One civilization, or many?

Now here’s a question – what exactly is a civilization? This is a harder question than you might think, and I’ve tackled it before, both in a blog post and an encyclopedia article. However, my answers there do not take into account a further question I sometimes mull.

Look at this map of Europe in 500 BC.

You can see this map in its broader historical context by going to our sequence of maps which track the history of Europe from 3500 BC to AD 2005.

You can see that, on Europe’s southern flank in the mid-first millennium BC, there were at least three civilizations – the Greek, Etruscan and Carthaginian. If you were to delve deeper (warning: promo plug coming up – subscribe to our TimeMaps Premium and you’ll see a map sequence which covers the history of Europe from 500 BC to 500 AD in greater depth than in our free maps) you’d see other civilizations coming into focus in the Mediterranean region, including the Phoenicians (who brought us the alphabet) and Lydians (who invented coinage).

Lots of different civilizations, therefore – but were they really? Might it not be better to see them all as part of a single civilization? Didn’t the Phoenicians stand in a similar relationship to the Greeks, say, as the original Aryan culture of the Ganges Valley did to the rest of the Indian subcontinent? Or the early Shang dynasty society of the Yellow River Valley to the rest of Chinese civilization?

The point is that the Phoenicians spread the arts of Middle Eastern civilization around the Mediterranean in the early first millennium BC, and in so doing planted seeds which grew into several brilliant urban cultures. And eventually all of these – the whole Mediterranean world, in fact – were brought under the control of yet another urban society, that of ancient Rome.

Sometimes, instead of referring to Greek civilization or Roman civilization, historian use the label Graeco-Roman civilization to include both. This is surely a better identification of the relationship between them, as Roman culture was so indebted to Greek. But in fact this label doesn’t really cover it, to my mind. It should more accurately be called (wait for it) the Phoenician-Lydian-Greek-Etruscan-Carthaginian (yes, I know that this is an offshoot of the Phoenicians)-Italic-Roman civilization! Since this is a bit of a mouthful, perhaps the “Classical Mediterranean” civilization will do.

Actually, maybe we should borrow a phrase from  the historians of Pre-Columbian South America and their predecessors by applying the label “Classical Mediterranean” Horizon to this phenomenon.

Anyhow, you get my drift? Was this a single civilization, or multiple civilizations? This is where the whole concept of a “civilization” begins to fray at the edges.

By Peter Britton