The prologue to Livy’s history of Rome includes a grim reflection on contemporary life:
Let each of my readers direct his attention to these matters: the life and morals of the community, and the men and qualities by which through policies at home and abroad the empire was born and enlarged. Then as the standard of morality gradually slips, let him note how, with the relaxation of discipline, morals first gave way, as it were, then sank lower and lower, and then began to decline precipitously until we come to our own time when we can bear neither our vices nor their remedies.
Livy’s idea that something was wrong in his own time (c.59 BC–AD 17) was not unique. Commentary on Roman decadence is so pervasive in Classical literature that there was no period of Roman history that was not considered degenerate by its own historians. Polybius (c.200–c.118 BC) and Sallust (c.86–c.35 BC) believed that the decline of Rome had begun immediately after the final destruction of Carthage in 146 BC. Tacitus (AD 56—c.120) thought he saw a long descent from virtue and freedom, and felt sure that nothing was left of the old Roman morality. Imperial biographies, such as those found in Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars (written AD c.120) and the Historia Augusta (written in the 4th century AD), are tales of vice and folly. Later we find Ammianus Marcellinus (AD 330– 95) rehearsing scathing criticisms of luxury, greed, idleness, pretence, exaggerated devotion to the circus, and so forth. And the tradition was carried on into the Byzantine period by the likes of Procopius (AD c.500–c.565), Michael Psellus (c.1017–78), and Anna Comnena (1083–1153) , whose histories suggest a very dim view of contemporary people and events.
Obviously, the theory of Roman degeneracy had quickly become something of a literary cliché, and it sometimes seems ridiculous. Can the Roman state really have been in constant decline for more than a millennium?
There are so many low points, and so many apparent recoveries, between the founding of Rome in 753 BC and the fall of Constantinople in AD 1453 that determining the height of Roman power from which it declined, and the moment of its collapse, will always be doubtful. Moreover, there is no policy which accelerated decline in one age that did not arrest it in another. The western half of the empire collapsed long before its eastern counterpart was conquered, the city of Rome having been sacked repeatedly before the conventional date of its demise in AD 476. The east carried on from its capital at Constantinople, surviving the Frankish conquest in 1204, until the end came in the middle of the 15th century. Roman culture belonged to a common Mediterranean civilisation which both predated and outlived the empire. The Greek and Latin languages, the Christian religion, and some aspects of Roman law have obviously carried on, not to mention architectural styles.
But even if we are less confident than Polybius and his followers in determining the exact moment of Roman decline or collapse, we must admit that the civilisations of western Europe and the Mediterranean at some point or other ceased to be Roman. This must be the case, whether we favour the idea of transformation and evolution, or catastrophic decline and collapse.  Either way, formerly Roman features have been appropriated and assimilated by new peoples unknown to the ancient world.
This should reassure us that a long-lived civilisation gradually transforming itself over many centuries, weathering many troubles before a final collapse, and leaving behind traces of itself means that civilisation in general, although fragile, can be restored.
But what is civilisation?
I can’t offer an abstract definition any more than the art historian Kenneth Clark could. But I think we can get a sense of what it is by looking at its causes and results.
The old theory of the ‘Agricultural Revolution’ has been refuted by archaeological evidence. This theory held that the development of farming forced everyone to settle down and live in one place and to form the earliest governments and states. But the stability and rootedness that make civilised life possible do not depend on any particular technology or mode of production. We can see proof of this at the archaeological site of Çatalhöyük in southern Turkey. There, about 9,000 years ago, permanent dwellings were built and rebuilt according to a uniform pattern, and ancestors were buried under the floors of dwellings. These signs of long-term stability and a shared past appeared while the old hunting-and-gathering economy was still going strong.
The new, civilised attitude is clearly visible in ancient art. In contrast to the swirling, vagrant motion of Palaeolithic cave paintings, the wall art at Çatalhöyük achieves a certain focus and begins to convey purpose and direction. We find paintings with clear narrative content, such as the image of several human figures hunting and baiting a stag and a wild boar, amongst other similar energetic scenes made famous by archaeologist James Mellaart in the 1960s. These images speak for the first time of stability and rootedness, human organisation, common purpose, and social cooperation – in a word, civilisation.
Those features reach maturity quite suddenly in the art of ancient Egypt. The carved reliefs, statuary, and figurines of the Old Kingdom, which appeared nearly 5,000 years ago, are a vision of a harmonious society, guided by a wise king, well-counselled by his ministers, who rules in cooperation with the gods, and whose authority is that of a benevolent hero, not a tyrant. The place and purpose of human beings in the world seem certain. We find sympathy for the tasks of ordinary people. The sort of work, which in the later Graeco-Roman world would have been performed by slaves and either ignored or ridiculed, is respectfully portrayed in the figures of people grinding grain, washing a jar, and brewing beer. Their faces are intelligent and no less dignified than the more aristocratic images of kings, priests, and bureaucrats.
