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Chapter 2: The Greek City

Published onApr 22, 2021
Chapter 2: The Greek City

Characteristics of Urban Regularity in the Fifth Century B.C.

The preceding chapter did not deal with the simple orthogonal layout of buildings and roads but with two important systems, that of the intersections of major axes and that of the highly disciplined and rigorous grid plan which almost invariably follows the per strigas layout.

The latter pattern is of special interest. Throughout the search for the “Hippodamean” cities in early ages and in the Minoan–Mycenaean culture as well as in the East, no distinction was made between the simple rectangular layout and the grid pattern. Undoubtedly, the rectangular layout is a common basis for organization found in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and in Minoan palaces. At Thermi IV,1 at Troy (even though there is a circular wall), and at Phylakopi there is rectangular order within the uniform subdivisions. This is also true at Palaikastro, Gurnia,2 Vroulia,3 and Naucratis.4 This rectangular plan, which continues through the fourth-century Greek world and into the Hellenistic age and which was adopted also by the Romans, is not defined only by the principal of orthogonality; it also has the following characteristics:

1. A master plan provides for development of the total area within the walls as well as that of the residential sector. The few major arteries are made to run longitudinally. There is no central intersection. There are some perpendicular axes and many streets parallel to them, subdividing the city into elongated blocks, usually one actus wide. The grid of subdivisions is the same throughout the city. Squares and public buildings are inserted into the grid without destroying the subdivision, since they are treated as part of the blocks. In this case the streets are tangential to the buildings and squares. Obviously all of this represents a well thought-out system.

2. The preeminent concern of the urbanist is revealed in his study of residential quarters, which are subdivided by uniform equal blocks and whose houses are alike in style. All houses face the street.

These characteristics and the master plan to control future expansion are reflected in a passage from Plato (Leg. VI, 779B) which states that the houses are to be alike and even proposes, for that purpose, that all the foundations be laid at the time the city is founded:

ἀλλ’ εἰ δὴ τεῖχος γέ τι χρεὼν ἀνθρώποις εἶναι, τὰς οὶκοδομίας χρὴ τὰς τῶν ἰδίων οἰκήσεων οὕτως ἐξ ἀρχῆς βάλλεσθαι, ὅπως ἂν ᾖ πᾶσα ἡ πὁλις ἓν τεῖχος, ὁμαλότητί τε καὶ ὁμοιότησιν εἰς τὰς ὁδοὺς πασῶν τῶν οἰκήσεων ἐχουσῶν εὐέρκειαν, ἰδεῖν τε οὐκ ἀηδὲς μιᾶς οἰκίας σχῆμα ἐχούσης αὐτῆς, εἴς τε τὴν τῆς φυλακῆς ῥᾳστώνην ὅλῳ καὶ παντὶ πρὸς σωτηρίαν γίγνοιτ’ ἂν διάφορος.5

It is difficult at present to document this type of city planning before the beginning of the fifth century B.C. If we can confirm some innovations as having occurred in that century, we remove the difficulty commonly associated with the dating of the Hippodamean plan, which is that Hippodamean cities have existed since the beginning of the seventh century. In any case, greater knowledge should be gained concerning this style of planning and how it began. Quite possibly Eastern cities were known and used as examples: for instance, the village of Kahun (Fig. 22), built for the workers of the pyramid of Sesostris II (1897–1879 B.C.),6 and also some parts of Tell-el-Amarna (Fig. 23), rebuilt ex novo in 1396–1354 B.C.7 Accounts by Herodotus reveal that during the fifth century there was widespread interest in the Orient.

It is possible that these urban forms derive entirely from rational criteria of organization, not necessarily inspired by earlier examples. For instance, the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan (Fig. 24)8 exhibits not only the rectangular layout (at least in some parts) and the astronomical orientation but also an analogous scheme of an east-west decumanus and many north-south cardines, setting off elongated strigae.

Such a design could correspond to precise, basic criteria. For instance, the reasoning could be that only a few roads are needed for circulation, while the rest serve to subdivide the city into sections. The blocks become long and narrow because houses are small, and thus a series of houses can form a striga without the need of superfluous decumani. Protection from wind and sun is an obvious reason for adopting an astronomical orientation in the plan.9

Figure 22 Kahun (Petrie).

Figure 23 Tell-el-Amarna (The City of Akhenaten).

Figure 24 Tenochtitlan (Violich).


