What was the secret of Greece and Rome? Whenever I hear that someone is writing a new history of the world, or revealing a new ‘secret’, the first thing want to know is, what is their angle?  So let me confess straight away I am approaching this from a new economic, one might almost say a new political angle.  I am asking the big question, why were Greece and Rome so different from the great empires that came before?  My answer is that they were market economies, they were societies based round the forum, or marketplace, the agora in the case of Greece.  The great empires that came before them were palace empires based round palaces. And I am contrasting the early palace-based societies with the early market-based societies.

The palace empires were centrally organised, both politically and economically, based round a single ruler who organised the lives of their people. The market based societies were based around the market place where the citizens could decide for themselves what to buy, and what to sell. I believe this is the essence of civilisation: I deal with matters of freedom and that very slippery word democracy.  It is a new history of the world and a new consideration of what civilisation means.

We need to begin by rethinking our economics.  It is a common belief that before money, exchange of goods was done by barter.  In fact barter was rare and the study of anthropology has shown that the primitive world, if I may use that term, was based on what is somewhat unhappily called ‘gift exchange’.  During the First World War the Polish anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski began doing field work in the Western Pacific in the Trobriand Islands and worked out how their economy worked prior to the introduction of western ideas.  The system was complex and I begin with a brief look at the working of economics in the Trobriand Islands, and the working of ‘gift exchange’ and the Kula Ring where ritual objects were passed from chief to chief as ‘gifts’.  This sets the scene for the more complicated economics of the palace economies.

My book is in two halves: the first half deals with three ‘palace societies’, the second part deals with the two market economies of Greece and Rome.  To look at the palace economies I have chosen three examples: the Minoans, Egypt and China.  I begin with the Minoans who although they are one of the less known of the great empires, nevertheless offer the best example of a palace economy.  In Minoan Crete there were no less than four known palaces, the biggest at Knossos, the southern palace at Phaistos and the two lesser ones at Malia and Zakro.  Here we can see the palaces at work with the great central courtyard and to one side the rows of magazines where olive oil, the riches of the palace economy, were stored,  while to the other side were the workshops where the bronze workers and other artisans prepared the valuable jewellery with which the ruler rewarded his followers.  The genius of Sir Arthur Evans, the excavator of Knossos and the discoverer of and propagandist for the Minoans, has given us a wonderful insight into the workings of the Minoan empire, and even if some of his vision may perhaps have been slightly exaggerated, the palace at Knossos remains the most complete of all the great ancient palaces.

The other big advantage of the Minoans is that their language, Minoan Linear B, has now been deciphered and provides a wonderful insight into how a palace society actually worked with all its bureaucracy. People sometimes regret that the tablets do not contain literature, but they record how the economy actually worked – the number of sheep owned by the ruler, the wool being allocated to the weavers and the blankets then being rendered back to the central stores. This is the best example of a ‘gift’ or rather tribute economy.


The second great palace empire to be considered is Egypt.  We sometimes forget just how impressive a building the Great Pyramid is.  At 480 ft or 146 metres high, it was the tallest building in the world until in 1311 AD a wooden spire was erected on top of the central tower of Lincoln Cathedral, which just exceeded it in height.  The wooden spire blew down 200 years later: the Great Pyramid still stands.  The Romans for all their prowess never built anything nearly so tall.  The Mayan pyramids were only half as high.  How did they do it?  The Great Pyramid reminds us that these palace economies which we tend to disparage, could nevertheless work very effectively and very efficiently even if, for what seems to us to be a rather pointless purpose.

Egypt presents from my point of view a rather difficult problem.  For one thing it is not very good on palaces.  True there is one very good example of a palace: that at Amarna built from scratch by the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, and abandoned after his death.  It is a splendid, if only half built, example of a palace and its accompanying town.  Instead Egypt has a magnificent collection of tombs and temples.  Many temples were built by the pharaohs, but they often took on a life of their own, and became virtually tax free, similar in many ways to the monasteries in England, and thus the temples provide a parallel example of how the Egyptian economy worked, for they became in effect a second form of economy in Egypt.