In my view, civilisation produces three main outcomes, and they appear together first in the material culture of the Egyptian Old Kingdom.
The first is a sense of clarity, expressing the idea that the world is a coherent whole which human beings can perceive and understand. It gives rise to the use of language to describe the world and our experience of it, and becomes visible in the elegant presentation of hieroglyphs in which words and ideas were recorded for thousands of years.
The second is a sense of beauty, expressed with seemingly mathematical rigour in the harmonious proportions of Egyptian art and architecture.
The third is a sense of order. It is founded on the belief that there is some principle of organisation in the world in which all things animate and inanimate have their proper place and purpose. We can see this in the sympathetic depiction of nature and in symbols of political and religious authority. Clarity, beauty, and order – they appear together first in Egypt; but, as I argue, they are the main results of civilisation everywhere.
I think that the present moment is a good time to re-examine what makes civilisation what it is, what we are in danger of losing through decline or collapse, and what may be done to renew it. There is, for the first time that I can recall in my life, a consensus in the West that something is wrong. It is now possible to speak openly of decline and not be laughed at.
When I was growing up in the 1990s, everyone around me seemed to think that the present state of the world was better than at any former time, and that it could only improve. Some thought that human nature itself would get better, as globalisation unfolded and countries and peoples grew closer together. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 seemed to give way to a new age of peace and stability. The mood of the time is captured in the near-universal misunderstanding of Francis Fukuyama’s thesis about the ‘end of history’, as well as in the Disney cartoon Aladdin. Both Aladdin and Fukuyama invited us to imagine “a whole new world”, and both did so in 1992.
But history did not end. And now, declinism no longer seems unthinkable. Lately the West seems to have lurched from one crisis to another: warfare and humiliation in the Middle East, the failure to export liberal democracy abroad, financial collapse, terrorism, and latterly pandemic, supply chain problems, renewed warfare in Europe, and so on. Books and articles with words in them like “decline”, “doom”, “disorder”, and “end of the world” have begun to appear, predicting catastrophe.
Advanced thinkers now fear that liberal democracy is tottering on the brink of tyranny again. Globalisation appears to be receding. And, of course, Donald Trump still speaks incessantly of American decay and Western stagnation, while Greta Thunberg prophesies imminent and irreversible calamity. Many agree with them, and we will hear more such talk for some time, I am sure. More traditional conservatives look at the modern world and see only the dissolution of the family, the decline of religion, increased atomisation, and feel nearly equal disgust for contemporary liberalism as they did for the more murderous ideologies of the 20th century.
All this is to say that the ‘whole new world’ we were promised in the 90s is much like the old one, only worse. The theory of irreversible progress seems increasingly implausible. It seems that anyone of any walk of life or partisan stripe could agree with Livy that “we can bear neither our vices nor their remedies”. So, once again, the present moment seems like a good time to remember both that decline and collapse are real possibilities and that civilisation has great powers of recovery all the same.
Conventionally in the West, such reflections tend to call to mind three things (and sadly only three things): the collapse of the Roman empire, the so-called ‘barbarian successor’ kingdoms, and the eventual rebirth of Europe in what is habitually called The Renaissance. Conventional thinking here is rather myopic, though. The infamous tale of the ‘decline and fall’ of Rome is only a small part of a much larger story.
First of all, Roman power itself would have been unthinkable without the deliberate imitation of ancient, Near-Eastern cultural models after the so-called Bronze Age Collapse. Phoenician traders, acting on behalf of their Neo-Assyrian overlords, spread Mesopotamian high culture and luxury goods throughout the Mediterranean, and inspired Greeks and Etruscans to imitate them. Perhaps no export was more important in the long run than the Phoenician-Aramaic alphabet, which was soon adapted to the other languages of the Mediterranean. And we should never forget that it was the Phoenician merchant colony at Carthage that first knitted much of the Mediterranean world into the economic and cultural unit which Rome would one day inherit. Moreover, the rebirth that is often held to have begun in the late 14th century was unusual only in that it took so long to get going. Even if we trace the regrowth of Western Europe’s Graeco-Roman heritage from its early stirrings during the reign of Charlemagne (747–817) in the 8th century there is still rather a long interval between collapse and recovery.
Contrast this with the renewals that we call the Macedonian Renaissance in Byzantium or the Golden Age of the Abassid Caliphate in Iran. These were roughly contemporary with the reign of Charlemagne. They were also inspired in large part by the heritage of Graeco-Roman antiquity, and yet they gained momentum more swiftly following the Arab conquest of the Near East.
