Although the writing style sometimes tries too hard to be down with the kids, this book really resonates with a lot of issues the world faces today as economic and ecological collapse threaten to end life as we know it.
"The Curse of Akkad," an ancient Babylonian poem tells the fate of one of the earliest empires in Mesopotamia. In this section, it describes the ideal city:
(xviii) The warehouses were well provisioned,
dwellings in the city were well built.
Its people would eat magnificent food,
its people would drink wonderful drinks.
Those who bathed for holidays rejoiced in the courtyards.
The people would crowd the places of celebration,
acquaintances would dine together...
Foreigners would flock to and fro like exotic
birds in the sky,
old women with good advice and old men
with good counsel,
young women with dancing spirit, young men
with fighting spirit...
All foreign lands rested content, and their
people were happy.
This all makes as much sense now as it did 4,000 years ago. But the book is really about the fragility of civilization, whic befits an author who has been to Baghdad. Here's a later excerpt by the same poet.
(xix) Packs of dogs roamed the silent streets.
If two men walked there they would be eaten by them,
and if three men walked there, they would be
eaten by them.
Noses were punched, heads were smashed...
Honest people were confused by traitors,
heroes lay dead on top of heroes,
the blood of traitors ran upon the blood of
The old women did not restrain the cry, "Alas for its people!"
Its young women did not restrain from tearing their hair.
Its young men did not restrain from sharpening their knives.
On self-consciously using the word civilization
(xx) In the modern west we have lost confidence in the idea of civilization. Embarrassed by its chauvinistic and elitist connotations, we have increasingly taken refuge in less loaded words such as culture to explain our origins. Culture, with its emphasis firmly on the organic growth of commuities, tells a more palatable and soft-focused story than the tales of 'top-down' interventions and hard choices associated with civilization. Cultures are born, civilizations are made - man-made. Our discomfort with this idea has made us consign civilization to the museum display case, but in this book the idea of civilization will be rescued from its enforced retirement.
Like our anonymous Babylonian poet, who so limpidly described the beauty of civilization and the terror of losing it, here I celebrate civilization and humanity's steadfast appetite to rebuild after the mighty collapse of entire empires. Homo sapiens have existed for about 160,000 years, civilization for about 6,000 years; it has not come easily. It is something that we have had to fight hard to achieve and even harder to maintain, and the greatest threats to it have come from our own talents for destruction.
Revolution: The First Cities
Evidence that even during the Bronze Age, keeping up with the Joneses was the engine of progress.
(34) Commerce was without doubt the single most important agent in the creation of this Bronze Age world where different geographical and cultural circumstances contributed to the emergence of a swathe of different civilizations. The individuals who exported so many of the cultural, economic, political and religious characteristics of the Mesopotamian cities to far off lands were merchants more interested in turning a profit than the progress of civilization.
The end of the Bronze Age and its Aftermath
Are rampant inequality and a complacent ruling class always the main causes of a civilization's collapse?
(59) The priestly and military elites of the Bronze Age kingdoms ultimately provided their monarch with too shallow a power base to overcome any serious challenges. Social problems were exacerbated by a too rigidly centralized and controlled economy, which simply did not allow enough wealth to trickly down to the poorer classes. One only has to read a few of the Bronze Age tablets to realise how ponderous and stultifying the palace bureaucracy was: this was Bronze Age big brother. Such a world could survive and even flourish until it came under serious external pressure. Once raiders had made agriculture difficult and maritime trade impossible, the end for many Bronze Age palace temple societies was nigh. The collapse of the Bronze Age was caused by a fatal combination of factors: this was a classic case of systems collapse on an epic scale.
(64) The catastrophe of the Sea People is one of those dramatic breaking points in our story, as when the radio goes off air. In this first Dark Age, writing disappeared from large areas and, with it, history itself. Agricultural output collapsed, populations dwindled, cities were abandoned, towns became villages. The connections between people withered and died, the world shrank. Artefacts became crude and clumsy as craftsmanship and culture took second place to survival, and that precious, complex vulnerable organism called civilization seemed to teeter on the edge. But the Bronze Age collapse was not fatal for all; civilization was too good an idea, too useful for humankind, to be allowed to disappear, and some civilizations did manage to cling on during this Dark Age, prospering as they grabbed the opportunities presented by the collapse of the old order . But the second time around the story of civilization will unfold in a different world - a harsher world, perhaps, as befits this new age: the age of iron.
The Assyrians: Shock and Awe in Assur
(79) War underpinned the Assyrian economy, their society, their civilization, but this wasn't mindless violence. Far from it: their reputation for savagery was a product of carefully managed statecraft. On their personal and public memorials the Assyrian kings proudly displayed their barbarous acts. These were often inscribed on the great palaces and monuments of their capital cities, and sometimes even on cliffs and mountains. The horrors of the battlefield and the siege were illustrated with explicit detail on the bas-reliefs of the Assyrian palaces.
