An image of ancient Jerusalem; click on it for a much larger version

Around 50,000 people live in Wheaton, Illinois; some of them work here, some in Chicago, some in other suburbs. Since I live and work in the older, walkable part of town, I can feel, often, as though I’m living in a small and relatively populous Midwestern city, but such a feeling is largely illusory: Wheaton is just part of the great conurbation of Chicagoland, and no genuine boundaries separate it from the other suburbs that surround it.

Soon I’ll be moving to Waco, Texas, which is much more of a stand-alone city than Wheaton is, and about three times as large, but not part of a conurbation except in a fairly tenuous sense of the term. (Dallas is 90 miles to the north, Austin 90 miles to the south.) If I buy a house in town, as I expect to do, then will I be moving to the city, as Tim Keller counsels me to do, or will I be moving away from the city in the sense that he uses the term? “Cultural trends tend to be generated in the city and flow outward to the rest of society,” Keller says; so what cultural trends are likely to emerge from Waco?

Kathy Keller says her sons love not only New York but “all cities. London, Hong Kong, Berlin, Singapore all excite them.” So how would they feel about Waco? My guess is that they’d feel a good deal more comfortable in Wheaton, with its 40-minute commuter-train ride to the Loop. It seems to me that when the Kellers say “the city” they mean “the world’s very largest cities, the ones where wealth and power are most dramatically concentrated.”

The Roman historian Tacitus, in the fifth book of his histories, describes “the last days of a famous city,” Jerusalem, including the destruction of its Temple. How large a city was Jerusalem in those days? “I have heard,” he writes, “that the total number of the besieged, of every age and both sexes, amounted to six hundred thousand.” His contemporary, the Jewish historian Josephus, put the population at over a million. But these are absurd numbers. Six hundred thousand people couldn’t have been squeezed inside the walls of first-century Jerusalem even if people had been stacked on one another three-deep. (For a wonderful exhibition of images of Jerusalem throughout its history, please see this page, from which the image at the head of this post is taken.)

Ancient reckoning of such matters can be very strange. Josephus writes elsewhere that in Galilee alone there were 204 distinct villages, the smallest of which had more than 15,000 inhabitants. This would have given the whole of first-century Israel a population roughly comparable to that of Great Britain today — an obviously nonsensical idea. Magen Broshi, an Israeli archaeologist who has written extensively on these matters, thinks that at the time of the city’s destruction it could have held no more than 80,000 people. (In the time of David, Broshi concludes, fewer than 2000 people lived in Jerusalem.)

Broshi’s work is thorough and careful but inevitably involves a good deal of guesswork, guesswork being a necessary feature of much urban history. Scholars believe that ancient Athens may have held as many as 250,000 people, about 30,000 of whom were citizens; no European cities in the Middle Ages were nearly as large. Paris in the fourteenth century might have been about as large as first-century Jerusalem, and like the Israelite city, it stuffed the people into a very small space. It would have been possible to walk from the eastern wall of the city to the western one in about 20 minutes. As can be seen in the passage from Juvenal I quoted earlier, people huddled together within city walls for protection. The gates were locked against intruders; the closeness of neighbors enabled them to “sleep secure.”

It was, by modern western standards, a shockingly crowded and incessantly noisy world, as scholars have only recently come to understand. A whole large family would sleep in the same room, though not all through the night: it was common, Roger Ekirch has shown in his book At Day’s Close, for people to wake for a couple of hours in the middle of the night and then go back to bed for a “second sleep.” Bruce R. Smith’s extraordinary study The Acoustic World of Early Modern England explains just how cacophonous the world was for many of our ancestors half-a-millennium ago: even deep night, in the cities, would have been filled with constant noises.

The fascinating thing is this: for most people, the crowding and the noise appear to have been comforting. Christopher has written of the family as a “haven in a heartless world,” but for much of human history the city — the tiny, walled, immensely congested city — seems to have fit that description.

But some, it appears, could not reconcile themselves to it. Diana Webb in her book Privacy and Solitude: The Medieval Discovery of Personal Space argues, convincingly, that many people, men and women alike, sought monastic life less from piety than from a desperate need to find refuge from all the racket.

The book of Revelation describes the size of the New Jerusalem: “And the one who spoke with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, 144 cubits by human measurement, which is also an angel’s measurement.” (How nice that angels measure the same as we do.) A cubit is about 18 inches, so the walls would be around 200 feet high; according to Herodotus, a stadion is about 600 feet, which would make each wall of the city a little less than 1400 miles long. That’s a big city. How lovely that a river runs through it, and a large garden park lies at its center.