Decumani usually run east–west, or nearly so (Posidonia, Capua, Marzabotto, Agrigento, and later Priene, Damascus, Laodicea; Pompeii is almost northeast), north–south (Rhodes, Olynthus), or parallel to the coast line (Naples, Herculaneum, and Alexandria). Von Gerkan10 rightly excludes the religious significance in orientation, and instead points to hygienic and topographic criteria. Though perhaps inspired by Hippocrates (de aere, aquis, locis), Aristotle (Pol. VII, 10, 11, 1330a) testifies to the care taken to open the city to winds (preferably the east, otherwise the north). Oribasius11 prefers an east-west, north-south array of streets. On the other hand, Vitruvius12 counsels against opening the streets to winds. The orientation of the streets was also concerned with the correct exposure of the house to sunlight. Xenophon13 and Aristotle14 favor a southern exposure. To the north of each courtyard there was a covered porch called a pastas,15 protected from the north winds and open to the sun. This kind of porch is frequently seen in Olynthus.16

Residential Sectors

The system just described follows from still other considerations. A scheme permitting a unifying equality within the residential sectors, without a focus to the plan, is certainly adapted to a democratic society based on equality among its citizens. Aristotle (Pol. VII, 1300b, 17 ff) explains the relation between city planning and politics by affirming that an acropolis is proper to an oligarchy and a monarchy, while the flat areas are part of a democracy. It is worthy of note that this type of urban design developed in the fifth century, after the fall of tyranny and the affirmation of democratic constitutions. The criteria of equality naturally were felt much more in the colonies. The relation between colonies and uniform city planning has been frequently dealt with, beginning with Nissen. However, Nissen is interested in the problem only from the seventh century on.

It would prove of great interest to study the house plan and its siting on the one-actus-wide block, particularly in relation to the standardized urban blocks. At Olynthus the block is bisected on its short side by an ambitus; the long side of 86.34 meters is divided into five parts. Thus, each house occupies a square, one-half actus on a side. An analogous relationship between block and house has been found by Arias17 to exist at Marzabotto. The dimensions of the house at Soluntum are similar.

The blocks containing the oldest houses in Region VI at Pompeii are also divided into two parts on their short side, near the decumanus (Casa del Naviglio and Casa del Fauno on the Via di Nola, and Casa del Labirinto on the Via di Mercurio). More frequently the entire width of the blocks is occupied between one cardine and another, although in some cases this may have resulted from the expansion of single houses. There is no evidence for Ippel’s rigidly schematic reconstruction of the plan.18 The relation of the house to the astronomic orientation of the city has already been discussed.

From the viewpoint of urban aesthetics such a rigid geometric plan may seem surprising among the Greeks; it would find greater credence among the Romans. Yet such a system is a Greek creation; it was not only practical but fashionable in its time. Heraclitus I, 1 (third century B.C.)19 judges the plan of Athens κακῶς ἐρρνμοτομημένη διὰ τὴν ἀρχαιότητα (streets irregularly divided because of their antiquity). He is critical of the houses, affirming that a stranger would hardly believe this to be the famous city of Athens and to be reassured would need to see the theater, the Parthenon, or the Olympieion—in other words, monuments rather than urban forms. These and other judgments on the older forms as well as the new planning are very significant.

Yet this Greek creation (not Hellenistic, since it appears as early as the fifth century) is not really alien to the Greek spirit, which sought through mathematics the precision of temple architecture and in some cases of sculpture as well.

The rigor of geometric subdivision was maintained even in difficult geographic situations, on steep slopes, as for example in Rhodes and Olynthus first, then in Soluntum and Priene, among others. Interesting scenic effects were often obtained this way.

Master Planning

Finally, the importance of the concept of a master plan cannot be ignored. It anticipated the future growth of the city to prevent building outside the walls and imposed a design to be followed through gradual growth and construction. Bearing in mind this use of the plan, we must concede that it is not a trustworthy criterion of urban texture and population even though it has always been used as such. (Beloch20 uses the physical extension of the city to calculate its population.)

As we have seen, Hellenistic city planning focused on private construction. Yet the agora, too, took on the general character of the plan and fitted into the grid, as evidenced by its perpendicular sides. A homogeneous architecture arose from its regularity of plan, evidenced especially in a single style of arcades. Pausanias apparently refers to this type of agora when he contrasts the ancient agora at Elis, built on the old plan, to that of Ionian cities: VI, 24, 2: ‘H δὲ ἀγορὰ τοῖς ’Hλείοις οὐ κατὰ τὰς ’Iώνων καὶ ὅσαι πρὸς ’Iωνίᾳ πόλεις εἰσὶν ‘Eλλήνων τρόπῳ δὲ πεποίηται τῷ ἀρχαιοτέρῳ στοαῖς τε ἀπὸ ἀλλήλων διεστώσαις καὶ ἀγυιαῖς δι’ αὐτῶν. (The agora of Elis is not after the fashion of the cities of Ionia and of the Greek cities near Ionia; it is built in the older manner, with porticoes separated from each other and with streets running through them.)21


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