The image and fate of the city – that wonderful creation of human culture – have occupied writers and philosophers from antiquity until modern times. Should special attention be paid to the maritime city due to its characteristics and its unique purpose? And if so, what are the criteria for examining it?
My lecture will deal with the treatment of maritime cities and their characteristics in ancient sources, especially in the Greco-Roman world. Among the famous writers of the ancient world we find references made to cities that were in the center of events and historic conscience, “key cities” of sorts that constitute a study model. The view concerning the centrality of the polis or the urbs certainly contributed to the Greco-Roman concept, but one also finds it in tangential cultures of the ancient Mediterranean and even in the Bible.
A number of examples of maritime cities and their characteristics that illustrate this are:
Tyre – a model of a maritime empire – is presented by the prophet Ezekiel as a city whose rise and decline were mainly dependent on its international commerce.
Athens – is presented by Plato and Aristotle as a city whose virtues and especially its deficiencies, were determined to a great extent by its proximity to the sea and barter.
Alexandria is described by Plutarch and Vitruvius as a city whose natural location and the enlightenment of its founder contributed to it becoming a power of maritime trade.
Rome – according to Cicero it also owes its success as an empire to the wisdom of establishing it a safe distance from the sea which, at the same time made it possible to link the city to the sea by means of the river and trade.
Josephus Flavius presents two maritime cities in the Land of Israel in a different way:
Caesarea is a magnificent technological creation that was founded from nothing thanks to Herod and his connection to Rome.
Jaffa, on the other hand, was sentenced to annihilation during the Jewish revolt because of its unsuitable maritime features and because its leadership chose to ignore them and confront the Romans at sea.
The ideas expressed in these sources and in others are of course influenced by the writer’s motives and the spirit of the period and culture he represents; nevertheless the following points can be gleaned from them:
The maritime cities differ in their geographic features – site, land, weather – which are all conditions upon which their prosperity depends.
The founder or ruler is the one who is responsible: the wise utilization of the natural conditions, particularly for maritime trade, ensures success, but also the opposite: an unsuitable site and an improper attitude toward the sea will lead to failure. The geographic and economic conditions and the capability of man to understand their consequences ultimately determine the fate of the maritime city, for good or for evil.