A Pair of Two-Thousand-Year Civilizations

The following is a comparison between a pair of two-thousand-year civilizations within the history of so-called Western civilization. First, the Greek and Roman period, and immediately following that, the Christian, Enlightenment and Industrial period, if the latter lasts that long.

A caveat: I am not a historian, and details of this short essay may be incorrect. However, I feel that history sometimes loses sight of the forest by too much focus on the trees, and the objective of this essay is to take the larger view.

Both civilizations are tracing the same sequence of four stages. Reading between the lines, their history is all about power.

I do not wish to critique or minimize the achievements of either the Greek and Roman or our current civilization; both have created important advances in knowledge and used this knowledge for significant human benefits. My emphasis here is on the cyclic rise and fall that is characteristic of all empires and civilizations.

1. Greek and Roman

This civilization lasted from c (circa) 1500 bce (before the common era) to c500 ce.

a. The feudal period, c1500 – c800 bce

The Greeks migrated into what was later called the Greek domain along the Mediterranean around 1500. Being somewhat warlike they separated into feudal estates with princes and walled compounds, and engaged in numerous conflicts among each other.

b. The creative, artistic, and philosophical period, c800 – 335 bce

Beginning c800 the Greek people united into larger domains called city-states. The different city-states competed with each other not only in wars but also sports, philosophy, sculpture, cultural attitudes, and being a favorite of one of the gods. Greek thought became a foundation of what we now call Western Civilization.

c. The high empire period, 335 bce – 180 ce

The transition to high empire occurred with Alexander the Great. He unified the Greek city-states into one force that conquered the Mediterranean area and the Middle East. After his death successor warriors created their own domains. Meanwhile the Romans were conquering Western Europe and the western part of the Mediterranean, and later absorbed the Greek areas into a Roman empire.

During this period the Romans made use of Greek science, arts, and philosophy, and created engineering innovations. Also they invented and applied a concept of Empire that allowed some self-government of the captured peoples if they supported the empire financially and in other ways when requested.

d. The decline and fall, 180 – 479 ce

Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire dates the decline to the ascension of Commodus to the throne, succeeding Marcus Aurelius. The arbitrary cruelty and undignified vice of Commodus led the Romans to abandon a core belief, namely the code of Roman virtue. A declining belief in Rome eventually led to the failure of the army to hold back the “barbarians”, and the Western empire fell with the conquest of Rome in 479. Constantine’s Eastern empire, now Christian, continued in Constantinople until 1453.

2. Christian, Enlightenment and Industrial

This civilization began in c500 and is still continuing.

a. The feudal period, c500 – c1200

This period started with chaos after the fall of Rome, but then feudal princes established themselves in a similar manner to the corresponding Greek period. The valor of knights was a core value, and wars and battles were constant. At times such as in the Crusades, the princes united under the Christian banner. Christianity was considered to be the one true religion in Europe.

b. The creative, artistic, and scientific period, c1200 – c1850

Starting with Italian city-states, remarkable art, small industries, and scientific discoveries spread through Europe. The mercantile trade created the financial opportunity for an elite to become educated and innovative. This elite class created the Renaissance, and later in the 1700s the Enlightenment. Western Europe became the world’s center of commerce and exploration. Empires were created by many countries including Britain, France, the United States, and Russia. Slowly an Enlightenment value system started to supplant Christianity. A core belief in Progress has become established.

c. The high empire period, c1850 – present

This period is characterized by massive industrialization, supported by the energy of fossil fuels. There was at the start no one empire in our period, of the kind that Rome was. The World Wars dealt a great blow to this civilization. After World War II, world power was divided between the Soviet Union and a United States-led coalition of most of the rest of the world. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s change from communism to capitalism, the three big powers are the United States, Russia, and China. Over this period, a system of massive oligarchic corporations has developed and continues to extend its reach throughout the world, out of control of any governments and in fact exerting major influence on all governments.

We can compare the frenzy of world-wide “humaniforming” of the world – the plethora of buildings, private and public, supported by extensive world-wide mining of fossil fuels and necessary chemicals – to the Roman Caesars’ frenzy building of palaces and temples across the realm.

The United States government now commands the largest empire in history. Historians, adjust your spectacles: This is not an empire of occupation but rather is based on economic domination and intimidation.1 It extends everywhere except in the Russian and Chinese spheres of influence. With 800 military bases outside the US proper, the military is ready to act as needed to enforce compliance of countries to do what the US government wants.

d. The decline and fall ?

Based on the Greco-Roman example our high empire might last until c2250, with a decline and fall to c2500. But many people do not see how this civilization with nuclear weapons, global climate change, and a capitalist system that concentrates wealth at the top can persist very long in its current form. 

3. The Future

Empires always fail, and civilizations based on empire always fail. There is one reason for this: The people at the top get greedy and take most of the wealth, while the majority of the people are slaves, or indentured servants, or are wage slaves struggling for their families to survive week after week, and eventually this majority on whom the empire depends cannot take it any more and they either walk away or attack the primary institutions of the empire, and it collapses. If the patriarchal empire form of government continues as it has for 5000 years, then after the fall of our civilization the same sad cycle will begin again based on some new organizing principle, one that we cannot predict due to the intervening chaos.

One way out to avoid this failure is called The Great Turning2, a change that is occurring among ordinary people all over the world in numerous locations. This change has two dimensions. One is reinventing our current civilization by devolving power and responsibility and abandoning the patriarchal form of social-economic-political organization. For example, moving from centralized to decentralized management, from national and state governments to local governments, from large corporations to small independent worker-owned enterprises, from hierarchy to community, and from inequality to the equal worth of all. 

The second dimension of change is a shift in consciousness, to values of love, kindness, generosity, and caring for other people, the earth and all life on our planet. In this consciousness able members of the community will take care of the children, the elderly, and the disabled. People will move from the historic empire attitude that humanity is the user and nature the resource, to a comprehension that humanity is within and part of nature. Both the devolving to community and the shift in consciousness are necessary for The Great Turning to succeed.

We humans will then rid ourselves of nations, empires and empire-thinking and have a chance to reconstruct our civilization into a stable social system.

1See Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004.

2David Korten, The Great Turning, From Empire to Earth Community, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006.