9 Of The World’s Greatest Ancient Cities

All of the ancient world's greatest civilizations boasted a mighty metropolis. These ancient cities rose and fell with powerful empires and left legendary legacies that still endure today.

May 29, 2021By Edd Hodsdon, BA Professional Writing, member Canterbury Archaeological Trust
greatest ancient cities
Three great ancient cities, from The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, An Artist’s Impression of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, and The Monuments of Nineveh


When we think of the Ancient World, our minds are drawn to the mighty ancient cities at the heart of great empires and cultured civilizations. Legendary urban centers like Babylon, Nineveh, Persepolis, Athens, and Rome all shaped the course of history in their own way. Some were the seat of powerful empires that ruled the known world. Others, like Carthage, had tragic falls that are seared into our memory.One metropolis, Athens, even laid the very foundations of Western culture itself. Here are nine of the greatest cities of the Ancient world.


1. Memphis: One Of Egypt’s Most Important Ancient Cities

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City of Memphis and Colossus of Ramesses II in Memphis, Egypt, via flickr


One of Egypt’s oldest and most important ancient cities, Memphis, was the capital of the Old Kingdom. Memphis occupied a prominent position at the beginning of the Nile Valley and is close to the pyramid at Giza and the necropolis at Saqqara. Such was the symbolism of Memphis that Pharaohs throughout Egypt’s long history would be crowned in the city.


Memphis was one of several major cities expanded by the great Pharaoh Ramesses II in the 13th Century BC. The most important monument in the city was the Temple of Ptah, one of the oldest Egyptian gods. Despite being superseded as the capital by cities such as Thebes, Memphis was still hugely significant as a cultural and religious metropolis. 


When the Assyrians invaded Egypt in 671 BC, Memphis was razed to the ground twice. But the city was rapidly rebuilt due to its religious importance even though Egypt continued to be subjugated by foreign powers. In 525 BC, the Achaemenid Persian king Cambyses II captured Memphis, which became the capital of the Persian satrapy of Egypt. 


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In 331 BC, Alexander the Great was crowned Pharaoh at Memphis after seizing Egypt from the Persians. After he died, Alexander was entombed at Memphis, and one of his commanders, Ptolemy, established the Ptolemaic Dynasty. 


In 196 BC, Ptolemy V issued a decree, which was transcribed onto a tablet in three languages by scribes at Memphis. This was the Rosetta Stone, one of the most important archaeological discoveries in human history.


2. Thebes: Mausoleum Of The Great Pharaohs

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General View of the Back of the Temple of Karnak, by Henri Bechard, late 19th Century, Detroit Institute of Arts


Thebes eventually replaced Memphis as the capital of ancient Egypt, becoming one of the most powerful ancient cities in the world. As early as 3200 BC, Thebes was an incredibly important city due to its worship of Amon, one of Egypt’s most prominent gods. In around 2055 BC, a Theban aristocrat named Mentuhotep II conquered and united Egypt, moving the capital to Thebes.


When Mentuhotep II took over, he began to increase the grandeur of Thebes. The massive Temple of Karnak was one of Thebes’ most breathtaking monuments and has never been surpassed as the world’s largest religious structure. Thebes was displaced as the capital by the controversial Pharaoh Akhenaten in 1345 BC but was restored by his famous son Tutankhamun.


karnak temple columns
The Great Columns at Karnak, via University of Memphis


As some of Egypt’s greatest Pharaohs ruled from Thebes, a vast necropolis began to form on the western bank of the Nile – the Valley of the Kings. The mortuary complexes also included those of Ramesses II as well as the huge mausoleum of Queen Hatshepsut. The city itself hugged the eastern bank, becoming famous for its beautiful buildings and temples. At its height, Thebes probably contained around 80,000 people.


Thebes was sacked by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in 663 BC during his invasion of Egypt. He had the city rebuilt, and it continued to be one of Egypt’s most important cities. But in the 1st Century AD, the Romans arrived and destroyed Thebes, leaving the once-great city a ruined husk.


3. Nineveh: Infamous Bastion Of The Assyrians

ancient cities nineveh austen henry layard
The Monuments of Nineveh, by Sir Austen Henry Layard, 1853, via Royal Collection Trust


Under the Neo-Assyrian empire, Nineveh became one of the most infamous ancient cities in Mesopotamia. During the early periods of Assyrian rule, the city sprawled across the east bank of the River Tigris and was a wealthy, important urban center.


King Sennacherib made Nineveh the Assyrian capital in 705 BC and expanded the city.  15 monumental fortified gates were built to protect the city, which also boasted advanced infrastructure such as aqueducts. As the empire reached its peak, wealth and slaves flooded into Nineveh.


But it was Sennacherib’s most ambitious project that most epitomized the grandeur of the capital – the “Palace Without Rival”, also known as the Southwest Palace. Each of the palace’s 80 rooms was decorated with intricate carvings depicting Sennacherib’s triumphs and scenes illustrating Assyrian life. Statues of winged lions with human heads, also known as “lamassu”, guarded the palace’s doorways.


