What is Civilisation?


Self portrait in gardenWhat is civilisation? This is a question that the BBC has twice tried to answer and has twice failed. It is time for another attempt. My answer is that civilisation is essentially wound up with freedom; it denotes a society where individuals are free to have their own thoughts, to live their own life and ‘do their own thing’.

I believe that this sort of society began with the civilisations of Greece and Rome, and this is what this book is all about. Here I am going to look at Greece and Rome, and argue that they were different to the societies that came before, and I compare them with three earlier societies.

These were ‘palace’ societies, ruled over by a single ruler who demanded the allegiance of all his people: they were in effect totalitarian societies. They could be very efficient (Egypt built the pyramids) and probably they could often have been quite good places to live, — provided you didn’t want to think too much for yourself. The big change came with Greece, where the idea of freedom, and the even more subversive idea of democracy,  began to creep in.

I  begin with the Minoans, who are the best example of such a Palace society. I then move on to the Egyptians,  the greatest of all the ancient societies, often extremely efficient,  and very long lived – they continued in one form or another for 3000 years. And then for something completely different, I look at China, another very successful, very long-lived society – indeed I explain why modern China is in many ways the successor state to ancient China.

And then I come to Greece and Rome,  two  great civilisations that are largely misunderstood. Rome in particular is often thought to be a nasty brutal militaristic state, whereas in reality it brought a freer form of society to much of the known world,  a society based around the  forum or marketplace. True, Rome eventually became an Empire and a successful one too, but I look in some detail at the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.  Is our own great civilisation today heading for its own decline and fall?


All history is written from a particular point: but here is a new and, I hope, persuasive view of history.  If you are curious,  there is more about civilisation here, while I confess my own particular biases here.  Otherwise plunge into the introduction with a quick visit to the Trobriand islands in the South Pacific, to learn how a primitive economy works – without money.

Good reading!


Either: On to the Trobriand Islands 

Or go straight to:

The Minoans, Egypt, China

Greece, Rome


Contents page

19th July 2018