The origins of Western Civilization

Self portrait in gardenWhy are Greece and Rome important? Since the Renaissance, the classical civilisations have been seen as the roots of our own western civilisation, but in recent years the very concept of Western civilisation has been under attack. Similarly, the classical civilisations no longer have their old importance. The Romans are seen as colonists and imperialists, and what is worse successful ones too, and their success is often seen as being due to their militarism. It is time to reassess the classical world, and to ask why it is that their civilisation, and ours, are so significant. But what is it that makes the classical civilisations so important, and so different from the great empires that came before them?

We need to start with economics, and here we start with something that was very obvious, which has nevertheless been entirely overlooked. The Greeks invented money or at least they were the first to use money extensively. They were the world’s first market economy, and are thus the forerunners of our own market based Western civilisation. The great advantage of money is that it enhances diversity:  people are enabled to choose how to live their lives – how they are going spend their money, on food, clothes, work or on leisure. This spills over into the political field: people are no longer willing to be ruled by a single person and the idea of democracy is born, even if only fitfully at first. It spills over too into the field of art and literature and history: no longer is history the recordings of the victories of the rulers – it now becomes an attempt to record the history of the whole nation.

In exploring these changes, I begin as an archaeologist. I begin by looking at the remains on the ground and the shape and structure of ancient cities. Before money, the whole economy was different and the great empires were all palace economies, based round a palace dominated by a single ruler. Greece and Rome introduced an entirely new form of city, a city based round the forum or market place – agora in Greek – and ruled not by a single ruler in his palace, but by “the people”. They were democracies, or tried to be. Democracy is an exciting idea, which sometimes works but often fails, yet these ideas are the basis of our modern Western civilisation. And if you want to know what civilisation means, you must begin with Greece and Rome.

My book falls into two halves, contrasting the pre-money empires with the money/market societies of Greece and Rome. I begin by studying three of the most important ancient societies, or Palace economies as I call them; the Minoans in Crete, then the Egyptians, and finally China. In the second half of my book I then go to Greece and Rome and analyse their cities and societies and see how the new forces unleashed by the new economic basis transformed our ideas. And in conclusion I look at their decline and fall, and wonder whether our own Western civilisation is sowing the seeds of its own decline and fall.

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

On to the Trobriand Islands

Or go straight to:

The Minoans, Egypt, China

Greece, Rome


Contents page

30th September 2017