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Thread: Most Influential Cities in History

  1. #1
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    Question Most Influential Cities in History

    I've seen this topic a few times in various corners of the web, but it usually boils down to one or two people getting ridiculed by a dozen others for suggesting New York or London. So as I'm on a long, lazy holiday I thought I'd try it myself, with a few pointers to make the topic a little less vague & subjective.

    Pointers:

    * History is a long time. That means that a young city, even one of earth shattering importance right now, will have to compete with candidates that have had a more subtle influence for two thousand years or more.

    * Candidates have to stand out on their own merits, not simply because a famous event happened around them or they happened to be the capital of a powerful nation.

    Example one; Stalingrad was the scene of a historically pivotal battle, but the character of the city itself had little or nothing to do with it. Jerusalem has also been at the centre of a few major battles in its time, but in those cases the character of the city itself was most definitely central.

    Example two; Washington DC draws its influence from being designated the capital of the USA. Had the seat of power been situated elsewhere in America the wider historical outcome may not have been remarkably different. Rome, on the other hand, created & --- for a time at least --- remained at the heart of its wider empire.

    Example three; India's influence of world affairs as been spread evenly through many cities over the millennia. Therefore it is bound to be underrepresented due to a lack of an urban focal point.

    * I found myself putting them in three different levels for convenience. I haven't ordered them within these levels.

    A-listers are those with a damn good chance of getting to the top spot.

    B-listers are those with an outside chance; those for which a reasonably convincing case could probably be made.

    C-listers are those without any real chance at being the most influential city in history, but which are very influential in specific areas nonetheless. This is so broad that it's bound to be able to contain hundreds of cities with wildly different degrees of influence (see Mecca & LA).

    Without further ado, here's my start. Please suggest your own (or disagree violently with me, if you like).

    A-listers:

    Jerusalem --- Most important city in religious history, seldom out of the spotlight for thousands of years.

    Athens --- Birthplace of Western civilization (no Ghandi jokes, please). Hugely influential in the fields of philosophy, what stood-in for science for a long time, politics & general free thinking, not to mention playing a pivotal role in keeping Persia at bay for a millennia.

    Peking/Beijing --- Whilst at the heart of China for thousands of years, Beijing has been pivotal in sustaining a uniquely politically, linguistically & culturally unified ancient civilisation, China. [--- Edit: see JBI's comment below]

    Rome --- Still the touchstone for measuring imperial power, cultural worth & technological progress through Europe & beyond. Also the originator of 'civil law', amongst other things, & the home of Catholicism.

    Eridu --- The world's first city, formed when fishermen, peasants & nomads settled down together in the first major settlement in human history. Although the city concept was later independently 'invented' in China, Mexico & possibly Egypt, had Eridu not worked out perhaps the whole of civilised history would have been set back a thousand years or more.

    B-listers:

    Babylon --- Capital of numerous Fertile Crescent cultures, possibly even founded by Sargon the Great, history's first 'Emperor'. But Babylon would get in the list by weight of cultural references alone. Not only has its character become shorthand for decadence & oppression, but it was one such moment of oppression --- when the exiled Jews were first introduced to grand, urban civilisation --- that lead to the birth of truly monotheistic Judaism.

    London --- The permanent nexus of the British Empire for over three hundred years, bringing more disparate parts of the world into the 'European age' & Anglosphere than any other city. Home of the Royal Society, midwife to modern science, & the so-called Mother of Parliaments. Also the original 'megacity'. London today is one of only two cities (New York being the other) considered completely pivotal to the modern economy.

    Paris --- The centre of European culture & intrigue since the middle ages. Paris embodied & influenced Europe like no other through-out the 'European age', & remains the final arbitrator of the only centrally managed world language. Finally, events in Paris during the French Revolution shook the social & political of the world in ways that are hard to exaggerate.

    Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul --- The conduit between Asia & Europe. Instrumental in the spread of Christianity, the maintenance of Roman culture, initially checking of Muslim ambitions in Europe, then the centre of the massive Ottoman empire.

    C-listers:

    Mecca --- Not a B-lister for the simple reason that its main influence is through religion, a field in which it is overshadowed by Jerusalem. In other fields, such as politics & culture, it was eventually replaced by Baghdad within the Muslim world, but not before it had dramatically reshaped the region. As the world's most popular site of pilgrimage is remains influential to this day.

    New Amsterdam/New York --- New York has lead America's surge to the forefront of the world stage over the past century & is also considered symbolic of America generally. It is the only other city (with London) considered completely pivotal to the modern economy. If the pattern continues for another century or more, New York will almost certainly be a B-lister, but has currently only been influential for a very short time.

    Los Angeles --- First example of a city explosively broadcasting its culture over the entire world. No other has had the same cultural impact in so short a time.

    Alexandria --- Symbolising the joining of Hellenic & Egyptian cultures, not to mention the preciousness of knowledge. Continued to be a lightning rod for Egyptophilia well into the Victorian era.