Sennacherib’s grandson, Ashurbanipal, devoted even more attention to the city. He built an immense library complex, where he hoped to collate writings from across Mesopotamia. Ashurbanipal’s collection may have boasted as many as 30,000 clay tablets. Scholars were sent to scour Assyrian lands, collecting various cuneiform texts for the library.


But after Ashurbanipal’s death, Assyria’s brutally oppressed subjects seized their chance for revenge. A coalition of Babylonians, Medes, and Persians destroyed Nineveh in 612 BC. Most of the survivors were massacred and the city was torched, bringing an end to Assyrian rule. 


4. Babylon: The Jewel Of Mesopotamia’s Ancient Cities

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Reconstruction of Babylon’s Ishtar Gate, 1992, via Pergamon Museum


Straddling both banks of the Euphrates, Babylon is one of the most legendary ancient cities in history. After centuries of harsh rule under the Assyrians, Babylon led a coalition that overthrew their brutal rulers in 612 BC. 


This heralded a golden age that saw Babylon’s greatest architect, Nebuchadnezzar II, turn the city into an almost mythical metropolis. At its height, three square miles of urban sprawl was believed to be contained within Babylon’s monumental walls. Nebuchadnezzar expanded these mighty fortifications and constructed the famous Ishtar Gate, a vibrant portal made out of dazzling blue tiles. 


The Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, are also believed to have been built during Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. Babylon’s mighty central ziggurat, the temple of the city’s patron god Marduk, may have inspired the Bible’s Tower of Babel. 


The city also hosted the raucous Akitu New Year festival every year to honor Marduk. The Persian ruler Cyrus the Great used the celebration as a distraction to conquer the city in 539 BC but allowed Babylon to retain its prestige and treated the city with admiration. However, Xerxes I was not so respectful, razing Babylon in 485 BC as punishment for revolting against him. 


Some 150 years later, Alexander the Great brought the Achaemenid Empire to its knees and declared that Babylon was not to be harmed. The ancient city’s mystique outlived its physical presence, and after Alexander’s death, Babylon gradually became abandoned.


5. Athens: The Birthplace Of Western Civilisation

ancient cities athens acropolis parthenon
The Acropolis and Parthenon, by Constantinos Kollias, via Unsplash


Among all ancient cities, Athens alone can be considered the birthplace of Western culture. Democracy, history, and philosophy all flourished under the shadow of the Acropolis


After being ruled by aristocrats and tyrants for centuries, the Athenians revolted in 510 BC. The statesman Cleisthenes established the world’s earliest-known democracy. All of the free men of Athens had a say in the government of the city.


The father of Western philosophy, Socrates, taught his students to question everything. He was forced to take poison after being accused of corrupting the city’s youth. But Socrates’ ideas endured through his pupil, Plato. 


Xerxes I razed Athens twice during his invasion of Greece in 480 BC but was defeated by an alliance of Greek city-states led by Athens and Sparta. The great statesman Pericles then oversaw a grand rebuilding of the Acropolis on the rocky plateau overlooking the city. Contained within was the Parthenon, an impressive temple dedicated to Athena. 


The center of Athens was the Agora, a civic square, and marketplace. Commodities such as silver, wine, and olives were abundant in Attica’s surrounding lands and powered Athens’ rise to prominence.


Athens then formed a coalition with several other city-states called the Delian League. Expanded across the Aegean by Pericles and generals such as Cimon, the Delian League was a vessel for Athenian power for almost 75 years. 


But during the Peloponnesian War, Athens was toppled by Sparta, who became Greece’s dominant city-state until Athens’ resurgence following the Corinthian War.


6. Persepolis: The Opulent Monument Of Achaemenid Persia

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Ruins of the Apadana at Persepolis, c.331 BC, via BornaMir/iStock.com


At its height, the Achaemenid Persian Empire was an immense superpower that dominated much of Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. To suit such a powerful civilization, the Persian king Darius the Great began construction on a new capital at Persepolis in 518 BC.


While the vast Achaemenid administration continued to be run from other ancient cities such as Susa, Persepolis became the center of royal power. Darius constructed a new palace as well as a great apadana, an entrance hall used for hosting dignitaries. Bas-reliefs that still survive today depict visitors from across the empire arriving to pay homage to the King of Kings.


After Darius’ death, his successors added even more grand buildings to the complex. His son, Xerxes I, built his own palace, a treasury, and the famous Gate of All Nations. Around these impressive projects, fields spread out across the surrounding fertile land, while a bazaar sold goods gathered from all across the empire.


But Persepolis’ splendor was not to last. When Alexander the Great invaded the Achaemenid Empire in 331 BC, he defeated the Persian king Darius III. Alexander burned Persepolis to the ground, allegedly giving the order to ransack the city while drunk. The Achaemenid Empire died in the flames engulfing its greatest city.


