The origins of Western Civilization
Where are the origins of Western civilisation? The answer is easy: in Greece and Rome. But why are the Greeks and Romans so important, and how did they differ from the other great empires that came before them? Greece and Rome introduced something new, a new way of thinking, a new way of living, a way that was very different from the societies that had gone before. And they produced new ideas of freedom and democracy, ideas which still resonate and indeed occupy us today.
Before Greece and Rome, the large empires had been based on palaces where there was a single ruler, to whom the populace rendered their goods and their labour, and from whom gifts were sometimes given out. Greece and Rome mark a new form of society, in that their cities were based not around a palace but around the market place where goods could be exchanged. The economy was liberated from the dominance of the palace and the spirit was liberated too. We get new forms of literature: history in the modern sense comes to life. Previously the task of the chronicler was to hymn the deeds of the ruler; now the historian could set out to give an account of the past as it really was – or at least as how he saw it. There was a new form of philosophy in which philosophy to some extent replaced religion in trying to explain how the world worked and how man should live in it. There were new forms of art and new types of art as well. And above all, largely un-noted, but the most important of all, there were new economics.
Today the study of the Greeks and Romans has become rather jejune and insipid as it fails to understand the new economic era. Here I wish to present a new account. I am an archaeologist and I have spent my life writing about archaeology – and doing a lot of archaeology when I was younger. Here I want to look at the Greeks and Romans from an archaeological point of view. Historians study what men said: the archaeologist studies what men actually did. I wish to look at the form of Greek and Roman towns and societies; and to see how it differed from the structure of the society of the earlier empires.
But I also wish to present a new approach to the economics of the past. Having originally studied Classics, I then became a chartered accountant and ran my own business, and I approach the past not only as a classicist and an archaeologist but also as a businessman. The Greeks and Romans invented money and were the world’s first market economies and this meant that the whole structure of their society was different from that of the empires that preceded them.
In these pages we will explore the secrets of Greece and Rome and the palace societies that preceded them, and ask how they succeeded and how they failed. And we shall explore the meaning of those two very slippery words, freedom and democracy, concepts which were first invented in Greece and Rome. They were concepts that on the whole saw more failures than success, but we can begin to observe their successes and also, perhaps more importantly, their failures, and ponder their meanings and problems in the world today.
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
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