The Rise of a New Town

In my quest to distinguish Barbarism from Civilisation I come inevitably to the question of towns, to see where people lived.  And as an archaeologist I inevitably ask the question – is it possible to distinguish between barbarism and civilisation on the ground?  Is it possible to look at towns to see if there is any difference between the towns of the pre-market economies which we call barbarian and the towns of the market economies such as Greece and Rome? How indeed should we examine towns? Do they reflect the underlying economics?

The layout of Roman towns is quite well-known, the prime example being Pompeii, where the whole architecture has been revealed, and a large part of it has been excavated. There are indeed other towns in many other parts of the Empire where the layout is well-known: here in Britain we think of Silchester and Wroxeter, both of which were abandoned at the end of the Roman era and have since been intensively studied and excavated.

The Roman town was centred round its forum, or market place.  There was also an amphitheatre for games, sometimes a theatre for more cultural pursuits and then there were also the baths, many of them, as at Pompeii built by private enterprise, but many of them grand public buildings.  There were temples, though in the Roman world they were surprisingly small.  There were shops and houses, some big, many small.

What is perhaps more significant however are the absences   – there were no palaces in Roman towns and no castles either.  In Greek towns there was often a council room attached to the market place or agora.  And in Roman towns, or at least Romano British towns there was a basilica at one end of the market place which acted as a town hall, where justice was administered.  Roman towns were walled at least from the third century onwards, but there never any castles. Indeed it is hard to distinguish any barracks for soldiers.  Soldiers were kept in military forts along the borders of the Empire – in Britain in the military zone to the north along Hadrian’s Wall, and in the three great legionary fortresses of York, Chester and Caerleon.  The only Roman town that did have a military camp attached to it was Rome itself, and there the camp of the Pretorian guards was very much considered to be a constitutional exception when it was founded under Tiberius.

In all this Roman towns are very different from Medieval towns which are centred round the cathedral and the castle. Indeed medieval towns often provide very good example of why the middle ages are in fact ‘middle’, that is halfway between a nonmarket and a market society. The predominating feature is the huge space given over to religion both in the form of the major churches and in the form of the monasteries which often crowded round the outside. There is also the dominating element of the castle which often towers over the town. But there are also sometimes marketplaces, though these are often at the gateways outside the walls of the town. But certainly on the whole the mediaeval town is closer to the barbarian town than to the civilised town. Medieval town provide  evidence of a society where there was a sharp difference between the rulers and the ruled, but where God ruled over all and demanded the biggest share of public capital expenditure.

But what about the great empires of the near East, the empires of Egypt , Mesopotamia and the Minoans which we normally consider to be the birthplace of civilisation, but which I tend to call barbarian?  Here it is more difficult to get an overall idea, for few have been excavated extensively, and our main knowledge tends to come from individual sites,  from graves, temples and palaces.  But what did a complete town of these great early societies really look like?

There is one town in Egypt which satisfies my criteria  as a complete town which has been intensively excavated and studied, which is open for inspection and where we can get a real idea of what an Egyptian town looked like.  That town is Amarna.


On to Amarna