city: so a mountain pass, a land-bridge (if you're an island) or scattered oases (if you are in the desert), a river if you're inland. Being central and accessible puts you as the pinnacle of trade and boosts your city.

Water Distribution

Access to clean, plentiful water is a necessity, not just for food, but for water distribution. A fast-flowing, non-seasonal (you don't want floods) river can run through or adjacent to your city. It provides nominal protection, some food, and hygiene. If you insist on a desert city, consider qanats from nearby mountains.

Wastewater and Stormwater Management

Integral to the success of a city is a place to dispose of wastewater and sewerage; most likely this would be your river mentioned before. For stormwater, place your city at a higher elevation, with a gentle slope to the river or sea. You'll notice in any older city (London, Rome, Kaifeng, etc.) that when you're in the old-town areas, you can find your way to the river by just walking downhill.

Civic Resources

This is internal to your city, so not directly part of your question, but it addresses your city's location. There's a well-accepted understanding that a major city has a theoretical (not literal) radial arrangement with the smaller settlements. This is called Central Place Theory. You want to be the big city, so distribute the medium and smaller ones along this theory (not literally) around your city. [radial], [centers of academia and governance], [well distributed comm facs]

Regional Resources

This may be the most important. Your city should have access to farmland (down-river to receive the urban sewerage and so as not to put livestock waste through the city) and hunting areas (up-river, as the goods are sent by raft down-river to town). Almost any geographical feature, from swampland to mountains to water features can support the town and be used for protection from outside threat. Just ensure you have access through these harsher areas for trade.

Happy mapping!

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