    Moscow --- A seat of largely uninterrupted political power for centuries. As the Russian transitions from nomadic barbarism to Tsarism, from Tsarism to Communism, & from Communism to a free-market bear pit all hinged on events in this city, Moscow has played out many of the most dramatic social & political changes anywhere.

    Oxford --- Home of one of the oldest & most influential seats of learning in the world. Still the model for all other Anglophone University towns, particularly Cambridge & the other Cambridge. Men & women trained in Oxford & its imitators continue to dominate national & international institutions, including an inordinate number of Heads of various states.

    Unknown (those about which I don't know enough to speculate but suspect desirve a place in A, B or C):

    Baghdad ---

    Cairo ---

    Shanghai ---

    Hong Kong ---

    Vienna ---

    Tokyo ---

    Madrid ---

    Antioc ---

    Tenochtitlan/Mexico City ---

    Timbuktu ---

    Ur ---

    Berlin ---

    Delhi ---

    Kakamuchee/Bombay/Mumbai ---




    What do you reckon?
    Last edited by em onty; 08-21-2013 at 07:13 AM.

  2. #2
    Registered User Darcy88's Avatar
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    I'd honestly rank London alongside or even above Athens. The Delian League/Athenian Empire was a geographical drop in the bucket compared to the British Empire. They couldn't even take all of Greece nor Sicily. Of course the philosophy which came out of the city has been incredibly influential for thousands of years, but I don't know if that justifies Athens' being placed above London, which was the seat of an empire which encompassed much of the world's ocean surface as well as a quarter of its land mass, in addition to fathering the nation which has been the world's main geopolitical hegemon for the last 60 plus years.

    Other than that I like your list. Rome and Beijing are the top two for me, in either order.
    “To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.”

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  3. #3
    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    Why Beijing? It only begun to really have cultural impact at all in 1949 - before then Nanjing was by far the big city in China, politically and culturally, and the lingua franca of the country (including of foreign students of Chinese) was Nanjing Chinese. Beijing has never particularly been the cultural center of anything, and was deliberately designed to be so.

    Basically the Ming Yongle emperor usurped the throne of China from his brother, and moved the capital to Beijing, whereas the cultural centers of power always remained in the south. The Qing emperors maintained Beijing as a capital for the simple reason that their political authority was weak in the beginning, and there were far less opponents in Beijing, which is closer to their native Manturia. Still culturally, the South flourished unquestionably - poetically, and economically.

    As for the influence of cities, Nanjing, if you take Jin Ling (it's former incarnation) and Jiankang (an even early incarnation) into account, was incredibly influential on everything Chinese. The only contenders being the two Ancient capitals, Chang'An (modern Xi-an Area) and Luoyang. Chang'an had the tendency to be burnt down and rebuilt constantly, leading to its general demise as a cultural or political anything by the end of the Tang. Luoyang is most certainly the religious capital, and the oldest cultural capital in the world probably - certainly older than Athens.

  4. #4
    Executioner, protect me Kyriakos's Avatar
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    From the Greek and Roman world (in no particular order) :

    -Athens

    -Rome

    -Alexandria

    -Constantinople

    Many others are very notable too, but in my view less important than the ones i mentioned.

    From the industrial/later era:

    -London

    -Paris

    Again, other cities are very important as well, just in my view not nearly as much as those two (at least in regards to art and science. And if this is mostly about art, then Paris should be first for most of the industrial and later era).
    βῆ δ᾿ ἀκέων παρὰ θῖνα πολυφλοίσϐοιο θαλάσσης·
    (he walked silently on the edge of the loudly heard wave-breaking sea)
    Iliad A:34

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    @Darcy88

    You make a good case for London, but I think you're choosing the wrong measure of influence for Athens. Athens (& to a lesser extend the other Greek city states) was the first time in civilisation when freemen ruled themselves & were considered important for being simply men. Every other city before & for a long time after was infected with God-Kings or huge, seperate priestly classes against whom all subjects were viewed as livestock.

    @JBI

    I was unsure where to put Bejing, so I asked a friend who has read up on China (mostly in novels). She seemed to think it was the heart of China, & had been for a while. But I think you know the Orient pretty thoroughly, so I'll make an edit.

    @Kyriakos

    Doing by era, as you do, would be a saner approach. I quite like the challenge of mixing it up a bit though.

    Speaking of eras, are there any ancient history buffs around? I'm interested to know more about the fertile cresent cities, but its a daunting parade of, "Then [name] the Great conquered the [name] empire, moving the capital to [name]. His new empire collapsed after his death, when [name] the King of Kings swept across all of [name] and moved the capital to [name]".

  6. #6
    I would vote for a Western Trinity of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. They have been continuously occupied as great "cities" in their current locations since their first mention in historical and religious literature. You could also add Cairo, but I'm note sure if it's geographic position is exactly the same today.

