Intro mid 2014 Barb


What is barbarism? And even more important, what is civilisation?

The traditional account of civilisation takes the literal meaning that it means living in cities, and thus the rise of civilisation is pushed back to the third or fourth millennium BC when the first cities were established in the Near East. However that is not the way the word is normally used – indeed since Roman times the most civilised form of living, is living in the countryside, far away from the cares and bustle of the city.

Surely the main way we talk of civilisation today is that civilisation means the freedom to ‘do your own thing’; to live in an open society where one can do your own thing, happy to be in a minority, but taking care not interfere with other people in doing their own thing. It is the sort of society that we enjoy here in the West and it is the opposite of barbarism, by which we normally tend to mean the former Soviet Union, living in a totalitarian state where the state tries to control every act and every thought.

I therefore define civilisation in terms of freedom: a civilised society is one that allows a considerable degree of personal freedom that enables its citizens to ‘do their own thing’. I look therefore at economics, and see how societies work: is the state the all encompassing provider; are you able to earn one’s own substance and follow one’s own choices? And what difference does money make in this? What is the role of money?

This essay pursues two parallel paths. First we look at society and how it is organised: I looked at the classic anthropological distinctions between kinship societies and the more modern ‘open’ societies and ask as an archaeologist whether we can distinguish these different forms of society on the ground. And then I look at economics, and see how pre-money societies work and explore whether the advent of money brings about a different, more open form of society.

We begin therefore by looking at some of the primitive pre-market societies and see how they work. I then look at some of the greater pre-market societies, Egypt and Minoan Crete to see how they worked without money. And then we move on to Greece and Rome, the first money/market societies and see how they worked and whether there is any difference between them and their predecessors.

I end with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and the descent into the ‘Dark’ Ages, from which emerged the ‘Middle’ Ages – ages that were in the middle between barbarism and civilisation, between the partial use of money in a basically feudal society. Eventually the modern world emerges, but we can best understand this emergence if we look at the great classical civilisations.

I see history in the terms of three revolutions: the Neolithic revolution when man tuned from being a hunter and gatherer to being a farmer – a revolution that is now increasingly well understood, though disputed in many details. At the other end is the Industrial Revolution in which we are still living. But in between is the money/market revolution of the Greeks and the Romans. This is hardly recognised at all as being a revolution, but here I wish to bring it to light and expound the meanings and implications of this most important of all revolutions.

These webpages are an introduction to the story, a book that is in process of being written. New chapters are constantly being added, and existing ones are constantly being updated. It is proving to be an interesting, albeit controversial enquiry, and I believe that in the course of it, I ask important questions and I am finding interesting answers – answers which do not always agree with my preconceptions. Whether you believe in my theories is unimportant: the enquiry in itself is worth pursuing. This is history for the 21st century. Read on!


Andrew Selkirk

Editor-in-chief, Current Archaeology and Current World Archaeology

Let us start by seeing how primitive societies work

Alternatively jump to the end and start by reading my conclusions.

Or even jump to my ‘confessions’ to find out who I am and how I came to the philosophies that underlie this book.

13th January, 2013, revised 5th May 2014