The desired effect was to make the terrible power of the Assyrian kings seem even more real and credible. For instance the flaying alive of one treacherous client king was faithfully depicted on the walls of King Sargon's palace at Khorsabad in northern Iraq. It is not difficult to imagine the effect that these beautifully rendered images would have had on visiting ambassadors. There would have been no need for the king to spell out the consequences of opposing him. The parade of courtiers of the defeated kings of Kundu and Sidon through the streets of Nineveh wearing the heads of their masters around their necks like ghastly baubles would be replayed again and again in the minds of those who saw this gruesome pageant recorded on the walls of the imperial palace.
The Rediscovery of Greece
On one of the founding principles of Athens
(98) It is Odysseus who puts a stop to the subversive rant. 'Who are you to wrangle with kings?' he demands, and then beats Thersites with his rod of office. The mutinous moment passes, the war goes on, but the question is left hanging in the air: 'Who are you to wrangle with kings?' Homer's audiences would come up with very different answers to that question, and in doing so would change the future of their world and lay the foundations of our own.
Words and Iron: The Development of the Polis in Archaic Greece
This is strikingly similar to the Communist revolutions of the twentieth century
(101-102) In Argos, in 370 BC, you would have seen the violent side of Greekness. That year, a plot by disaffected aristocrats to overthrow the city's fledgling democracy was uncovered. Seizing the political opportunity, demagogues from the democratic faction whipped up a mob with fiery speeches directed against the city's wealthiest citizens. What followed was a reign of terror: trumped-up charges, summary trials, confiscation of property and execution, the victims handed over to the mob who beat them to death with clubs. It was only when the body count reached 1,200 or more that the democratic leaders began to have second thoughts about this cull of the city's elite. But when they tried to scale back the trials and executions, the mob turned on them and clubbed them to death as well. Eventually, the city woke from the nightmare of self-inflicted violence. The dust settled, the corpses were cleared away, and the city consoled itself with a statue of Zeus the Merciful commissioned from a fashionabke local sculptor - an act of collective remorse, or a cultural band-aid to cover a gaping civic wound.
On the birth of the individual. From the start of the poem Works and Days by Hesiod:
(110) When someone whose work falls short looks towards another
Towards a rich man who hastens to plough and plant
Then neighbour vies with neighbour as he hastens to wealth.
This strife is good for mortals:
So potter is piqued with potter, carpenter with carpenter
Beggar begrudges beggar and singer, singer.
The idea that rivalry could act as a dynamic force in society leads us onto one of the most radical propsitions at the heart of the 'Greek thing': individuals mattered. And not just rich and powerful individuals but potters, carpenters, and singers too. Even beggars mattered, if only in the eyes of rival beggars.
Sparta and Athens: Fossilized Eunomia and Appeasing the Demos
On the brutality (and strangeness) of the Spartans
(121-122) The Spartans were also tough on themselves. They practised eugenics at birth, killing off any male child deemed to be weak or infirm. Those who survived were sent, at age seven, to the agoge - the brat camp to end all brat camps. Here they would begin thirteen years of savage training to prepare them for a lifelong vocation as full-time warriors. There were no hypenated farmer-soldiers in Sparta and no part-timers in the Spartan phalanx. Fighting was what the Spartans lived for, and died for. With their men fighting or training or just hanging out together in their all-male messes, where homosexuality was obligatory, Spartan women were free to enjoy economic, educational and sexual freedoms unheard of in the ancient world, and indeed, in many parts of the world today. When Spartan men and women did come together to procreate, their unfamiliarity with each other was said to be eased by a series of bizarre marriage rituals that would keep a team of sex therapists in jobs for life.
The Golden Age of Athens and the Defamation of Greece
On the dangers of charismatic political leaders.
(139-140) Post-war Athens was the scene of one of the most radical experiments in government that the world has ever witnessed: by the middle of the fifth century BC, the city was no longer ruled by a single autocratic, or even a narrow aristocratic, elite like other states, but by its whole citizen body, whether they be young or old, rich or poor. Admittedly, this did not include anyone who was under sixteen, or female, or could not prove that both their parents were Athenians, but it was still an extraordinary departure from the way that other states had organized their affairs. Unsurprisingly, the elite found something to moan about when it came to democracy. For a start, it allowed the people far too much power. How could it possibly be right that those who had be carefully and painstakingly prepared to rule be accountable to those who had not? These misgivings would later be fully articulated by Aristotle, who would argue that democracy could lead directly to tyranny if the rule of law was ignored. In his famous treatise Politics, Aristotle likened the general citizen body to a mercurial despot whose unrealistic dreams were fuelled by unscrupulous tub-thumping politicians, defining forever the conservative' nightmare of an unholy alliance between the ignorant mob and the manipulative demagogue.
