I am creating a map for a story set in a pre-industrial world, and have made the basic physical geography. My main concern now is the development of culture, centred around urbanisation. There are some obvious commonalities between major cities historically; mostly that they are along a river or beside the coast, and are otherwise accessible to surrounding regions in order to become trade hubs.

I'm going to assume that cities develop like rivers; and the largest ones are fed by tributaries. People and water flow along the path of least resistance between physical boundaries, and so the size and influence of a city is dependent on its catchment area. I'm also going to assume that cities first developed and then spread from continental cradles of civilisation (like the fertile crescent), and that these cradles had specific qualities.

I'd like some geography and science to support (or refute) these notions. Is there any analysis (the more sources the better) which can be summarised/cited to explain where and why ancient cities first developed and spread, also how this development is relational?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This paper does a pretty good job of exploring the economic factors behind the rise of New York City. I don't think NYC fits your scenario exactly since it has a short history, but some of the economic components in there are definitely relevant. $\endgroup$ – Avernium Aug 8 '16 at 18:57
  • $\begingroup$ I'm afraid there's a fundamental disconnect here. Urbanisation is largely a result of industrialisation, large cities before this were the exception rather than the rule taking no more than 10% of the population (as opposed to 90% in the UK now theguardian.com/news/datablog/2009/aug/18/…) $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Aug 9 '16 at 7:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Separatrix that's just completely false. You're right that before industrialization, not very many people lived in cities. But in the social sciences, urbanism refers to any kind of city/town, even those that would be considered a hamlet by modern standards. $\endgroup$ – user171 Aug 9 '16 at 9:16
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @inappropriateCode I think the way you phrase your question indicates you are in fact looking for a hard-science answer. I didn't make the edit but it makes plenty of sense to me. You don't want hearsay or what people think but rather you want valid historical/academic sources validating or invalidating your assumptions. In short, when you ask for sources it implies the need for the hard-science tag. $\endgroup$ – James Aug 12 '16 at 18:11

Human needs are the very first thing you would look at when developing an urban area. The most basic of which are:

  • Water
  • Food

Next is, and this is a large consideration--Trade, and other cities.

Lately I've been studying Medieval cities, in particular a book called Life in A Medieval City One of the interesting points made about the development and size of cities was very much connected to government and, above all, taxes.

Some of the largest Italian cities became successful because they were on a trade route, had access to the sea, resources, and encouraged commerce. There were French cities that became successful because of yearly festivals (and stringent guidelines for goods along with special merchant courts for those who didn't follow the rules) Troyes Hot Fair is a good example of this. They basically taxed themselves out of success, and eventually the guilds created monopolies.

Geography and resources are just the beginning. Wealth and trade can take a city up or down. Banking in Florentine made it a resource for everyone trading throughout Europe. This model was copied somewhat by other cities in Italy (Genoa) and others fell from prominence (Pisa).

I was going to link you to http://www.ancient.eu/ for more on ancient city formation, but I see that Landon Boyd already had. The map in inappropriateCode's answer illustrates a point I was going to make: the most ancient cities, with the most staying power tended to have access to the sea. Not all of them certainly, but many.

As for tracking the spread, people do what's best for the times. Geography is just one part of the picture, as are resources. Cities are abandoned for a number of reasons: natural disasters, government fiats, a particular industry moving away. Part of the reason for the decline of Troynes and many other cities was an economic depression throughout Europe, and it's the kind of thing you see, even today.

Cities are more likely to be wholly abandoned if they aren't geographically close enough to a "main drag" and if gathering resources in the area becomes more arduous. No one really knows what happened to the Maya, but many scholars point to a reliance on rainwater and bad agricultural practices, which lead to a reduction in food and water, both of which are needed to survive.

How a city grows, fails or thrives is dependent on stability of resources, whatever they may be.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You'll probably find that water exists, but trade comes first then food needs to catch up. There was always a lot of hunger in cities. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Sep 1 '16 at 16:47

Basic survival knowledge is that when lost, follow streams or rivers downstream, or try to find a coast. Settlements/civilization are/is historically and still typically near water sources, and in low lying areas. Going up hill is not recommended in survival situations as it tends to bring one away from civilization. Just google what to do when lost.

[edit for additional clarity] The rules that guided settlements historically hold true in more modern eras. Proximity to travel and trade, food and resources (in the past, water provided all of these). In the pre industrial world, as you said your story was set, travel (and especially trade )was easiest via water so I would expect that large successful urban centers will still be on water, with likely sprawl occurring along the coasts or river fronts. Especially filling in upstream at minor tributaries, and along the coast at any delta.