The other very interesting aspect of ancient Egypt was its longevity.  From the beginning of the First Dynasty around 3,000 BC it remained one of the world’s great empires for 2,000 years and then retained its distinctive way of life for a further millennium and a half, when it came under the rule of the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans.  And it was only with the invasion of Islam that it was finally snuffed out.

There are two big lessons to be learnt from the study of Egypt: In my definition there is the implication that palace economies were inferior, and yes, so they were by our own definition: they lacked democracy, they lacked freedom but they could be extremely efficient – they build the pyramids and I suspect (I do not know) that there was an enormous exhilaration throughout the whole of Egyptian society when the last building block was placed in position on top of the Great Pyramid.  It was also very long lived: our own western civilisation has only last for 200 or perhaps 500 years depending on how you define it.  Indeed if you define democracy in the strict sense it has barely lasted a century anywhere.  The Egyptian phenomenon lasted three and a half millennia.


For the third of the great civilisations I have chosen to study China. I was tempted to do Mesopotamia, a civilisation that is older than Egypt, but does not have such a good historical record.  It is tempting to look at the Maya in Central America, an essentially Neolithic civilisation, lacking bronze and iron, lacking the wheel and the horse but nevertheless with magnificent pyramids and some interesting examples of palaces.  But instead I decided to do China which is very well documented from the first millennium onwards.  It also challenges one of my principal beliefs that the market economy is based on the discovery and use of money, for money was invented and used in China from virtually the same time that it was first used in Greece.  But China and Greece went in different directions.  In Greece the idea of rule by one man became unfashionable and Greece, at least Athens, flirted with democracy not always very successfully.  China however became the archetypal palace economy based on an all powerful emperor. And in Beijing, the Forbidden City is one of the most splendid examples of a royal palace.

Following its unification on 220 BC, China went through a number of dynasties separated by periods of disunity, but it always bounced back. Consequently its history is very different from our history in the west:  whereas we are accustomed to see the decline and fall of the Roman Empire being followed by the Dark Ages, to be followed by the long Middle Ages, until eventually there was a Renaissance, in China the dark ages were always short and the Chinese Empire always bounced back bigger and better than before.  Even today it can be argued that that pattern has continued and that after the trauma of Mao tse Tung, the Chinese Empire has bounced back under a new series of emperors whose reign is limited to ten years before a new emperor emerges from an all-powerful committee.

How did they do it?  I spend some time examining the different dynasties and the gaps between them, and came to focus on the alternation between the Confucianism and Buddhism. The major dynasties were dominated by Confucianism and its emphasis on the cultivated scholar, but when the dynasties declined, Buddhism came to the fore; and Buddhism is a much more pliable and accommodating religion than Christianity and Islam in the west, and thus Confucianism and indeed the traditional Chinese Daoist religion survived,  and when a new dynasty arose,  Confucianism, with its great tradition of scholarship, arose once again to provide the scholars and administrators on which the Chinese empire depended.


The Market economies: Greece

In the second half of my book I come to the two great market economies of the past, Greece and Rome, showing how different they are to what came before and the interesting similarities they present to the modern world.  They are societies centred round the marketplace, the agora in Athens and the forum in the Roman world.  I look at their history and their politics and in particular at their economics and show how their new economic basis produced a new form of society.

Here, new words and new concepts come to the fore, particularly the words freedom and democracy. What do we mean by freedom? And what do we mean by democracy? How far do these concepts depend on the underlying economics of the marketplace? The big discovery of this new world is the hidden secret of Greece: money. Money is widely misunderstood. Money is usually defined as being a store of value, or a means of exchange, but the great secret of money is that money gives you choice.  In the previous great empires, you relied for your luxuries, indeed for many of the necessities of life, on the distributions make by the ruler – the emperor, the pharaoh or whoever was your superior. Money brings you choice and choice of what to buy, what to eat, where to live, and how to work. Choice is like the genie, which once it is out of the bottle, is hard to put back.

