What is Civilisation?


Self portrait in gardenWhat is civilisation? The BBC has twice asked his question and has twice failed to give an answer.  So let me give you the secret. Let me start by saying that civilisation is the opposite of totalitarianism. It means talking about freedom and democracy, and the ability to ‘do your own thing’. This in turn depends on economics, for freedom depends on choice. At its lowest level, it is the choice of what to buy, what to eat, how to live. And this choice depends on one thing: money.

In a primitive society, distribution depends not on barter but on gift exchange: you pay tribute to the ruler, and the ruler (sometimes) allocates ‘gifts’ to you. Money makes much more extensive choice possible, and this more extensive choice is the basis of civilisation.  When an artist has freedom, he may well produce better art – it will certainly be different art.  Money was invented by the Greeks and Romans, so the Greeks and Romans first produced a new way of life which can surely be called civilisation, which showed up not only in the everyday things of life, but also produced democracy and also an outpouring of new achievements in art, and history, and philosophy.

So here, in these pages, I look at five societies to see how they worked. First I look at three pre-money societies, based round palaces where the ruler decided how everyone should live and what they should do; and I then compare them with two market based societies which were based around the forum or marketplace: Greece and Rome.

My name is Andrew Selkirk and I have spent my life as the founder, editor and largely the writer of the magazine Current Archaeology. This meant that I have been in two worlds, that of academia for my writing, and that of business for running a magazine. I straddle both.  This has been wonderful but the trouble was that I have written about the past in bits and pieces, from the Palaeolithic one day to the Post-medieval the next; so now in my retirement or semi-retirement, I want to pull it all together. At first I thought I would write a history of the world, but I soon found that would be too big a task, so I have settled down to one of the most important subjects of all, what is civilisation? And combined with this, why are Greece and Rome so important? I look at this from the two very different perspectives of the academic and the businessman.

But essentially I am an archaeologist, which means that I look at remains both on the ground and under the ground.  I analyse cities. I begin by looking at societies where the cities are based round the seats of the rulers – palaces or temples and then contrast these with the towns centred round the marketplace, Greece and Rome.

I chose three ‘Palace societies’,  the Minoans who have the finest palaces of all, then the Egyptians whose history is so well known, and then to China, to see how this very different palace society worked.

I then turn to the market based societies of Greece and Rome. I begin with Athens, and the invention of money and democracy, and then to Sparta, the state that rejected money and democracy, and developed into a militaristic war-machine. And then I look at Rome and see how it became such a successful – and attractive – civilisation, and how it brought the whole of the Mediterranean and Western Europe under its spell. And then I look at the Decline and Fall – in some ways even more important for us to study as we approach the climax of the Industrial Revolution.

All history is written from a particular point: but here is a new and, I hope, persuasive view of history.  If you are curious, and wish to learn more about my own particular philosophy, click here for my ‘Confessions’. 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