From that prehistoric period of ‘hunter gathering’ and ‘slash and burn’ of the wild forest, man’s progress has been continually developing into a sophisticated environment, possibly dreamt of by the Greek philosophers in the ancient world. We may even regard ‘civilization’ to be the pinnacle of aspiration. Simply considered, those early migrant tribal societies would be seeking life in communal safety.
This is a complex subject that has many facets to its understanding. It involves the physical progress, cultural, political development, and evolution of society. It also assumes the general concept of civilization as that of becoming an urbanized citizen. The expression developed from the Latin civitas. I, however, tend to see it as the enhancement of the individual, within a family or kinship group. The initial requirements of a human being will firstly be for food and safety and thereafter for comfort. ‘Civilization’ involves the eventual development and organisation of society be it within a town, city, state, or country.
Certainly, the outcome of this theory is the demand for safety, and enjoyment within a communal living. This develops the consideration about historic urban societies that in turn developed sophisticated regulatory systems of management and accommodation. Early examples in Britain may include the regulation of life within communities in the protected Hill Forts of the Iron Ages. This would likely be similar in the case of the self-governing Burgh’s of the Middle Ages. It would be within the enclosures of those defended walls, even dating back to the Iron Age that some semblance of civilized society in Britain really began.
In his seminal work on the aspects of civilization in general, Kenneth Clark declared, “What is civilization? I don’t know, and I can’t define it in abstract terms – but I think I can recognise it when I see it”. The Cambridge Dictionary says it is ‘human society with its well-developed social organizations, or the culture and way of life of a society at a particular period of time”. Perhaps it may be better to say, an advanced state of human society in which an elevated level of culture, science, industry, and government has been reached.
Clark, later declared, “I think Civilization has something to do with ‘Energy”. “All the early civilizations or civilizing epochs – have a weight of energy behind them”. What he probably meant by that, was the ‘power’ developed by a socially cohesive community. Perhaps this alludes to their ‘dynamic’ progressive development. Civilization was also most surely, the ultimate anticipation of the Greek philosophers Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, in his search for happiness.
The “Civilizing Mission” unfortunately, was politically and erroneously employed as ‘justification’ for the colonization of French Algeria, West Africa, Indochina and by various other Western empirical leaders. This will be ignored by this cultural discussion. However, we can by example, review those classical developments of civilization in early Western Asia up until the ‘Muslim Conquest’.
Historically: the central civilizations, in the following extracts from “The Landscape of Man” by Geoffry and Susan Jellicoe, are indicative of some of the earliest worldly civilizations. These comprise that part of the Caucasoid race whose civilization began with the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, developed with the Assyrians, Persians and Sassanids, under Islam spread west to Spain and east to India roughly about 35 degrees north.
Originally separated from the Western civilizations that began simultaneously in the Nile Valley, the two parallel and antithetical civilizations came to be so interlocked that there was an inevitable and continuous interchange of ideas. In contrast the civilizations seemed remote and the influence of one group of civilizations upon another was less pronounced; even when the Muslim Mughals overwhelmed Hindu India, the two cultures in principle remained independent. By AD 1700 the central Muslim civilizations had ceased to be an originating force, and culturally the world was thereafter broadly divided into east and west.
Environment: the evolution of man from hunter to agriculturist throughout the world probably began in the eighth millennium BC on the Anatolian plateau and in the foothills to the east of the Mesopotamian plain. Later he descended to the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates and in the alluvial silt, infertile until drained and irrigated, began more profitable cultivation of wild wheat and barley and the domestication of wild dogs, goats, sheep, cattle, and pigs.
The original scene must have been bleak. While the middle mountain slopes of the cooler, rainier north sustained scrub oak and forests of such species as plane, box, cedar, cypress, and poplar, only willows grew in the northern river plains and date palms in the delta. Rocky desert bordered the western fringes of the Tigris-Euphrates basin; to the east were the Zagros Mountains. Undulating gypsiferous plains in the north gave way in the south to flat, salty silt and marsh – a fearless landscape except for the two rivers, which changed their course unpredictably; a land subject to cloudbursts and inundations, but little regular rainfall. From these beginnings there emerged some four thousand years later the world’s first literate civilization, known as ’Sumerian’.
Social History: The social structure of Sumer arose from the need to regulate the unpredictable Euphrates by means of irrigation works on a scale that was beyond the family or clan unit. Thus evolved the city states, later welded into a single empire with the capital established at Babylon in 2250 BC. Simultaneously, cuneiform writing on clay was invented and the first code of laws published. The social structure was civil, orderly, and based on class, with the king at the summit and a priesthood with moderate influence. In 1275 BC Babylon fell to the Assyrians, a military autocracy, the capital was moved to Nineveh and the empire extended through the domestication of the horse.
Nineveh was destroyed in 606 BC and reestablished at Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar II. Conquest by Persia followed in 538 BC. The Persian Empire became the greatest known to the Western world, reaching its climax almost contemporaneously with Greece and China, between which it lay geographically. Persepolis, the capital, was destroyed by Alexander in 333 BC and for over five centuries thereafter the country was affected by the Hellenistic culture. In AD 226 the Sassanids reestablished an effective native dynasty until the conquest by the Muslims in AD 637.
Philosophy: The primitive peoples of the forest conceived a god to be within all touchable objects, whether animate or inanimate. When they moved into the open from the canopy of trees, the objects seen in the night sky, untouchable, sparkling, remote, ordered, and timeless as they seemed to be, acquired a significance that soon surpassed that of earthly objects. From this contemplation of the heavens there arose two great concepts: a pantheon of gods with one god supreme, that benevolently administered human affairs; and an invisible timeless world to which all men could aspire.