Choice does not just exist in the ordinary necessities of life; it also spreads more widely.  It brings new forms of art, with bodies twisting and turning; drama is invented and the theatre makes its appearance. Philosophers proliferate,  and , best of all to my taste, history in the form that we know it makes its appearance, seeking to tell the past as it really was, rather than writing propaganda to please the rulers. And most exciting of all, once people have economic choice, they want political choice; they want to make the big political decisions, to ask how they should be ruled and how the community should make the big decisions. The idea of democracy was born,   as people want more choice in every aspect of their lives.

The story of Greece is best told by the story of its two leading towns, Athens and Sparta. These are almost perfectly opposed from our point of view, for one adopted money and the other ostentatiously rejected it. Athens adopted money, and my account begins by going down into the market place or agora, the equivalent of the Roman forum, which was not only a place where goods were bought and sold, but also the place of government. We visit the Council chamber where the Council of 500 met, all chosen by lot, and we look at the law courts, the weights and measures office and the fountains. This was the place where democracy was adopted, and I describe just how democracy worked – the main feature being that they did not elect people but chose them by lot.

We then look at the other aspects of Athens, the theatre where drama was invented, and we explore how the theatre actually worked. We go down to the workshops where the black-figure and red-figures vases were produced, and then we climb the Acropolis, the hill that crowns Athens, and visit the Parthenon, the greatest of all Greek temples and one of the supreme examples of human endeavour. (This reverses the usual way of writing about Athens, which starts with the Acropolis, and often forgets to mention the marketplace)

The other town, Sparta, was different in almost every aspect. Most commentators struggle to explain Sparta, but the answer is simple:  Sparta was the city that deliberately rejected money and it was not until two centuries later that they minted their own coins. This was because Sparta was a city organised for war; two centuries before, they had conquered their neighbours, the Messenians, and turned them into their slaves and lived off their produce.  Sparta became a totalitarian state where the men lived in barracks and the children underwent a state educational system which produced marvellous soldiers but absolutely no culture. As a result they won all their battles but lived in hovels. Ironically, the only temple that has survived is that to Artemis Orthia where ritual floggings took place in order to toughen the boys up. In Roman times it became a popular pastime to watch young boys being flogged and seats were built round the temple like a theatre so that the tourists could watch this very entertaining spectator sport.


Inevitably there were wars.  At the beginning of the 5th century, Athens and Sparta combined to defeat the Persians.  At the end of the 5th century Athens and Sparta went to war with each other and Sparta won and forced Athens to demolish its long walls and give up its empire. Then at the end of the 4rd century was the greatest warrior of all: Alexander the Great.  There was always the question whether Alexander was really Greek because he came from Macedonia, the state to the north which was a kingdom.  However Alexander thought of himself as being a Greek and went off and captured Persia which had been the greatest empire the world had yet seen, stretching over the Middle East as far as India.  Under Alexander and his successors this great empire became at least half Greek, and in many of the great towns that he founded there was both a palace and a market place. A sort of Greek culture spread over the whole area.

But Greece itself remained unstable and perhaps inevitably the Romans stepped in and conquered it. Though after Greece had been conquered, it conquered its conqueror and Greek culture took over Rome. In the Roman Empire, Greece became the great university for the Romans: it is the fate of great cultures in their dotage to become universities.

The Romans


And so we come to the greatest of the entrepreneurs of the ancient world, the Romans.  The Romans did not just succeed in making their capital city one of the marvels of the ancient world, but they set up a system that allowed entrepreneurs to flourish throughout the Empire.  It was not just the towns that grew rich with their marketplaces and their baths, but also the countryside. Lots of private entrepreneurs built themselves villas with central heating, baths and fine gardens. Even the rural settlements flourished, enjoying well-made pottery, living in waterproof houses and dropping lots of money. What then were the secrets that enabled so many entrepreneurs to flourish in the Roman world?


