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I have found that LLPSI uses oppidum to describe cities (at least in the early chapters) while Duolingo uses urbe. What is the difference, and which should I usually use?

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An urbs is a city, an oppidum is a town.

It is quite common to use urbs to refer specifically to Rome, and the linked dictionary entry even says that oppidum is used for other cities than Rome. You could say that urbs is a capital and oppidum is a regular city. There are a number of ways to phrase and see it, but the crux is: urbs is bigger (in size or importance) than oppidum.

See the links to dictionary entries for more details.

The word urbe is the ablative form of urbs.

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    Browsing the relevant entries in the OLD, I found an interesting example from Livy 31.27: "hic metus Codrionem, satis validum et munitum oppidum, sine certamine ut dederetur Romanis effecit, praesidio ibi relicto, Cnidus—nomen propter alteram in Asia urbem quam oppidum notius—vi capitur. – Alex B. Jul 24 at 15:13
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    @AlexB. That is indeed interesting. Would you translate that as "a name better known for another Asian city than a town"? I find that sentence confusing, a feeling familiar from when I took a Livy course a decade ago... – Joonas Ilmavirta Jul 24 at 20:32
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    I read it as [nomen notius quam oppidum] propter [alteram in Asia urbem], i.e. "a name better known than the town itself because of another town/city in Asia". It's like talking about St. Petersburg in Florida and St. Petersburg in Russia – Alex B. Jul 25 at 3:30

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