Both concepts were based upon the limits of imagination; the one reflected an ideal in human nature, the other an ideal in physical environment. Each city state had its own god, whose abode on earth was as close to the heavens as possible and above that of the king, who ruled by divine right but was not himself a god. This precariousness of life led to a philosophy of inevitability that was expressed on the one hand by enjoyment of the passing moment and on the other by contemplation of a serene future life, symbolized by the sky at night.
Expression: The ziggurat was the early expression of man’s determination to place his mark upon an endless flat surface. Made by labour in the agricultural off-season, it was both a holy mountain on whose summit lived a god, and an observatory for the deduction as well as empirical study of astronomy; events in the heavens that affected agriculture were predictable, whereas on earth they were not. The ziggurat, which included the legendary Tower of Babel, disappeared under the materialistic Assyrians and Persians, its place on the skyline being later taken by dome and minaret. More lasting as a metaphysical expression was the paradise garden.
The origins are found in Old Testament history, which placed the first garden north of Babylon: ‘and the Lord planted a garden eastward of Eden . . . and a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and thence it was parted and became into four heads . . . and the fourth river is Euphrates’. This description contained the idea of heaven, whose shape on earth was symbolized by the square, and which remained to this day the basic inspiration of garden design of the Central civilizations.
Architecture: Lacking the stone that accounts for the crispness of architecture and sculpture in the Nile Valley, buildings in Babylonia were of brick made from burnt clay and consequently subject more to modelling than to carving. Structures were typically low and horizontal, the more important being raised on a podium to avoid floods and insects. Roofs were normally flat, inviting roof gardens to which water was lifted from the Euphrates.
Arch and vault appear in Babylon. And were probably the basis of the legendary hanging gardens, for soil could be packed into the haunches. The palaces were extensive, often with square internal courts, and contrasted with the ziggurat which might be over a hundred feet in height. The ceremonial approach to the summit of the ziggurat was the first grand landscape stairway. The architecture of the Assyrian and Persian conquerors cultivated in Persepolis, reflecting the post-and-lintel structures of both Egypt and Greece, with wide spans made possible by cedar beams from Lebanon; and based on a plan that was still composed of squares. The original stream of Iranian thought in architecture remained submerged under Hellenism, and reappeared under the Sassanids, when the early vault began to evolve into the dome set upon a square.
Landscape: The first designed garden rose from the contemplation of the miraculous effect of irrigation on a dead world. A rich green oasis, patterned solely according to the science of agriculture, spread like a vast carpet between the Tigris and the Euphrates. All gardens were an idealization of this scene. They were laid out geometrically within protecting walls and their primary contents were channels of irrigation and trees beneath which to recline. The tree was always an object of veneration.
The paradise garden itself in its purity was a square enclosed against a hostile world, crossed by water channels symbolic of the four rivers of heaven, and containing theoretically all the fruits of the earth. With the domestication of the horse under the Assyrians came the first hunting-park, the first landscape expansion into the environment; the park was laid out geometrically with trees often imported from afar; wild animals were introduced, and the hunting-box evolved into the first landscape pleasure pavilion. Expansion in idea as well as in reality continued under the Persians, for Persepolis was on a huge podium thrusting majestically outwards from the mountains to dominate the plain below. The only visible signs of religion in the Persian landscape were the fire sanctuaries in high places, and these continued under the Sassanids.
Civilization is clearly a cultural socio-hierarchy that requires good government, regulation, and codes of practice. It is usually defined as an urban existence, ‘living in cities’. Writing, developed by the people of Sumer, has been defined as the hallmark of civilization. However, writing was not always necessary for early civilizations. To civilize, would mean to educate and refine people and thereby socially develop a community capable of sustaining itself.
The Romans introduced civilization into Britain in around AD 43 and firmly establishing it widely during the following 400 years until their departure in AD 84. It was during their conquest, they systematically installed many structures of governance, roads, buildings, and defensive walls etc. Hillforts housing early Bronze/Iron Age migrant tribal communities were invariably driven out, and their hillforts were abandoned or destroyed by demand of the Roman Government.
Civilization in England and Wales:
We know little of the governance within the Celtic hillfort communities, but we can say that they were regulated by customary rights and codes of practice. The influx of Anglo-Saxon tribes immediately following the Romans departure, introduced their own forms of customary governance. They rejected the city walls in favour of independence and dwelling within woodland clearances alongside riverbanks.
Under the initial direction of King Aethelbald of Mercia, a small number of wooden Fortresses were erected to house limited military communities. King Offa enhanced this system, and they formed the early burh structures housing small, defended communities. These are recorded in the ‘Tribal Hideage’. Alfred the Great enlarged this system, building ‘Burhs’ at regular intervals of approximately 20 miles apart to defend attacks by the Vikings. These Burhs or Burghs developed into small towns with self-governing communities that we know today as Borough Towns.
Of significant importance, within all of these ‘civilized’ communities were their traditions, relating to Rights, Religion, Ritual and Beliefs.
The civilized urban revolution was in turn dependant upon the development of sedentism – the practice of living in one place for a long time. This requires close attention to subsistence and sustainability. In turn, a growing community relies on trade, marketing, and monetary systems.
Agriculture and farming were usually interrelated with the urban enclosures. Civilization must take full regard of the ecology as the intensity of population increases.
Please, see more on these subjects entitled ‘Albion’, ‘British Tribal Rites’ and ‘Feudalism’. The history of Borough towns and cities is widely explained under ‘Borough Freemen’.