Megacities have marked the development of human civilization. How do megacities historically arise? This course offers a comparative perspective on two of the world’s earliest and most famous megacities: ancient Rome and the Chinese city of Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), capital of the Western Han (206 BCE- 9 CE) and Tang (618- 907) empires. Comparing Rome and Chang’an will help students learn about the common features that made pre-industrial megacities both similar to but also very different from the cities of today, as well as how the Roman and Chinese civilizations adopted various solutions to similar challenges posed by urban living and empires. Moreover, studying the origins of urbanization certainly provides insights into the global metropolises of today. Central themes include the role of imperial capitals as administrative, economic, and demographic centers; problems of food and water supply, safety and sanitation; the development of metropolitan cultures of entertainment and consumption; art and architecture; religious and ritual practices; and literary depictions of city life.
In addition to addressing the aforementioned questions, this course aims to improve critical reading, thinking, and writing skills. Through the lens of the historian, we will examine a wide array of primary documents, novels, poetry, archaeological sources, scholarly articles and monographs. The course will also be richly illustrated with visual arts, such as paintings, maps, mortuary art and films. Students will have weekly peer-editing assignments and will be expected to produce multiple drafts for a number of writing assignments. By the end of the semester, participants will have developed stronger analytical skills while strengthening their ability to transform these analyses into a sustained written argument. No prior knowledge or extra language skill (other than English) is required.