Looking Beyond the "Western World"


We in the so-called Western World, and the U.S. especially, have a tendency to think of the (so-called) modern world as originating with the Roman Empire. After all, democracy was created within the great Greco-Roman society of old and their cities were modern wonders, still influencing the architecture we have today (you can check your local civic structure for those iconic columns, for example). This kind of thinking however, is misguided and completely inaccurate. Cities have existed around the globe for a lot longer than just the fabled Rome, and in many ways actually embodied the idea of “civilization” far earlier than Pax Romana. At the same time, by not looking back at the ways that even Rome did things, we miss a lot of extremely valuable information that can affect our cities today.

The extent of the Roman Empire in 117 AD (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

There is always something to be learned by looking comparatively at cities, and especially cities of the past. I think it is important to consider that someone, somewhere may have grappled with the same issues you do, hopefully in a way that can inform your own decisions. Today this manifests in scholarly journals for academics and conferences where knowledge can be shared by a multitude of professionals worldwide. But sometimes it is necessary to look back, not just across, which is where archaeology becomes crucial to the urban studies equation. (Even comparatively recent cities sometimes require a bit of digging to reveal their secrets.) Indeed, discounting the fact that billions of individuals have come before you and may have considered these very same urban issues, can even be detrimental to development, setting a culture back decades or even hundreds of years.

In more ways than one, Rome is an excellent example of this issue. When the Roman Empire spread across Europe to England in the first century AD, it brought with it the design of fortresses and city structures which fuel this emphasis on Western civilization. After this occupation it was England that brought about the Industrial Revolution which went on to spread urbanization to an unprecedented degree around the world. What’s fascinating to consider, however, is that during that time between the Roman intervention, the eventual retreat, and the famous revolution, the urbanization of England actually virtually disappeared. After the cities were abandoned by the fallen empire, residents for the most part went back to more rural ways of life. It wasn’t until centuries later that the region built back up again to something resembling its Roman days, and then beyond.

The Roman Forum - Not so unique afterall?  (Ward-Perkins 1974: 108)

The modern city structure, generally speaking, is typically attributed to Roman engineering. When we think of cities we often think of an orthogonal grid-plan layout with wide thoroughfares and public plazas - this is the island of Manhattan, most downtowns, and newer auto-oriented American cities like Phoenix, Arizona. Hippodamus of Miletus, the famed father of urban planning, is known for supposedly inventing this orthogonal structure as well as the public agora, having developed numerous towns and cities in Ancient Greece. However, the focus is too narrowly attributed to this singular culture in this one part of the world. In fact, orthogonal city structures were independently invented in all corners of the globe by the simple fact that regulation of the urban environment is easier for the people in power (giving them a way to regulate buildings and to view their domain), and also because a squared shape placed in the urban environment is a fairly logical structure. Boards of wood (or logs or bricks and so on) fit together conveniently in right angles in a more compact grid-like pattern rather than positioning a bunch of cubes in a circular formation (see the earliest cities for examples of this from our first days as city-dwellers).

Chang'an, China in the Tang Period. You can't get much more orthogonal than that! (Kiang 1994: 46)

Along with the contemporary understanding of urbanism that is so often attributed to the Roman Empire, other modern conventions have also been equally praised as Roman inventions. Take plumbing for example - something which is as famously “Roman” as concrete (I’ll get to that later). In actuality, plumbing has existed since the early civilizations of the Indus Valley to the east. Toilets, too, go hand-in-hand with these pipes, and amazingly flush toilets were even around thousands of years before the English occupation - unlike in Western society where defecation in very unsanitary conditions was commonplace until the mid-19th century. How was it that it took this long for conditions in cities to improve, to push us into the contemporary urbanized world? It’s incredible to think that this back and forth of life-changing inventions could have been prevented with better communication and consistency between civilizations.

Roman public toilets - something the Romans seemed to be ahead of Western culture on (Public Domain)

On the other hand, there is something which is valuable to look at when examining the Western origins in Rome. Where they didn’t technically invent other modern conventions, they did have a hand in the invention of one of the most influential materials on earth: concrete. Without it, virtually our entire contemporary society would be dramatically different than it is today. And I don’t just mean a lack of brutalist architecture, I mean a lack of skyscrapers, sidewalks, and yes, even our modern plumbing systems. But here’s something even more astounding - much like our haste to praise the Roman Empire, we have overlooked the history of the urban development and most notably the context of the recipe, as it were, of something so perfected by this ancient civilization. A recent article in Business Week details the findings of the UCLA Roman concrete research team (an interesting elevator speech for those guys to be sure), which explains how the simple addition of volcanic ash to the mix is the secret to the long-lasting structures still standing today.

Remains of a Roman temple in Naples, Italy, remarkably still intact despite its constant contact with water (Photographed by Angela Sorrentino, original here)

By taking a simplistic look at an idealized past, or by not looking at it at all, we overlook the longer view of human habitation as well as the finer details of ancient urban life. Neighborhood layouts in Mesoamerica famously arrange their buildings around a central public plaza - across an ocean from ancient Roman society and their famed forum. Chinese cities were extraordinarily orthogonal, massive complexes occupied for thousands of years with wide roads and designated markets. And we now know that Angkor Wat was much larger than we previously thought stretching an incredible 13 square miles with giant reservoirs and orthogonal streets and canals. All of these components of cities are far more complex and even common than we tend to believe. What else can ancient, and non-Western cities teach us about urbanism? Considering the thousands of years we have been building and rebuilding cities around the world, the information could be infinite. By looking back at what has come before us more often, by looking beyond our modern Western hubris, we could find that the solutions to our problems can be as simple as adding a bit of ancient volcanic ash to our modern mixture.