A panel from the Sumerian Standard of Ur depicting fish, animals, and goods being brought in procession to a banquet, circa 2600 BC

British Museum

A panel from the Sumerian Standard of Ur depicting fish, animals, and goods being brought in procession to a banquet, circa 2600 BC

The rise of the city is looked upon as the dawn of civilization, but a deep mystery surrounds the first city-dwellers. All we are left with as we strive to understand their lives are fragments unearthed by the archaeologist’s trowel, and that is a slender basis on which to reconstruct entire lives. In two recent books, Monica Smith and James Scott offer highly contrasting interpretations of these enigmatic, long-vanished people. Smith’s Cities: The First 6,000 Years imagines the world’s first citizens as happy folk, dedicated to festival-going, shopping, and displaying their social status. In contrast, Scott’s Against the Grain, published in 2017, depicts them as disease-ridden, subjugated, and desperate to escape the city’s bounds.

Smith is a professional archaeologist who has excavated many ancient ruins around the world. As she conjures the lives lived among those now tumbled stones, she depicts people who bear an uncanny resemblance to contemporary, urban Californians. If she has conjured aright, the nature of the urbanite has been more or less set from the start. Scott, an anthropologist and political scientist, has never wielded a trowel, but his research is extraordinarily meticulous and detailed, and the lives of his imagined first citizens are unlike anything existing today. His analysis implies that the history of the metropolis has been marked by one long struggle by ordinary citizens to free themselves from oppression.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, Smith and Scott disagree on the starting point of cities. Smith posits that the first urbanites lived six thousand years ago, in a now-abandoned settlement called Tell Brak, in what is today northern Syria. Scott traces their advent to a few hundred years later, in a constellation of cities that sprang up on the Mesopotamian alluvium around what was then the northern end of the Persian Gulf. Before the shallow sea was filled with sediment, its shore lay just two hundred miles south of Baghdad, half the current distance.

What makes a city different from a large village? In the 1930s the Australian archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe laid out ten criteria for identifying cities that are still used by researchers, though some in modified form. Childe noted that cities are larger and more complex than the settlements that preceded them and possess monumental architecture and specialized workers. They conduct trade over long distances, and their citizens pay taxes to a central authority.

A fundamental question, addressed most fully by Scott, concerns why cities only emerged some five millennia after the first crops and herds were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. According to Scott, one of the most convincing explanations has been put forward by Melinda Zeder, a theorist of early domestication at the Smithsonian Institution. She thinks that a village-based lifestyle, which mixed agriculture with hunting and gathering, provided a more sustainable and stable resource base than the less diverse sources of sustenance available to the inhabitants of cities. Shifting to a city meant reliance on a few species of grains and domesticated animals, and giving up hunting and gathering, because wild resources within reach of a city are quickly exhausted by the large, sedentary population. If Zeder is correct, then some strong force must have acted upon the first citizens to cause them to give up the benefits of a hunting-gathering-farming life. What that force may have been is hinted at by the existence of central taxing authorities.

The issue of taxation looms large in the arguments put forward by Scott. It is a remarkable fact, he says, that many crops—such as grains, potatoes, taro, and breadfruit—can support high human population densities. But it was only in the grain-based societies that the world’s first cities arose. This is because, Scott claims, grain is the perfect crop for taxation. It is storable, allowing for the accumulation of wealth; it matures simultaneously and predictably and is impossible to hide before harvest, making the tax collector’s job easy; and because grain is divisible, rulers can maximize their take, leaving the grower with only enough for bare subsistence. Compare that with a crop, like potatoes, that grows underground. A portion of any root crop can easily escape the tax collector’s notice, providing the grower with a measure of independence. For a ruler, that can be dangerous: well-fed and economically independent people are less likely to be induced to labor on monumental buildings, or indeed to accept any impositions from above.

Smith broadly agrees with Childe’s criteria for defining cities, so it is remarkable that the subject of taxation does not even merit an entry in her book’s index. Instead, she focuses on opportunity. She speculates that Tell Brak’s pioneers formed the world’s first city because they “were captivated by the opportunity to make a permanent festival atmosphere,” and that the social and economic patterns resulting from the unprecedented density of settlement and population size stimulated new forms of entrepreneurship and “staggering new projects of religious architecture.” In Smith’s view, these first urbanites lived lives much like ours, enjoying conspicuous consumption and accumulating vast piles of trash. You can recognize their spirit in the modern shoppers who purchase knockoffs of high-end fashions, carry them home in nonreusable plastic bags, then toss the clothes away after a few uses. In ancient Rome, enough broken pots were discarded at Testaccio to form a hill 115 feet high and 10,000 feet wide.


The symbol for kingship in ancient Sumer was the “rod and line,” “almost certainly the tools of the surveyor,” Scott informs us. Surveyors are benign figures in modern societies, but in the earliest cities they were more sinister, for they provided the raw data for taxation. The earliest administrative tablets, from Uruk, are lists of grain and manpower compiled by surveyors, and the taxes levied based on their work. These writings suggest that the ancient state was all about classifying and controlling land, livestock, and workers.

