In the beginning . . .
It’s time for a new history of the world. Every age needs a new history, because every age has its new ideas and new philosophies of how to assemble our story of the past. It is time once again to ask some of the big questions about the story of civilisation. What do we mean by civilisation? And what do we mean by barbarism? Here you will find new answers to these old questions, answers that will prove to be new, exciting, and possibly even controversial.
The Trobriand Islands. We begin with anthropology and with the Trobriand Islands in the Western Pacific where, during the First World War, a Polish anthropologist visited the islands and began finding out just how these primitive but successful people worked and functioned, and he began to uncover the mysteries of ‘gift exchange’.
Egypt. We then look at ancient Egypt, one of the most successful and long lived societies the world has ever seen. But they were ruled over by a pharaoh, and economically they are a prime example of ‘gift exchange': they are a primitive society, albeit a very successful one. They are a good example of our ‘barbarians’.
The Minoans. At the beginning of the 20th century, Sir Arthur Evans discovered the Minoans and their remarkable Palaces. Fifty years later, their language, Minoan Linear B was deciphered: just what does it tell us about the way that this remarkable society worked?
The Bible. At the fringes of the Mediterranean, – between the Desert and the sea, there arose the Jewish religion, the source of three of the world’s great religions. Here I sort them out and give the real story behind the evolution of the Jews and the origins of Christianity.
The Greeks. The big change comes with the Greeks: why are the Greeks so important and what is the secret of their innovation? The answer is money; they invented a new form of exchange based on money, and this enabled a huge leap forward in economic success and brought forth a new type of society, with the invention of democracy and history and the theatre. There was a one big exception, which was:
Sparta. Sparta was different. Sparta was the one Greek state that rejected money and produced an entirely different types of society, tough, militaristic, war-like. They won their battles, but produced no art: why?
The Romans. The Romans succeeded where the Greeks failed, and produced one of the world’s the most civilised civilisations. How do they do it? They were late in discovering how to use money properly, yet they fought Hannibal and won. The Romans have a bad press today, but why was it they were so successful? I unravel their secrets.
Augustus. Augustus is a problem – a very big problem. Augustus was one of the greatest men the world has ever seen. He took the dying Roman Republic and turned it into the Roman Empire which provided one of the most prolonged periods of peace and prosperity that the world has ever seen. And he did it by destroying democracy, by turning himself into the supreme ruler of the Roman world. And yet he was extremely successful: what price democracy? Read all about it, and let your hackles rise.
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In the third century, inflation hit Rome, and inflation destroyed Rome. And yet at the end of the third century, Diocletian turned Rome from being a civilisation into being a barbarism, and that barbarism was a success – for a while. And then Rome fell, and the barbarians took over. Is our own civilisation going the way of Rome?
Rome’s Margaret Thatcher. In the middle of the fourth century, a Roman emperor looked at Rome, saw it was in decline and decided to do something about it. Like Margaret Thatcher he cut taxes. Like Margaret Thatcher cut back the civil service. And like Margaret Thatcher, he turned away from the ruling philosophy. Margaret Thatcher rejected socialism and the Roman emperor rejected Christianity. His name was Julian the Apostate.
And finally. This is essentially my retirement project. I have spent my career as editor of the magazines Current Archaeology and World Archaeology, and as such I have written about archaeological projects round the world. Here I am trying to put them all together in a coherent story. However I have not only been writing the magazines, but also running them, and my point of view therefore is very much that of practical businessman, looking down often somewhat sceptically, on the work of the academics. This is the result: I hope you will enjoy it.
Either: read the Preface
On to the Trobriand Islands
16th March 2014