The Romans are a problem. The current view is hopelessly distorted. The trouble is that the Romans were imperialists and colonists — and what is more successful ones, and in the eyes of today’s intelligentsia, this means they are beyond the pale. They are therefore presented as being brutal militarists who acquired their Empire by force and kept it by force. Yet the real picture is very different. The countryside is full of villas which are undefended and the forts and the soldiers are only found on the boundaries of the Empire. The old vision of the Romans as bringing peace and prosperity needs to be reinstated and thus my aim is to rehabilitate the Romans and to explain why the old assessment that they brought peace and prosperity to a large part of the Mediterranean world is correct.


The story of the Romans falls into three parts. Firstly there is the rise, and how it came to be the greatest power in the Mediterranean. Secondly we need to look at Augustus, who took the failing  structure of Republican Rome, and turned it into a very successful Empire  – there is a big underlying discussion here as to the nature of democracy.  And thirdly, there is the decline and fall, something that is very relevant to the world we live in today. We think that our civilisation is immortal, and so did the Romans. But the Roman Empire declined and fell, and gave way to a very dark Dark Age.

The rise of Rome

In discussing the rise of Rome, I like to begin with the Greek historian Polybius, who wrote to explain to his fellow Greeks how Rome attained its pre-eminence, and he remarks that following the invasion of Hannibal, who won all the battles, the remarkable thing was that so many towns remained faithful to Rome. What was the attraction?

I like to look back a century earlier, when Rome was at war with its neighbours, the Latins and the Sabines, but following Rome’s defeat of the Latins in 339 BC, the historian Livy paints a picture of a debate in the Senate when they decided not to crush the towns they had conquered, but to make them allies of Rome with a system of ‘Latin rights’.

There were three ‘rights’ in particular: the commercial right, which meant that they could have free trade with the rest of the Roman world;  the right of migration, that they could migrate within the Roman Empire; and the right of marriage, that they could marry anyone within the Roman Empire.

In practice it was not a single process, but was something that gradually developed, particularly with the establishment of Latin colonies.  But there were two great benefits to their constitutional arrangements. Firstly, they benefitted what I like to call the middle classes. The rulers may not always have approved, but those just below found that rule by Rome was often preferable to the rule of their home-grown rulers. And secondly, perhaps even more important, the Latin rights provided a firm entrepreneurial basis for the economy, and the towns and the countryside flourished.

The Latin Rights form one of the great secrets of Rome’s success.  Rome’s vaunted military ability is over-played. The Romans were good soldiers, certainly, but not outstanding: it was their steadiness and persistence that counted.  And often it was only after a long war that they eventually came out on top.  What was remarkable was that having won a war, they almost always won the subsequent peace, so that what I call the upper middle classes often felt better and more prosperous, and indeed more free under Roman rule than they did under the rule of their own nobility.

The biggest event in the history of early Rome was the invasion of Hannibal, who led a Carthaginian army over the Alps, defeated the Romans in set piece battles, but was never able to capture Rome itself, and many cities allied to Rome remained loyal to Rome, preferring Roman rule to Carthaginian rule. Eventually Hannibal was recalled to Carthage where he was ensnared by politics and eventually, Carthage was conquered and destroyed. Rome found itself in control of most of North Africa and Spain, and steadily its domain grew, sometimes by conquest, as with Greece, but also in the remarkable case of Pergamum, by bequest, where the ruler left his kingdom to the Romans on his death.