A broader view of history shows that failure and renewal of civilisation is the rule. This was true from the very beginning in Ancient Mesopotamia, where city-states and polities rose and collapsed rapidly. For instance, the so-called Third Dynasty of Ur, which was established around 2112 BC and was something of a high point for early civilisation, enjoyed slightly more than a hundred years of relative stability and then collapsed, only to be replaced eventually by the First Babylonian Empire. The Egyptian Old Kingdom, which lasted about six centuries (c.2700–2100 BC), must have seemed indestructible in comparison, but it too disintegrated, as did the civilisation of the Indus River Valley. And yet each successive Mesopotamian state, and each Egyptian dynasty or kingdom, associated itself as closely as possible with the preceding cultural and political order, and sought to continue or revive it.
Contrary to the old myth, the Aryan invaders of India also sought continuity with the old Indus Valley civilisation, and did much the same thing by adopting most of the trappings of indigenous settled life, along with a good deal of indigenous vocabulary. Continuity was emphasised so heavily in Egypt that its material culture and language hardly changed over thousands of years, despite intervals of disorder and fragmentation.
Mesopotamian civilisation was somewhat more various and unstable than that of Egypt. And yet even after the Persian king Cyrus the Great (580s–c.529 BC) had conquered Babylon in 539 BC, he could only make Persian rule seem legitimate by portraying himself as the restorer of an ancient order, surrounding himself with the trappings of the long-defunct Sumerian, Assyrian, and Babylonian monarchies. Just as Theodoric (454–526) and Charlemagne would one day appropriate the language of Roman imperial power and religion, Cyrus’ propaganda adopted ideas and expressions from the Babylonian Epic of Creation and the ancient Esagil Chronicle composed about a millennium and a half before his time. And the Persian state notably adopted the use of Aramaic, the prestigious Neo-Assyrian language, and carried on the practice of writing it with Phoenician letters.
Like Rome, the empire of Cyrus was the culmination of many older civilised models, and (again like Rome) Persia would inspire future revivals and imitations. But, unlike Rome, Iran would give rise to three international empires before the coming of Islam, and would be the centre of the Islamic world for centuries afterwards. A better comparison with Iran might be China, since both were essentially world-systems unto themselves, and both were subject to the ebb and flow of civilisation for far longer than Rome was.
How does renewal come about after decline or collapse? As far as our friend Livy was concerned, history itself, with all its examples of success and failure, points the way. Most other Classical historians agreed and wanted to reconnect their readers with past customs and ancient examples of virtuous conduct and so forth. Much the same instinct is consummately expressed in the Confucian veneration of the ancient state of Zhou (1046–256 BC) as a golden age to be preserved and renewed forever in the sayings of Master Kong.
Such an instinct is right: all the great renewals had the same impetus. The scholars and poets of the Middle Ages, for instance, were moved by the vestiges of the remote past that surrounded them – by ruins, ancient texts, and statues, especially. This is true of everyone from Alcuin of York (c.735–804) and Dante (1265–1321) to Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (839–923), the great Persian poets like Ferdowsi (940–1020) and Khaqani (1120–90), and the polymaths of the Abbasid Golden Age (750–1258). That great age of civilisation is especially instructive because it was inspired equally by Graeco-Roman philosophical and scientific heritage as well as the art, architecture, and statecraft of ancient Iran. And in its turn, the heritage of the Abbasid Golden Age also came to be imitated most successfully not in the East but in the West. To name only two examples among many, the greatest successor to Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 980–1037) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd, 1126–98) was Thomas Aquinas (1225–74); and the astronomical studies of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201–74) and his predecessors issued in the work of Copernicus (1473–1543) who copied them.
We in the West, who have been thoroughly irradiated by the ideals of the Enlightenment, must find this past-orientated outlook naïve. Who would look to the past for renewal? Most of us prefer to think of independent geniuses like Bacon (1561–1626) or Descartes (1586–1650) casting off the weight of history in favour of free innovation. But, as I argue, our obsession with newness has failed to make us better, more virtuous, or more civilised. Perhaps we are finally ready for something old.
Michael Bonner is a Canadian communications and public policy adviser, and an historian of Ancient Iran with a master’s in Late Antique and Byzantine Studies and a doctorate in Oriental Studies, both from the University of Oxford. His new book In Defence of Civilization is due to be published next spring.
|⇧1||The theory of gradual transformation is best associated with Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150–750 (Norton, New York, 1989). Bryan Ward-Perkins rehabilitated the idea of decline and fall in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford UP, 2005).|
|⇧2||Kenneth Clark’s thirteen-part television documentary series Civilisation: A Personal View appeared in 1969. Clark opens by asking the question “What is civilisation?”, but disarmingly admitted that he could not define the word in “abstract terms”, but was able to recognise it when he saw it.|
|⇧3||See Peter Frankopan, The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2018) 25.|
|⇧4||See, for instance, Andrew Potter, On Decline: Stagnation, Nostalgia, and Why Every Year is the Worst One Ever (Biblioasis, Windsor, Canada, 2021); Helen Thompson, Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century (Oxford UP, 2022); Peter Zeihan, The End of the World is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization (Harper Business, New York, 2022); Niall Ferguson, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe (Penguin, New York, 2021).|