With clockwork regularity, magazines and websites churn out “best cities” lists. U.S. News & World Report has a “best places to live in the U.S.” list (and many others). Travel + Leisure will tell you the best cities to visit in the U.S. and the world. Time Out advises on the world’s best metropolises for eating and drinking, while WalletHub opines on the best urban areas for jobs. Whether these lists teach us anything, they provide a good starting point for a lively argument over a coffee or a beer.
Most people don’t know it, but “Best Cities” lists have an ancient provenance. Decimius Magnus Ausonius, a Gallo-Roman poet, produced such a list in hexameter, Ordo Urbium Nobilium, more than 1,700 years ago. Ausonius tutored the Emperor Gratian, who made him a consul in 379 CE. Ausonius’s political career didn’t survive Gratian’s fall from power, but he continued writing and produced his list around 390 CE. Edward Gibbon mocked Ausonius in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, declaring that “the poetical fame of Ausonius condemns the taste of his age.” Who could ask for a better epitaph?
Rome ranks first. How could it be otherwise? Ausonius’s words are brief but memorable: prima urbes inter, divum domus, aurea Roma. As my schoolboy Latin has itself fallen and declined, I will rely on the Loeb Classical Library’s translation: “first among cities, the home of gods, is golden Rome.”
Carthage and Constantinople tie for second place. Ausonius explains that “one has the advantage in her ancient wealth; the other in her new-born prosperity.” These judgments seem justified. Rome achieved dominance over the Mediterranean world only by besting Carthage in the three Punic wars. Rome would then be eclipsed by the city of Constantine, which would remain an imperial capital until 1922, under the Byzantines and then the Ottomans. Ausonius was right that Constantinople was “now rising and by the loftiness of new achievements eclipses old-time renown.” Estimates of historical populations generally rank that city as Europe’s largest as late as 1700.
Alexandria and Antioch tie for fourth. These were the capitals of Hellenic kingdoms founded by Alexander the Great and his general Seleucus. Ausonius highlights the fourth-century chaos of these memorable metropolises: “these also doth frenzied ambition drive into rivalry of vices; each is disordered with her mob, and half-crazed with the riots of her frantic populace.” Perhaps Ausonius was referring to Antioch’s rebellion in 387 CE. For millennia, urban density has made it easier to organize political activity.
So far, the Top Five list looks eminently reasonable to me. It overlaps almost perfectly with the five cities of the Pentarchy, recognized by the Emperor Justinian as the capital cities of Christianity. The only discrepancy between the two lists is that Jerusalem does not make Ausonius’s list at all, which is unsurprising given that Ausonius adhered to the old gods, and Carthage was not part of the Pentarchy. All five cities had been political capitals, which is true of all premodern mega-cities, and all were major players in the evolution of Western civilization. We can perhaps fault Ausonius for parochially omitting Ctesiphon, the capital of the Persian Empire, which was known to the Romans, but I cannot condemn him for his ignorance of Chang’an or Nanjing in China or Pataliputra in India.
The next five cities are split between Gaul and Italy. I sympathize with the Italian choices: Milan (seventh), Capua (eighth), and Aquileia (ninth). Milan was the capital of the western Roman Empire, the city of St. Ambrose and the monumental baths of Hercules. Capua’s inclusion seems more like nostalgia for the time when that town was “once rival” to Rome. Aquileia’s location near modern Venice made it important enough for the Visigoths and Attila to target during the fifth century.
Readers may be surprised that two Gaulish cities made the Top Ten: Trier (sixth) and Arles (tenth). Another three made the Top 20: Toulouse (18), Narbonne (19) and Bordeaux (20). Like Michelin restaurant reviewers today, Ausonius’s tastes favored his home region.
Four Iberian cities make it into the list, ranking 11 through 14, but they get short shrift. Seville gets these words: “After these thou shalt be told, beloved Hispalis [Seville], name Iberian, by whom glides a river like the sea, to whom all Spain subjects her magistrates.” The other three are crammed together in the next sentence: “Not Cordova, not Tarragona with its strong citadel contends with you, nor wealthy Braga, lying proudly in her bay beside the sea.” By contrast, Narbonne gets two whole paragraphs, full of panegyrics like “thee the merchandise of the easter sea and Spanish main enrich, thee the fleets of the Libyan and Sicilian deeps, and all freights which pass by many different routes o’er river and o’er seas; the whole world over no argosy is afloat by for thy sake.”
Two Sicilian cities, Catania and Syracuse, are tied for 16. And perhaps jarringly for those with classical tastes, Athens shows up only as number 15. Ausonius is at least eloquent about the past of that polis: “to whom the peace-bearing olive tree first belonged, whose is the unmixed glory of the fluent Attic tongue, from whom went abroad a Grecian band and throughout the peoples of Ionia and the Achaean race poured into a hundred cities.” But then again, Athens was no Arles.
Here is the list. I hope you enjoy arguing about it and my own idiosyncratic views: 1. Rome 2 (tie). Carthage and Constantinople 4 (tie). Antioch and Alexandria 6. Trier 7. Milan 8. Capua 9. Aquileia 10. Arles 11. Seville 12. Cordoba 13. Tarragona 14. Braga 15. Athens 16 (tie). Catania and Syracuse 18. Toulouse 19. Narbonne 20. Bordeaux.