What is Civilisation?


Self portrait in gardenWhat was the secret of Greece and Rome?  Why are they often held to mark a big step forward and to offer something different to the great empires that came before?  Why was it that they became the predecessors of our own civilisation? It is all too easy to present a bland account of these changes, but in order to answer the questions properly, we need to explore the new economics and indeed, the new politics introduced by Greece and Rome.

The most obvious explanation is a political one, that Greece was the first democracy. Democracy did not always work very well in these early city states, so perhaps we should concentrate on the economic revolution: this is the hidden secret of Greece, a  secret  that is rarely admitted in the story of Greece. But the dark secret of the Greeks is that the Greeks invented money.

The secret of money is that money gives you choice. In the great previous empires   you relied for your luxuries, indeed for many of the necessities of life, on the distributions make by  the ruler – the emperor, the pharaoh or whoever was your superior. Money brings you choice and choice of what to buy, what to eat, where to live, and how to work. Choice is like the genie, which once it is out of the bottle, is hard to put back.

Choice does not just exist in the ordinary necessities of life; it also spreads more widely.  It brings new forms of art, with  bodies twisting and turning; drama is invented and the theatre makes its appearance. Philosophers proliferate,  and , best of all to my taste, history in the form that we know it makes its appearance, seeking to tell the past as it really was, rather than writing propaganda to please the rulers. And most exciting of all,  once people have economic choice, they want political choice, they want to make the big political decisions, to ask how they should be ruled and how the community should make the big decisions. The idea of democracy was born,   as people want more choice in every aspect of their lives.

Here we will unlock the secrets of the Greeks and Romans. The secrets of the Greeks are the secrets of the market place, and since we too are now enjoying the benefits of a market society, there are lessons for us today as we hold tight to the rollercoaster ride of the industrial revolution.

My name is Andrew Selkirk, and now that I am retired – more or less – from the day-to-day tasks of editing the magazine Current Archaeology,  I thought that in my retirement, having spent my life writing about the past in bits and pieces, it was time to pull it all together and write a ‘History of the World’. On reflection however I decided that this was rather too big a task, and I wanted to concentrate on some of the big questions about how the world really worked in the past,  so I decided to concentrate on what seemed to me to be the biggest, or perhaps rather the most neglected question of all: why were Greece and Rome so important?

My answer is that they were the world’s first market economy. This meant that their cities were centred, not on a Palace, but on the forum or market place, the agora in Greek. To illustrate this, the book is divided into two halves.  The first half looks at three of the great  pre-money empires to see how societies work without money. I begin with the Minoans who are the best example of a Palace based society.  There are four great palaces, all well excavated, and thanks to the decipherment of Minoan Linear B, we are able to see more of how the society works.

I then look at Egypt, and ask how they were able to build their great pyramids.  But the Egypt society was very long lived, and many of its greatest glories came 1500 years after the pyramids, so I set out to explore the secrets of its longevity. And then for something completely different, I go to China.  Everything about China tends to be different: it is, like Egypt another very long-lived society so I set out to face the challenges that it presents to my ideas, and what lessons it has for our own western civilisation.

And then I turn to the two great market based societies of Greece and Rome. Firstly, I look at Greece and the gradual build up towards the use of money and the market economy, and then we take a good look round the agora, or market place in Athens, where democracy was invented, and then at the theatre where drama was invented, and find out how those wonderful pots were produced. But equally interesting is the story of the city which rejected money: Sparta.  Sparta rejected money and became a totalitarian society of fearsome warriors.

But the trouble with Greece is that democracy never seems to work for very long, and the great expansion of Greece came with Alexander the Great who was definitely not a democrat, but who conquered the old Persian Empire and spread Greek ideals over a large Empire of the East.

And finally we turn to Rome, the culmination of the story where we see the rise and fall of the greatest of all the ancient empires. The story falls into three parts, the rise of Rome – were they really just good soldiers? – then how Augustus turned a malfunctioning democracy into a highly successful Empire, and then the decline and fall of Rome. We end with the sad story of how a great empire declined into a long, long Dark Age.

Throughout I always find myself bumping up again some very big and important questions:  What is civilisation? And perhaps more important, just what is democracy and why did it never seem to work for very long? There are major implications for our own society. We are living through the tail end of the greatest revolution the world has ever seen, the Industrial Revolution, and I hope that by looking at the world’s first market revolution we can find some useful hints as to where we should be going.

However I begin with something entirely different by going briefly to the Western Pacific, to the Trobriand Islands to see how a primitive society worked. Primitive economics,  that is economics before money, is usually considered to work mainly by barter, but in practice it was rather different. . .

On to the Trobriand Islands

Or go straight to:

The Minoans, Egypt, China

Greece, Rome


Contents page

30th September 2017