Sometimes settlements occur in more remote areas around military forts or outposts as well, in areas chosen for their defensibility.

| improve this answer | |
  • $\begingroup$ This does not answer the question and leaves me confused as to what you thought the question was? $\endgroup$ – inappropriateCode Aug 10 '16 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ What I meant to say is the qualities that make an area likely to be inhabited historically, still are true today. Historically towns popped up in lowland areas along rivers or coasts, and especially where they meet because of the need for water and it's ability to improve travel and trade. I would say that most settlements continue to follow that model. Nothing has really changed except perhaps substitute rail line or highway for river / coast in the modern era. Also, some towns form near natural resource deposits, but those are just boom towns. $\endgroup$ – wizardzz Aug 10 '16 at 16:01

I think that history can do more to validate your assumptions than "hard science". Let's look at a map of Venice and her territories in the pre-industrial world.

This map (albeit, not ancient, I'll get there in a second) highlights the conditions and effects of the spread of urbanization in your question. The geography of Venice was perfect for trade on the high seas (which was a "thing" at the time). Plus, per your question, development of culture wasn't a problem in Venice, as some consider it the birthplace of the Renaissance. It was fed by tributary cities which were not as gifted in excellent geography, providing the "pecking order" you describe.

Now, Europe has never been described as the cradle of civilization, but I think it plays a part in answering your question.

"I'm also going to assume that cities first developed and then spread from continental cradles of civilisation (like the fertile crescent), and that these cradles had specific qualities."

Let's assume the civilization here on earth started in the fertile crescent. http://www.ancient.eu/Fertile_Crescent/

From there, tributary cities were planted further and further north until they came to Greece. By then, culture was advanced enough to support the city-state, enter Athens, Sparta, and, of course, the 300. A tributary city was planted in Italy, and from there, Venice was founded. The chain continues until today.

The notions in your question are definitely valid, and they thankfully don't require MathJax format to answer. History here on earth shows that cities do develop like rivers, because who wants to expend extra effort to get over mountains, across desserts, or over oceans? The answer to why ancient cities spread is simple; wealth, and it leads me to one more side effect to this mode of urbanization.

Large cities are going to plant small cities to gain wealth. We saw it in the cities here on earth. If there is a deposit of gold 30 miles away, I see that as a fitting occasion to start a tributary city. That way, others can do our work for us, but we get the gold. When it comes down to it, urbanization is all about the money.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Landon, the hard science indicator simply implies that we want academic sources (wiki isn't good enough) supporting your answer. $\endgroup$ – James Aug 12 '16 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ I appreciate the answer, but also @James comment. Venice is good example to speak of, and the map is certainly helpful. But if you could contextualise this with some academic historical references to the rise of Venice it'd help! $\endgroup$ – inappropriateCode Aug 15 '16 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ Here is an article I found helpful. It's from San Jose State University, and it highlights the reason for Venice's rise (and the conditions mentioned in your question). It's short, but covers the geography and politics of the time. sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/venice.htm $\endgroup$ – Landon Boyd Aug 16 '16 at 15:24
  • $\begingroup$ I would rather use the Phoenicians, which were mostly in the Levant and Palestine. They created many colonies, many of which turned into big cities, or even empires of their own (Carthago). I would suggest to divide cities into trade/commerce cities founded to facilitate exchange of goods and cities founded because of natural resources or fertile land (deeper inland). You need abundance, you either get it locally or through trade profits. $\endgroup$ – WalyKu Aug 30 '16 at 9:09

I have tried to research this myself, and found some information which is relevant, but by no means comprehensive enough.

The most obvious point is that, when speaking of the cultures which emerged around the Mediterranean, urbanisation first occurred in the fertile crescent, then spread to Egypt, and then to Greece. The exact reasons for this are not clear; whether due to overpopulation or resource depletion. Urbanisation took different forms across the ancient world, with the highest density in Mesopotamia. Egyptian cities were different, spread more thinly and more specialised in function (temple or palace cities).

Cities were first created within warm climates and the places with the largest and most fertile river valleys. With time and technology cities were established in progressively colder climates. Below is a map produced by Dr. Meredith Reba, from her research into the origins of documented urbanisation. It's worth noting that although some very old cities left documented evidence in Mesoamerica, India, and China, their spread was far less prolific than around the fertile crescent.

Vanishingly few ancient cities were established in sub Saharan Africa, Indonesia, or South America, even though these regions were inhabited by humans for well over ten thousand years. The obvious thing to note from this is that jungles are not the easiest place to create a city, and comparatively dry regions made excellent sites for construction projects. It's also worth noting that humanity found it much easier to spread across cold areas than wet ones; likely owing to rainforests having simply too much rain and too many huge tree species for ancient humans to tackle.

world map of cities by founding

| improve this answer | |
  • $\begingroup$ Have you heard of the maya? They were able to establish low density urban centers in the jungle. Pretty sure there are several other examples of jungle cities as well. $\endgroup$ – user171 Aug 18 '16 at 20:52
  • $\begingroup$ There's a reason I said "not the easiest" instead of "impossible". Exceptions don't make rules. $\endgroup$ – inappropriateCode Aug 18 '16 at 20:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.