What does civilisation mean?


What is civilisation? The trouble is, the term civilisation implies a value judgement. It is always implicitly opposed to barbarism, so we must be prepared to distinguish between the two.

So what is civilisation? I would like to suggest that in modern usage, it tends to embrace the term ‘freedom’, to be involved in what we call ‘democracy’ — though democracy itself is a very slippery term. It is better perhaps to look at the opposite, which is totalitarianism, a long word which denotes a state where the ruler demands not only control over your body, but over your mind too. And it is this demand for control over your mind that marks the totalitarian state, or barbarism. And it is freedom to think that is the essence of civilisation.

This freedom to think has its origin in economics. In a society ruled by an Emperor or Pharaoh, a Dictator who controls everything, you depend on the ruler for your well-being and for the necessities and luxuries of daily life. You are under the control of the ruler, so you switch off your critical facilities and enthusiastically follow the ruler. You are brain-washed (which in practice can be a not unpleasant form of life).  In economics, this is what is known as the gift exchange society where you pay tribute to the ruler, and the ruler in return gives you the essential luxuries of life as ‘gifts’.

But once you get control of your everyday economics, you move into a different form of society which we call civilisation, where you have control of what you buy and how you live –and what you think. Economically, this new form of choice depends on money. The essence of money is that it gives you choice, and when you have choice in your everyday life, and you live in a market economy, this brings about a new way of living which we call civilisation.

As an archaeologist I believe we can follow this advent of civilisation by analysing architecture. We need to look at cities to see how they are laid out. On the one hand there is the Palace society, where the ruler lives in a Palace, or sometimes as a priest-king in a Temple. These palaces are not just living places or ceremonial centres, they are often the economic basis, surrounded by store houses where the goods rendered to the ruler as tribute are stored, and from whence they are distributed by the ruler to the grateful population.

In market economies, the situation is different. The advent of money is of course important, though not vital: in China money was used at an early date, but it still remained (and remains) a palace society, ruled over by the emperor. More important is the architecture, where the most important place in the town becomes the market place, or forum, where goods, and ideas, are exchanged: the palace society is replaced by the market society.

This advent of the market economy is one of the big events in the world’s history.  World history is often centred round two revolutions:  the Neolithic or agricultural revolution, when man ceased to be a hunter gatherer and became a farmer or shepherd and soon settled down in the first cities which are often considered to be to mark of civilisation; though  life led in these early cities  is not the sort of life that we would call civilised. And then at the other extreme, there is the Industrial Revolution, of which we are still living in the latter stages. I believe that in between them there is a third equally important revolution, the revolution of civilisation, when people began to think for themselves, and ideas such as freedom and democracy began to make their appearance, even if somewhat tentatively at first.

In these pages, I am going to study this ‘Middle revolution’ by comparing three of the great early Palace societies with the two early market societies of Greece and Rome. For my Palace societies, I begin with the Minoans, who offer the best example of a society dominated by palaces. I then move on to Egypt, the greatest and most long-lived of all these ancient societies,  dominated at first by the pyramids and then by temples, but ruled always by one man (occasionally woman)  the Pharaoh. Egypt provides a fascinating example of just how efficient these Palace societies could be.

And then I turn to China, which rivals Egypt in its achievements and long life, going from its unification from five warring States into a single state that still exists and I look at how modern China is in many ways a continuance of  Chinese tradition.

And then I turn to Greece and Rome. I believe that Greece and Rome are today totally misinterpreted  and the new form of society that they represent is misunderstood. Rome in particular is written off as being merely a militaristic state where really we should see it as the culmination of the ideas of freedom and democracy propounded by the Greeks. Of course, Rome became an Empire and an extremely successful one, but we follow it through to its decline and fall. There are lessons here for our own society. We tend to think that our own civilisation is immortal: we should study the decline and fall of the Roman empire very carefully.


For further reading, here is a longer chapter on the various different interpretations of civilisation – the American, the British, the classical, Arnold Toynbee,  and the BBC interpretations.

Or realise that all history is biased, so read my own ‘Confessions‘ of my bias;

Or start the main text, and go to the the Trobriand islands to find out how primitive economics worked