History and archaeology differ

In the second and first centuries BC, history and archaeology tell a different story. The historian’s story is one of failure: the Gracchi brothers attempt revolution, and then various successful generals Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Julius Caesar attempt to subvert the constitution and make themselves dictators. However archaeologically, the story is very different, for Rome was enjoying the benefits of the entrepreneurial revolution. The historical account is twisted by a single reference which describes how the firebrand reformer Tiberius Gracchus was travelling through Tuscany and was appalled to see how the countryside was virtually deserted and only inhabited by slaves, and it is assumed that this is because huge factory farms were squeezing out small farmers. Archaeologically, however, it is a different story. Few of these huge factory farms have been found, but instead it is countryside of prosperous middle sized farms. The results of this can be seen in the exports,  particularly the amphorae, huge pottery jars in which wine and other delicacies were exported, sometimes even as far as Britain.  It is clear that in the second and first centuries BC, Rome was flourishing and a new history based on archaeology needs to be written.

The trouble was that the democratic structures that work in a city state did not work so well when that city state began to rule the world. Julius Caesar tried to sort matters out, but was rather too rapid and was assassinated, and was followed after a bitter civil war by Augustus, who in the course of 40 years turned Rome from a republic it into an Empire. It is a fascinating story of slow changes, but one that has been grossly distorted.


Augustus presents a problem.  He was someone who took away democracy and turned the Roman republic, which was nominally democratic, into an empire ruled by one man.  But in doing so he introduced peace and stability that lasted for over 300 years: so what price democracy?

There are two opposing views about Augustus.  The conventional picture of Augustus today is that laid down by Professor Sir Ronald Syme in the 1930s, who saw him as being a proto-Mussolini.  The alternative view argued that Augustus set up a ‘diarchy’, that is a dual rule between himself and the Senate. What actually happened?

When Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, his death was followed by thirteen years of civil war which only ended when Augustus finally defeated his rival Mark Anthony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.  Everyone was exhausted by the civil war and Augustus who was seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’, became the dominant figure, getting himself elected consul every year.  But in 23 BC he played his master stroke, and decided that he would no longer be elected consul but instead he ‘gave Rome back to the senate and people’, and he merely retained the role of tribune of the plebs, which might be interpreted as being the leader of the trades union council, an apparently minor role but which nevertheless gave him the power to veto any legislation he did not approve of.  He also nobly undertook control of the army in all those troublesome border provinces where the bulk of the army was situated, and became merely princeps, the first among equals — or so it was implied.

But he left the senate with substantial powers so that those who wished to have a political career could become a consul and thereafter go out to govern a province, and in this way he ensured a steady stream of solid government for the provinces.  Democracy did indeed survive at the local level; when Pompeii was overwhelmed by Vesuvius in AD 79, an election campaign was in full swing, and down into the third century, election to the town council was considered a great honour in most towns.

So what price democracy?  In our modern theology, we always say that the success of the Western liberal constitution is based on democracy, the market place and the rule of law, of which we consider democracy to be the more important.  Do we not perhaps get our priorities wrong?  Should we not say that democracy cannot flourish unless a market economy and the rule of law are first firmly established?  In the Roman Empire, the forum or market place lay at the centre of every town while the whole concept of the rule of law was a Roman invention.

Democracy however failed.  The trouble is that democracy in the Greek and Roman sense of the word only really works in a single city where every citizen can theoretically vote. But when a town becomes a country, it is physically impossible for all the citizens to come together to vote.  The answer is representative democracy which we now take for granted, but in fact it was something that gradually evolved over 500 years of British development.  The only alternative to representative democracy is some form of one man rule and Augustus made it work, more or less, for the next 200 years. But the real reason for its success was that Rome was firmly based on the market economy and the rule of law. Current dogma believes that if you have democracy first, the market and the rule of law will follow. The Roman experience would suggest that providing you have a market economy and the rule of law, you can get along quite nicely without democracy.

The two centuries that followed were the highlight of the Roman Empire. The first century AD was not altogether smooth, but the second century saw four ‘good’ emperors, each of them adopted by their predecessors, and Rome flourished. The latter part of my book is devoted to what happened next, the sad story of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Decline and fall


It is always tempting when writing a history of the great empires to concentrate on the exciting stories of their rise.  But the story of their fall is in some ways even more important.  Today we are living at the tail end of the greatest revolution the world has ever seen – the Industrial Revolution, and we tend to think that it will go on forever.  It is therefore all the more important to study the decline and fall of the Roman Empire so that we can try to avoid the some of the problems that will lead to our inevitable decline.

