The Shifting Power of the World’s Largest Cities Visualized Over 4,000 Years (2050 BC-2050 AD)

“When Rome fell….” The expres­sion seems designed to con­jure the Tarot card Tow­er that illus­trates it, a sud­den attack, a reck­on­ing. “Fell,” in the case of most ancient empires, means declined, changed, and trans­formed over cen­turies. As all great cities do, Rome suf­fered many vio­lent shocks dur­ing its fall, as it tran­si­tioned from a pagan to a Chris­t­ian empire. The sack­ing of Rome in 410 left Romans reel­ing, try­ing to make mean­ing from upheaval. They found it in the pagan reli­gion of their ances­tors.

To which the defend­er of the one true faith—by his lights—Augus­tine of Hip­po, answered with a rather odd defense of the new order. Rather than write a the­o­log­i­cal trea­tise or a fire-and-brim­stone ser­mon, though it is these things as well, he wrote a book about cities: the City of God, pit­ted against the Earth­ly City (which is, you guessed it, aligned with the Dev­il). The medieval idea of cities as vehi­cles for the grudge match­es of princes must have derived from this strange text, as well as from the emer­gent feu­dal order that turned dis­mem­bered empires into uneasy patch­works of cities. Rome did­n’t fall, it decen­tral­ized, diver­si­fied, and prop­a­gat­ed.

Augus­tine saw the city not only as a metaphor but also as the height of human pow­er: doomed to fall in the final analy­sis, yet built to pose a for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge to divine rule. But what is a city? Is it mere­ly a strong­hold for cor­rup­tion and com­merce or some­thing more right­eous? Is it an expres­sion of class pow­er, the work­er bees who run it or just cogs in a machine, a la Metrop­o­lis? Is it an “assem­blage,” defined by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guat­tari as “a mul­ti­plic­i­ty which is made up of many het­eroge­nous terms and which estab­lish­es liaisons, rela­tions between them, across ages, sex­es and reigns”?

In our post-post-mod­ern moment, we find all of these ideas—the hier­ar­chi­cal and the horizontal—operating. Pop­u­lar books like Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules—For Now seem to spring from an impulse com­mon to apol­o­gists and sec­u­lar­ists alike—the will to lin­ear cer­tain­ty. There is a sense in which 21st cen­tu­ry thought has turned back to the­ol­o­gy, stripped of the trap­pings of belief, to make sense of the rise and decline of the West. This faith demands not blind alle­giance, but data, more and more and more data—to answer the burn­ing ques­tion of 2001’s Plan­et of the Apes: “How’d these apes get like this?”

Then there’s the internet—a space for shar­ing gifs, a func­tion­al assem­blage, and maybe some­day, a city. Glob­al cir­cum­stances seem to war­rant reflec­tion. Like the Romans, we want a sto­ry about how it came to pass, and we want to make and share ani­mat­ed info­graph­ic gifs about it. The gif at the top of the post is such a gif. Draw­ing on the sweep­ing, sev­er­al-thou­sand-year his­tor­i­cal argu­ment of Morris’s book, and data from the UN Pop­u­la­tion Divi­sion, its cre­ator whisks us through a visu­al nar­ra­tive of suprema­cy-by-city over the course of rough­ly four-thou­sand years.

Sheer size, in this visu­al account, deter­mines the winners—a sim­plis­tic cri­te­ria, but the mod­el here is sim­pli­fied for effect. It dra­ma­tizes argu­ments made and data gath­ered else­where. To get the full effect, you’d prob­a­bly do well to read Morris’s book and, while you’re reach­ing for your wal­let, the orig­i­nal arti­cle, behind a pay­wall at The Aus­tralian, for which this gif was made. Its title? “Why Rome is the World’s Best City.” The gif’s design­er admits in a Red­dit post, “We are deal­ing with his­toric demo­graph­ic data here which are always debat­ed among schol­ars…. I acknowl­edge that oth­er schol­ars would add or delete cer­tain cities that pop up in my map.”

For more on the idea of the city as assem­blage, see Euro­pean Grad­u­ate School pro­fes­sor Manuel DeLanda’s lec­ture “A Mate­ri­al­ist His­to­ry of Cities” and his book Assem­blage The­o­ry. Augus­tine insist­ed we view the city through the eye of faith—his faith. In the 21st cen­tu­ry, DeLanda’s intel­lec­tu­al ges­tures, like Mor­ris’s, are as grand, but he sug­gests throw­ing out West­ern schemat­ics in a return to ear­li­er reli­gious prac­tices. To under­stand  a city, he sug­gests, we might need “tools to manip­u­late these inten­si­ties… in the form of a grow­ing vari­ety of psy­choac­tive chem­i­cals that can be deployed to go beyond the actu­al world, and pro­duce at least a descrip­tive phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy of the vir­tu­al.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Get the His­to­ry of the World in 46 Lec­tures, Cour­tesy of Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty

Watch the His­to­ry of the World Unfold on an Ani­mat­ed Map: From 200,000 BCE to Today

A Crash Course in World His­to­ry

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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