7. Alexandria: The Shining Legacy Of Alexander The Great 

artists impression alexandria lighthouse
An artist’s impression of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, 1754, Getty/Hulton Archive


In 331 BC, Alexander the Great invaded the Achaemenid Persian empire. After liberating Egypt, the young general founded a new city, Alexandria. He designed the plans for the city himself before leaving to continue his campaign. When Alexander died in 323 BC, Egypt was claimed by Ptolemy with Alexandria as his capital. 


The new city flourished, becoming the largest metropolis in the world. Ptolemy and his sons began construction on the Great Library of Alexandria, where hundreds of scholars collected knowledge from across the known world. Alexandria became a haven for scholars, and great minds like Archimedes, Euclid, and Heron are believed to have studied there. 


This jewel among ancient cities was also home to the towering Lighthouse of Alexandria, considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The lighthouse was finished sometime around 250 BC and stood for almost 1600 years. It may have been as tall as 140 meters, guiding ships safely into Alexandria’s harbor.


Alexandria continued as a prominent Mediterranean port until a series of Roman civil wars spread to Egypt. After the death of his rival Pompey, Julius Caesar declared martial law in Alexandria. He deposed Ptolemy XIII and installed Cleopatra on the throne. 


After Caesar was murdered in 44 BC, the Roman general Marc Anthony ruled with Cleopatra as they opposed Caesar’s successor Octavian. Following the Battle of Actium, Anthony and Cleopatra committed suicide. Now ruling as Emperor Augustus, Octavian rebuilt Alexandria as the center of Roman power in Egypt.


8. Carthage: Trading Hub Of The Mediterranean World

ancient cities decline of carthaginian empire
The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire by Joseph Mallord William Turner, c.1800, via the Tate Gallery


Before clashing with the Romans, Carthage was one of the wealthiest ancient cities in the Mediterranean and the center of a maritime trading empire. Phoenician sailors, likely from the powerful city-state of Tyre, founded the city in 814 BC. 


Carthaginian traders spread across the seas, establishing colonies in Sicily, Spain, and the rest of the North African coast. Ebony, ivory, and gold flowed through Carthage from the African interior. Carthaginian merchants also traded in salt, spices, furs, and expensive purple Phoenician dyes made from murex seashells.


Carthage’s status as a center of trade was made possible by its twin harbors. The rectangular outer harbor was used strictly for trading vessels, protected by a long sea wall. The circular inner harbor housed Carthage’s mighty navy, with berths for 220 warships. 


The Byrsa hill, which held an immense citadel, overlooked the harbor. The city’s residential neighborhoods were spread out below.


Carthage was ruled by two elected ruling magistrates called suffetes, who consulted the Senate for advice. One suffete presided over domestic government, while the other held command over the Carthaginian army and its mercenary allies.


Carthage dominated the Mediterranean for centuries. But during the three Punic Wars, Carthage fought against the emerging might of Rome. After over a century of bitter fighting, the Romans besieged Carthage in 149 BC. 


After two years, the Romans finally broke through. They ransacked the city and massacred or enslaved the surviving civilians. Carthage was utterly destroyed, and Rome finally became the dominant power in the Mediterranean.


9. Rome: The Greatest Of All Ancient Cities

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The Colosseum, Rome, c. 70 AD, via Unsplash


The seat of one of the greatest empires in history, Rome is arguably the most famous of all ancient cities. The city was founded in the 8th century BC and gradually expanded across the Seven Hills of Rome. Initially ruled by kings, Rome became a republic in 509 BC. Guided by the Senate, Rome expanded its territory for nearly 500 years. 


After a power struggle following Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, the Republic was replaced by the Roman Empire under the first emperor Augustus. At its greatest extent in 117 AD, the Roman Empire encompassed most of Europe, North Africa, Asia Minor, and Mesopotamia.


The Forum was the civic center of the city, containing the Senate house and administrative buildings. To honor Rome’s military conquests, great generals received spectacular triumphs that marched down the Sacra Via. Gladiatorial contests were held in the iconic Colosseum, while 150,000 spectators could enjoy chariot racing at the Circus Maximus. 


Rome encompassed around one million inhabitants and was deeply divided between rich and poor despite its power and wealth. While the wealthy lounged in palatial villas, the poor lived in sprawling slums. 


Throughout its long history, Rome endured civil wars, plagues, and other disasters. In 64 AD a great fire swept across Rome. Hundreds died and ten of Rome’s 14 districts were destroyed. 


As its power declined in the 5th Century AD, Rome was sacked by various barbarian groups and its population ebbed away. The Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476 AD.

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By Edd HodsdonBA Professional Writing, member Canterbury Archaeological TrustEdd holds a BA in Professional Writing, he has worked at the Dover museum as well as the Canterbury Archaeological Trust. He is most fascinated by the Achaemenid Persian Empire and has been interested in the Ancient world his entire life. His hobbies include walking, philosophy, history, photography, and writing fiction.