Legacy of Five Great Cities Book Review Sample

Posted on December 25, 2023

I have read and critically examined the main ideas presented in the book by Douglas Wilson, 5 Cities That Ruled the World. The author discusses the intertwined nature of human history and the city, with a focus on five cities: Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London, and New York. Each of the chapters analyzes the unique attributes and influences of these cities on the course of civilization. Throughout the book, Wilson uses various examples to highlight his primary argument that the histories of the five cities are inseparable from the broader narrative of human progress. He notes that while no specific city can rule the world indefinitely, each of the five has had a long-lasting impact on different facets of modern society.

The main themes presented in the literature are spirituality, criticism, the tension between faith and power, the longevity of cities, and the principles of historical writing. Considering that each city has had a different historical development, their influence on global issues differs significantly. Therefore, the author notes that it is important to analyze the changes that have occurred in each of them, emphasizing the issues that led to either the loss or sustenance of their prominence on a global scale. He acknowledges that the legacies of the five cities are interconnected and reflect the essence of human civilization.

Chapter 1: Jerusalem

In chapter 1, Wilson argues that Jerusalem plays an important role in human history and spirituality, serving as a focal point for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and exerting a significant influence on the world. The city has consistently been at the center of major historical events, including conflicts, conquests, and political changes. Consequently, its history has had an impact on the broader developments in the region in several key aspects. Firstly, the chapter underscores that Jerusalem has had a major influence on religion. In Judaism, it is often referred to as the City of David and is deeply entwined with biblical narratives, such as Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah, believed to be the Temple Mount.

The first and second temples, central to Jewish worship, are traditionally associated with Jerusalem, and the name Zion symbolizes the city’s ideal, peaceful state in Jewish thought. The Western Wall, a remnant of the Second Temple, is a revered site where Jewish pilgrims offer prayers. For Christians, Jerusalem is the hallowed ground where key events in the life of Jesus Christ unfolded. Excerpts from the Bible analyzed by Wilson reflect the enduring role of the city in Christian theology. In Islam, he notes that Jerusalem is among the holiest cities, carrying significant religious importance. As a result, its religious significance has shaped its legacy as a focal point for devotion and pilgrimage among the three major faiths.

Besides religion, Jerusalem has political and geopolitical significance. Historically, the city has been at the center of territorial claims and contemporary geopolitical dynamics. It has been ruled by numerous entities, including the Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and various Islamic dynasties. In the modern day, there is a continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict as both states lay claim to some or all of its geographical borders. As a result, it has drawn significant international attention and diplomatic efforts, with the United Nations passing various resolutions that emphasize the importance of preserving the city’s unique character and protecting the rights of all religious communities. The chapter on Jerusalem highlights the major influence that city has on the world, whether as a symbol of faith, a center of historical events, or a focal point of contemporary conflicts.

Chapter 2: Athens

In chapter 2, Wilson argues that Athens holds a central and lasting significance in the development of western civilization and the world at large due to its foundational contributions to philosophy, intellectual thought, culture, and education. He notes that despite the political changes that have occurred in the city for centuries, it remains a symbol of the long-lasting legacy of Greek civilization that has had a major influence on global culture, knowledge and values. The chapter highlights that influence of key figures and events in the history of Athens shaped the view that it is the cradle of western civilization.

Philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle laid the foundation for critical thinking, ethics, and political theory. Their philosophical dialogues and inquiries became essential texts in shaping western thought. Additionally, the city introduced the concept of democracy that is widely adopted in the politics of various countries today. Therefore, the historical changes in Athens have shaped the core values, institutions, and ideals of Western culture and have had a significant influence on global thought and civilization.

Wilson also notes that Athens boasts a rich cultural legacy that encompasses education and art. It served as an education hub in the ancient world with renowned philosophical schools, including Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum. These institutions and key figures like Plato fostered the study of ethics, metaphysics, politics, and other disciplines, contributing significantly to the Western intellectual tradition. The emphasis on critical thinking and the pursuit of knowledge in Athens laid the groundwork for modern education. Plato’s exploration of justice and the ideal state, and Aristotle’s investigations into ethics and natural philosophy are foundational texts that continue to shape current philosophical discourse. In architecture, Athens was a center of artistic excellence with iconic examples such as the Parthenon. Based on those arguments, the city has had a significant influence on culture and ideas around the world. The contributions of its key figures have shaped modern civilization in multiple jurisdictions and continues to impact philosophy, education, and arts.

Chapter 3: Rome

In chapter 3, Wilson argues that Rome, both as an ancient civilization and a continuing cultural reference point, occupies a unique and central position in the evolution of western and global history. The city has been a nexus through which various historical, cultural, religious, and political forces have converged and radiated outward, having a major influence on the global society. A key argument made by the author is that Rome has had a persistent and uninterrupted influence on modern civilization and global affairs. Wilson provides a historical evolution of the city, from its early days as a republic to its dominance as an empire.

The changes that occurred underscore Rome’s ability to adapt and transform in a changing world. Its governance systems, including the development of legal frameworks, administrative structures, and republican ideals, are depicted as foundational elements of modern western political thought. The Roman republic emphasized on the rule of law, civic participation, and representative government, which are the basis of democratic systems today. In legal systems, Rome advanced the ideologies of having a legal code and civil law with notable principles such as the presumption of innocence and contracts being prevalent in the contemporary legal frameworks globally. Therefore, the development of ancient Rome continues to impact modern civilization.

