Civilization – what exactly is it?

In a recent post (Did Ancient Egypt Fall?) I raised the subject of why and how civilizations come to an end. I concluded by saying that I would start an irregular series in this blog about this topic. But before I proceed on a case-by-case basis, there are some general issues which I need to look at first.

In fact, the whole subject raises an awful lot of questions. The first of these is, what exactly defines a particular “civilization”? It’s a question we have to answer before we can tackle the question of what we mean by it coming to an end.

I suppose some of my readers will be asking themselves an even more basic question: what is a civilization? It’s a very good question.

I have had one or two conversations with folk who think the term “civilization” is all but meaningless. They say that all peoples, including hunter-gatherer peoples, have civilizations. But this conflates the term “civilization” with the term “culture”. A society can have a rich and diverse culture – a deep and many-layered oral literature, a highly skilled artistic tradition in textiles or pottery, and so on – and not have a civilization.

I take civilization to mean exactly what the word denotes, with its roots in the Latin word “cives”, “citizen”. A civilization is a city-dwelling society, a society with towns and cities. A society which does not have cities is not a civilization.

The interesting thing is, the Ancient Chinese had exactly the same idea: for them, as for the Greeks and Romans, to live in an urban environment was the only way to be civilized. In fact, I’m pretty certain its a widespread notion, perhaps even universal.

Of course, not everyone has to live in a town or city to make a society “civilized”. Far from it. In fact, in all pre-industrial societies, the vast majority of people lived in villages, farming the land. Nevertheless, a society has to have some cities in it to qualify as a civilization. This is because there are some things about a city which place its people – and the people of the surrounding villages, even far away ones – onto a different cultural level from those who live in societies where cities and their influence is absent.

But…what do we mean by a “city”?

Well, quite simple, really: an urban settlement, where at least several thousand people live together in a dense settlement pattern. For this purpose the words “town” and “city” are interchangeable, as what differentiates a “town” from a “city” is not the same from one society to another.

However, even this simple definition raises questions. In the case of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, a city meant a “city-state”. This was a political community which usually consisted of a walled town and its rural hinterland. The town bit could be quite small, and the rural bit fairly large; but the whole entity formed the city. In some cases, there was barely an urban element in it: even Sparta, one of the most famous Greek city-sates, would have looked to us more like a large village than a town.

Nevertheless, within Greek society as a whole there were many major urban settlements: Athens, Corinth, Syracuse, Ephesus and so on. It was these settlement that set the pace, so far as Greek civilization was concerned (Sparta was noted for warfare, not culture; its “citizens” were admired as soldiers but despised as bores).

In any case, in the majority of Greek city-states, probably the majority of the population lived in or near the central urban settlement; certainly within half a day’s walk of it, if they were to participate in its political life. The Romans were following the Greeks concept of citizenship in their word “cives”, which means an individual who has full political rights within a particular community.

Likewise, the Ancient Chinese city meant something quite specific: also a political entity, a seat of government (in early times, the base for a hereditary lord; later, the residence of an imperial official – hmmm, there’s an interesting future blog post: what does this tell us about the differences between Ancient Greek and Ancient Chinese societies?). These could be tiny, at least originally. But early Chinese civilization probably boasted larger and more numerous cities (in the more modern sense of the word) than Ancient Greece; and even the smallest of these settlements, if it survived and prospered to any extent, would sooner or later have brought a large tract of surrounding countryside under its influence.

It has sometimes been said that Ancient Egypt did not have cities. Not true. Several Egyptian towns go back to before the earliest days of Pharaohnic Egypt; and Memphis and Thebes figure in the list of the largest cities in the world in their day. Similarly, Minoan civilization is sometimes depicted as being centred on palaces, not cities. Again, not true. These palaces stood at the centre of, or next to, large urban settlements; in the case of Knossos, one of the largest cities of the contemporary world.

So – a civilization is a society which has cities and towns as part of the mix. And I don’t mean large villages, even ones with defensive walls; I mean actual, proper towns and cities, with several thousand people in them.

Why cities should have been so important in world history, why such a step forward in human development, is a matter for another day.


By Peter Britton