5 Famous Cities With Ancient Origins

Istanbul Really Was Once Constantinople

Although many cities have their origins in early modern times, quite a few trace their history back to antiquity. Here are the ancient roots of five of the world’s most famous metropolises.

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A map of Gaul around 400 A.D. Jbribeiro1/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Beneath Paris lie the remains of a city originally built by a Celtic tribe, the Parisii, who lived there by the time the Romans swept through Gaul and brutally conquered its peoples. Writes Strabo in his "Geography," "The Parisii dwell along the river Seine, and inhabit an island formed by the river; their city is Lucotocia," or Lutetia. Ammianus Marcellinus says, "The Marne and the Seine, rivers of identical size; they flow through the district of Lyons, and after encircling in the manner of an island a stronghold of the Parisii called Lutetia, they unite in one channel, and flowing on together pour into the sea…" 

Before the advent of Rome, the Parisii traded with other neighboring groups and dominated the Seine River in the process; they even mapped the area and minted coins. Under the command of Julius Caesar in the 50s B.C., the Romans swept into Gaul and took Parisii land, including Lutetia, which would become Paris. Caesar even writes in his Gallic Wars that he used Lutetia as the site for a council of Gallic tribes. Caesar's second-in-command, Labienus, once took on some Belgian tribes near Lutetia, where he subdued them.

The Romans ended up adding typically Roman features, like bathhouses, to the city. But, by the time Emperor Julian visited Lutetia in the fourth century A.D., it wasn't a bustling metropolis like the one we know today.

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A marble bas relief of Mithras found in London. Franz Cumont/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

The famed city, once known as Londinium, was founded after Claudius invaded the island in the 40s A.D. But, only a decade or so later, the British warrior queen Boudicca rose up against her Roman overlords in 60-61 A.D. Upon hearing this, the provincial governor, Suetonius, "marched amidst a hostile population to Londinium, which, though undistinguished by the name of a colony, was much frequented by a number of merchants and trading vessels," says Tacitus in his Annals. Before her rebellion was quashed, Boudicca reportedly killed "about seventy thousand citizens and allies," he claims. Interestingly, archaeologists have found burned layers of the city dating to that time, corroborating the supposition that London was burned to a crisp in that era.

Over the next several centuries, Londinium became the most prominent city in Roman Britain. Designed as a Roman town, complete with a forum and bathhouses, Londinium even boasted a Mithraeum, an underground temple to the soldiers' god Mithras, lord over a mystery cult. Travelers came from all over the empire to trade goods, like olive oil and wine, in exchange for British-made items like wool. Often, enslaved people were also traded. 

Eventually, the imperial control over the extensive Roman provinces grew tenuous enough that Rome withdrew its military presence from Britain in the early fifth century A.D. In the political vacuum left behind, some say a leader rose up to take control - King Arthur.

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St. Ambrose of Milan refuses Theodosius entry to a chapel after he massacred his citizens. Francesco Hayez/Mondadori Portfolio/Contributor/Getty Images

Ancient Celts, specifically the tribe of the Insubres, first settled the area of Milan. Livy chronicles its legendary founding by two men named Bellovesus and Segovesus. The Romans, led by Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Calvus, according to Polybius's "Histories," took the area over in the 220s B.C., dubbing it "Mediolanum." Writes Strabo, "The Insubri still exist; their metropolis is Mediolanum, which formerly was a village, (for they all dwelt in villages,) but is now a considerable city, beyond the Po, and almost touching the Alps."

Milan remained a site of prominence in imperial Rome. In 290-291, two emperors, Diocletian and Maximian, chosen Milan as a site of their conference, and the latter built a great palace complex in the city. But is perhaps best known in late antiquity for its role in early Christianity. The diplomat and bishop St. Ambrose — often best known for his frenemy-ship with Emperor Theodosius — hailed from this city, and the Edict of Milan of 313, in which Constantine declared religious freedom across the empire, which resulted from imperial negotiations in that city.

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A tablet of Shalmaneser III, who says he conquered Damascus. Daderot/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

The city of Damascus was founded in the third millennium B.C. and quickly became a battleground between the numerous great powers of the area, including the Hittites and Egyptians; Pharaoh Thutmose III recorded the first known mention of Damascus as "Ta-ms-qu," an area that continued to grow across the centuries.

By the first millennium B.C., Damascus became a big deal under the Arameans. The Arameans dubbed the city "Dimashqu," creating the kingdom of Aram-Damascus. Biblical kings are recorded as doing business with the Damascans, including an instance in which one King Hazael of Damascus recorded a victory over monarchs of the House of David. Interestingly, the first historical mention of the biblical king of that name.

The Damascans weren't the only aggressors, though. In fact, in the ninth century B.C., Assyrian King Shalmaneser III claimed he destroyed Hazael on a great black obelisk he erected. Damascus eventually came under the control of Alexander the Great, who seized its treasure hoard and minted coins with the melted down metals. His heirs controlled the great city, but Pompey the Great conquered the area and turned it into the province of Syria in 64 B.C. And, of course, it was on the road to Damascus where St. Paul found his religious way.

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Mexico City

A map of Tenochtitlan, the precedessor to Mexico City. Friedrich Peypus/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

The great Aztec city of Tenochtitlan traced its mythical foundation to a great eagle. When migrants came to the area in the fourteenth century A.D, the hummingbird god Huitzilopochtli morphed into an eagle in front of them. The bird landed on a cactus near Lake Texcoco, where the group then founded a city. The city's name even means "next to the nopal cactus fruit of the rock" in the Nahuatl language. The first stone set down was even done so in honor to Huitz. 

Over the next two hundred years, the Aztec people created a tremendous empire. Kings built aqueducts in Tenochtitlan and the great Temple Mayor, among other monuments, and the civilization built a rich culture and lore. However, the conquistador Hernan Cortes invaded the Aztec lands, massacred its people, and made Tenochtitlan the basis of what is today Mexico City.

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Silver, Carly. "5 Famous Cities With Ancient Origins." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, thoughtco.com/famous-cities-with-ancient-origins-118468. Silver, Carly. (2021, July 29). 5 Famous Cities With Ancient Origins. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/famous-cities-with-ancient-origins-118468 Silver, Carly. "5 Famous Cities With Ancient Origins." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/famous-cities-with-ancient-origins-118468 (accessed March 24, 2023).