The names of the earliest cities that have come down to us—Ur, Uruk, and Eridu (Tell Brak is more recent)—appear not to be Sumerian in origin, though all were in Sumer. This, Scott suggests, indicates that these cities had been seized and colonized by foreign armies. He speculates further that “the bas reliefs depicting prisoners of war in neck shackles suggest another means by which the population was augmented.” And in the first cities, population was in perpetual demand. So severe were the conditions in Sumer that the population of prisoners/slaves could not replace itself through reproduction.

Indications that the early cities were conquered by outsiders, along with the tight control of workers documented in the clay tablets of Sumer, give rise to the possibility that the inhabitants of the earliest cities were, in effect, slaves. Frustratingly, it’s uncertain to what extent slavery existed in the earliest cities, but, Scott argues, “provided that we keep in mind the various forms bondage can take over time, one is tempted to assert: ‘No slavery, no state.’” Certainly, by around 4,500 years ago in Egypt, slavery had taken on a truly horrific nature, with prisoners of war being branded and forcibly resettled to labor on royal plantations. The connection between slavery and the state has proved tenacious: the writer Adam Hochschild has noted that as late as 1800, up to three quarters of the world’s population was still living in bondage.*

The bevel-rim bowl, Smith tells us, regularly wins the “ugly artifact” competition at an annual archaeology curators’ ball. It is coarsely made, and one of the most abundant items unearthed during excavations of Mesopotamia’s early cities. She sees it as the Styrofoam cup of antiquity. Because the bowls were manufactured thousands of years before the first money, Smith suggests that their contents were obtained by barter. But it’s difficult to comprehend how people could have kept track of frequent and small transactions such as those for daily meals.

Scott sees this artifact quite differently. The bevel-rim bowl, he tells us, holds almost exactly two liters of barley—the daily food ration for the lowest class of workers in Umma, Mesopotamia. According to Scott, the bowl held rations rather than food obtained through barter, and the workers who ate from them were little better than slaves, if not actually slaves. Under this interpretation, the difficulty of keeping track of bartered goods vanishes, because trade is monopolized by a ruler who doles out a bare subsistence to his workers.

Textiles, the most important trade goods generated in the early Mesopotamian cities, were produced in state-supervised workshops (Scott refers to them as “gulags”) that engaged as many as nine thousand women and children, who are referred to as slaves in most sources. Astonishingly, these laborers accounted for around 20 percent of Uruk’s population. The textile workshops were, Scott writes, critical to the elites, as it was only through bartering textiles that the city’s rulers could obtain metal, stone, timber, and other desirable products that could not be had on the alluvial plain.

It is telling, Scott says, that Mesopotamian scribes use identical marks for laborers as they do for “state-controlled herds of domestic animals.” To Scott, this indicates that “in the minds of the Uruk scribes…such laborers were conceptualized as ‘domesticated’ humans, wholly equivalent to domestic animals in status.” The practice, alluded to by Scott and Smith, of sacrificing and burying large numbers of both animal and human subjects in royal graves upon the death of a ruler, gives some credence to these ideas.


Let us think for a moment about what life must have been like for the average citizen of Uruk some five thousand years ago. At the time, Uruk contained the largest concentration of humanity ever, its population of 25,000–50,000 being ten to twenty times greater than any earlier community. Its humans cohabited not only with their livestock but also with commensal species such as rats, mice, and sparrows. Uruk, which is located on a low-lying, flood-prone plain, must often have been muddy, feces-soaked, and pestilential. The bones of livestock preserve evidence of chronic infections, high mortality among newborns, and a proliferation of pathologies resulting from inactivity—maladies that humans likely shared.

The humans of the first cities also suffered health crises: deadly epidemics are attested to in the earliest written records, as are the practices of isolating the stricken and quarantining new arrivals. It is evident that density-dependent diseases such as measles (which requires a population of 300,000 to persist) arose around the time that the first cities were established. And measles, which probably originated in sheep and goats, is just one of a host of ills that leaped from herds to humans as population densities and proximity to livestock increased. The scale of disease transfer in the early cities must have been overwhelming: we share twenty-six diseases with poultry, thirty-two with rats and mice, thirty-five with horses, forty-two with pigs, forty-six with sheep and goats, fifty with cattle, and sixty-five with our oldest companion, the dog. In the majority of cases, the transfer was one-way—humanity is a “dead end” for most infections. In effect, a new ecology was taking shape in the first cities, within which diseases and parasites did as well as, if not better than, the city’s human and animal inhabitants.

Smith deals with the issue of disease in the first cities rather summarily, stating that “trade-offs were constant: there was a greater chance of communicable diseases, but also more doctors to treat them.” Given the lamentable state of medicine before the scientific breakthroughs of the twentieth century, one wonders how effective such treatments were. Early writings from cities provide some answers—the Akkadian word for epidemic disease translates literally as “certain death.”

