Ninevah, Antioch, Lepcis Magna: The "global cities" of the Ancient World

The ruins of Lepcis Magna, in modern Libya. Image: David Gunn/Wikimedia Commons.

London, Paris and New York are global cities. Modern hubs for travel, technology and trade, their names and images echo around the globe, capturing our imaginations with their distinctive histories, famous residents and iconic landmarks. Cities such as these, which connect with the wider world, become mixing pots for a rich interplay of diverse ideas, people and cultures.

When we look to the past, it can be difficult to imagine that ancient cities were as vibrant and cosmopolitan as today’s. To get a sense of what our urban past was like, we could journey to Rome, Athens and Istanbul (formerly Constantinople and, before that, Byzantium), which have histories spanning back more than 2,000 years.

But perhaps these cities, with their histories obscured by modern developments and continuing populations, don’t leave much scope for the imagination. After all, it can be difficult to see into the past with glassy hotels, brightly lit shops and hordes of tourists in your way.

Instead, it’s better to consider an alternative trio – Nineveh, Antioch, and Lepcis Magna  – which can tell us fascinating stories about ancient urban life.


Nineveh lies on the banks of the River Tigris in northern Iraq, cheek-by-jowl with the modern city of Mosul. In the seventh century BC it was declared the capital of the powerful Neo-Assyrian empire by King Sennacherib, after the death of his father Sargon II. This marked it as the political and cultural centre of an empire which, at its peak, stretched across most of the Middle East.

Map of Assyria. Image: Ras67/Wikimedia Commons.

ut a city of this magnitude doesn’t last without the resources to sustain it. King Sennacherib understood this. One of Sennacherib’s inscriptions tells us that he brought water to the site by tearing open mountain and valley, creating canals to provide the city with a constant supply, pointing to an early mastery over one of the region’s scarcest resources.

Of course, an imperial capital must have style as well as substance. Sennacherib undertook a number of major projects, embellishing Nineveh with parks and orchards, and created a reed marsh, like those found around Babylon to the south. It is even possible that Nineveh was the location for the famous Hanging Gardens – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The Neo-Assyrians were skilled artists, and wielded their talents as a form of soft power, to put the majesty of their empire on display. The palaces at Nineveh were furnished with sculpted decoration, showing the exploits and achievements of the kings. Some of the most beautiful examples of the artwork of this period come from one of Sennacherib’s successors, Ashurbanipal (668 to 627BC), who commissioned the very fine lion hunt reliefs, which we now see at the British Museum.

Lion Hunt relief from Ashurbanipal’s Palace at Nineveh. Image: Zena Kamash, author provided.

Ashurbanipal was also very proud of being a scholar, and owned a library of more than 30,000 clay tablets gathered from all across the Neo-Assyrian empire. The library contained texts about omens and oracles, epics and myths, and mathematics, at which the Neo-Assyrians were very adept – this would have been the British Library of its day.


Moving on in time and a little further west, Antioch (modern-day Antakya) is located in south-eastern Turkey on the River Orontes. It was founded in 300BC by the first king of the Seleucid dynasty: Seleucus I Nicator (312 to 280BC) – a former general of Alexander the Great.

Seleucus understood the importance of forging connections with powerful neighbours and attracting the best talent to the city. To this end, he settled large numbers of Greeks in Antioch, strengthening its links with the Greek world. The Greek influence continued to make itself felt in houses in the subsequent Roman period, which contained some of the best mosaics of the Roman world and often seemed to choose Greek subjects, such as the god of wine, Dionysus.

During the Roman period, Antioch became a major player in the rise of Christianity. Indeed, as might be expected from a city that lay between East and West, it was renowned for its religious and ethnic diversity: worshippers of Egyptian cults to Isis, Harpocrates and Attis, local Syrian cults, Roman pagan cults and followers of Judaism and Christianity, all populated the city.

The city was also home to some incredibly advanced infrastructure. Like London with its Thames Barrier, Antioch took an ingenious approach to flood-prevention. A large dam, known as the “Iron Gate”, was built by the emperor Justinian (527 to 565AD) to protect the city from seasonal flood waters.

And around 69 to 96AD, a dam and tunnel were built at Antioch’s port, Seleucia Pieria, to divert water away from the site. This system was protected by an “evil eye”, showing the central role that water played in the lives of the Romans.

Lepcis Magna

Lepcis Magna is a large Roman city on the northern coast of Libya, at the mouth of the Wadi Lebda. Trade was vital at this site. Its impressive harbour ushered in traders from other North African cities, which we can see inscribed at Lepcis Magna’s amphitheatre.

Lepcis Magna’s famous amphitheatre. Image: Ross Burns/Manar al-Athar, CC BY-NC-SA.

The site is also famous for being the birthplace of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus (145 to 211AD) – the first African to become emperor of the Romans. The architecture shows a fusion of Roman and African traditions, as Septimius Severus lavished his home city with many fine buildings. One of the most impressive from this period is the Arch of Septimius Severus, which is decorated with scenes showing the imperial family and processions.

Each of these cities were thriving, cosmopolitan places, where people from around the world gathered to exchange ideas, build their wealth and seek fame and fortune – just as we do today. Their citizens were capable of impressive technological feats, and they boasted remarkable works of art to rival the collections of the British Museum, the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum.

Now these metropolises, even if they can be accessed, are only visible as fragile archaeological ruins. Yet they are powerful reminders of our rich and complicated histories, and the countless millions who helped to shape the world we live in today.

They even give us a glimpse of the future – to a time when our own great cities have crumbled into dusty fragments, to be examined and imagined by generations to come.The Conversation

Zena Kamash is a lecturer in Roman art and archaeology at Royal Holloway.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.