What is Civilisation?


Self portrait in gardenWhat is civilisation?  In his classic TV series on Civilisation, Kenneth Clark begins by saying disarmingly “I do not know”.  Admittedly he then goes on to say “but I recognise it when I see it”, but he then confesses that the real reason for the programme was to promote the sale of colour televisions which was just coming on to the market, and the BBC needed to justify the purchase of all its expensive new equipment.  They wanted a programme full of pretty pictures on art in full colour and so the unseen premise crept in that civilisation equals art; though Kenneth Clark soon admits that good art can also be produced in barbarian societies. The new series of Civilisations (in plural) is less fastidious, and in its zeal to promote civilisations in the plural, seems to imply that all art is civilised art.

There is however a rival definition which might be called the ‘academic’ definition which defines civilisation as being urbanism — the advent of cities, writing, and temples, a definition which though etymologically correct, nevertheless denies that the countryside could be civilised.  This academic definition sees civilisation beginning in Mesopotamia and Egypt in the 3rd and 4th millenniums BC, though if you are writing for the American market you study the rise of the Olmec and Maya in Mexico or the Inca in Peru.

However this is not what civilisation has come to mean in common usage.  When we talk of civilisation today we take it to mean the opposite of barbarism, and by barbarism we tend to mean the totalitarian dictatorship of  Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany, living in a society where the government dictates what you should do and what you should think.

Civilisation is the opposite. It tends to deal with concepts such as freedom and democracy — though I am always wary of that very slippery term, democracy. But it tends to mean being able to do your own thing and being tolerant of others so they can ‘do their own thing’. Of course, this has its limits.  We need to have laws and customs, but it has many advantages: it enables experimentation and encourages its people to try out new ideas.  It leads to a new freedom in art, and thought and philosophy, and in recent centuries it has led to the Industrial and Medical Revolutions.

This concept of choice has an economic basis. There must be an economic sub-structure that enables us to exercise choice in our daily lives. We need to be able to choose how to find our food and lodgings, we need to have the ability to move around, we need to be able to choose how to work and where to work.  Of course in a totalitarian state, life in many ways is easier because these things are all supplied for us.  In a feudal society we are tied to the land, we follow in our father’s footsteps, take over his farm and his possessions — and his duties.  We accept unthinkingly that we provide corvée labour to our lord, that we cultivate his land, give up a portion of our produce to the lord (and often to our sister’s husband) and be rewarded occasionally with gifts from the lord.  There is no incentive to innovate, indeed there is every incentive not to innovate or step out of line. This is how the majority of the world lives.  The big change comes when we break out of this feudal society into a new form of economic life where we can make our own choices.  And this depends crucially on one of the most important inventions of all: the invention of money.

But what is money?  The normal definition of money is that it is a store of value, or a means of exchange.  But this misses out the most important attribute of all: that money is a means by which we exercise choice.  Money has not had a good press. Money is the root of all evil – goes the common saying.  What is not said is that money is also the root of all good because good and evil depend on choice.  As Aristotle said ‘if a tyrant has your children in his power you do not really have any choice: you do what he says’.  To have any concept of virtue or vice, you must have the concept of choice, to be in a position to do virtue and reject vice.  And in practical economics the element that gives you this choice is money.  If therefore we are to explore the roots of civilisation we must look at money and see how it works and when it works well – and when it works badly.

Money was invented in Greece and Rome, and with money came the market economy, and with the market economy came a new way of thinking and acting. And as an archaeologist, I look at the advent of money as it appears on the ground.  I study the layout of cities. In Greece and Rome, cities are centred round the market place; the agora in Greece, or the forum in Rome. I call these market economies.  In earlier societies, the cities are centred round the palaces of the rulers, or the great temples which are often the store houses of wealth from which the ruler takes in tributes and sometimes distributes wealth.  I call these palace economies.

This book is therefore based in two halves. The first half considers three great palace economies.  Firstly we look at the Minoans which are the best example of a palace economy. I then look at Egypt, which was a hugely successful, and very long lived ‘palace economy’, which reminds us how successful a ‘barbarian’ empire can be. And finally I look at China, which threatens to derail all my theories because here is a society that invented money almost as early as Greece did, that used money throughout, which had huge markets, but which nevertheless never allowed money to dictate its economics and thus never became a market economy. It was dominated by palaces, ruled from the palaces, and the concept of democracy remained, and still remains resolutely forbidden.

I then look at the advent of money, and the civilisation of Greece and Rome.  Money was first used in Greece towards the end of the 6th century BC, and the advent of money was accompanied by a range of changes. There was a major change in the arts, and in its philosophies, and we see the first writing of real history. The most interesting of all these changes was a revolution in politics. A totally new form of rule was introduced, which they called democracy. Nothing like this had ever been seen before – the whole idea was anathema to the palace rulers.  But at the very end of the 6th c century BC, democracy was invented in Athens. Now democracy is a very slippery term, and having been invented, it never really worked. Athens was defeated by Sparta and the great explosion of Greek ideas and of Greek culture came with Alexander the Great, a Macedonian monarch who conquered the Persian Empire and established new cities that contained not only palaces but also market places – bastard organisations, but successful organisations.

But the greatest success of Greece was Rome.  The Romans have a bad press; they were imperialists and colonists and what is more they were very successful ones, thus in modern scholarship they are often disparaged.  They are seen purely as soldiers who produced a militaristic civilisation even though their main achievement was peace and prosperity. We need to ere-evaluate the Romans and see how their society really worked and how they achieved such a major success in building up a very cohesive empire. I consider this in three sections: firstly their rise and how they built up their civilisation not so much by conquest, but rather that the people once conquered soon succumbed to the Roman state structure and became Romans.  We then need to look at the figure of Augustus who turned a rather chaotic Roman republic where democracy was clearly failing into a highly successful empire which nevertheless combined many of the virtues of local choice.  And finally we look at the decline and fall of Rome and see how Rome lost the characteristics which make up civilisation and declined into a very dark Dark Age.

The story I tell is an important one. An equally important story could be told of the rise of our own civilisation and the epic of the Industrial Revolution.  Yet this is a story that is still in progress.  The advantage of studying the five societies that I am presenting to you is that we can see the beginnings, the middle and the end.  I try to explain how these societies worked, how they grew and why they failed.  I believe that today we are facing many of the same problems.  I think we over-estimate the concept of democracy and dangerously under estimate the role of the market economy and we do not realise that democracy cannot successfully exist except with the underpinning of the market.   One cannot impose democracy on a society unless the market economy already exists, unless the concept of choice is already established; and choice means admitting that other people’s tastes may differ from yours and are equally as valid.  Civilisation means that other people should be encouraged to have different ideas and that you cherish the stimulus and challenge of having alternative ideas. This is the basis of civilisation.



We begin by travelling to the Trobriand Islands in the South Pacific to see how primitive economics really work. 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