What is a civilization? What is civilization itself? What does it mean to be civilized? How can you tell whether or not a people are civilized?

These questions might perhaps be more the bread and butter of the archaeologist, anthropologist, and sociologist. However, it is certainly one that the Classicist should not ignore. Having briefly looked at early civilizations in my first years of senior school and realising their sophistication and our debt to them, it is a question I often pondered as more and more achievements of the ancient world appeared on my radar as I dived happily into the world of Classics after starting Latin in year 9, beginning Greek in sixth form, and, well, making a happy academic home in the Classical world. What was this term modern? And if we are so advanced and well, ‘civilized’, how come I kept finding ancient origins for so many so-called modern theories, wondered my teenage self.

I remember being set an essay on this for History in year 7, my first year at senior school. I cannot really remember what I wrote, but I do seem to remember it ended up being more of a ‘things we should be asking’ spiel rather than a positive account of what constituted the criteria by which to judge whether a people were civilized or not. It was not exactly what my teacher was looking for, but she wrote in red that I had made some interesting points.

Now, ah…er…few years down the line, I am still not sure I know what ‘being civilized’ means. What I am sure of is that in the last three millennia have seen the notion of civilization being used in a highly subjective manner negatively to define and malign another people or nation. The Greek term βαρβαρος, although originally a term simply for non-Greek speakers, became a pejorative term for the slavish peoples who lived under absolute rulers, without freedom, largely aimed at eastern peoples, fuelled undoubtedly by the Persian Wars. The Romans, proud in their sense of their own civilized mores, had their own terms for the races whose practices they looked down on, also borrowing the Greek term, which became a general term for hostile peoples, such as the Gauls, Germanic tribes, and the Britons.

And we still do it. ‘Barbaric’ is now a highly critical term, usually used of another people’s practice that seems alien, shocking, and at variance with our own practices. Essentially, we are saying those who find such a practice acceptable are ‘uncivilized’. It is entirely subjective. Moreover, our own revulsion at a particular practice, justified or not, is no grounds for condemning an entire people.

In order to investigate these questions I have posed about civilization, we need to forget subjective human insults, judgement, and labels, and look more at how civilizations came to be classified as such in the first place. When studying this at school, we learnt that writing was seen as an important criterion. Why? I would imagine for a number of reasons: writing suggests the advanced development of a community, arising from the need for more efficient communication and perhaps also for permanent records.

Can we go even further back? Is writing simply an early, tangible (and advanced) sign of civilization, whereas in reality civilization began earlier?

Language and speech certainly predate writing and are an essential part of our natural social character, Aristotle’s πολιτικον ζῶον.

Is writing, therefore, simply evidence of the human ability to create and even need for civilization? Have we become too fixated on infrastructure, culture, and economy, which may be more fairly characterized a symptom or sign of civilization rather than defining what it is to be civilized per se.

In the introduction to his fabulous volume ‘Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World’, Philip Matyszak lists the following features of a civilization:

  • · A large-scale society

  • · Hierarchical organization (or perhaps, specialist organizations)

  • · Rulers

  • · Decent infrastructure (roads and sewers for example)

  • · Taxation

  • · Social order

  • · Technology (especially weaponry)

The list is drawn very much from early civilizations such as the Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians.

Another list taken from Gordon V. Childe the archaeologist is similar:

(What Are the 10 Criteria of a Civilization? (

  • · foreign trade

  • · increased settlement size

  • · writing

  • · political organization based on residence rather than kinship

  • · class-stratified society

  • · representational art

  • · full-time specialists in non-subsistence activities

  • · knowledge of science and engineering

  • · large-scale public works

  • · concentration of wealth

I would agree that these can be fairly classed as recurring signs that we may see in organisations we consider to be ‘civilized’ or ‘civilizations’. But, at the risk of sounding pedantically Socratic, are we any further forward with understanding what it means ‘to be civilized’ or where our need to create civilizations originates? Not really.

I would like to suggest that civilization arises as follows:

  • · our need for mutual protection, benefit

  • · our need for common rules or values to guard the newly formed community

  • · the existence of that community for the betterment and protection of people's lives

  • · the consequent need to maintain these standards

From these come the developed societies with their tools, striving to fulfil and maintain those final two bullet points, namely the achievement of improved living standards and protection levels, and finally their preservation.

An interesting quotation for Polybius certainly gave me food for thought on this topic:

“Suppose that from the survivors, as from seeds, the race of man to have again multiplied. In that case I presume they would, like the animals, herd together; for it is but reasonable to suppose that bodily weakness would induce them to seek those of their own kind to herd with. And in that case too, as with the animals, he who was superior to the rest in strength of body or courage of soul would lead and rule them. For what we see happen in the case of animals that are without the faculty of reason, such as bulls, goats, and cocks, — among whom there can be no dispute that the strongest take the lead, —that we must regard as in the truest sense the teaching of nature. Originally then it is probable that the condition of life among men was this, — herding together like animals and following the strongest and bravest as leaders. The limit of this authority would be physical strength, and the name we should give it would be despotism. But as soon as the idea of family ties and social relation has arisen amongst such agglomerations of men, then is born also the idea of kingship, and then for the mankind conceives the first notions of goodness and justice and their reverse.”

Polybius is here describing the formation of societies and then moves on to the cycle of politieiai. But what he says here about how societies begin, I think offers some interesting ideas about where civilization comes from.

  • · Humans seek out their own kind to find strength in numbers.

  • · Seeking protection, they support the strongest of the group.

Already we have an early community.

  • · Strength as a criterion for choosing leaders gives way to goodness and justice.

  • · Social relations are responsible for this change in what people value in a leader.

Now, it is not so much about the specific values Polybius mentions, but the consolidation and strengthening of a social ties through a common purpose. I am not saying I am right, but I think the idea of looking at what binds a civilization, a more social view of what it is to be civilized, is a perfectly valid way of unpicking and thinking about the concept of civilization.

There is no single way of answering the above questions that form the subtitle to this piece. Have a think. What other criteria can you think of?

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