The crucial date when Rome crossed the line from civilisation to barbarism came at the end of the third century when Rome was transformed by two great/bad emperors, Diocletian and Constantine. Between them, they transformed Rome into what I would classify as a barbarian state. Diocletian began by holding a census to find out who there was to be taxed, taxes were then increased and changed with the introduction of the annona, a tax paid in kind rather than money, which neatly got round the problem of inflation, but is one of the classic criteria of a barbarian economy. He followed this by tying the peasants to the land so they could not migrate and had to take on the land that their fathers had farmed – and pay the taxes their fathers had paid. This is the classic definition of the serfdom, and is the negation of the Right of Migration, which I have argued was one of the bedrocks of the Roman success. Rome’s farmers now became serfs. The initial results were positive:  Rome perked up, and limped on for a further century.


Diocletian also made an attempt to stop inflation by means of a Price Edict listing over 1000 categories for which a maximum price was fixed. Perhaps not surprisingly, despite the most severe penalties the price edict did not work but for the modern historian, it provides a fascinating insight into the relative prices of goods within the Roman Empire. I have great fun in fixing the prices by coordinating the price of haircuts –2 denarii in the price edict, £10 today, from which I deduce the price of wine – and also the cost of a good education.


The perhaps most significantly, the practice of obeisance was introduced. The old-fashioned ‘salutatio’ was replaced by ‘adoratio’ and access to the Emperor was severely restricted, and when he appeared, he was gorgeously dressed with a diadem and everyone had to bow to him. Rome had become barbarian.


He was followed by Constantine, the great ‘CEO’, who got everything sorted out. He ameliorated, or at least bypassed the problem of inflation by going over from a silver coinage to a gold coinage – gold being less easy to debase. He recognised that the Roman Empire was too big for one man to control, so he established a second capital at Constantinople. And, disastrously, he adopted Christianity which he saw as an early form of socialism. It also had the great advantage that he was able to rob the pagan temples of all their gold treasure which he melted down to introduce his new gold currency. As a result of all these reforms, Rome boomed – more or less – for the next hundred years. A firm introduction of bureaucracy and keeping your peasants under your thumb works marvels, at least in the short term.


40 years later we have another Emperor who might have been great – Julian the Apostate who tried to reform the Empire by turning back from Christianity. I compare him to Margaret Thatcher, who also saw that her country was in decline and tried to reverse that decline. Julian cut taxes drastically and paid it for by cutting the bureaucracy:  instead of having 20 barbers to cut his hair, he insisted that he only needed one. But whereas Margaret Thatcher ruled for 10 years and carried through at least some of her reforms, Julian the Apostate died fighting the Persians after only two years as Emperor, and his reforms died with him: Christianity grew in strength.


At the end of the fourth century, we come to the last Emperor to be afforded the title of ‘The Great’. This was Theodosius, who was the last Emperor to rule over the combined Eastern and Western parts of the Roman Empire. More importantly, he also completed the triumph of Christianity by outlawing paganism and destroying the pagan temples. In less than a century Christianity went from being a barely tolerated religion into being the most intolerant religion of all.


Ten years later, Rome fell: Alaric the Goth captured and sacked the ‘Eternal City’. The Empire survived in the east at Constantinople, but what remained of the empire in the west staggered on, ruled mostly from Ravenna, until in 476 Romulus Augustus, the last barely- Roman Emperor, was finally deposed.


Why did Rome fall? The basic problem was that Rome had lost its confidence. The pagan gods had indeed become somewhat decrepit, but they were the gods of Rome, and for what Rome stood for. Christianity was a religion from the East and brought with it a history that was entirely different from that of Rome. If any society loses a belief in its own traditions, decline and fall may be on its way.


On to contents


Andrew Selkirk

23rd of June 2018.