  7. #7
    Executioner, protect me Kyriakos's Avatar
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    ^I think that out of those three, only Rome was continuously a city (not sure about some periods of it either, such as the collapse of the western roman empire). Athens was a small town for most of the later Byzantine era, and before it became the capital of Greece in the early 19th century. Jerusalem was a backwater for most of its existence, and it never really was a center for culture or science at all, despite its widespread religious meaning from the 5th century AD and onwards.
    Last edited by Kyriakos; 08-23-2013 at 02:45 AM.
    βῆ δ᾿ ἀκέων παρὰ θῖνα πολυφλοίσϐοιο θαλάσσης·
    (he walked silently on the edge of the loudly heard wave-breaking sea)
    Iliad A:34

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    @Kryiakos

    There's an old joke;

    A Greek & an Italian are arguing over which of their civilisations had the greatest impact on history. After an hour or so the Greek pulls out his trump card, "We Greeks invented sex!".

    To which his companion responds, "Very true, but was an Italian who first thought of doing it with women".

    On a less puerile level that's kind of the relationship you see in most matters classical. Athens began it, then Rome implemented on a pragmatic & grand scale.

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    Quote Originally Posted by em onty View Post
    @Kryiakos

    There's an old joke;

    A Greek & an Italian are arguing over which of their civilisations had the greatest impact on history. After an hour or so the Greek pulls out his trump card, "We Greeks invented sex!".

    To which his companion responds, "Very true, but was an Italian who first thought of doing it with women".

    On a less puerile level that's kind of the relationship you see in most matters classical. Athens began it, then Rome implemented on a pragmatic & grand scale.
    The Italians call it Tronare (Thundering).

  10. #10
    Executioner, protect me Kyriakos's Avatar
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    Well Rome had its importance, but i agree with Pessoa who claimed that "Rome was the America of Ancient Greece, and thus its misinterpretation".

    I would not say that Roman culture was an improvement of Greek culture. It seems to have been of significantly lower dynamic and importance. As for the grander scale, i doubt that is true, given that many hellenistic era Greek cities had equally imposing monumental architecture (Alexandria, Ephesos, Syracuse, Athens and so on).

    Since i have the emblem of the late Byzantine Empire as my avatar, obviously i don't dislike Rome, just prefer it when it is Greek
    βῆ δ᾿ ἀκέων παρὰ θῖνα πολυφλοίσϐοιο θαλάσσης·
    (he walked silently on the edge of the loudly heard wave-breaking sea)
    Iliad A:34

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    Quote Originally Posted by Kyriakos View Post
    Well Rome had its importance, but i agree with Pessoa who claimed that "Rome was the America of Ancient Greece, and thus its misinterpretation".
    British diplomats are apparently fond of saying of the 'special relationship' that the USA is Rome & the UK is Athens. In other words USA is the muscle & the UK is the intellect. An unfortunate historical parallel really, given that Athens, for all its culture, had very little effect on Roman policy. The world turns ...

    Quote Originally Posted by Kyriakos View Post
    I would not say that Roman culture was an improvement of Greek culture. It seems to have been of significantly lower dynamic and importance. As for the grander scale, i doubt that is true, given that many hellenistic era Greek cities had equally imposing monumental architecture (Alexandria, Ephesos, Syracuse, Athens and so on).
    I mostly agree, at least if we're talking about Greece as a whole. However, just to play Devil's advocate, & as we're talking specifically about the influence of cities, the eventual 'grand scale' of Greek culture came about despite rather than because of Athens. I'm talking about the fruitless Peloponnesian War & equally fruitless Athenian resistance to Philip & Alexander, both of which ensured it was a shadow of its former self by the time Greeks were lording it over Egypt & Afghanistan. Rome, on the other hand, very much drove the empire through all of its most significant centuries.

    Nonetheless, grand scale or no, I still think the concepts of individuality, of citizenship, of democracy & of theatre give Athens the edge over its bawdy cousin.

  12. #12
    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    You could also suggest that Rome never surpassed the Greek cities in the ancient world, but that the destruction of the Greek classical world truly came to fruition through Muslim adaptation (and iconoclasm) and then finally Mongolian savagery.

    We like to think of Christian, Western (catholic) Europe as the continuation of the classical tradition, but we easily could say that the Eastern world from Greece through to Russia would be more representative. Arabic learning, in the classical sense, seems to have been significantly more advanced before the coming of the Mongols.

    We could easily put something like Baghdad on the same level as Rome, I would wager. Certainly several Egyptian cities would also fit the bill. Certainly its proximity to Ancient Babylon has some credit to its significance.

    Xi'an after all is as close to Chang'an as Baghdad is to Babylon. Nanjing seems to have the same, slightly shifting history.

    Geography is not so precise, we could say.

    Either way, I cannot see many "Western" Catholic-ish cities being considered significant before the Mongolian era - it seems Western Europe at the time was in an isolated state of feudalism, that was, in terms of thought, art, etc. significantly behind the rest of the interconnected world. Genghis Khan by destroying a sort of order to the world seems the most significant person in shaping national and cultural boundaries.
    Last edited by JBI; 09-10-2013 at 12:11 AM.

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