As site on which to found a city, Moscow seems to have a lot going for it. It's surrounded by fertile farmland - Russia produces more grain than the United States - it's located on a watercourse which provided, in the days when goods were transported largely via rivers, easy access to the trade routes of the Black Sea, and the bendy course of the Moskva River made it highly defensible, providing a number of choice spots to build fortifications. Yet Moscow was only founded in the 12th century AD, by which time many of the great cities of Western Europe were over a thousand years old, and some over two thousand. Why was Moscow founded almost two millennia after Rome?

(I'm aware that Kiev and Novgorod, to name two, are older cities than Moscow. However, as far as I have been able to find out, there is no solid evidence that any settlement on the Eastern European Plain had a population above, say, 10,000 people much before the 10th century AD. But I'm very happy to be corrected on that point.)

  • 2
    How long did it take to develop grain varieties that did well on the plains? This was a factor in the US for farming on the plains vs ranching.
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 16, 2020 at 15:14
  • 2
    The early cities in the region were typically on Varangian trading routes, especially between the Baltic Sea and Constantinople. Kiev and (Veliky) Novgorod met this criterion, while Moscow did not.
    – Henry
    Mar 16, 2020 at 15:54
  • 1
    @TomHosker - not really sure. Winter wheat was introduced into the mid-West USA from Russia, and did well there. The steel plow helped as well for the US plains.
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 16, 2020 at 16:01
  • 1
    Re the proto-Indo Europeans (or anyone else that came along later), why would they want to found cities, when they could live comfortably without? Seems like most cities are founded for trade (ports &c), or to control irrigation, as with Egypt & Mesopotamia.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 16, 2020 at 17:32
  • 1
    Possibly something to do with the repeated invasions from the East (Huns, Mongols, etc)? And, as jamesqf says, there were a lot of nomadic tribes doing the invading.
    – Stuart F
    Mar 17, 2020 at 14:10

2 Answers 2


Geography and technology. The conditions to support large cities were not possible with the technology of the day.

  • Climatic conditions generally favor agriculture in warm, oceanic climates with mild winters for early civilizations (more food variety, higher yield). Cooler periods hit places in the far north harder than the Mediterranean. The early rise of the Rus cities coincides very roughly with the Medieval Warm Period (~950 - 1250)
  • The soils of Eastern Europe are often either less fertile (Podsolic) or need significant irrigation infrastructure (Chernozem) for its high yields of today. Some of them are harder to plow and could only be farmed with further advances in plow technology. Horses were not initially used due to the lack of suitable horse collars, while Oxen were less suited for northern climates. Cities generally need a lot of excess food to feed their population.
  • Distance: Cities rely on trade routes (e.g. getting grain from Egypt to Rome or Constantinople). Transport by sea or river was, in the past, by far the fastest way to transport goods. The White Sea was too far north for largescale trade. The Baltic was used (e.g. by Novgorod). The Volga traderoute / Northern Arc was likely only established around the 8th century.
  • Terrain and defense: Close distance to pastoral nomads (Scythians, Huns, Mongols) often meant conflict. Less natural defenses and flat terrain led to a bigger advantage for mobile nomadic cavalry.

The question is based on false premises:

The Eastern European Plain is often claimed as the homeland of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. If this is where the seeds of European civilisation were first sown, why did it take so long to found cities here?

The Proto-Indo-Europeans, whereever they lived, did not sow the seeds of European civilization, they sowed the seeds of European culture, or at least of most European languages.

The seeds of European civilization were sown in Mesopotamia and Egypt and slowly spread in various directions from those places into other places. Eventually they spread into a few places in Europe, mostly around the Mediterranean Sea, and from those places to other places in Europe, and so on and so on. It took thousands of years for the building of cities to spread from Mesopotamia and Egypt into Europe and throughout Europe into the Eastern European Plain.

"Rome wasn't built in a day", as the saying goes. Building cities takes time, and that time is spent in often exhausting backbreaking physical labor. Why should many people who have other tasks they could do commit to building cities? Societies have to decide that building cities from scratch, or enlarging tiny villages into towns and later into cities, is worth the effort.

And first of all they have to even hear about the idea of building villages larger and larger into towns and then cities. And they have to learn sufficiently advanced agricultural practices to produce a surplus of food to support more farmers who convert more forests into farmland to support more farmers who convert more forest into farmland, etc., etc. to build up the agricultural surplus in a region to support city populations.

When half the people who were born died in the first few years of their lives, populations increased slowly, so it often took many centuries for the population of a region to increase enough that cities began to form.

So city building was the result of centuries or millennia of agricultural improvement and population growth. The necessary ideas and techniques for those processes were developed in many widely spread places and slowly spread around the world from where they originated to places farther and farther away, and arrive din more distant places centuries or millennia after they originated.

The Eastern European Plain was apparently not a place where many of those ideas and techniques originated, and apparently was far enough from regular contact with the places where those ideas and techniques originated that those ideas and techniques reached it a few centuries or millennia after reach other regions.

But of course the species Homo sapiens existed for hundreds of thousands of years before the beginning of agriculture leading to civilization, and might exist in a civilized society for hundreds of thousands more years, so a difference of a few centuries and millennia in when various regions became civilized is comparatively minor. A few hundred thousand years from now, a timeline of history will make the spread of civilization across the world seem almost instantaneous.

  • 1
    Re "the species Homo sapiens existed for hundreds of thousands of years before the beginning of agriculture": Are Neanderthals and Denisovans both Homo Sapiens then? because Cro-Magnon man is only attested since about 48,000 years ago. Mar 17, 2020 at 1:40
  • 2
    I like this answer, but there are holes in it - at least to my eyes. For one thing: both Colchester and Zanzibar are far from Mesopotamia and Egypt, yet cities existed here from the 1st century AD. You seem to attribute nations' ability to found cities to 'regular contact with the places where [city-building] originated', and yet we know that Eastern Europe was in contact with the Classical world centuries before Christ: the Athenians lost the Peloponnesian War because the Spartans blockaded the Dardanelles, and thus cut off Athens' grain supply in the Ukraine. I need more convincing.
    – Tom Hosker
    Mar 17, 2020 at 8:57
  • 1
    I agree, though, that the whole Proto-Indo-European thing was a red herring here. I'll amend my question accordingly.
    – Tom Hosker
    Mar 17, 2020 at 8:58
  • 1
    City building requires a over-supply of food but it also requires a local leader (who is in a position to siphon from the over-supply) to be supportive of the city. Landes makes a point there the Szlachta in Poland maybe didn't have a reason to support creation and enlargement of cities - why allow the King to gain supporting forces in his competition against me ??? Mar 17, 2020 at 14:32
  • The creation of a strong central power like a King needed support from the civilian population against the feudal lords. Mar 17, 2020 at 14:33

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.