If the rise of the first cities was a boon for diseases and parasites, so too, Scott argues, were they a boon for barbarians. Barbarians have been variously defined by different cultures at different times, but Scott suggests that they are best understood as people who are not “domesticated” by city rulers. “Barbarians are to domesticated subjects as wildlife, vermin, and varmints are to domesticated livestock,” he says. The relationships between barbarians and the cities they lived close to are complex. Barbarians have at times devastated cities, demanded tribute, or offered themselves as militias to a city’s rulers.

If we follow Scott’s definition, some remarkable parallels between barbarians and diseases emerge. Diseases often kill their hosts when they first arrive in a native population, but over time they become less virulent, so that infection leads to chronic illness rather than death. This situation, which can be thought of as a sort of taxation on the host’s health, is far better for the disease, since the host lives long enough to transmit the infection to others. When barbarians first encountered cities, they destroyed some entirely. But soon they stilled their hand, learning that they could demand tribute instead, thereby turning the city into a sustainable resource.

Pity the poor inhabitants of Scott’s first cities. These malnourished citizens would go out into the fields or other worksites to labor under a triple burden: they had to produce enough excess to support their elites, the nonhuman parasites and commensal species that lived on, in, and with them, and the tribute-demanding barbarians as well. They were fortunate if enough food remained to support their bare existence.

The purposes of enclosing walls, which Childe identified as a crucial marker of cities, remain disputed. Smith emphasizes the importance of city walls in delineating the “metropolis as a distinct place with distinct rules.” She imagines Mesopotamians debating “for centuries” over the need for “flashy” new additions such as the Ishtar Gates, with their brilliant blue enamel glaze and images of animals and gods (today they can be seen in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum). Interestingly, neither Scott nor Smith sees city walls as primarily defensive structures. Scott instead posits that city walls were used chiefly to keep people in. In his view, the inhabitants of the first cities would escape at the first opportunity, to pursue the more leisurely life of the mixed hunter-gatherer-farmer.

Escape from cities seems to have been common enough that bounty hunters specializing in tracking down and returning fugitives are well documented in early writings. But on occasion the entire state would collapse, its inhabitants evaporating into the hinterlands. The causes of collapse of early cities seem to have been many and varied, from military assault to disease and environmental deterioration. But one cause championed by Scott is particularly enlightening. “Politicide,” he says, occurs during times of resource stress, when a city’s elites refuse to share the burden by reducing their incomes. Their subjects, reduced to desperation by the insupportable burden they must bear, either meekly starve or are forced to rebel.

Smith thinks too much is made of the collapse of cities, Scott too little. Smith’s claim that “the ‘collapse’ part of ancient urban life is greatly overplayed” is based on the observation that many cities, from Athens to Samarkand, are thousands of years old. But that hardly rules out collapse, for many old cities have collapsed and then been built up again.

Scott imagines the early cities as five-tiered human pyramids, which usually collapse before they are completed, the few successes swaying and trembling briefly before their inevitable demise. Most historians seem to side with Scott, agreeing that individual Mesopotamian city-states were fragile and short-lived; one expert expressed astonishment at the longevity of the Third Dynasty at Ur, during which five kings ruled for over a hundred years.

When an ancient city collapsed, its great temples, walls, and other monumental constructions were left to rot, giving a sense of general decay. Scott says that archaeologists pay little attention to the people who fled from a city after its collapse, for they built no monumental architecture and left no writings. But these periods deserve study, not least because the lives of the city’s workers may have greatly improved as a result of fleeing: they would no longer have to pay taxes, labor on others’ projects, or be as exposed to disease as they had been. Rome, in the centuries after its fall, saw vigorous independent communities reassemble in hovels built into the niches of formerly imposing amphitheatres and temples. Indeed, Scott says, such periods may have been looked upon as golden ages by those released from behind the city walls.

Smith seems to view inequality as a natural condition for humans, and writes that in the first cities it led not to oppression but opportunity. She sees the elites of ancient cities as “patrons.” Nor is there the slightest sense in her book that the consumption that occurs in cities, with its rapid uptake and discarding of the latest fads, is related to the current environmental crisis. She finds city life—with its consumerism, fashion, and constant interaction—so attractive that she can’t conceive of life without it. I put down her book filled with dread, fearing that if cities have always generated prodigious mountains of waste, then perhaps our environmental problems have no solution.

Against the Grain deserves a wide readership. It has made me look afresh at the urban world. Now when I see monumental architecture, I think of the workers who in many cases literally slaved over its construction. And, having been awakened to the concept, I see cases of near-politicide everywhere, from the growing inequality of wealth in our societies, to the taxpayer-funded bank bailouts following the 2008 financial crisis. If Scott is right about the world’s first citizens, then cities and their inhabitants have been on quite a journey. Over the millennia the ordinary people of the city have, with some measure of success, striven to wrest back control of their lives. But the journey is not yet complete: slavery continues to exist, and even in our modern democracies the wealthiest continue to exert vastly disproportionate political influence. Viewed this way, movements like Occupy and Extinction Rebellion are the latest manifestations of a struggle that is as old as cities themselves.