Change and Civilizations

I have written some recent posts on the nature of civilization, and about what it is that makes them “civilizations”, as opposed to “cultures” (my answer was, cities). Today, I want to ask the question, what are the things about one civilization which make it different from another?

We can immediately think of different features: styles in art, architecture and music; different writing scripts; a distinct literature; a particular set of religious beliefs; noteworthy forms of government; special practices – for example, gladiators (Rome), caste (India) and so on. And of course, all civilizations occur at a particular time and place in world history.

For example, you will all know which civilization I am talking about when I mention pyramids, mummies, hieroglyphs and pharaohs. Ancient Egypt, of course.

Nothing I’ve said above, however, is quite as it seems. Taking Ancient Egypt as an example, the Egyptians only built pyramids at one phase of their history. Hieroglyphs were not used in everyday life. Sometimes the land of Ancient Egypt was ruled by foreigners, not native pharaohs. Their religious beliefs changed over time. And yes, they certainly embalmed bodies – but so did many other ancient peoples.

Other civilizations changed much more drastically. The ancient Romans began their history under the rule of kings, before changing to a republic, and then an empire. They spent much of their history as pagans, but later converted to Christianity. In their early days they built Greek-style temples; by the end they were building great domed cathedrals. They even ended up in an entirely different location: starting out in central Italy, the last people who considered themselves “Romans” died defending a city in what is today Turkey.

All civilizations show these sorts of changes, to a lesser or greater extent, and yet, most of us know what is meant when we hear the phrase “Ancient Egyptian civilization” or “Ancient Roman civilization”.

Of course, as historians (professional and amateur), we expect all civilizations to change over time: they grow and spread, their cultures evolve, their political systems change. But what is really interesting (for me, at any rate) is, when one civilization changes into another.

This issue lies behind such questions as: when did the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia come to an end? What exactly happened to the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome? Can the civilization of China be truly regarded as a single, long-enduring civilization, or do the outward continuities mask one or more break-points?

How does a civilization, which over the course of centuries or millennia has been gradually changing, change so drastically that it can no longer be regarded as the same civilization?

In a series of blog posts I’m going to look at this matter with regard to particular civilizations.


By Peter Britton