A 5th-century BCE polymath known as Hippodamus of Miletus was one of the most, if not the most, famous figures among the urban planners who operated in the ancient Greek world. More so than anyone before him in Greece and its colonies, he championed and reimagined the use of grid patterns and site allocation in his designs for towns and cities. After beginning his career in his home city of Miletus, on the Ionian coast of Anatolia, word of Hippodamus’ talents began to spread abroad. Other Greek communities liked what they heard, and the burgeoning urban planner soon had contract proposals coming in from mainland Greece, and as far away as from the Greek colonies in southern Italy. Hippodamus accepted several of these jobs and traveled widely to oversee the projects. He became quite wealthy from his craft and apparently used his ample spending money to develop a unique style of wardrobe that left a mixed impression on the people he met. In particular, his dress and behavior intrigued the intellectuals of Athens, who observed Hippodamus with interest as he designed the layout of the Athenian port city, Piraeus. The famous philosopher, Aristotle (c. 384-322 BCE), recorded what older Greeks remembered of Hippodamus’ quirky dress and character:
“Hippodamus, son of Euryphon, came from Miletus. It was he who invented the division of cities into precincts, and he also laid out the street-plans of the Piraeus. His ambition always to be different from other people made his life also peculiar in a variety of ways; and some thought that he was carrying his oddities too far with his long hair and expensive ornaments, wearing at the same time clothing that was cheap but warm, in summer and winter alike. He wished to be considered an expert in the whole range of natural science too; and he was the first person not actually taking part in the workings of a constitution to attempt some description of the ideal one” (Aristotle, The Politics, Bekker page 1267b).
Unfortunately, this short but valuable passage from Aristotle is about all that exists from ancient times that provides some humanity and personality to the memory of the enigmatic architect. Little else is known about Hippodamus’ life, and even the chronological dating of his urban planning projects is vague. Nevertheless, the long-haired and bauble-decorated urban planner did indeed leave a long-lasting legacy with his grid designs and allocated zones. Then and today, Hippodamus is best known for his projects in his Anatolian homeland of Miletus, the Piraeus of Athens, and the colonial city of Thurii in Italy.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Induction of a New Member into the Band of Northern Painters in Rome, painted anonymously, c. 1660, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).
- The Politics by Aristotle, translated by T. A. Sinclair and revised by T. J. Saunders. London: Penguin Classics, 1962, 1992.