(141) On what lies underneath the "prosperity" of an affluent society
Whilst democracy enormously enriched the lives of the citizens of Athens, it came at a terrible cost for others. Slavery had existed right from the creation of the very first in Mesopotamia, but it was in fifth-century BC Athens that slavery would first be intellectually justified. To us it seems a contradiction that any democratic state could promote and profit from the denial of liberty to other human beings, but that is fundamentally to misunderstand the underpinning of democracy as a political institution in the ancient world: Just as Sparta's warrior society could only exist because of the helots, Athenian democracy could only exist because of slavery. For Aristotle and other Athenian intellectuals it was self-evident that freedom for the few could be built only on the slavery of the many.
The Alexander Enigma
On the contrast between democracy and kingship
(180) Kingship, with its emphasis on the personality of one man, offered flexibility and pragmatism in the way that the thousands of voices of the democratic polis and even the more limited ones of an oligarchic regime could not. Alexander embodied the mercurial possibilities of charismatic kingship at its most extreme. He never really promoted a cause or an ideology, just himself. Like Homeric heroes, his aim was to win as many battles, as much prestige, and the greatest share of spear-won territory as he possibly could. That was why the Iliad exerted such as strong influence on the young king.
The Hellenistic Kings: Picking Up the Pieces
After Alexander's death, his successors had to deal with the prosaic business of maintaining and expanding the empire. It is the earliest known empire to have used language and culture as a form of soft power
(195-198) Ironically, the most potent weapon in the armouries of these 'barbarian' kings, besides their huge armies and piles of money, was Greek culture.....Alexander conquered the world, but it was these successors who Hellenized it. It was under their watch that Greek became the language of power from Cyrene in North Africa to the Oxus in Afghanistan and the Punjab in north-west India. And where power trod, business and culture were quick to follow. Just as the British would one day create an 'English-speaking world', so the successor kings created a 'Greek-speaking world', known as the Hellenistic koine or community. Whether your trade was politics, poetry or import-export, if you wanted a line to the elite who were now running your country the first necessity was to be able to read and write Greek.....Learn Greek and you might just even become a 'cosmopolitan' - a 'citizen of the world' - able to fit in wherever Aeschylus was performed or Plato quoted.
Then there are several interesting chapters on Rome with no particular pull-out quotes.
In the Name of the Cross: Christianizing the Roman Empire
On the paradox of Augustine's masterwork.
(338) It took Augustine thirteen years to complete his masterpiece, The City of God. There are few bleaker assessments of the futility of civilization-building. For Augustine, neither purpose nor meaning could be found in the earthly city; only the City of God offered these, and they could only be reached beyond the grave. Until that glorious release, the righteous man should act like a 'pilgrim' in the fallen world of mankind, taking advantage of the peace and security that civilization offered but without ever mistaking it for anything substantial or enduring. The good man was just 'passing through', and the great technological, cultural and political achievements of civilization were mere stepping stones to the greater glory of the City of God.
(339) It seems impossible that a man as brilliant as Augustine was not aware of the giant paradox that stirred his masterwork. The eloquence and forensic reasoning which he used to such great effect in The City of God were not the product of Bible study but an expensive education steeped in the Classical culture which he sought to denigrate. This was a masterful way of biting the hand that feeds you.
But perhaps the most telling evidence of the continued relevance of the urban-based civilization that had dominated the Near East and Mediterranean for millenia was the fact that Augustine, when he imagined heaven, imagined it as an earthly city.
(340) In the millenia (sic) and a half since the City of God took on the City of Man, other prophets from other faiths have added their voices to the criticism. However, for all its manifest and serial failings, the City of Man has endured. Attempts to impose God's will on earth have proved to be just as fruitless, with theocracies quickly coming to closely resemble the 'godless' regimes that they have replaced. The prosaic business of government can usually be relied upon to bring even the highest-minded religious idealism down to earth.
(342) There is of course another certainty. All civilizations come to an end somewhere, somehow. Since Augustine eagerly reported on the fall of Rome, empires, kingdoms, republics and all manner of other regimes have come and gone. Rulers have ruled, been toppled and been replaced. Elaborate schemes for political reform, social justice or national greatness have been tested to destruction. In the darkest days the very idea of civilization has been called into question.
Yet despite all these calamities, crises and dead-ends, we have returned again and again to the possibilities offered by the City of Man to see if this time we can make it work. The history of our ancestors might suggest that this is the ultimate example of hope triumphing over experience, but we go on hoping al the same. There is no going back now to the comfortable securities of family, kin or tribe. Civilization has transformed us into a species that, for better or worse, chooses to live alongside strangers, and it is for this simple reason more than any other that we continue to search out ways to make that unlikely choice work.