What makes a city different from a town? What is the distinction between these two seemingly similar collections of buildings and streets? Why can we trace towns back to the Stone Age, while the first city remains a mystery? Although a village and a city can be considered similar, the city has a unique and innovative element that makes it stand out: the citizens and civitas.
While villages were merely an efficient urban system for groups of people that live together, the foundation of a city entails the institution of a very concrete idea of society, of a commitment between individuals to organize the world based on shared criteria.
The civitas is precisely this idea of social order, the accumulation of traditions, laws, principles and beliefs that gave rise to the civil community. Urbs is the urban model especially dedicated to institutionalizing this idea of society. Be aware that we’re not talking about streets or houses here, but of the moment of the establishment, that is, of the foundation of the city. As Fustel de Coulanges would say, while the civitas is a time-honored inheritance accumulated over centuries, the urbs is founded in one day. Filling it with streets, houses, and shops as a consequence.
As Hermann Minkowski puts it in "Vers une cosmologie. Fragments philosophiques" (Paris, 1967, p.149), "in the beginning, the environment was a shifting ocean. It is evolution. The human personality detaches from that evolution and affirms itself because of that. The person does it what he can, that is, by modeling the environment in his image, according to both individual and general characteristics. "
In this sense, the city is not a housing complex but a cosmogonic device, which explains the origin of order -cosmos- in disorder -chaos-. The political institutions - polis - are guarantee the operation of this device and of the laws that it governs. Therefore, its existence affects the founding city form just as much as the civitas or the urbs. Aristotle already identified this circumstance in the 4th century BC and presented the act of founding a city as a practice that is bound and subject to the political regime. De Coulanges would probably propose a debate on whether the Polis is a later, more complex element, and not as essential.
With respect to fortified places, they aren’t equally suited for all regimes. The acropolis, for example, is useful to an oligarchical or monarchical regime; For democratic regimes an open plain is best, and neither of those for an aristocracy, but rather several fortifications - Aristotle, Politics, II, 8, 1.
Joseph Rykwert proposed in the 1960s that all these political and symbolic foundations share certain common elements. From the Euphrates Valley to Etruria, Greece, Rome, China, India, sub-Saharan Africa, Indigenous North America and Pre-Columbian Latin America, every foundation has represented a cosmic order and has possessed an institutional and religious center, key areas, a boundary, gates and a labyrinth. This article does not have illustrations, but the sketch I would’ve liked to have shown you is the same that you are already drawing in your head. Center, streets, boundary, gates and labyrinth. That’s it. Now the only difference between your mental picture and a true urban foundation is the unconditional acceptance that these elements build the order of the universe on earth.
So far we’ve been talking about history, history in the sense that these rites and institutions feel like they’re far removed from the diffused and scattered metropolises that the majority of us live in today. If you are lucky enough to live in a small town, you are still connected to the net of networks, to the liquid marsh of data and vectors that govern the world. It seems that with the exception of some specific places like historical city centers in Europe or Bolivar Square(s) in the Americas, the contemporary city is more a system of aggregated elements than a cosmic gesture guaranteeing order. This is true, of course ... only if you ignore the other half of today's urban production: fictional cities.
Literature, theater, film and video games are arts plagued by cities. From the Old Testament to A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-), works of fiction are often developed in urban contexts, cities that by their very nature do not possess the Deleuzian complexity of modern cities. Each of the cities in the work of George R. R. Martin represents a political position and a specific way of facing the world. It’s not a coincidence that it’s one of those "books with a map", a genre that could be considered founded by Utopia in 1516.
The opening credits of the series of HBO Game of Thrones (GoT) are a great success in this sense. In the absence of a physical cartography like the one accompanying the book, GoT's opens with the map itself, the land. Through an abstract and stylized infographic, the spectator goes through the main cities of each episode one by one.
King’s Landing sits on a cliff crowned by the great royal palace, the lower you live on it, the lower you are on the social ladder: a tribute to Aristotle. The center of Winterfell is outside the stronghold and is shaped like a tree, as it is a city that honors the ancient gods. The Wall is not the "city wall" but the "city gate", one that decides what’s within the social order and what is left out, the "wild". Pentos is a city "on the other side" and its existence is based on its confrontation with King’s Landing. It is the opposite shore, the refuge of the "other" personified by the last vestiges of the house Targaryen and its allies the Dothrakis.
All these cities are urbs characterized to house singular civitas, imagined but linked to our own history. Their foundational elements are powerful, basic but revealing. Their forms institutionalize very clear political orders that the viewer can read from the very first scene. The classic practice of founding cities as messages of order survives today in these fictional cities. For many centuries to come, Rome lives on.
A trench was dug
down to the solid rock,
fruits of the earth were thrown into the bottom of it,
and with them earth fetched from the neighbouring soil.
The trench was filled up with mould,
and on the top was set an altar,
and a fire was duly lit,
on a new hearth.
Ovidio, Fasti, IV, 819.