Tuesday, March 10, 2015

What Is Civilisation?

If you write secondary world fantasy, the chances are that you'll be creating civilisations for your stories. It's possible, of course, to write exclusively about nomadic hunter-gatherers, but most fantasy involves civilised nations and cities.

So what is civilisation? We all know it when we see it — or do we? Most of us (and this certainly includes me) talk about customs and behaviour we approve of as "civilised" and those we disapprove of as "uncivilised". It's even possible, the way the word's generally used, to argue that those nomadic hunter-gatherers might be more "civilised" than us.

That's not what the word means, though. It's nothing to do with how a society treats its people, whether it's spiritually aligned with its environment, or even whether people are polite to one another. Fundamentally, a civilisation is a society that has cities.

It's a lot more complex than that, of course. Perhaps the best way to define what civilisation is would be to define what factors cause its development.

Food Surplus & Specialisation

The first stage to a civilisation developing is, quite simply, that a society produces more food than it needs. It's simple, when you think about it. If it takes every man, woman and child's work simply to prevent the community from starving, that's all they're going to do. They'll get other things done in what little spare time they have, whether that's making clothes or repairing tools, and they may even have just enough energy left to make music or tell tales in the evening, but no more.

If there's a food surplus, though, everything's different. The person who's best at mending tools will start mending everyone's tools, and they'll have enough spare food to give to this person in return. The same for the person who's best at making clothes. Then again, if you have more food than you need for now, you'll need somewhere to keep it, and specialists will start making pots and other containers.

Before you know it, you'll be realising there are all kinds of other services you don't know how you lived without. Perhaps, eventually, you might even start giving someone food so they can concentrate on making the music or telling the stories.

Merchants and Traders

So you've started swapping your spare food for services your neighbours can offer, but you still have some left. What else can you do with it?

Well, the chances are your area won't produce everything you could possibly want. Perhaps another region has different food you'd like to try. Perhaps it produces some material that makes better clothes. Perhaps it's a little in advance of you and has wonderful manufactured goods to sell.

Trade seems to go back a very long way — there's evidence of it in Palaeolithic times, long before civilisation — but certainly the food surplus and the growth of specialisation gives it a new impetus. Before long, you're relying on all kinds of imported products, and producing many other goods besides food to export.

Towns and Organisation

It's all a bit of a mess, though. Specialist craftworkers are scattered through countless villages; merchants have to make long journeys just to gather up their merchandise, and outside traders have to do the same to find buyers.

Sooner or later, centres begin to grow up. These may be the most prosperous villages, and the specialists will gradually gather there, while these places can conveniently act as trading centres, with produce brought in and merchants doing their deals in a fixed place.

Eventually, these growing towns will cease to take part at all in food production, and must rely on being fed by the villages that still do produce the food. This takes organisation, as does having such a large number of people living in close proximity, not to mention the foreigners coming in to exchange goods. Someone has to run all this, and usually this results in the emergence of a king and the people he relies on for support. Not always, though: for instance, some ancient cities — such as Mohenjo-daro on the Indus (above) — seem to have been ruled by merchant oligarchies.

Going to War

Warfare, in a very general sense, may predate civilisation, and it's possible its motivation could have been as a substitute for the Palaeolithic tribal hunts, which had become impractical when large prey like the mammoth died out. War certainly gives the same opportunities — communal strategy, action and comradeship, together with the chance for young men to show individual feats of skill and courage.

Early warfare, though, was probably small-scale raiding, and it took organised civilisation to initiate wars of conquest or ideology. In many cases, the ruling classes would be specialists in war, although it doesn't seem to have been a universal practice. Some civilisations — like Mohenjo-daro again — seem to have relied on commercial influence rather than force of arms, while there's evidence of others, such as the Olmec, using ritual games rather than war to settle disputes.

Still, the growth of warfare is usually part of the growth of a civilisation. Whether it relied on a specialist military class, or whether the citizen body was militarised, the city or kingdom would have prepared for war.

Religion, Ritual and Monuments

A fundamental requirement of any stable society is that most of its members must get something out of it. Not everyone, necessarily — if it's a slave-based economy, for instance — but if the majority of the population don't feel invested in the system, it's unlikely to last.

This can often be achieved through religious rituals. Like war, religion is older than civilisation, but it seems to have been when it was brought into organised cities that it developed codes and hierarchies. Where before you might have made a personal offering to the guardian spirits of a place, you now took part in communal ceremonies that both affirmed that you were part of something greater and taught you what you place was in that greater whole.

