What is civilisation?


Andrew Selkirk What is civilisation? Or more specifically, what is ancient civilisation? If we are to understand the world today, we need to try to understand the world in the past. We need to find out how words like freedom and democracy first came into existence. We need to find out how they worked – and how they didn’t work,  how some societies succeed, and why others fail.  And how those that succeed,  rise and fall – and how they rise and why they fall.

 The problems of ancient civilisations tend to revolve around the societies of Greece and Rome. But there are other societies too,  in their ways equally successful – but different. In this book therefore, I look not just at Greece and Rome,  but at other societies too,  to see how they work – and how they differ.  I have therefore chosen three of these early societies, Egypt, China and the Minoans, which I call Palace societies and I then compare them with Greece and Rome which I call the market-based societies.

I am essentially an archaeologist, so I begin by analysing the cities, looking at the architecture: how far does this reveal how were they ruled and how they worked?  I began by looking at the Minoans, a prime example of a palace-based society.  I then move on to Egypt, more based around temples,  and I found a society which was very successful and very long lived. And then for something completely different, I decided to investigate China.  This was a bit of a shock and threatened to derail many of my ideas, but here again is a very long lived empire which began in 220 BC when six warring states were moulded into one, which still continues as a palace based empire,  ruled over by an emperor, who in theory at any rate changes every ten years.  The story continues.

Then we come to the second half of the story, Greece and Rome.  These are very different societies in that their central place was the market place: the agora in Greece or the forum in Rome.  This difference in architecture marks a very different form of society. Here we look at very different ideas, notably ideas of freedom and democracy.  Today democracy is a much used word, but does it really work?  Democracy was invented in Greece, and was tried, on and off, but it never worked for very long: but it was accompanied by immense changes in politics and the arts, in philosophy and the writing of history, and it is these changes that are perhaps more important than democracy.   

Then we come to Rome, one of the most successful empires the world has ever seen – but one of the most mysterious. It grew slowly – but having won its wars, its big success was in winning the peace afterwards. But having grown into a big empire, the system crashed and it went from being a rather chaotic and sort-of democratic republic into being a very successful empire. These are important questions to ask and difficult ones to answer. But if the rise of Rome is important, its decline and fall in many ways is equally important.

My theme begins with archaeology and the investigation of the archaeological layout of towns, looking at palaces, temples and then market places.  But the theme then turns to the broader aspects of society.  The palace societies may have been totalitarian but they were often very successful.  The Egyptians built the pyramids,  and in what we call the Middle Ages the Chinese society was far in advance of our society here in the West.  What price democracy? And in what way is a society that is based around the market place superior?

I hope that if you are starting off on your exploration of the past, you will enjoy my account and find it a sound foundation for the study of the past.  And if you are already well versed in the study of the past I hope you find my views stimulating and coherent, and that you will be challenged, and will ask yourself anew how the ancient empires worked, and why Greece and Rome are different.


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1st August 2019