A city, as distinguished from a large village, reflects a more complex social organization. It typically exhibits improved technology, manufacture for sale, international commerce, and literate scribes who produce written records. Political power extends over a wider area and is maintained by an army; walls and towers normally protect a city. In ancient times, every city had one or more temples, and the rulers typically claimed that one or more gods supported their authority.
The Israelites were curious about the origin of a city such as Babylon, as the legend of the tower of Babel shows (Gen. 11.1–9). Indeed, the earliest complete cities known to us, such as Ur, arose in Mesopotamia. Babylon had straight, narrow streets at right angles, sumptuously adorned gates, a ziggurat (the “tower”), and a processional street.
Egyptian cities were essentially residences of the Pharaohs or storage depots for a centralized agricultural economy. All were on the Nile or in the delta and carried on international trade. Thebes had monumental temples and sacred precincts.
Jericho, in the Jordan valley, was fortified with walls and towers in the prepottery Neolithic period (perhaps 7000 BCE) and is thus the earliest such settlement discovered anywhere.
At the time of the Israelite entry into Canaan, there were fortified towns with local rulers. Jerusalem was such a place when David conquered it from the Jebusites and made it his capital (2 Sam. 5.6–10). His son Solomon built a temple in Syrian style, engaged in international commerce, and made Jerusalem the administrative seat of a large realm, which he divided into districts. His models were the great Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon; Hiram of Tyre provided building materials and skilled workmen for the Temple (1 Kings 5–6). At that time, Jerusalem had an area of thirteen hectares (thirty‐three acres) and a population of about five thousand. Nineveh in Assyria was more than fifty times larger.
After Solomon's death, the revolt of the northern tribes, and the founding of the kingdom of Israel, Omri ultimately established his capital at Samaria (1 Kings 16.23–24). The northern kings were in close commercial and cultural relations with Syria and Phoenicia, and Samaria was a small fortified city.
Beginning perhaps in the eighth century BCE, a unique type of city‐state developed in Greece. The citizens normally included merchants, free workmen, and landowners in the surrounding countryside. In Athens and some other cities, a tyrant or an oligarchy sometimes ruled, at other times a democratic assembly. The pattern is found in Asia Minor and in colonies established by the older cities. Each city‐state tended to be fiercely independent and jealous of its rivals, yet in some regions cities formed themselves into leagues.
Hippodamus of Miletus, the first Greek city‐planner known to us (ca. 450 BCE), seems to have established the pattern of a rectangular grid for city streets. A typical Hellenistic city had an agora or marketplace, porticoes, temples, and other public buildings, all arranged for convenience and artistic effect.
The conquests of Alexander the Great led to the founding of many cities on the Greek model. In general, he respected the autonomy of city‐states that had been loyal to him. His successors in Egypt, the Ptolemies, built Alexandria as a Macedonian‐Greek city that was not only a capital but also became a great center of learning. The Seleucids of Syria founded Antioch and made it the capital of their large empire. Older cities such as Tyre and Sidon continued to be commercially important. When Rome took control of Asia Minor in the second century BCE, the forms of city autonomy were preserved, if not the substance. At this time, Ephesus was capital of the province of Asia.
Palestine was affected by these changes. After the exile, Jerusalem was ruled by high priests under Persian overlordship; this continued under the Ptolemies and Seleucids. Judas Maccabeus and his successors made Jerusalem and Judea more or less independent from 165 to 63 BCE (See Maccabees, The Books of the). After this, Rome controlled the region and after a few years installed Herod the Great as a client king. It was he who reconstructed Jerusalem on the model of a Greco‐Roman city, with a principal north‐south street (cardo) and a main east‐west street (decumanus) crossing it. He built aqueducts, a theater and an amphitheater, and a magnificent new temple. By this time, nearly ten thousand people lived in Jerusalem. Caesarea on the seacoast was transformed into a commercial city and one of the greatest ports of the Mediterranean. Herod also rebuilt Samaria and named it Sebaste in honor of the emperor Augustus. Most other settlements in his realm were only large towns or villages.
After Herod's death and the deposition of his son Archelaus, Judea became a minor Roman province. Galilee and Perea (Transjordan) went to his son Herod Antipas as tetrarch. At first his capital was at Sepphoris, north of Nazareth, but he rebuilt Tiberias and moved his capital there.
The northeast region was ruled by Philip, another son of Herod the Great, who built the cities of Bethsaida Julias and Caesarea Philippi. Within this area there was also the Decapolis, a league of about ten city‐states, of which Damascus was the northernmost and greatest. All but one (Scythopolis, or Bethshan) were east of the Jordan. Gadara and Gerasa are mentioned in the Gospels (Matt. 8.28; Mark 5.1). These cities were all Hellenistic in culture, and they preserved a measure of autonomy under the Roman province of Syria.
Paul's travels took him into Arabia, perhaps near the Nabatean caravan city of Petra, and to many of the chief cities in Asia Minor and Greece. Among these, Antioch in Pisidia and Philippi were Roman colonies. Corinth, like Ephesus, was a great port. It was refounded by Julius Caesar after it had been destroyed by the Romans a century before.
Rome was the center of government for the whole empire, and was its most populous city. The early emperors had magnificent public buildings constructed. Rome produced little; rather it consumed, and goods and wealth flowed there from all parts of the empire.
See also Archaeology and the Bible.
Sherman Elbridge Johnson