Not all communal rituals are overtly religious, although often religion lies behind them. The Athenian theatre was a crucial ritual to bring the city together, and a whole range of sports have been important in forging a sense of unity and cultural identity. As they still are, of course.

Monuments tend to fulfil the same kind of need, whether they're religious or political in nature (or both, of course). The real cultural of significance of the great monuments, from Stonehenge (left) to the Pyramids, is that they'd be impossible without a massive level of organisation. It's not only the logistics, but also the ability to take vast numbers of workers — slave or free — out of food production and feed them while they're building.

The size and permanence of many of these monuments may be a statement by rulers or priests, but they're also a source of national pride, a statement by the whole civilisation of their importance.

The Rise and Fall of Civilisation

Most of us think of history in chunks. We learn that the "end of the Roman period" was 476 AD (or 410 in Britain) and that mean that Roman civilisation vanished and was replaced by something unrelated. And it can seem even more like that when we have only archaeological snapshots here and there, as in the pre-Columbian Americas, or the early Middle East.

Now, I'm not saying that civilisations never disappear completely, but what usually happens is that they go into a decline and then mutate into something different. A civilisation, as we've seen, is only as good as what it offers most of its people. If it's no longer offering the prosperity and communal pride it did before, the people are going to look elsewhere for their model.

This certainly happened to Roman civilisation. The empire had been in decline for a very long time before the 5th century, and it would have been completely unrecognisable to Augustus, who founded it. Economic recession was making the cities gradually less viable, resulting in more and more "Romans" (a largely meaningless term by then, since few had any connection with Italy) moving to the country, either to own estates or to work on them.

This change in lifestyle gathered pace, until the cities, if not entirely abandoned, became peripheral to the culture. At the same time, other peoples and their cultures — the so-called barbarians — were looking far more attractive. In any case, by now many people were subjects of barbarian warlords, so they gradually began to learn the new languages, wear new types of clothes, convert to the new religions.

By the time the cities were growing again and civilisation was back, the descendants of the "Romans" were identifying themselves as "English", "Franks" or a whole variety of other peoples. Their cultures looked different, but they hadn't arisen out of nothing, and much of what was useful from Roman civilisation had slipped seamlessly into the new order.

There's a Catch?

It's not actually quite as simple as I've made it seem. You wouldn't really expect it to be, would you, when we're talking about human beings?

In reality, civilisation doesn't always behave the way we'd expect. It's always been assumed, for example, that the first cities developed as centres for an agricultural hinterland, yet the earliest walled city known (the oldest phase of Jericho, around 9400 BC) dates from before agriculture had fully developed. This was the Mesolithic era, a transitional phase when hunting was mutating into herding and gathering into growing. Perhaps Jericho's importance was actually as a centre for trading hides. Or maybe it was a stock town, if herding had developed enough.

Jericho is the earliest city to have been found, but there's circumstantial evidence that the fertile plain that's today the Sahara Desert may have also been developing towards civilisation at a similar time. Of course, any remains that might have been left would be buried deep under the sands, and it can't be automatically assumed that getting on the road to civilisation will always result in the finished product.

In any case, can we always recognise civilisation from the remains? Stone buildings are pretty difficult to dispute, but more perishable materials such as brick, wood or earth can serve contemporary needs just as well, and are no less "civilised". The culture that built Stonehenge, for instance, undoubtedly had the social organisation and the food surplus to undertake the venture, but as far as we know they built no cities. Were they simply a different kind of cities that have left no trace? Or did that particular society use the building-blocks of civilisation in a radically different way?

Perhaps most intriguing of all, there's evidence of places — in central France, for instance — where at periods of the Palaeolithic era, long before agriculture or cities, societies not only seemed to have had specialisation and trade, but to have had them on an almost industrial scale. Was this a lost civilisation, long before any civilisation should have existed? Or was it a culture that had some of the conditions of civilisation but never developed civilisation itself? It's doubtful that we'll ever know, but it's intriguing to speculate.

Still, in spite of the exceptions, the rule still more or less stands. If you want to create a convincing civilisation for your secondary world, the chances are it'll have had these preconditions — food surplus, specialisation, trade — and will have developed at least most of the typical characteristics — cities, social organisation, hierarchy, warfare, religion, social rituals and monuments.

And, from there on, each one will be unique. That's the joy of history.

1 comment:

  1. I think there's a key element you did not mention, which comes with surplus, trade and specialization and which allows for warfare, monuments, and religion: taxation.

    Also, what defines one civilization from another, what are a civilization's boundaries?