Rome continues to have an influence on education, culture, and religion. Its ancient society promoted ideals such as schools for both boys and girls and classical education, which shows that the city served as the origin of modern education frameworks. Notably, the Latin language that is central to Roman culture continues to influence legal, scientific, and medical terminology. From a cultural perspective, Rome was a center of architectural innovations with the use of arches, domes, and concrete being widely utilized today. Roman literature and art are also influential globally, including the works of Virgil, Cicero, and Ovid. In Christianity, the establishment of papacy in the city made it the center of the religion and it continues to influence religious doctrine and governance. Moreover, ancient religious art and architecture are reflected in modern visual representation of religious narratives.

Even though Rome has achieved historical continuity, Wilson argues that its governance structure provides useful lesson on civilization decline and resilience. Whereas external factors such as the barbarian invasion played a role in the collapse of the Roman empire, internal factors also had a significant influence. The ineffective leadership of various emperors led to its decline while strong leaders such as Augustus and Gregory the Great, stabilized the empire and the church respectively. Such trends underscore, the importance of nations to address internal issues such as corruption, inequality, and political dysfunction to maintain resilience as they counter external challenges.

Chapter 4: London

In chapter 4, Wilson’s primary argument is that London’s history and cultural contributions have played a crucial role in shaping world events and literature, from the loss of America during the American Revolution to its continuing impact on global culture. He first highlights the role of London in the development of the English identity around the world. Its history is shaped by a long history of monarchy, conflicts, and cultural interactions with neighboring regions, such as Scotland and Ireland. Rulers such as Queen Elizabeth I and King George III played a critical role in building English and British history through events such as the Glorious Revolution and the establishment of parliamentary rule. Moreover, the emergence of religious groups such as Anglicans and Presbyterians contributed to the English identity both locally and abroad. Immigration also helped to achieve diversity in London, but the English identity has been resilient and persists to date.

Another major argument in the chapter is the influence that London had on America. The loss of the colony by the British had significant consequences including an influx of Scottish and Irish immigrants to America. These immigrants, many of whom held Presbyterian beliefs, played a pivotal role in the American Revolution. The author notes that the period marked an important point in the establishment of dissenting churches in America from the established Anglican Church. In that regard, the revolution had numerous religious and cultural elements that provided the basis for the establishment of a distinct American identity and religious changes globally.

Wilson also argues that London’s cultural legacy transcends its immediate historical context and continues to influence subsequent generations. The city has been the origin of numerous authors such as Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare, whose works have continued to be studied worldwide. Their writings capture not only the essence of London but also universal themes of human experience. Painters like Joseph William Turner and Francis Bacon, influenced by the city’s dynamism, have contributed to the evolution of art, and their works are celebrated internationally. Therefore, London’s cultural history continues to influence subsequent generation enriching global culture.

Chapter 5: New York

In chapter 5, Wilson argues that New York City’s ascent to becoming a global financial hub and economic powerhouse is intricately tied to its historical embrace of free markets, entrepreneurship, and individualism. Historically, New York’s location on the northeastern seaboard of North America made it an ideal trading hub. Its natural harbor, proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, and access to riverways facilitated trade with Europe, the Caribbean, and other American colonies. As a result, it rose to becoming an important trading hub in the 17th century. Merchants and traders in New York were involved in international trade, importing and exporting goods that contributed to the city’s wealth. The significance of the city in global trading during that period made it the center for early industrialization and later a financial center. Therefore, New York’s strategic location, coupled with historical events and economic developments, has contributed to its status as one of the world’s most influential cities.

Wilson notes that the growth of New York underscores the importance of economic freedom and liberty, individualism, and government influence on economic prosperity. The American tradition of liberty and freedom played a significant role in the rise of the United States as a global economic leader. New York has embraced the concept of free markets and entrepreneurial spirit fostering an environment of innovation, wealth creation, and prosperity. However, the author also acknowledges the challenges and pitfalls that successful cities may encounter. He portrays government intervention, excessive regulation, and high taxes as threats to economic freedom and prosperity. Therefore, the success of New York as a financial hub continues to influence other cities globally to embrace a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. These principles continue to shape its resilience in a rapidly changing world.


Wilson in his book provides a comprehensive analysis of the influence of five major cities in history that still persists to date. Each of them has had a major impact on other realms of the society globally. He argues that Jerusalem provided a legacy for religion; Athens, intellectual capacity; Rome, law and order; London, literature; and New York, industry and commerce. The various chapters in the book covering each city individually provide an in-depth insight into the main trends that have shaped the above identities. Most modern societies are anchored on specific elements of drawn from the historical changes in the five cities. Notably, global religion derives most of its principles from those advanced in ancient Jerusalem.

Modern philosophical literature builds on the works on great Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Plato. The promotion of democracy as the ideal governance structure stems from the success achieved in the ancient Roman empire. Moreover, the strong English identity has influenced other nations to build on their identity as an effective way for promoting their values worldwide. Lastly, the concept of open markets has fueled the growth of major economies showing the significance of New York’s history in global affairs. Therefore, Wilson correctly captures the role of each of the cities in shaping the world’s cultural and intellectual landscape. He offers valuable lessons on understanding the dynamics of civilization and they impact they may have on subsequent generations. Each nation has a role to play in enriching the tapestry of global culture.


Wilson, Douglas. Five Cities that Ruled the World: How Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London, and New York Shaped Global History. Thomas Nelson, 2009.

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